Houdini, Harry (1874-1926) performer One of the most renowned magicians of the 20th century, Harry Houdini was born Erik Weisz on March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary. His father brought the Weisz family to Appleton, Wisconsin, when Erik was still a baby. As a young man, he began to go by the name Ehrich. He later called himself Erie and finally settled on Harry. As a teenager, he worked as a cutter in a necktie factory. Working as a cutter proved to be too restrictive. He decided to escape the constraints of his work by becoming a magician.
Houdini’s career progressed slowly at first. For many years he lived on the brink of poverty. He soon created a niche for himself. He began to captivate audiences with his own unique form of magic—the dramatic escape. His ability to escape from seemingly inescapable situations earned him a reputation that spread throughout the country and eventually the world. Houdini’s exploits allowed him not only to build a successful career as an escape artist, but also to redefine the art of illusion in the process. He amazed audiences by escaping from ropes, handcuffs, and locked containers in countless settings. In one show he was suspended, head down, 75 feet in the air. In the next he was submerged under water. Regardless of the setting, he played on the audience’s fears and emotions. He was careful not to escape too early or too easily, in order to build excitement and anticipation. By the turn of the century, the act had begun to earn Houdini international acclaim. He performed in front of audiences of thousands. As the new medium of motion pictures developed, Houdini’s notoriety spread even further.
Long before Houdini had found professional success, he had fallen in love with a young woman named Wil-helmina Rahner. In 1894 they were married. Thereafter, Houdini’s young wife went by the name Beatrice, or Bess,
Houdini. She worked as his stage assistant. Together they captivated millions. Harry Houdini took his stage name from the great French magician Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin. He did not, however, follow in his predecessor’s footsteps. In 1908 Harry challenged the abilities of his namesake in his book, The Un-masking of Robert-Houdin as a way of declaring his independence not only from his predecessor but also from others in his profession. Unlike other magicians of his time, Harry claimed no supernatural intervention. His animosity for those who boasted of supernatural powers led him to launch a full-scale campaign against mind-readers, mediums, and others who claimed to have divine or supernatural powers. He wrote Miracle Mongers and Their Methods in 1920 and A Magician among the Spirits in 1924. Through these works, Houdini tried to expose men and women whom he believed were charlatans using tricks to fool gullible audiences. He argued that astrology and fortune-telling had no scientific basis. But even as Harry Houdini attacked those who claimed to have supernatural abilities, self-proclaimed spiritualists like Arthur Conan Doyle steadfastly maintained that Houdini himself used supernatural abilities to perform his miraculous feats.
On Halloween night in 1926, Houdini died of peritonitis that stemmed from a stomach injury. Years before his death, in an attempt to expose myths about the afterlife, he and his wife Beatrice made a pact. The first to die would do everything in his or her power to contact the survivor. Before her death in 1943, Beatrice declared the experiment a failure.
Further reading: Christopher Milbourne, Houdini: The Untold Story (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1969).
Hughes, Charles Evans (1862-1948) chief justice of the Supreme Court
Charles Evans Hughes had a long and prolific political career in which he served as governor of New York, secretary of state, ran as Republican presidential nominee in 1916, and twice served as a justice on the Supreme Court, the second time as chief justice in the 1930s. Hughes was born in Glens Falls, New York, in April 1862. After completing his undergraduate education, Hughes took a law degree at Columbia University Law School. He began practicing law in New York City.
In 1905, after teaching law for many years at Columbia, New York University, and Cornell, Hughes gained regional notoriety following his appointment by the New York legislature to investigate state utilities and insurance companies. Capitalizing on this exposure, Hughes decided to run for the New York governorship in 1906, at the urging of President Theodore Roosevelt. He handily defeated newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hughes was reelected in 1908. In 1910, Republican president William Howard Taet appointed him to the Supreme Court, where he gained a reputation for being a liberal justice. Hughes’s first stint on the court was short-lived. In 1916, he resigned and reluctantly accepted the presidential nomination of both the Republican and Progressive parties. Running against incumbent president Woodrow Wilson, Hughes ran a very effective campaign only to lose by fewer than 500,000 votes. Wilson received 277 electoral votes to Hughes’ 254.
Hughes’s political career was far from over. In 1921 President Warren G. Harding appointed Hughes to run the State Department. As secretary of state, he advocated enforcing the Open Door Policy in China, negotiated a peace agreement with Germany after the Senate refused to ratify the Treaty oe Versailles, and supported attempts to ensure American entry into the League oe Nations. Hughes served from 1921 to 1929, first under Harding and then under President Calvin Coolidge. Hughes was rewarded for his long tenure in office when President Herbert Hoover reappointed him to the Supreme Court, this time as chief justice.
As chief justice, Hughes clashed frequently and often publicly with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). Hughes attempted to limit some of the more progressive and radical aspects of the New Deal, leading the Court in its rulings against the National Recovery Administration, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, and other New Deal initiatives. Hughes’s conflict with FDR came to a head in 1937 when he led the charge against Roosevelt’s attempt to “pack” the Court by expanding the number of justices from nine to 15. In order to protect the integrity of the Court, Hughes effectively marshaled public support against the plan. Behind the scenes, he proved willing to compromise and was the decisive vote in support of the National Labor Relations Act and the Social Security Act. Hughes retired from the Supreme Court in 1941. Harlan Stone replaced Hughes as chief justice, by which time FDR had appointed several other pro-New Deal justices. Hughes died in 1948.
Further reading: Dexter Perkins, Charles Evans Hughes and American Democratic Statesmanship (Boston: Little, Brown, 1956); Robert F. Wesser, Charles Evans Hughes: Politics and Reform in New York, 1905-1910 (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967).