By Tom Dare
A NEW book based on the life of world-famous escapologist Harry Houdini is hoping to shed some light on the entertainer’s lesser known years in Britain.
Entitled ‘The Great Houdini: His British Tours,’ the book by writer Derek Tait takes an in-depth look at the life and times of Houdini as he toured around Britain between 1900 and 1920, using a combination of fascinating images, archive material, old newspaper clippings and extensive research.
Derek says he’s been interested in Houdini since he was a boy, but that it wasn’t until he was doing some research about his own home city of Plymouth that he had the idea for the book.
“I’ve had an interest in Houdini since I was a small boy,” he said.
“However, when I was researching a book about my home city of Plymouth, I discovered that Houdini had appeared here twice. I thought I would find out all I could about his appearances from old newspaper archives, and this led to information about other appearances all over Great Britain.
“I collected together as much information as I could about his tours of Britain between 1900 and 1920 and found it fascinating.”
The book covers Houdini’s time in Britain in minute detail, from his stage performances to his friendship with Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
And Derek says he found several surprises while looking into Houdini’s history.
“A few things amazed me while researching the book,” he said.
“One was the great lengths he went to, to disrupt his competitors’ acts, even disguising himself, and his family as members of the audience before heckling the performers.
“Another thing was his generosity. For instance, when he arrived in Edinburgh in 1910, he noticed that many of the children didn’t have shoes in the cold weather, so he arranged for three-hundred boots to be handed out at a special performance for the Scottish youngsters.
“However, word spread like wildfire and many more children turned up to the show than he had expected, so he took the rest to the nearest cobbler’s shop and he made sure that they all had a pair. Houdini was known for his generosity and was a benefactor to orphans.”
At the peak of his fame, Houdini was the highest paid entertainer in the world, delighting and amazing audiences from Edinburgh to Exeter up until his death in 1926.
And Derek says that, if he had to choose one, he knows what would be his favourite Houdini trick.
“My favourite Houdini trick is the Water Torture Cell,” he said.
“I think there are many artists who could match his tricks nowadays, such as David Copperfield, David Blaine and Penn and Teller.
“But his tricks and illusions were performed at a time when people were more naïve, and music hall and theatre were the only entertainment available.
“So he proved to be a huge attraction.”