Master of Illusion

Houdini cautioned his audience about believing he had supernatural powers

Houdini was the master of illusion in the 1920s. Like today’s David Copperfield — the highest paid solo performer in history — Houdini mystified rapt audiences with incredible death-defying acts. As a youth he worked his card tricks and vanishing acts in dime circuses. After training as a locksmith he became known as “The Handcuff King” and defeated Scotland Yard’s attempt to keep him locked in a police wagon. In his thick head of hair he hid lock-pick keys that could set him free.

Houdini was a rabbi’s son with a strong revulsion for deceit who ironically had made it his profession. Houdini married a young assistant, Bess, a Catholic. They fell in love, wed, and together rose as top performers to world fame and wealth. Both delighted in anonymous attendance at séances to expose fraudulent occult messages, floating tables, and spirit voices from dead relatives, which the Bible warns against (Isaiah 8:19, Lev 19:31, Acts 19-18-20). Unlike the mediums of his day who pretended supernatural powers, Houdini cautioned his audience that being sawed-in-half was only an illusion. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would insist that Houdini’s abilities proved he had supernatural powers. The great magician appeared to go beyond the body’s physical limitations and to bend the laws of physics. His methods and tools were ingeniously simple but kept secret.

Houdini was not known to be an overtly religious man. A fan once asked him if he could raise a dear relative from the grave. His ready answer was no, that he had no such power. Houdini was a shrewd realist. He likely overheard his rabbi father criticize the story of Jesus’ crucifixion as nothing more than pretense using a bribed centurion, and His vanishing act from the tomb a performance helped by disciples. That was the Sanhedrin’s reaction back then.

Houdini’s exaggerated ads boasted that he defied death. That may have caused an obsessed fan to enter Houdini’s dressing room to ask if the actor could withstand a strong blow to the stomach. Before Houdini could respond, the fellow threw a punch that bent him over in pain. Did that rupture an already inflamed appendix? His stubborn will to finish the show delayed needed surgery. He died six days later of peritonitis, a sure death sentence in the days before antibiotics.

The day before he died, Houdini said to his surgeon, “I envy you.” His astonished doctor reminded him that he had made thousands of people laugh, distracted from the sorrows of life. Houdini retorted, “But that one person you saved was worth all those millions I entertained.”

On his death bed, he promised his wife he’d make every effort to communicate from “beyond the grave” with a secret code only she would know. She attended séances for ten years but never received word from him. “Ten years is enough time to wait for any man,” she said. His body lies in a coffin that has proven inescapable, even for Houdini.

Even if Christ’s spectacular miracles are dismissed as hoaxes by atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens, He has influenced history more than any other person. “I am not a believer, but I must confess as a historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very center of history,” said author and intellectual H.G. Wells.

Houdini had bequeathed to his brother his secret keys. So too Christ hands his beloved friends the keys to the kingdom of heaven (cf. Matt 16:19). To the faith-filled soul, resurrection from the dead no longer remains an incredible Bible story. That soul can now believe without actually seeing Jesus escape from a sealed tomb, appear and vanish at will through locked doors, and ascend into the clouds (1 Cor 15:6). “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

Those born of the Spirit will no longer crave magicians’ and mediums’ illusions of “the beyond.” Their proof of the living Christ will be living in Him and He abiding in them. “If a man loves me, he will keep my words, and my Father will love him, and we will come with him and make our abode with him” (John 14:23).


Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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