Harry Houdini was born Erik Weisz to Mayer Samuel Weisz and Cecilia Steiner Weisz when Cecilia was 33 years old, "somewhat late by 19th century standards". The two shared an intense bond since Erik was just an infant. According to Cecilia, she just had to hold Harry to her breast to get him to immediately stop crying. When Erik, now Harry Houdini, struck out with one of brothers in a magic act performed at city carnivals, museums, and beer halls, he relied on his mother for encouragement. They frequently wrote to each other, and Cecilia helped select his costumes even after he became famous. Houdini would even sit on his mother's lap at times "to re-enact the story of the calming influence she had on him as a child". Houdini called her his "angel on earth" and his "guiding beacon of [his] life".
Houdini's father's last wish on his deathbed was that his son would take care of Cecilia, and after Houdini broke through to fame, he made sure to keep this promise. He bought Cecilia a home in a well-to-do part of town with many foreign residents so that his mother could speak with her neighbors (she never learned English very well). At this point, Houdini had married Wilhelmina Beatrice "Bess" Rhaner, a Catholic who must have surprised Cecilia, a staunch Jew. They managed to get along despite religious differences, and Houdini once called them his "two sweethearts". It is impossible to say which one of his sweethearts he cared for more. He once threw a party at which his mother presided over the guests as "Queen Cecilia", wearing a dress made for the Queen of England and sitting on a throne, lavished with gifts and adoration.
Cecilia died on July 17, 1913 at age 72 of a fatal stroke while Houdini was performing in Copenhagen, Denmark. At a press conference, Houdini received a trans-Atlantic telegram containing the news of his mother's death. After reading the telegram, he fainted; once revived, he sobbed inconsolably, moaning in grief for his dear mother. Later he said of the event, "I who have laughed at the terrors of death, who have smilingly leaped from high bridges, received a shock from which I do not think recovery is possible." The Weisz family delayed the burial, against Jewish custom, so that Houdini could look upon his mother one last time.
Doctorow goes on to describe how Houdini's enormous grief for his mother led him to seek out mystics and séances to communicate with his deceased mother, but all he found was fraud. This was the genesis of Houdini's anti-Spiritualism campaign that took up a large part of his later career. This is a great story, but it's not exactly true. It would actually be 10 years before Harry unmasked his first phony medium. In addition, the myth that his interest in Spiritualism was sparked by Cecilia's death is false. By the time of her death in 1913, he already had enough experience with Spiritualism throughout his career to let him know it's false.
His relationship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes novels, is truly the link between Cecelia Weisz and Spiritualism. On June 17, 1922, nearly nine years after Cecilia's death, Doyle's wife gives Houdini a séance that is clearly a sham. Houdini keeps quiet about his doubts to not shame Lady Doyle, but his silence is mistaken for approval by Doyle himself. After Doyle publicly announces that Houdini has been influenced by the spirits, Houdini must defend himself, and suddenly he is in a debate over Spiritualism with one of the leading intellectuals of the century, a debate he is determined to win. And so begins his public anti-fraud crusade, as described in Ragtime.
It was as if, now that his mother was dead, heaven had to be defended...He himself went to seances disguised as a gray-haired widow in a veil. he would shine a portable electric torch on the thin wire that caused the table to levitate. He roe the covering from the hidden Victrola. He plucked trumpets out of the air and grabbed by the scruff of the neck confederates hidden behind drapes. Then he stood up and dramatically cast of his wig of waved gray hair and announced who he was. He accrued lawsuits by the dozens.
Dramaturgy for the Ragtime musical and novel.
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