Houdini & Thurston
A short contrast of Howard Thurston and Harry Houdini
It is odd the way history twists and turns, leaving a trail that would never have been predicted before the facts. Such is the case concerning the historical attention paid to two former great magicians, one of which was a native of our own Columbus, Ohio. Seventy years ago, who would have guessed that Harry Houdini (born Ehrich Weiss) would gain immortality, and his only real competitor in the field, Howard Thurston, should shrink into dim corners of old books? Such is the case, as few people in Thurston’s hometown know the name, but millions of people around the world still recognize Houdini’s name.
There was a great contrast between the two, and some of the nature of their differences probably gives a key into why Houdini is still known and Thurston is forgotten. While both Houdini and Thurston started their lives in relative poverty, and both shared an immense love of illusions and theatrical display, the two shared little else in common. Each considered himself the premiere magician of the day, and both were obviously jealous of the other. As Ken Silverman wrote in his recent biography of Houdini, "their real rivalry arose from comparable ambitions. Thurston was the only magician of the era who achieved anything like Houdini’s stature.”
Silverman wrote, "Through their many differences, Thurston and Houdini stayed guardedly cordial to each other.” But they held no true love for one another, and Thurston never mentioned Houdini’s name in his autobiography.
Houdini was stout and muscular, while Thurston seemed more slender. Houdini became famous for his ability to escape handcuffs, chains, cells and pretty much anything that normally seemed inescapable. Thurston obtained notoriety from his exceptional dexterity and sleight of hands. Houdini was hailed as King of Handcuffs, while Thurston was known as King of Cards. Houdini was not an exceptional writer, and his writing was plagued with bad grammar. Thurston displayed a touch of poetic mastery of language in his autobiography My Life of Magic.
The largest apparent separation between Houdini and Thurston was their views on Spiritualism. Houdini spent tremendous amounts of time and energy exposing fraudulent mediums and spiritualists during the last years of his life. Thurston supported Spiritualism. While Houdini did believe in an afterlife, he felt that afterlife is so bizarre and unreachable that it has no relationship to our world and life. He saw the Spiritualist movement of his age to be a complete farce. Thurston, on the other hand, was friendly to the movement.
A person of common interest in the discussion of Houdini and Thurston was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the popular Sherlock Holmes stories. Houdini originally befriended Doyle in 1920, but within three years the friendship dissolved. Doyle was a champion of the Spiritualist cause, and he refused to believe that Houdini’s acts were mere physical tricks and illusions. As Martin Gardner wrote, "Here is Doyle, the supposed creator of Sherlock Holmes, arguing soberly that his friend Houdini was in reality a medium who performed his escapes by dematerializing his body.” According to Silverman, Thurston was the only American magician that Doyle believed to have any real knowledge of psychic phenomena.
Houdini wrote, "Whenever any of these alleged spiritual mediums tell you that they have supernatural aid in freeing themselves from handcuffs and ropen [sic] bonds, you may safely set them down as frauds. The handcuff trick is merely a matter of sleight-of-hand.”
When Spiritualism was at its height early this century, many scientists were caught up in the study of so-called psychic phenomena. The credulity of scientist towards Spiritualism almost seems pathetic nowadays, and it certainly infuriated someone like Houdini who knew it was all a bunch of tricks. In Miracle Mongers and Their Methods, Houdini wrote, "The credulous, wonder-loving scientist, however, still abides with us and, while his serious-minded brothers are wringing from Nature her jealously guarded secrets, the knowledge of which benefits all mankind, he gravely follows that periennial [sic] Will-of-the-wisp, spiritism, and lays the flattering unction to his soul that he is investigating "psychic phenomena” when in reality he is merely gazing with unseeing eyes on the flimsy juggling of pseudo-mediums.”
Surprisingly, Thurston stated just about as much. Thurston wrote, "I now come to two groups of men—those who are the easiest to deceive and those who are the most difficult. The profound student is the easiest—the scientist, the man of letters, the psychologist—and particularly the college professor who spends his time in the study of the very things the magician finds most useful and employs constantly.”
The magician’s ability to create deceptive illusions, according to Thurston, was greatest with the educated man. "His mind is centered completely on what the magician is doing. It is too thoroughly trained to wander; it always follows the line laid out for it.” Such a statement makes one wonder just how much of a Spiritualist Thurston was. Thurston obviously knew all the tricks out there, and he must have been aware that the manifestations produced by mediums and mystics were no differently produced than his own illusions. Perhaps Thurston’s friendliness towards Spiritualism lay more with hope and romanticism than with genuine faith.
Thurston wrote, "Taking everything into consideration, the most interesting things I have learned about people are these: their love of mystery—of something they cannot explain…and, most strikingly of all, the wish to believe in the supernatural, especially in some evidence of life after death.”
The nature of scientists has changed since then, and few scientists could be bamboozled by the same methods used by mediums of the early 20th century. But on a wider spectrum, humans have remained the same. As Thurston noted, "The average man is not hard to mystify.”
Houdini, Thurston and Doyle are said to have made a pact with one another that after they died they would attempt to contact the world of the living. Houdini arranged with his wife a secret code that would prove his communication authentic. Houdini died on October 31, 1926, Halloween Day. No authentic communication from the grave ever came from Houdini.
Thurston died on April 13, 1936. He was interred at Greenlawn Abbey in Columbus, Ohio. For years friends and relatives would come to Thurston’s mausoleum on April 13 to witness manifestations from the renowned magician. As with Houdini, nothing ever came.
Why Houdini is remembered and Thurston is relatively unknown is uncertain. Perhaps Houdini’s death-defying stunts amazed people more than the illusions of Thurston. Perhaps Houdini’s premature death punctuated Houdini’s impression into the minds of society. Thurston’s departure from life was less of a shock, less traumatic. Maybe the waning of Spiritualism helped secure Houdini’s name in the ledgers of history. Whatever the case, they were both amazing magicians. Too bad they aren’t both known so well today.