How did Harry Houdini make an elephant disappear?
It happened in 1918 in New York. One night, the great magician showed the audience a huge cabinet. After feeding Jennie the elephant some sugar, she was led inside. Curtains were closed around the cabinet. And when they reopened, Jennie was gone.
It was astonishing, conveying a sense of wonder that also permeates “The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini,” a new book by former Kansas City Star writer Joe Posnanski. Here are some excerpts of our recent conversation about why Houdini still fascinates people.
KRASKE: People think of you as a sportswriter, not a Houdiniac.
POSNANSKI: Yeah, as well they should. I wanted to write this book about wonder and sort of what we’ve lost, what we’ve gained through the years. You know, Houdini comes from a time as does Babe Ruth, which is where this idea very first began, when you could really spark wonder in people, doing exploits that today we would find interesting and wonderful maybe for a few moments but then our attention gets diverted. I just wanted to write about that and write about this idea of how we still long for it.
I think the perfect example to show that we long for this is that here’s Harry Houdini 100 years after his height, 93 years after his death, and he represents something to us, an edge of the impossible to us. So any time a politician gets out of a crisis or any time an athlete gets out of a jam or a dog gets out of a yard, Houdini somehow comes to the surface and we think of him.
KRASKE: It's such an interesting word, wonder, because one thing I’ve always admired about your work, Joe, is you do bring a sense of wonder to the events you’ve covered over the years. The amazing things that athletes do. As I was reading through your book, I just can’t help but… wonder… about this idea, if we’ve lost a collective sense of that because these days, someone sees a magician do a fabulous trick and their first reaction is, they don’t want to revel in the amazement, they just want to know how the guy did it. It’s like why do we have to be that way?
POSNANSKI: Well it’s just different. It’s a different time. I think we still want it. and your comparison about writing about wonder in sports and every other aspect of things I’ve written about, whether it’s Hamilton or Springsteen –
KRASKE: Right, right –
POSNANSKI: I think that has been sort of the hallmark of my writing is that I’ve been constantly in search of this, these things that open up the world for us, and make us feel great and feel special. For me this was like trying to pull off a magic trick, because here I am writing about a guy I know very little about. I know almost nothing about magic, I didn’t know anybody in that world. And yet I wanted to get at something and it was so much fun to do it. It felt like I was just starting again, and it was really, really great.
KRASKE: Kansas City was important to harry Houdini, you wrote a piece about that for the Kansas City Star not long ago. Why was that?
POSNANSKI: There were a couple of reasons. It was the middle of the country. When he was 12, he ran away from home. He grew up very, very poor, and at 12 he ran away to Kansas City. That was where he hoped to find a job and a future and it didn’t work out. But always throughout his life, he kept coming back.
KRASKE: In 1915, he came to where the major newspaper was, it wasn’t the Star, it was a different paper—
POSNANSKI: It was the Post.
KRASKE: And he pulled off this stunt that absolutely astonished thousands of people. Remind us what he did.
POSNANSKI: Right on Main Street. If you go on Main Street you can still see the place. He had himself dangled upside down, 4-5 stories off the ground, and he escaped from a straight jacket upside down. It was free, it wasn’t part of a show. It was a promotion, and thousands and thousands of people came to see it. and it was the first time he ever did it.
It was such an enormous success that he did it everywhere. And now you see signs – the old Ebbitt’s grill or McSorley’s in New York and you’ll see these photos of Houdini with thousands of people surrounding him, hanging upside down in a straight jacket and it all started in Kansas City.
KRASKE: Why not, yeah.
Joe Posnanski spoke with Steve Kraske on a recent edition of KCUR's Up to Date. Listen to the full conversation here.
Steve Kraske is host of KCUR's Up to Date. Follow him @stevekraske.