He fought spiritualism, lobbying Congress for laws against fraudulent mediums. His name was a verb: "to release or extricate oneself from confinement, bonds, or the like, as by wiggling out". He was a pioneering aviator, a self-taught historian, a star of stage and screen, a man who quite possibly knew more about locks than any living person, but the reason that we remember Erik Weisz, an Austrian rabbi’s son born in Budapest in 1874, is because he knew how to sell himself. America’s "five great magicians" (Harry Kellar, Howard Thurston, Alexander Herrmann, Dante, and Tampa), even Robert-Houdin, the father of modern stage magic, are today all but forgotten. Harry Houdini stands alone. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were the height of stage magic‘s popular success. Mass advertising was available in urban areas; even if a well-known magician couldn’t get a one or more of a city’s newspapers to give him a steady buildup of press, he could always paper the streets with posters advertising (as luridly as good taste would allow) the spectacular feats that would soon be performed. Technological advances were advancing the thaumaturgical arts. Houdini’s skill with locks was legendary, but he was generally mechanically minded in his own right (he owned a patent on an improved diving suit), and he could hire others to work on his gadgetry for him. Stage magic was a hotly competitive business; inventing a trick could earn a magician serious money. The successful publicity a signature act such as catching a bullet in his teeth (the trick that killed William Robinson, better known as Chung Ling Soo) or vanishing an elephant could make a magician’s career; an already-successful magician or one more down on his luck could simply license the trick to others or sell it to a store like Abbott’s.
If Glenn David Gold’s Carter Beats the Devil is accurate, magic acts were teeming with industrial espionage. Houdini regularly showed up his rivals, whether by performing their tricks or appearing at their performances for impromptu challenges. His escapes, from milk cans, coffins, handcuffs, blocks of ice, were hardly even recognizable as the same art that Robert-Houdin devised; according to historians of the field, Houdini’s stage magic was not nearly as technically impressive as that of many of his contemporaries. But Houdini recognized the importance of film, of the stunt performance, of the audience’s desire to see some blood (or at least to think it could) and the veneer of respectability required to perform for the crowned heads of Europe. He escaped from the prison cells used to hold assassins and exploited the fame of Niagara Falls. He mastered publicity, playing reporters like the meticulous professional he was. And he didn’t have television or talking pictures to compete with as he built his reputation.
Stage magic adapted to the times — the ghost show or spook show merged the new technology of the motion picture with live magic performances, a throwback to Victorian magic lantern shows like "The Rat" (link via Eclogues). But despite these innovations, magic didn’t seem like it would tranlstate to radio or television. The efforts of people like Channing Pollock notwithstanding, magic went into decline from the Great Depression until the mid-1970s, slowly joining ventriloquists and plate spinners on the fringes of show business, relics of vaudeville’s glory days. Doug Henning, before he abandoned entertainment to embrace trancendental meditation, changed that, inventing a more modern and television-friendly idiom of magic. Today Penn & Teller, David Blaine, and David Copperfield are all recognizable figures of popular culture, regularly appearing in television specials. I caught Ricky Jay on Letterman a few years ago, piercing watermelons with ordinary playing cards. But when magicians want to prove themselves, they try to show that they deserve to be ranked with the master.