10 Facts About Harry Houdini

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Had Houdini not succumbed to the ill effects of a well-placed sucker punch, he would have been 135 this month. OK, even Houdini couldn't have pulled that one off. Despite the fact that he passed away more than 80 years ago, he remains a fascinating and mysterious pop culture figure.

1. Harry Houdini's real name was Ehrich Weiss. He likely took the first part of his stage name from his childhood nickname, "Ehrie," although some have speculated that his first name was a tribute to magician Harry Kellar. The last part, however, was definitely a tribute to French illusionist Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin.
2. He also named Buster Keaton, although inadvertently. Along with Houdini, Buster's dad, Joe, was the co-owner of a traveling show called the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company. The story Buster tells is that one day, when he was only about six months old, he took a tumble down a flight of stairs while he was under his dad's watch, but come out of it completely unscathed. Houdini remarked, "That was a real buster!" "“ in those days, according to Keaton, "buster" meant a spill or a fall that had the potential to really hurt someone. Joe started calling him Buster and the nickname stuck. His real name was Joseph Frank Keaton, if you're curious.

3. He introduced his famous milk can trick in 1908. If you're not familiar, Houdini invented an over-sized milk can that would be filled with water. Houdini would be handcuffed and sealed inside, then left behind a curtain to make his daring escape. When this became too commonplace, he further encased the milk can in a wooden crate. Perhaps building on this stunt, Tetley's, a British beer, invited him to escape from a cask of their fine product. Houdini accepted and gave the stunt a go, but the task proved too difficult and he had to be rescued.

4. OK, despite what I said a minute ago, Houdini didn't really die from a sucker punch. But that's part of the legend. Houdini had long boasted of his physical capabilities and said that he could withstand any punch. After a performance in Montreal, a student from McGill University asked him if this was true. When Harry said it was, the student immediately punched him three times in the gut, not giving Harry the chance to tighten his abs, which was part of his secret. He ultimately died of a ruptured appendix which many people said was brought on by the punches, but that's not actually true. Houdini had been suffering from appendicitis for a few days but hadn't done anything about it, and in fact continued to travel and do shows for a few days after the punching incident. Finally, on October 24, 1926, he gave one last show and was immediately hospitalized afterward, but he had let it go too long: on October 31, 1926, he died of peritonitis from his ruptured appendix.


iStock / Alphotographic

5. He's buried at Machpelah Cemetary in Queens and has the symbol of the Society of American Magicians engraved on his tombstone (he was president of it when he died). Members of the Society gather every year to hold a ceremony there. Sadly, his beloved wife, Bess, is buried 10 miles away in Westchester; she wasn't allowed to be buried with him because she wasn't Jewish. Maybe he escaped his home six feet under and managed to be with her in Westchester.
6. Speaking of Bess, she held a séance every year for ten years on the anniversary of his death to see if he would get in touch. Before he died, they made a pact that if there was a way to do it, he would, and they agreed upon a phrase that he would tell her so she would know it was him and not one of the many fakes that he loved to debunk when he was still alive. When he failed to contact her on the 10th anniversary, she gave up the ghost. The Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pa. (how long before that shows up on an episode of The Office?) still holds the séances every year. So far, no one has gotten Harry to communicate. The secret code, by the way, was "Rosabelle- answer- tell- pray, answer- look- tell- answer, answer- tell." Rosabelle was the name of a song she sang in her vaudeville act when the two of them met, and the other words corresponded to letters of the alphabet. Combined, they spelled out "Believe."

7. Houdini was an avid aviator and even believed that one day, when all of his magic was exposed and he was no longer a big deal in that field, people would remember him for his contributions to the world of aviation.

8. Houdini would surely be upset that a movie about his life depicted him dying as a result of one of his stunts "“ the Chinese Water Torture Cell. Houdini's feet would be locked in stocks and then he was lowered upside-down into a water-filled tank. Tony Curtis played Houdini and Janet Leigh played his wife. In reality, Houdini repeatedly performed the stunt without a hitch "“ and he was the only one who could legally perform it because he copyrighted the Chinese Water Torture Cell in a pretty ingenious way. You couldn't copyright magic tricks, so he first performed this escape as part of a one-act play called "Houdini Upside Down," because then he could copyright the play and the effect. He actively sued anyone who tried to imitate the stunt.

9. Although the Chinese Water Torture Cell didn't do him in, one of his performances nearly did. In 1917, he was buried in a pit with no casket "“ just dirt shoveled right on top of him. While trying to dig his way out, he started to panic and use up his precious air. He tried to call for help, but have you ever tried to call for help with a mouthful of dirt? Me neither. But I bet it's pretty difficult. Finally, his hand broke the surface and he was pulled to safety, where he promptly passed out. He later wrote that "The weight of the earth is killing."

10. The suspended straitjacket escape was one of his most famous stunts. He would be strapped into a medical straitjacket "“ no tricks there "“ and then suspended by his ankles very high in the air. He usually used a crane or a tall building. Once hoisted in the air, he escaped. And you can see him do it:

13 Fascinating Word Origin Stories (That Are Completely Untrue)

karandaev/iStock via Getty Images
karandaev/iStock via Getty Images

Sometimes when the true origin of a word isn’t known (and sometimes even when it is), entirely fictitious theories and tall tales emerge to try to fill in the gap. These so-called folk etymologies often provide neater, cleverer, and wittier explanations than any genuine etymology ever could, all of which fuels their popularity and makes them all the more likely to be passed around—but sadly, there’s just no escaping the fact that they’re not true. Thirteen of these etymological tall-tales, taken from word origins guide Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons, are explained and debunked here.

1. Bug

According to the story, back in the days when computers were vast room-filling machines containing hundreds of moving parts, one of the earliest recorded malfunctions was caused by an insect making its home on one of the delicate mechanisms inside—and hence, all computer malfunctions since have been known as bugs.

This well-known tale apparently has its roots in an incident recorded in London’s Pall Mall Gazette in 1889, which described how Thomas Edison spent two consecutive nights trying to identify "a bug in his phonograph"—"an expression," the article explained, "for solving a difficulty, and implying that some imaginary insect has secreted itself inside and is causing all the trouble." All in all, it appears the original computer bug was sadly a metaphorical one.

2. Cabal

A cabal is a group or sect of like-minded people, often with the implication that those involved are conspiring or working together for some clandestine purpose. In 17th century England, the Cabal Ministry was precisely that: An exclusive group of the five closest and most important members of King Charles II’s Parliament, who, in 1670, signed a treaty allying England and France in a potential war against the Netherlands. The five signatories were Sir Thomas Clifford, Lord Arlington, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Ashley, and Lord Lauderdale, and it’s the first letters of their five names and titles that formed the cabal itself.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. Cabal is actually a derivative of caballa, the Latin spelling of kabbalah (a tradition of Jewish mysticism), and the fact that these five signatories’ names could be manipulated to spell out the word cabal is a complete coincidence.

3. Golf

Golf doesn’t stand for "gentlemen only ladies forbidden," nor for "gentlemen only, ladies fly-away-home," and nor, for that matter, for any other means of telling someone to go away that begins with the letter F. Instead, it’s thought to be a derivative of an old Scots word for a cudgel or a blow to the head, gouf, which in turn is probably derived from Dutch. The earliest known reference to golf in English? An Act of the Scottish Parliament, passed on March 6, 1457, that demanded that "football and golf should be utterly condemned and stopped," because they interfered with the military’s archery practice.

4. Kangaroo

A popular story claims that when the English explorer Captain Cook first arrived in Australia in the late 18th century, he spotted a peculiar-looking animal bounding about in the distance and asked a native Aborigine what it was called. The Aborigine, having no idea what Cook had just said, replied, "I don’t understand"—which, in his native language, apparently sounded something like kangaroo. Cook then returned to his ship and wrote in his journal on 4 August 1770 that, "the animals which I have before mentioned [are] called by the Natives kangooroo." The fact that Cook’s journals give us the earliest written reference to the word kangaroo is true, but sadly the story of the oblivious Aborigine is not.

5. Marmalade

When Mary I of Scotland fell ill while on a trip to France in the mid-1500s, she was served a sweet jelly-like concoction made from stewed fruit. At the same time, she overheard the French maids and nurses who were caring for her muttering that "Madame est malade" ("ma’am is unwell"), and in her confusion she muddled the two things up—and marmalade as we know it today gained its name. As neat a story as this is, it’s unsurprisingly completely untrue—not least because the earliest reference to marmalade in English dates from 60 years before Mary was even born.

6. Nasty

Thomas Nast was a 19th century artist and caricaturist probably best known today for creating the Republican Party’s elephant logo. In the mid-1800s, however, Nast was America’s foremost satirical cartoonist, known across the country for his cutting and derisive caricatures of political figures. Anything described as nasty was ultimately said to be as scathing or as cruel as his drawings. Nast eventually became known as the "Father of the American Cartoon," but he certainly wasn’t the father of the word nasty—although its true origins are unknown, its earliest record dates from as far back as the 14th century.

7. Posh

In the early 1900s, the wealthiest passengers on cruise ships and liners could afford to pay for a port-side cabin on the outward journey and a starboard cabin on the homeward journey, thereby ensuring that they either had the best uninterrupted views of the passing coastlines, or else had a cabin that avoided the most intense heat of the sun. These "port out starboard home" passengers are often claimed to have been the first posh people—but a far more likely explanation is that posh was originally simply a slang name for cash.

8. Pumpernickel

The bogus story behind pumpernickel is that it comes from the French phrase pain pour Nicol, a quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte that essentially means "bread only good enough for horses." In fact, the true origin of pumpernickel is even more peculiar: pumper is the German equivalent of "fart" and nickel is an old nickname for a devil or imp, literally making pumpernickel something along the lines of "fart-goblin." Why? Well, no one is really sure—but one theory states that the bread might have originally been, shall we say, hard to digest.

9. Sh*t

Back when horse manure (and everything else, for that matter) used to be transported by ship, the methane gas it gives off tended to collect in the lowest parts of the vessel—until a passing crewman carrying a lantern had the misfortune to walk by and blow the ship to pieces. Did this ever happen? Who knows. But one thing we do know is that sh*t is certainly not an acronym of "ship high in transit," a motto often mistakenly said to have been printed on crates of manure to ensure that they were stored high and dry while being moved from port to port. In fact, sh*t—like most of our best cursewords—is an ancient Anglo-Saxon word dating from at least 1000 years ago.

10. Sincere

Sincere is derived from the Latin sincerus, meaning "pure" or "genuine." Despite this relatively straightforward history, however, a myth has since emerged that claims sincere is actually a derivative of the Latin sine cera, meaning "without wax," and supposed to refer to cracks or chips in sculptures being filled in with wax; to Ancient Greeks giving statues made of wax rather than stone to their enemies; or to documents or wine bottles without wax seals being potentially tampered or tainted. None of these stories, of course, is true.

11. Sirloin

Sirloin steak takes its name from sur, the French word for "above" (as in surname), and so literally refers to the fact that it is the cut of meat found "above the loin" of a cow. When sur– began to be spelled sir– in English in the early 1600s, however, a popular etymology emerged claiming that this cut of meat was so delicious that it had been knighted by King Charles II.

12. Snob

Different theories claim that on lists of ferry passengers, lists of university students, and even on lists of guests at royal weddings, the word snob would once have been written beside the names of all those individuals who had been born sine nobilitate, or "without nobility." The Oxford English Dictionary rightly calls this theory "ingenious but highly unlikely," and instead suggests that snob was probably originally a slang nickname for a shoemaker’s apprentice, then a general word for someone of poor background, and finally a nickname for a pretentious or snobbish social climber.

13. Sword

In the New Testament, "the word of God" is described as "sharper than any two-edged sword" (Hebrews 4:12). This quote is apparently the origin of a popular misconception that sword is derived from a corruption of "God’s word." Admittedly, this kind of formation is not without precedent (the old exclamations gadzooks! and zounds! are corruptions of "God’s hooks" and "God’s wounds," respectively) but sword is actually a straightforward Anglo-Saxon word, sweord, which is probably ultimately derived from an even earlier Germanic word meaning "cut" or "pierce."

This list first ran in 2014 and was republished in 2019.

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Visit Any National Park for Free on September 28—or Volunteer to Help Maintain Them

Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park
Nick Hanauer/iStock via Getty Images

By the end of September—which always seems especially busy, even if you’re not a student anymore—you might be ready for a small break from the hustle and bustle. On Saturday, September 28, you can bask in the tranquility of any national park for free, as part of National Public Lands Day.

According to the National Park Service, the holiday has been held on the fourth Saturday of every September since 1994, and it’s also the nation’s largest single-day volunteer effort. It’s up to you whether you’d like to partake in the service side or simply go for a stroll, but there is an added incentive to volunteer: You’ll get a one-day park pass that you can use for free park entry on a different day. Opportunities for volunteering include trail restoration, invasive plant removal, park cleanups, and more; you can see the details and filter by park, state, and/or type of event here.

If you’re not sure how you should celebrate National Public Lands Day, the National Park Service has created a handy flowchart to help you choose the best course of action for you—which might be as simple as sharing your favorite outdoor activity on social media with the hashtag #NPLD.

National public lands day celebration flowchart
National Park Service

There are more than 400 areas run by the National Park Service across the U.S., and many of them aren’t parks in the traditional sense of the word; the Statue of Liberty, Alcatraz Island, and countless other monuments and historical sites are also run by the NPS. Wondering if there might be one closer than you thought? Explore parks in your area on this interactive map.

For those of you who can’t take advantage of the free admission on September 28, the National Park Service will also waive all entrance fees for Veteran’s Day on November 11.

And, if you’re wishing a free-admission day existed for museums, you’re in luck—more than 1500 museums will be free to visit on Museum Day, which happens to be this Saturday.

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