The Quick 10: 10 Facts About Harry Houdini

Had Houdini not succumbed to the ill effects of 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.

houdini1. 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.

poster5. 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:

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Zach Hyman, HBO
10 Bizarre Sesame Street Fan Theories
Zach Hyman, HBO
Zach Hyman, HBO

Sesame Street has been on the air for almost 50 years, but there’s still so much we don’t know about this beloved children’s show. What kind of bird is Big Bird? What’s the deal with Mr. Noodle? And how do you actually get to Sesame Street? Fans have filled in these gaps with frequently amusing—and sometimes bizarre—theories about how the cheerful neighborhood ticks. Read them at your own risk, because they’ll probably ruin the Count for you.

1. THE THEME SONG CONTAINS SECRET INSTRUCTIONS.

According to a Reddit theory, the Sesame Street theme song isn’t just catchy—it’s code. The lyrics spell out how to get to Sesame Street quite literally, giving listeners clues on how to access this fantasy land. It must be a sunny day (as the repeated line goes), you must bring a broom (“sweeping the clouds away”), and you have to give Oscar the Grouch the password (“everything’s a-ok”) to gain entrance. Make sure to memorize all the steps before you attempt.

2. SESAME STREET IS A REHAB CENTER FOR MONSTERS.

Sesame Street is populated with the stuff of nightmares. There’s a gigantic bird, a mean green guy who hides in the trash, and an actual vampire. These things should be scary, and some fans contend that they used to be. But then the creatures moved to Sesame Street, a rehabilitation area for formerly frightening monsters. In this community, monsters can’t roam outside the perimeters (“neighborhood”) as they recover. They must learn to educate children instead of eating them—and find a more harmless snack to fuel their hunger. Hence Cookie Monster’s fixation with baked goods.

3. BIG BIRD IS AN EXTINCT MOA.

Big Bird is a rare breed. He’s eight feet tall and while he can’t really fly, he can rollerskate. So what kind of bird is he? Big Bird’s species has been a matter of contention since Sesame Street began: Big Bird insists he’s a lark, while Oscar thinks he’s more of a homing pigeon. But there’s convincing evidence that Big Bird is an extinct moa. The moa were 10 species of flightless birds who lived in New Zealand. They had long necks and stout torsos, and reached up to 12 feet in height. Scientists claim they died off hundreds of years ago, but could one be living on Sesame Street? It makes sense, especially considering his best friend looks a lot like a woolly mammoth.

4. OSCAR’S TRASH CAN IS A TARDIS.

Oscar’s home doesn’t seem very big. But as The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland revealed, his trash can holds much more than moldy banana peels. The Grouch has chandeliers and even an interdimensional portal down there! There’s only one logical explanation for this outrageously spacious trash can: It’s a Doctor Who-style TARDIS.

5. IT’S ALL A RIFF ON PLATO.

Dust off your copy of The Republic, because this is about to get philosophical. Plato has a famous allegory about a cave, one that explains enlightenment through actual sunlight. He describes a prisoner who steps out of the cave and into the sun, realizing his entire understanding of the world is wrong. When he returns to the cave to educate his fellow prisoners, they don’t believe him, because the information is too overwhelming and contradictory to what they know. The lesson is that education is a gradual learning process, one where pupils must move through the cave themselves, putting pieces together along the way. And what better guide is there than a merry kids’ show?

According to one Reddit theory, Sesame Street builds on Plato’s teachings by presenting a utopia where all kinds of creatures live together in harmony. There’s no racism or suffocating gender roles, just another sunny (see what they did there?) day in the neighborhood. Sesame Street shows the audience what an enlightened society looks like through simple songs and silly jokes, spoon-feeding Plato’s “cave dwellers” knowledge at an early age.

6. MR. NOODLE IS IN HELL.

Can a grown man really enjoy taking orders from a squeaky red puppet? And why does Mr. Noodle live outside a window in Elmo’s house anyway? According to this hilariously bleak theory, no, Mr. Noodle does not like dancing for Elmo, but he has to, because he’s in hell. Think about it: He’s seemingly trapped in a surreal place where he can’t talk, but he has to do whatever a fuzzy monster named Elmo says. Definitely sounds like hell.

7. ELMO IS ANIMAL’S SON.

Okay, so remember when Animal chases a shrieking woman out of the college auditorium in The Muppets Take Manhattan? (If you don't, see above.) One fan thinks Animal had a fling with this lady, which produced Elmo. While the two might have similar coloring, this theory completely ignores Elmo’s dad Louie, who appears in many Sesame Street episodes. But maybe Animal is a distant cousin.

8. COOKIE MONSTER HAS AN EATING DISORDER.

Cookie Monster loves to cram chocolate chip treats into his mouth. But as eagle-eyed viewers have observed, he doesn’t really eat the cookies so much as chew them into messy crumbs that fly in every direction. This could indicate Cookie Monster has a chewing and spitting eating disorder, meaning he doesn’t actually consume food—he just chews and spits it out. There’s a more detailed (and dark) diagnosis of Cookie Monster’s symptoms here.

9. THE COUNT EATS CHILDREN.

Can a vampire really get his kicks from counting to five? One of the craziest Sesame Street fan theories posits that the Count lures kids to their death with his number games. That’s why the cast of children on Sesame Street changes so frequently—the Count eats them all after teaching them to add. The adult cast, meanwhile, stays pretty much the same, implying the grown-ups are either under a vampiric spell or looking the other way as the Count does his thing.

10. THE COUNT IS ALSO A PIMP.

Alright, this is just a Dave Chappelle joke. But the Count does have a cape.

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iStock
A New App Interprets Sign Language for the Amazon Echo
iStock
iStock

The convenience of the Amazon Echo smart speaker only goes so far. Without any sort of visual interface, the voice-activated home assistant isn't very useful for deaf people—Alexa only understands three languages, none of which are American Sign Language. But Fast Company reports that one programmer has invented an ingenious system that allows the Echo to communicate visually.

Abhishek Singh's new artificial intelligence app acts as an interpreter between deaf people and Alexa. For it to work, users must sign at a web cam that's connected to a computer. The app translates the ASL signs from the webcam into text and reads it aloud for Alexa to hear. When Alexa talks back, the app generates a text version of the response for the user to read.

Singh had to teach his system ASL himself by signing various words at his web cam repeatedly. Working within the machine-learning platform Tensorflow, the AI program eventually collected enough data to recognize the meaning of certain gestures automatically.

While Amazon does have two smart home devices with screens—the Echo Show and Echo Spot—for now, Singh's app is one of the best options out there for signers using voice assistants that don't have visual components. He plans to make the code open-source and share his full methodology in order to make it accessible to as many people as possible.

Watch his demo in the video below.

[h/t Fast Company]

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