World-famous illusionist Harry Houdini passed away on Halloween 1926 despite cheating death numerous times with his jaw-dropping stunts — and nearly a century later, his great-nephew is looking for answers.
George Hardeen is teaming up with magician Lee Terbosic for the Science Channel docuseries “Houdini’s Last Secrets,” which aims to unravel the mystery surrounding a man who imprisoned himself inside a water tank, jumped off bridges while handcuffed, survived a live burial and even caught a speeding bullet — all for entertainment.
The show will also unveil the late magician’s personal mementos, including scrapbooks, letters and rare photos.
Smithsonian Magazine previously reported Houdini largely avoided the patent process, kept secrets, copyrighted his tricks and concealed his inventions to protect his famous illusions.
Hardeen, 66, didn’t always know he was related to arguably the most famous magician of all time. As previously reported by NPR, Hardeen’s grandfather was Houdini’s brother, Theo Hardeen, also an escape artist. The siblings originally performed together before Houdini found success on his own. Theo even named one of his sons – Hardeen’s father – Harry Houdini Hardeen.
Houdini and his wife Bess had no children. When Houdini died from appendicitis at age 52, he willed all of his props to Theo. It wasn’t until Hardeen was about 10 when he became aware of his father’s middle name.
“One day my sister saw a piece of mail addressed to my dad, but instead of just Harry H. Hardeen, which is how he went, it said Harry Houdini Hardeen,” he recalled to Fox News. “We went to my dad and said, ‘What is this all about?’ He finally told us the story, that we are related to Harry Houdini. It was his uncle, he was named for Houdini and that he was my grandmother’s brother.”
NPR noted Houdini was actually born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest. However, he “borrowed” Houdini from the French magician Houdin. Theo picked the name “Hardeen” because it sounded like Houdini.
Since then, Hardeen wanted to learn everything about the great-uncle he never met. However, his grandfather had died before he was born. He asked his father numerous questions, but it wasn’t enough. When given the opportunity to further investigate Houdini’s famous stunts about a year ago, he didn’t hesitate.
He also received a helping hand from Houdini himself.
“I was surprised that Houdini chronicled everything he did in his life,” said Hardeen. “[He] carried a little notebook, created scrapbooks, wrote extensive articles in magic magazines. The guy was prolific. [And he] just kept everything. Receipts from when he was 20 years old.”
In his quest to learn about Houdini while filming, Hardeen discovered many rumors that continue to haunt the icon’s legacy. Some tales that have long persisted include Houdini could have been an informant for top spy agencies during World War I.
“We spoke to former CIA deputy director John McLaughlin, who has worked in espionage for 30 years,” said Hardeen. “He told us that if there was someone like Houdini today he might want to recruit this guy because he was world famous. He had access to all kinds of things an ordinary person would not have access to. And he would hear conversations. People would tell him things and he would like to know what those conversations were all about.”
And then there’s Houdini’s own death.
The New York Times reported that on Oct. 19, while in Montreal, Houdini commented to a class of students about the strength of his stomach muscles and their ability to withstand hard blows without injury. One of the students without warning struck Houdini twice over his appendix, not allowing time for Houdini to prepare. By the time he boarded a train for Detroit later that day, he was complaining of pain. His condition worsened with time.
History.com added what while doctors successfully removed his ruptured appendix, it had already poisoned his insides. Houdini clung to life until Oct. 31 when he died with Bess and his two brothers by his side. Still, some have speculated Houdini could have been murdered by enemies he made along the way after he tried to outlaw fortune telling.
“Houdini’s Last Secrets” is expected to address that shocking rumor.
“Houdini was interested in spirituality, but he was appalled that people would exploit a gullible public who sought to communicate with their loved ones who had passed on,” said Hardeen. “So he wanted to expose the frauds. This is what he did. By doing that he created a lot of enemies who were making a lot of money at the time.”
Houdini’s widow would go on to hold séances in hopes of contacting her husband. She reportedly held one each year for 10 years. She allegedly told reporters later that “10 years is long enough to wait for any man.”
Hardeen said while he hasn’t held his own séance to contact Houdini, he did attend one in Detroit.
“We did not reach Houdini,” he said. “I spoke to the guy who organized it, Sid Radner. And he said he didn’t expect Houdini to show up, but he wanted to be there in case he did.”
Hardeen said he was grateful for the opportunity to discover what exactly made Houdini so magical to his fans. It also made him appreciate his family lineage.
“Houdini embodied the American dream,” he explained. “He came from Hungary, Budapest where he was born. He was poor growing up. He would go out and do tricks as a kid and bring coins home to his mother. He became the world’s greatest superstar of his time. He was the highest paid entertainer of his time too. And here we are, still talking about this guy. Anybody can do anything and he embodied that.”
"Houdini's Last Secrets" premieres Jan. 6 at 10 p.m. on the Science Channel.