Harry Houdini’s Soaring Journey Over Canada

When we think of Harry Houdini, the legendary escape artist, magician extraordinaire, and showman of the early 20th century, we tend to envision him vanishing from locked crates or breaking free from seemingly inescapable restraints. However, there’s a hidden facet of Houdini’s life that often goes unnoticed—a thrilling chapter in his history that saw him take to the skies and become the pilot of the very first controlled aviation flight over Canada. So, let’s embark on a journey through time to unveil the mesmerizing tale of Houdini’s aviation adventure.

The year was 1909, and Harry Houdini was on the brink of a transformation that would leave an indelible mark on his legacy. His fascination with flying had taken flight, quite literally. Houdini invested a substantial $5,000 in acquiring a French Voisin biplane, a daring move that would forever change his trajectory, both in the air and in the annals of history. To ensure the smooth operation of his newfound passion, he hired a full-time mechanic who would play a pivotal role in his aerial escapades.

However, Houdini’s initial foray into the world of aviation was not without its share of turbulence. During one of his early flights, disaster struck as his aircraft was involved in a harrowing accident. But true to his resilient spirit, Houdini, with the unwavering support of his mechanic, managed to resurrect his beloved biplane. Finally, on November 26, 1909, in Hamburg, Germany, Houdini soared into the skies, marking the dawn of his aviation odyssey.

A Journey Down Under

Fast forward to 1910, and Houdini found himself on the cusp of an audacious decision—to voyage to Australia. This was a departure from his previous declarations, as Houdini had always shied away from lengthy boat voyages due to his notorious seasickness. Yet, this time, he embraced the challenge and embarked on a journey that would not only take him far from his beloved family but also into the annals of aviation history.

During this momentous journey, Houdini didn’t leave his passion for flying behind. On March 18, 1910, in Diggers Rest, Victoria, north of Melbourne, he etched his name in history by achieving the first controlled powered flight in Australia. It was a remarkable feat, considering the treacherous weather conditions that had threatened to thwart his endeavors. Although the inaugural flight lasted a mere minute, Houdini’s determination was unwavering.

Later that day, he pushed the boundaries further, embarking on two more flights. The first was a heart-pounding near-crash, battling a fierce side wind, while the second endured for three minutes before succumbing to failure. Yet, Houdini’s relentless spirit prevailed, and within days, he astounded the world with a flight that lasted an astonishing seven minutes and 37 seconds—a remarkable achievement by the standards of the time.

Triumph Over Rivalry

Before Houdini’s historic flight, a rival pilot named Ralph C. Banks had attempted to claim the title of the first to perform a controlled, powered flight over Australia. However, fate intervened, and Banks’s plane met with disaster due to adverse weather conditions, effectively delaying Houdini’s own soaring ambitions. During this period, Houdini spent his time sheltered beneath his aircraft, biding his time for the perfect weather window to take flight.

The Untimely Departure

Tragically, Houdini’s remarkable journey into the skies was not without its share of heartbreak. On October 31, 1926, in Detroit, Michigan, the world lost a legend. Contrary to popular belief, Houdini did not meet his end during a dramatic stage performance but rather succumbed to a ruptured appendix.

The circumstances surrounding his demise were equally dramatic, as J. Gordon Whitehead sought to test Houdini’s claim that he could withstand any blow to the stomach. Unbeknownst to Whitehead, Houdini had been battling appendicitis for several days, and the relentless pummeling exacerbated his condition. Despite enduring a soaring temperature of 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) and even briefly passing out during a performance, Houdini soldiered on. However, the relentless pursuit of his craft took its toll, and on that fateful day, at 1:26 p.m., in Room 401 of Grace Hospital, Detroit, Harry Houdini breathed his last.

The Enigmatic Moniker

Erik Weisz—this was the real name of the man who would become the legendary Harry Houdini. As his family made their way to the United States, they decided to alter the spelling of their surname to Ehrich Weiss. This eventually led to the moniker “Ehrie” and eventually, “Harry.” In homage to the French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, Houdini adopted the surname that would forever be synonymous with magic and escape. The addition of the “i” was suggested by his friend Jack Hayman, as it lent a French flair to the name, even though the pronunciation was not quite accurate—thus, “Houdini” was born.

The Wild Beginnings

Before his rise to fame as a magician and aviator, Houdini had humble beginnings in the world of entertainment. He frequently appeared in circus shows as a Wild Man during his early performances. The Wild Man act was a type of sideshow where performers engaged in bizarre activities, such as the astonishing feat of blowing the heads off live animals. Interestingly, the term “geek” can also be traced back to these wild men, giving rise to a word that has evolved over time.

Houdini’s initial claim to fame was his remarkable ability to escape from a myriad of handcuffs and other restraining devices. Yet, during World War I, he made a momentous decision to temporarily relinquish some of his secrets to escaping handcuffs. His noble intention was to impart these invaluable skills to soldiers who might find themselves captured by enemy troops.

The Surprising Legacy

In a twist of fate, Houdini once famously proclaimed that the world would remember him not as an escape artist but as the first person to fly a plane in Australia. However, history took an unexpected turn, revealing a surprising truth. It was eventually revealed that a 19-year-old mechanic from South Australia claimed to have flown a plane in Australia on March 17, a day before Houdini’s historic flight in a Bleriot XI monoplane. The world was poised for a revelation, but as time passed, the sole witness, Frederick H. Jones, confessed that the entire event had been fabricated, leaving Houdini’s legacy as the true pioneer intact.

A Tale of Love and Mystery

While Houdini’s name is synonymous with daring escapes and aerial feats, there’s also a romantic and mysterious aspect to his life. “Rosabelle believe” was a line from a play in which Bess, Houdini’s wife, was performing when they first met. This phrase would come to hold profound significance in their relationship. The couple made a pact that if Houdini’s spirit were to return to Earth after his passing, Bess would recognize him through these words. For a decade, Bess held regular séances on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel, always on Halloween occasions, hoping for a sign from her departed husband. However, after ten years of waiting, she conceded that a decade was long enough to wait for any man, and the tradition has since continued among Houdini enthusiasts in various settings.

The Lord’s Proposition

It’s sometimes speculated that Houdini’s flight over Australia was influenced by a British acquaintance named Lord Northcliffe. Lord Northcliffe had a grand plan—to showcase the potential of airplanes for military purposes. He believed that having a distinguished figure like Houdini pilot the plane would garner the necessary attention. Houdini, ever the showman, saw an opportunity to demonstrate flying to the British and eagerly accepted the challenge.

From his daring escapes to his groundbreaking flights, Houdini’s legacy is a testament to the human spirit’s unyielding pursuit of the impossible. While the skies may have claimed him in the end, his name continues to soar through the ages, forever etched in the annals of history. So, the next time you think of Houdini, remember not only the magician but also the aviator who dared to defy gravity and write his name among the clouds.