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Chaos and Pain

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Baddest Mofos Ever- Harry Houdini

Pretty dapper for a badass.

There have been a great many badass, blow-up-your-sorry-ass-with-a-fireball wizards throughout the ages, from the limp-wristed, Harry Potter-esque Merlin to psychotic Russian demagogue Rasputin to the Antichrist Aleister Crowley. None of them, however, possessed a combination of characteristics so diverse that they were essentially a combination of Bruce Lee, David Blaine, Evel Kneivel, lunatic carny extraordinaire Frank “Cannonball” Richards, and the entire cast of Mythbusters. That bizarre distinction is the sole mantle of the greatest escape artist and all-around baddest mofo in history, Harry Houdini.

Houdini don’t play no crap, you feel me? Houdini never been about that, never ever been about playin’ no crap.

I realize that when one thinks of wizards and magicians, they’re thinking of some slack-jawed bitch who would get his ass kicked by a cardboard cutout of a Warhammer dwarf. Clerics fall into the same category in my book- if there’s no melee weapon employed, they suck, and that twig Harry Potter waves about like he’s the goddamned Lord of the Dance wouldn’t even make a decent stabbing weapon. All of this crap flies out the window when Houdini walks into the room, however, because that man was harder than underground Greek gay porn and in better shape than just about anyone you know.

You’re skeptical. That’s fine- I was dubious until I discovered that Houdini could jump off a bridge into an icy river cuffed and weighted down by 35 pounds of chains, then swim to shore completely unharmed. That is some stuff that would have made Teddy Roosevelt stop in his tracks in wonderment in spite of the fact that Roosevelt swam the Potomac every morning bare-assed. Like our greatest President, Houdini was also a serious goddamned problem for anyone who wanted to scrap, as Houdini was a badass boxer and train jiu-jitsu for an hour each day.

Most people credit Houdini’s success as the world’s greatest escapologist to his Dean Karnazes-esque superfitness. At a time when most Americans and Brits busied themselves being skinnier than a dope fiend ten years into their habit, Houdini exercised like it was his penance for having been Ivan the Terrible in a past life. The result was a prolific series of competitions and athletic feats even the über-athlete Jim Thorpe would have considered completely insane.

“As a teenager in New York City, Houdini was a member of several athletic organizations, competing in bicycle races, foot races, and boxing matches. He would plunge into the fast-moving East River to get his swimming fix, and running a ten-mile circuit in Central Park was an effortless feat for him. He tried out for the U.S. Olympic swim team as a teen (he didn’t make the cut), by 17 he was already an amateur boxer, and by the time he turned 18, he had beaten Sidney Thomas, a British racing champion, in a 20-mile race” (Flicker).

All of this was achieved with “vigorous self-training, to enable me to do remarkable things with my body, to make not one muscle or a group of muscles, but every muscle, a responsive worker, quick and sure…” (McKay).

Harry Houdini messing around with heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey and lightweight champ Benny Leonard. Those of you with fight experience will notice he’s set up for inside trips on both dudes, even as they’re goofing around.

I realize you might be calling bullcrap in the same way any thinking person screams “bullcrap” internally upon hearing Trump brag about any business-related successes, since Houdini allegedly died from a single punch to the stomach… or did he? We’ll cover that later, but in the meantime be aware that Houdini was roundly considered to be a badass boxer. In his single pro fight, Houdini beat the brakes off the future bantamweight champion of the world in an unsanctioned bout on a barge in the East River- that is how they got down before the Queensbury rules were adopted. Pulitzer Prize-winning superjournalist and author Ken Silverman remarked at one point that Houdini himself thought he would have taken the title instead of his vanquished opponent if his career hadn’t been derailed by an illness, and that is believable, given how he trained- his “practice sessions were so constant, so all-consuming that he would frequently forget to eat and bathe; his wife Bess had to remind him to change his underwear” (Ibid).

Everyone reading this article is likely of the opinion that they train harder than anyone they know- I know I am. Houdini makes me look like a punk prison bitch by comparison to his routine, however. The dude almost never slept more than four hours a night, and even then would awaken at random and scribble notes in a notebook like he had the world’s worst case of hypergraphia every time he had an idea. His daily routine, though, is what makes us all look like giant bitches:

“Savoring the serene atmosphere, Harry turned his attention inward. He felt completely alive and awake, though he had slept only four hours. His mind was perfectly clear. He sensed his blood circulating, and detected a steady vibration running throughout his body. He slowly inhaled the fresh morning air, feeling its energy entering through his heels and pores, circulating up his spine, over the top of his head and, exhaling, through his tongue, heart, lungs, solar plexus, down the front of his body and back down to his feet. He focused on this for a few minutes, then went back inside and drank a glass of mineral water.

Closing the bedroom door, he padded silently into the grand parlor, cartwheeled onto the large blue-and-yellow carpet and walked on his hands back and forth across the room. He’d walked on his hands daily since he was nine years old, when he billed himself “Harry, Prince of the Air,” and had played local carnivals as an acrobatic contortionist whose specialty was bending backward and picking up needles with his eyelids.

After an hour of gymnastics, he again stood still. Letting his sweat dry, he cooled down by quietly imitating the breathing patterns of the heron, the deer and the turtle. Then he went into the bathroom, filled the alabaster bathtub with cold water and drowned himself. Drawing mind and energy inward, intentionally slowing his internal functions, he held his breath, submerged, for five-and-a-half minutes.

Drying off with a towel, he returned to the rug and practiced ju-jitsu for an hour, feeling each movement coiling through his bare feet, spiraling up through his joints and emerging in the hands. He devoted the next forty-five minutes to hands and fingers exclusively — rolling silver dollars clockwise and counterclockwise over his knuckles, palming and producing poker-sized playing cards with both sides of both hands.

Sitting in the large armchair for fifteen minutes, he tied and untied knots with his toes, without looking, while mentally counting backwards from three hundred by threes.

He spent the next fifteen minutes exercising his internal organs. As he had learned from early apprenticeship with Thardo the Poison Eater, he threaded a small potato onto a string and gently swallowed it. When it had settled in his empty stomach, he walked around the room, on his feet this time, and then sat down and performed ambidextrous tears and switches with folded pieces of paper, while looking straight ahead and quietly reciting “Kubla Khan,” “Casey at the Bat,” and “The Song of Hiawatha.” After he had both moved and spoken normally for a quarter of an hour, he carefully began to work his peristaltic muscles and gently refluxed the potato back up his gullet and into his hand.

It was not yet eight o’clock when he finished, feeling supercharged, and as though he had already lived an entire day while the rest of the world was asleep” (Saltman “Routine”).

Having this degree of muscle control definitely could not hurt in the gym.

If that doesn’t impress the living crap out of you, I highly doubt you’re able to be impressed, because you’re just a corpse staring at the screen with no comprehension of what you’ve read. In the event that you’re unfamiliar with Maxick and Monte Saldo, they were a pair of short guys who were 150lbs-ish, ripped to the goddamned bone, and so strong that the Redditors screeching “manlet!” at their monitors right now would have died simply from impugning the badassery of the two. In any event, these guys invented what was called Maxalding, which was a system of isometric exercises that would give practitioners a level of muscular control the likes of which you cannot conceive- they could literally flex one half of their abs and leave the other abs completely relaxed, or suck them into a vacuum (as the guy above is doing). Frankly, we could all stand to practice the stuff, because it likely accounted for a considerable portion of both of their superhuman strength, and it was part of Houdini’s secret to success.

Maybe I’m alone in thinking this, but the dude had a crazy set of traps and neck for a tiny guy.

“He had control of every single muscle in his body,” Hirschfeld continued. “Even this little ring of muscles right in the center of his palms. He had really inordinate control of the muscles of his body. I mean, he would show me how he could swell his wrists, you know, before they put handcuffs on them. I’m sure there was more to it than that, but he did have complete control. He used to take his hand and show me little muscles in the center of his hand that he could pop up. He could put his hand down flat and pick up a dime or a quarter. I used to try to practice that, but I could never see any muscles in the center of my hand. It was really remarkable” (Saltman “Routine”).

And it wasn’t just that he had control of every muscle in his body than most people have control of their fork while stuffing their fat faces, or that he could outrace the best runners or outbox world champions, or even the fact that he did an hour of jujitsu a day at a time when hardly anyone in America could place Japan on a map (not unlike today, I suppose)- Houdini had a nearly superhuman ability to endure pain. In an odd coincidence, one of the most renown sports team doctors is also the world’s biggest magic collector, and his name was Dr. Robert J. Albo (he died in 2011). Just prior to his death, Albo was interviewed about the escape-artist extraordinaire and he said this of Houdini: “Soldiers run across battlefields and get shot and not even know it until afterwards due to the adrenaline rush. Athletes are much the same,” said Albo. He compared the situation to Houdini’s ability to ignore pain: “He had learned to live with pain” (Chapman 126-127).

“When I am stripped and manacled, nailed securely within a weighted packing case and thrown into the sea, or when I am buried alive under six feet of earth, it is necessary to preserve absolute serenity of spirit….If I grow panicky I am lost.”

Not bad advice for anyone about to attempt a huge PR on the squat, either.

The man was a genuine lunatic when it came to pain- whether he was a masochist, a self-mutilator, or just a man who hated to lose so much he’d endure anything is up for debate, but the man was in it to win it. “Houdini would accept nearly any challenge thrown at him. Audience members would bring all manner of handcuffs, locks, and chains to his shows and groups would come up with bizarre tests of his prowess, like asking to chain him to a lit cannon” (McKay). This meant he’d have to endure crap like cuffs so tight he couldn’t bend his wrists and they’d cut off circulation to his hands and pinch his skin. He’d be tied so tightly with ropes even the most hardcore BDSM fiends would be screaming their safe word because they couldn’t feel their extremities and would fear they’d go necrotic, but Houdini just toughed it the hell out and would emerge from his restraints an hour later out of breath, with bloodshot eyes, and covered in bruises.  All that mattered was being the best.

In one show, Houdini’s ankle snapped while being loaded into a water torture cell. Not only did he tell the doc to eff off and refuse the hospital, but the man did the escape on a broken ankle… and then made his own split and leg brace out of whatever was handy and kept touring. In another, a bunch of dickhead longshoremen apparently got a little busy with kidney punches while loading him into a canvas bag (seems like people actually had to work to be famous back in the day, rather than just being a vapid idiot who posts stupid pictures of themselves with digital dog ears and other assorted nonsense). Thereafter, Houdini found himself pissing blood, and his ever put-upon doctor issued more directions to Houdini that he spurned harder than sobriety by Tara Reid.

“It is my duty to inform you that by continuing your present regimen you would be committing suicide. You must reconcile yourself to the fact that your strenuous days are over…If you continue at present, you will be dead within the year,” the doctor gravely intoned. “You don’t know me,” Houdini replied with a shrug. He took two weeks off and then went back at it with his usual aplomb. For the next 15 years, the magician sent the doctor photos and news clippings of his dangerous exploits along with a note: “Still alive and going strong” (McKay).

You have to love that man’s attitude and his dedication to being the best, no matter what. He refused to be outdone- if he’d heard a tall tale about Paul Bunyan escaping armed lumberjacks while chained and shackled Houdini would have attempted it while afflicted with dysentery just to up the difficulty. It didn’t matter what the stunt had to be- Houdini was alway out to leave his audience stunned at the superhuman stuff he had done. Tragically, the combination of his unerring drive to be the best and his staunch determination to ignore the advice of anyone bearing a caduceus were his undoing. At the end of his shows, Houdini had a habit of showing off his wrought iron abs by inviting people in the audience to punch him in the stomach… which usually left them with bruised knuckles. Due to his practice of muscle control, he could bot swell and flex his abs (which I’m sure he used to violently strike the puncher by flexing out at the point of impact), so he apparently took more pleasure in this feat than a NAMBLA member does in walking past a schoolyard at lunchtime. Though certain Houdini experts refuse to believe it (and apparently violently dispute it), Houdini stated to his friends after one show, “I let a college kid punch me in the stomach and he caught me wrong and it’s killing me” (Saltman “Stomach”). Unbeknownst to Houdini, he had burst his appendix, and in spite of a 104 degree fever continued performing for several more days. By the time he finally relented and went to the hospital for suregery, it was too late, and he died of peritonitis.

After that biography, some of you might still be wondering why I decided to include Houdini amongst guys like Bruce Lee and Ken Patera, George Hackenschmidt and Bruno Sammartino. It’s the will that makes the lifter- not the program, not the diet, not their upbringing or the political system in which they live. It is nothing more than the will to win, and that is the reason Harry Houdini is one of the baddest mofos to ever live.

“I want to be first. I vehemently want to be first. First in my profession… For that I give all the thought, all the power, that is in me. To stand at the head of my rank: it is all I ask… so I have struggled and fought. I have done and abstained; I have tortured my body and risked my life, only for that– to have one plank on the stage where they must fall back and cry ‘Master!’….I am strong, as you see; strong in flesh, but my will has been stronger than my flesh.

I have struggled with iron and steel, with locks and chains; I have burned, drowned, and frozen till my body has become almost insensible to pain; I have done things which rightly I could not do, because I said to myself, ‘You must;’ and now I am old at 36.

A man is only a man, and the flesh revenges itself. Yet the will is its master when the will is strong enough. Do you think that these religious martyrs- the willing martyrs-those in India, say- who torture themselves by driving hooks through their flesh and swinging suspended- do you think they suffer pain? I say ‘No; they do not.’ I have proved it in myself.

To think vehemently of a thing, of the feat, that conquers the pain- some kinds of pain. If the thought is intense enough, the pain goes- for a time. Sometimes the task before me is very hard. Not every night, but sometimes. I must fling myself down and writhe; I must strive with every piece of force I possess; I bruise and batter myself against the floor, the walls; I strain and sob and exhaust myself, and begin again, and exhaust myself again; but do I feel pain? Never. How can I feel pain? There is no place for it. All my mind is filled with a single thought-to get free! Get free! And the intoxication of that freedom, that success is sublime.”

-Harry Houdini


Chapman, Mike. Wrestling Tough. Champaign: Human Kinetics, 2005.

Flicker, Jonah. Your wimpy workout has nothing on Houdini’s bizarre training regimen. Studio @ Gizmodo. 18 Aug 2014. Web. 8 Oct 2017.

McKay, Brett and Kate. Lessons in manliness from Harry Houdini. Art of Manliness. 20 Dec 2010. Web. 8 Oct 2017.

Saltman, David. Houdini’s iron stomach. The Houdini File. 27 Jun 2013. Web. 8 Oct 2017.

Saltman, David. Houdini’s practice routine. The Houdini File. 10 Oct 2013.

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