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The Houdini Myth: How good stories become scripture

Posted by Ron George on May 19, 2015

Houdini: A spellbinding sowman

Houdini: A spellbinding sowman

A funny thing happened on the way home from church the other day. I got to wondering about something the preacher said, a great story about Harry Houdini, the escape artist, who built his reputation with death-defying stunts (actually, they were simply well planned). When he traveled would challenge local jails with his remarkable ability to pick a lock and be free in minutes. He was known in some cases to take off his clothes, put them in one cell, then have himself locked in another. Minutes later, voila!, Monsieur Harry would walk calmly into the jail’s outer offices, which were crammed with onlookers, police officials and, of course, the press.

What a guy! One recent biography called him America’s first superhero.

The preacher, however, told a cautionary tale about how the great escape artist once failed to pick a lock in two hours because the door was already unlocked! Finally, he was able simply to push it open. Point made: Sometimes our efforts fall short, especially when all we really need to do is ask; because, after all, Jesus is the door, and he’s always open to faith. Or something like that. Frankly, the preacher’s point has slipped my mind – but not that Houdini story!

That’s the power of a good story. It’s likely to be more memorable than the point being made. I have no doubt that Jesus himself told stories that were remembered long after the point was forgotten, but that’s another post for another time. This time, let’s have a look at that Houdini story.

First, its subject: Harry Houdini was larger than life in his own day and remains one of the most intriguing characters in recent American history. He was a spellbinder, a crusader against fraud, a thrilling performer with a compelling personality. There have been numerous biographies and films made about him. His name evokes mental imagery. A good Houdini story will engage just about any audience, pub to pulpit.

Second, its narrative: Irony is compelling, and what could be more ironic than a story about the great escape artist who couldn’t open an unlocked door? Just about anything else a preacher might say in a 20-minute, three-point sermon will be forgotten soon – but not this Houdini story. It almost would be worth the effort to survey a congregation six months later to see how many recalled anything of that particular message but the Houdini story.

Third, it seems to be true, because it’s told of an actual person in a likely setting. Even those of us who have never been in jail can imagine what it’s like. (Some of us, of course, don’t have to imagine, and that would include yours truly. Sorry, Mom, but stuff happened in college.) Houdini was a 20th-century phenomenon; surely, this yarn is well documented in newspapers, biographies and – well, surely, folks in the town where it happened would never forget the time the great Houdini failed to escape from an unlocked jail cell.

Houdini in jail: An historical fact that makes the myth believable

Houdini in jail: An historical fact that makes the myth believable

Trouble is, it isn’t true, except in a mythological sense. It didn’t happen, but it has been told so often as though it were true that it might as well be true. That’s the way with legendary material. Sometimes, a good story, regardless of whether it’s historically accurate, is just so darn good that folks can’t stop telling it. Who cares whether it actually happened? There’s a grain of truth in there, somewhere. Facts be damned.

I guess that’s what I get for trying to chase down the when and where of this little yarn. Former journalist, you know. Skeptical by disposition as well as by profession. One of the very first lessons cub journalists learn is that if a story sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t. At least, it may not be, so tread carefully before you rush it into print.

In this case, it seems that the late, great Zig Ziglar started telling this story back in the 1970s and that he wrote it into his first book, See You at the Top, in 1977. Here’s the original version.

Harry Houdini, the famed escape artist from a few years back, issued a challenge wherever he went. He could be locked in any jail cell in the country, he claimed, and set himself free in short order. Always he kept his promise, but one time something went wrong. Houdini entered the jail in his street clothes; the heavy, metal doors clanged shut behind him. He took from his belt a piece of metal, strong and flexile. He set to work immediately, but something seemed to be unusual about this lock. For thirty minutes he worked and got nowhere. An hour passed, and still he had not opened the door. By now, he was bathed in sweat and panting in exasperation, but he still could not pick the lock. Finally, after laboring for two hours, Harry Houdini collapsed in frustration and failure against the door he could not unlock. But when he fell against the door, it swung open! It had never been locked at all! But in his mind it was locked, and that was all it took to keep him from opening the door and walking out of the jail cell. (Cited in Illustrations Unlimited, by James S. Hewett, p. 225.)

There are literally hundreds of books available on the Internet that comprise a version of this story. Some authors rewrite it, but most of the time, it’s cited verbatim. Some versions have Houdini actually praying to God to help him, which adds to the climax of the open door. Some locate the incident in the United Kingdom, and some even cite Ziglar as the source. All of these books use the story in an uplifting way. Most are Christian self-help books and many are addressed to those in recovery from addiction.

The incident, however, is missing from biographies of Harry Houdini. Vigorous word searches of two recent biographies – The Secret Life of Houdini: The making of America’s First Superhero (2007), by William Kalush and Larry Sloman; and, Harry Houdini: Death-defying Showman (2007), by Rita T. Mullin – yielded no account of Houdini’s failure to open the unlocked door. (There is an incident wherein a police officer jammed a lock so it couldn’t be picked. Houdini vowed never again to let his act be sabotaged.)

Houdini: Stories worth telling from pub to pulpit

Houdini: Stories worth telling from pub to pulpit

Who knows where Zig Ziglar got this story? It’s not a lie but just a piece of oral tradition of the sort that informed Christian scriptural accounts of Jesus and the early church. It’s a legend of the same kind that informs much of our knowledge of faith traditions across the spectrum of human culture on every continent on Earth. As such, pious legends are stories that have meaning within a given faith tradition, and that meaning is not required to be historically accurate – unless, of course, the faith community insists that it is. Then it must stand the test of critical scrutiny, and very often, at least in the opinion of some, it fails.

Christians who hang their hats on the total historicity of Jewish and Christian scripture ought to reflect deeply on the legend of Houdini’s failure to open an unlocked door. If a faith community can generate so widespread a legend in something slightly less than two generations, imagine how a faith tradition might be shaped by oral tradition and legendary material over slightly more than half a millennium. To acknowledge that Jewish and Christian scripture or any other sacred writing comprises non-historical legends is no reason either to disbelieve or discard these sources of theological reflection. It is, however, an invitation to be somewhat less literal – and adamant – about the meaning of sacred writings and more in touch with the Spirit that is said to have informed their composition.

Remember the Houdini Myth – and it’s probably not the only one there is – and continue to enjoy and appreciate its power to engage the hearts and minds of those who seek spiritual consolation or personal serenity.

Just don’t call it history.

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2 Responses to “The Houdini Myth: How good stories become scripture”

  1. […] be found—go here, here, and here for three additional versions—and some believe the incident never occurred. Others have found it plausible, […]

  2. Patsy Durham said

    I was not aware of this story, but what an excellent lesson to be drawn from it. Nice to see you in print again, Friend.

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