Brain Pickings

Dead Men’s Tales: Harry Houdini


137 years ago today, the great Harry Houdini was born. Hovering between magic and stuntsmanship, history’s greatest escape artist captivated hearts and minds by making humans believe that superhuman feats were possible. He made a living out of mystery and his life ended with even more mystery. The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero is one of the best books on modern mythology you’ll ever read — a meticulously researched and rivetingly narrated biography of the great magician, equal parts comprehensive and controversial.

Today, we celebrate his birthday with Dead Men’s Tales: Harry Houdini — a fascinating Discovery documentary that investigates the life and contentious death of the iconic escapologist, drawing a striking parallel between Houdini’s tale and the story of early 20th-century America — the modernity, the sleekness, the optimism that made everything seem possible and humanity feel indestructible. From how he hacked the body’s neurochemistry to tolerate incredible pain levels to why he changed his name and forged his birth certificate to what the popular Hollywood myth about his demise got wrong, the film is an absolute gem of modern myth-making. Enjoy:

He made a career out of mystery, and mystery still surrounds his death.”

For a closer look at Houdini’s life and legacy, we really couldn’t recommend The Secret Life of Houdini more strongly — more than a mere historical biography, it tells a timeless story of self-invention, creative entrepreneurship and relentless perseverance, deeply relevant to everyone from the startup founder to the professional athlete to the everyday aspiration-chaser.

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