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Houdini: spy, sleuth, and murder victim

The great escapologist used his success as a cover while he worked for Scotland Yard, claims a new biography

Eighty years after his death, the name Harry Houdini remains synonymous with escape under the most dire circumstances. But Houdini, the American immigrants' son whose death-defying career made him one of the world's biggest stars, was more than a mere entertainer.

A new biography of the legendary performer, who was born to a Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary, in 1874, suggests Houdini worked as a spy for Scotland Yard, monitored Russian anarchists and chased counterfeiters for the US Secret Service - all before his possible murder.

The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero will be released on Tuesday - the anniversary of Houdini's untimely death at 52, on Halloween, in 1926.

Authors William Kalush and Larry Sloman lay out a scenario where Houdini, using his career as cover, collected information for secret service agencies in the US and Britain. They made the link after reviewing a journal belonging to William Melville, a British spymaster, who mentioned Houdini.

Melville, while at Scotland Yard in the early 20th century, helped launch Houdini's European career by arranging an audition with a London theatre owner - and providing the handcuffs. The book suggests Melville's compliance was part of a quid pro quo in which Houdini worked as a spy. In Chicago, too, Houdini's career took off after a publicity stunt aided by a local police lieutenant.

"We knew there was a connection [to Melville]," said Kalush. "But finding that diary solidified a lot of other things."

Born Ehrich Weiss, the son of a Hungarian rabbi, Houdini came to the US with his family at the age of four. After becoming a professional magician in his late teens, he had his big break in 1899, off the back of a series of crowd-pleasing escape acts. He began touring and travelled to Europe to perform increasingly elaborate, death-defying tricks.

In 1913, he introduced his famous Chinese water torture cell, in which he was suspended upside down in a locked glass-and-steel cabinet full of water, holding his breath for more than three minutes, before emerging triumphant.

"We know Houdini was a hero," said Sloman. "He could get out of anything, which was a myth, of course. He's compelling because of that myth ...he became a symbol of the lone man resisting authority."

The biography's other controversial theme is the suggestion that Houdini's relentless debunking of the Spiritualist movement led to his untimely death. The group believed they could contact the dead; Houdini believed they were frauds.

Houdini, at the turn of the century, joined his wife Bess in a trumped-up act in which she worked as the medium. But he had a change of heart, and went out of his way to expose phoney mediums.

In October 1926, Houdini was punched in the stomach by a student in his dressing room, and later by a stranger in a hotel lobby. The book suggests the Spiritualists may have arranged the attacks. Houdini died days later in Room 401 at Grace Hospital in Detroit, his aura of invincibility over.