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You'd think if you were a relative of someone as famous as Harry Houdini, you'd know it. But George Hardeen, 59, didn't find out he was Houdini's great-nephew until he was a teenager.
His grandfather was Houdini's brother, Theo Hardeen, also an escape artist. At one point, the brothers performed together. Houdini and his wife, Bess, had no children, and when he died — on Halloween, 85 years ago — he willed all of his props to Theo.
Theo Hardeen even named one of his sons Harry Houdini Hardeen. That was George Hardeen's father. But George was unaware of his father's middle name when he was young — it wasn't something his father talked about.
Was he trying to hide it? "No," says George Hardeen. "Put it into perspective: He grew up in that world, and the world was focused on Houdini and my grandfather. He said he didn't want me running out into the street and telling every kid, 'cause of course, nobody would believe me."
George Hardeen's grandfather died before he was born. But he heard some stories, like the description of his grandfather rolling coins on his fingers to keep them nimble — "to manipulate locks and get out of straitjackets. They are hiding things all the time — cards, picks, locks, coins.
"It was the art of illusion. They were not magicians, they were illusionists," he says.
The illusions included their own personas. Harry Houdini was born Ehrich Weiss. He "borrowed" Houdini from the French magician Houdin. His younger brother, Theodore, picked the name "Hardeen" because it sounded like Houdini.
Their father left Budapest, Hungary, in the late 1870s and settled in Appleton, Wis., where he became the town's first rabbi. His wife and young children followed him.
"My great-grandfather was hoping for a better life for him and his family," he says. "The family always suffered financially. From an early age, the stories of Houdini, he would go out and do tricks, and bring money home, and give it to his mother and help the family out."
Once George found out about the family lineage, he did ask his father questions — like, how did his grandfather and great-uncle do those tricks?
"He would simply explain, 'It was practice and knowledge,' " he says. "They worked at being the best. The way Houdini was able to get out of jail cells or handcuffs was knowledge of those handcuffs, knowledge of those jail cells, and knowing their weaknesses and exploiting those weaknesses."
The Guy With The DNA
It was a popular belief in Houdini's time that the dead could communicate with the living through mediums. But Houdini was a vocal skeptic of the practice. And indeed, for someone who could get out of straitjackets, handcuffs and water tanks, Houdini has been unable to be reached beyond the grave.
Bess Houdini tried to contact her husband for a decade after he died at the age of 52, apparently from a ruptured appendix. Bess finally gave up. "Ten years was long enough to wait for any man," she is known to have told people.
But that didn't deter Houdini enthusiasts who resumed the seances. The person who kept them going through the decades was Sidney Radner, a protege of Theo Hardeen. Radner died this year at the age of 91.
For many years, George Hardeen, one of Houdini's few living blood relatives, was invited to attend the annual seance to reach his great-uncle. On Halloween night in 2001, he finally agreed.
"They had a big round table. They had some articles that belonged to Houdini," he says. "They had a medium, and he was very entertaining, calling upon Houdini in a very dramatic way. They would beseech him to just show a sign, move something on the table."
After about half an hour, he says, "they threw in the towel, and then it was over." The group went to a really nice bar, drank some scotch and just talked. "And I think that's the purpose of these seances — to give an opportunity for folks to come back and talk about Houdini," he says.
That was a bit strange for George Hardeen, because admittedly, he knows little about his great-uncle. "I felt ignorant in their presence. But that didn't matter to them, because I'm the guy that's got the DNA."
And then the guy with the DNA — who seance attendees say looks an awful lot like Houdini — went home to Tuba City, Ariz., on the Navajo Nation.
"No matter how related I am to Houdini, my horses don't care and my dogs don't care," George says. He came to northern Arizona in the early '80s to pursue a career in journalism. He fell in love with the landscape and the people, and he never left.
"But the Houdini legacy has taken a new branch, because my wife is Navajo and my children are enrolled members of the Navajo Nation," George says. "And eventually they will have children, and so who knows where this Houdini DNA will actually end up."