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."
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The great escape artist, Harry Houdini, who some believed had mystical powers and the power to appear and disappear, died on Halloween back in 1926. Many people at that time believed that the dead could communicate with the living. That included the creator of "Sherlock Holmes," Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Houdini's wife, Bess.
So, for 10 years on the anniversary of Houdini's death, Bess Houdini tried to contact his spirit through a medium.
(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE OF SEANCE)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We are watching and waiting, Harry. So levitate the table, ring the bell. Do it, Harry. Please, Houdini, we are waiting. Bessie is waiting.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Houdini was actually a vocal skeptic of seances, who may have proved that point by not being reached from beyond the grave. Still, Houdini seances continue to this day. Little has been heard over the years from Houdini's family.
On this 85th anniversary of his death, reporter Daniel Kraker sat down with a Houdini relative who unlocks some family secrets.
DANIEL KRAKER, BYLINE: First thing you need to know is that the Houdinis had no children. So pay close attention to this family tree. George Hardeen is the great nephew of Harry Houdini. His grandfather was Theo Hardeen, also an escape artist and Houdini's brother. A pretty close connection, right? But here's the rub. George Hardeen, growing up in Danbury, Connecticut, didn't even know he was related to Houdini…
GEORGE HARDEEN: Until I was probably 11, 12
KRAKER: Even though his father was his namesake.
HARDEEN: Harry Houdini Hardeen.
KRAKER: Harry Hardeen rarely used his middle name, and barely spoke of the family's connection to Houdini when his children were young.
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, because of course nobody would believe me.
KRAKER: Now 59, George Hardeen looks more like Houdini than his grandfather ever did, handsome with bright blue eyes. Similar to writer Edna Ferber's description of Houdini's eyes, as very much inclined to twinkle. But like his father, George Hardeen did not go into the family business. In fact, the stories he heard about his famous grandfather mostly came from his mother.
HARDEEN: Seeing my grandfather practice rolling coins on his fingers to keep nimble, so that they're able to manipulate locks and get out of straightjackets. And of course, you know, they're hiding things in their hands all the time, cards, picks. It was the art of illusion. They were not magicians. They were illusionists.
KRAKER: The illusions included their own personas. Houdini was really Erik Weiss. He borrowed the name from a French magician. Hardeen, his younger brother, was Theodore Weiss. Their father left Budapest in the late 1870s. He settled in Appleton, Wisconsin, where he became the town's rabbi. His wife and young children followed him.
HARDEEN: My great-grandfather was hoping for a better life for him and his family. 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF A TAPE RECORDING)
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
HARRY HOUDINI: Ladies and gentleman, I take great pleasure in introducing my latest invention, The Water Torture Cell.
KRAKER: That's Houdini describing his most famous escape - from a glass tank filled with water while he's shackled upside down inside. This 1914 recording is part of illusionist David Copperfield's collection.
(SOUNDBITE OF A TAPE RECORDING)
HOUDINI: Should anything go wrong, when I'm locked up, one of my assistants walk through the curtain, ready to rush in, demolishing the glass in order to save my life.
KRAKER: Houdini's wife Bess was his stage partner. But before they married, Houdini performed with his brother Hardeen. And Hardeen recently showed up as a character in his own right, in the HBO series, "Boardwalk Empire," set in Prohibition-Era Atlantic City
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "BOARDWALK EMPIRE")
STEVE BUSCEMI: (as Enoch 'Nucky' Thompson) I saw your brother do that straightjacket gag once.
REMY AUBERJONOIS: (as Theodore Hardeen) Erik - Houdini, as you know him - used to do that escape behind the ghost box where no one could see him. Playing it out in the open was my idea.
KRAKER: Well, whoever's idea it was, it's clear what the brothers were doing seemed to everyone like the impossible. Again, George Hardeen.
HARDEEN: One of the things that my dad told me, when I'd say how did they do this? He would simply explain it was practice and knowledge. It was a work ethic. They worked at simply being the best.
KRAKER: Harry Houdini was 52 when he died, apparently from a ruptured appendix. And after his wife Bess stopped the seances - 10 years was long enough to wait for any man, she said - Houdini enthusiasts resumed them.
Theo Hardeen died in 1945. His grandson George, after declining several seance invitations, finally decided to see what they were all about. It was Halloween night in 2001, the 75th anniversary of his great-uncle's death.
HARDEEN: They had a big round table, some articles that belonged to Houdini. And they would beseech him to just show a sign. And after about half an hour, they'd throw in the towel. And then it was over. And then we went to this really nice bar and drank Scotch and just visited.
And I tell you what, they know everything about Houdini and I felt very ignorant in their presence. But that didn't matter to them, because I'm the guy that's got the DNA.
KRAKER: And then, the guy with the DNA went home.
(SOUNDBITE OF A METAL GATE)
KRAKER: Home is on the Navajo Nation in Tuba City, Arizona:
HARDEEN: That is my oldest horse. Boy, he is looking old, poor guy.
KRAKER: George Hardeen came to Arizona in the early '80s to pursue a career in journalism. He fell in love with the landscape, the people, and he never left.
HARDEEN: But now, you know, the Houdini legacy has taken a new branch because my wife is Navajo and my children are enrolled members of the Navajo Nation. And eventually they will have children and so who knows where this Houdini DNA will actually end up?
KRAKER: And tonight, like every Halloween, the official Houdini seance will take place, this year at a historic mansion in Holyoke, Massachusetts but without Houdini DNA at the table.
For NPR News, I'm Daniel Kraker
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: And you can look at some Houdini and Hardeen family photos at NPR.org.
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.