a poetic tribute to Harry Houdini

"Enchanted By Books" is one of a series of biographical poems I have been writing over the last couple of years. I have about two dozen now. Since childhood, I have enjoyed reading biographies and this series of poems was an extension of that. After I pick a subject, I do research until I find something about the person that becomes the controlling image of the biographical portrait.  I also write a short sketch to follow the poem. When my DC KidLit Bookclub read a group of biographies on Harry Houdini, I was intrigued by Houdini's love of books. He was literally transformed by a book. As a librarian and a lover of books myself, I needed nothing more to inspire me to write a poem about him.

Harry Houdini died on Halloween, October 31, 1926.  I am posting this poem, “Enchanted By Books” in memory of Houdini, just in time for Halloween weekend, 2009.


by Jacqueline Jules

A teenager nicknamed “Ehrie,”
raised by a scholar skilled at Torah, 
but not English or earning a living,
and a mother, who more often
than not, had only love
to serve her son at the table,
opened a book one day
and pulled a new persona
from its pages.

He became “Harry Houdini,”
borrowing his idol’s name
the way a ravenous child
swipes an apple,
and taught himself to
escape handcuffs, hunger,
and homelessness,
with books collected by the hundreds
and kept as close as the buttons on his shirt
through years of traveling from stage to stage.

The Great Houdini,
who freed himself from locked trunks,
milk cans, straitjackets, and jails,
never chose to escape
the charm of a book.



Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini
(photograph from Library of Congress)

See Letter of Harry Houdini discussing his library

(© Jacqueline Jules, 2009, all rights reserved)

HARRY HOUDINI (1874-1926) was born with the name "Ehrich Weisz," in Budapest, Hungary. He came to the United States to live in Appleton, Wisconsin, at the age of four. His father was a brilliant rabbi, who was unsuccessful at making a living in America. Ehrich, nicknamed "Ehrie," acquired his father’s love of books, even though he did not have the opportunity for much formal education. After reading a book about the famous French magician, Robert-Houdin, Ehrich Weisz gave himself the name "Harry Houdini."  He learned to be a magician  through voracious reading and tenacious practice. Unwilling to be parted from his reading, he toured Europe and the United States with a traveling bookcase, packed with hundreds of books. By the end of his life, he had collected so many books that he had to hire a private librarian to manage them. Houdini is still famous for his daring escapes from handcuffs, straitjackets, locked trunks, and jail cells, as well as other seemingly impossible extrications.

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