Monday, August 22, 2022

Misquoting Dumb Houdini

Recently I discovered the sardonic magic blog The Jerx (a take off on The Jinx). It's pretty funny and now a blog I follow. Of course, I had to see if Houdini had even gotten The Jerx treatment, and he certainly has! In fact, they have somewhat regular series called "Dumb Houdini".

In their initial post, "How Dumb was Houdini?", they point out that his oft-quoted, "My brain is the key that sets my mind free" is pretty dumb and makes no sense. But they correctly point out this is NOT what Houdini said. What Houdini actually said was, "My brain is the key that sets me free." That is much less dumb.

They also point out that people are selling merchandise online featuring the incorrect quote. This inspired The Jerx to launch their very own Dumb Houdini Store. That isn't a joke. Well, it is a joke, but the merchandise is real. At least I think it's real?

Speaking of quotes... 

Another quote you will frequently see attributed to Houdini is: "What the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes." It's a good quote and it sounds like something Houdini would say. I've never questioned it. But recently someone contacted me asking if I could verify that the quote really was from Houdini.

I did a little research and found a page at Goodreads that attributes the quote to Houdini's A Magician Among The Spirits. I figured it came from one of his books, so that tracks. However, when I did a keyword search of my PDF of the book, I turned up nothing.

I then searched Miracle Mongers and Their Methods, Houdini's Paper Magic, The Right Way to Do Wrong, The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, the Margery pamphlet, even Elliott's Last Legacy. Still nothing. The closest I came was the quote, "Has your brain deceived your eyes, or your eyes your brain?" (Unmasking p 308).

I then plugged the quote into and the earliest hit that came up was from 2008 when a Durham Academy valedictorian named it as his favorite quotation. A search of Ask Alexander turned up a single mention in a 2015 Genii. So not only can I not find this quotation during Houdini's lifetime, I can't even find it before the 21st century!

Then I found this clip from the 2001 film Swordfish.

So there's the quote. At the moment, this is the earliest utterance that I've been able to find. But is it even a quote? It's not all that clear if John Travolta's character is actually quoting Houdini or if this is his own definition of misdirection. But even if he is quoting Houdini here, this is a movie, which is under no obligation to be factual. So it's possible these words are entirely the creation of the screenwriter.

I'm still holding out hope that Houdini did say this. There is still a lot of his written material that I haven't searched. Like I said, it's a good quote and it sounds like something he might say. I really don't want to believe that we've been quoting John Travolta all this time. Because as The Jerx might say, that would be really dumb.



  1. I first heard that quote from the late magician Michael Skinner during one of his close up performances that was videotaped around the late 70s or early 80s. He said, "What the eyes see, the heart must believe." So this goes back quite a bit. I don't think he created the quote.

    I'm interested in another quote attributed to Houdini. It goes something like this: "A magician isn't complete until he has mastered the Cups and Balls." Now where did this originate? Harry never did the cups and balls trick.

    1. The Skinner quote is close, but not exactly the same. And did he attribute it to Houdini? That's the point. Don't know about the Cups and Balls quote. I see lots of Houdini quotes online and I have no idea where they are coming from.

    2. Skinner might have started the quote, but Houdini's name was used in the movie because the general public knows no other famous magician in magic.

    3. Skinner did not attribute The Heart Must Believe quote to Houdini. It was a line he thru out during his trick.

    4. That's why I don't think there is any sort of connection between the two magicians. I think the writer liked the quote, knew that it sounded better using the name Houdini, and they just added another confusing story to add to the Houdini legacy

    5. Where did Skinner pick up that quote if he didn't create it? He's dead so we can't ask him at this point. I also agree Mike, what we're seeing in Swordfish is a screenwriters liberty.

  2. I'm going off the top of my head and will have to research this later, but I think Houdini was talking about the Italian magician Bosco when he made that quote about the Cups and Balls.

    I read it so long ago, I cannot remember the exact quote and where it was published. It might have been "The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin" but don't hold me to it. Further research definitely needs to be done.

  3. I think the quote started with John Mulholland. He wrote somewhere stating that Harry Houdini had expressed the opinion that no one could be considered an accomplished magician until he had mastered the cups and balls.

  4. I found the quote. It was John Mulholland that started it. He wrote and introduction to Tom Osborne's book on Cups and Balls. Mulholland stated that, "Houdini once told me that he considered no man to be a magician until he was able skillfully to perform the Cups and Balls."

    Page 8, "The Oldest Trick" by John Mulholland, Cups and Balls Magic by Tom Osborne, published on 1937

    1. Nice work! Now let's find the quote in question ("What the mind sees...").

    2. Nice work Mike! You solved the mystery of the origin of that quote!

  5. Sometimes, movies create quotes from famous people to move the plot forward. Even though the movie, "All the Presidents Men" was based on a book and a famous event, the most famous quote from the movie, "Follow the money" did not come from any sources. The screenwriter William Goldman wrote that into the film.

    Maybe you can write to the screenwriter of Swordfish, Skip Woods, and ask him where he got the quote from. He might have made it up for the film because it sounded good. Or maybe the quote came from another magician and quoting Houdini was better because he is well known.

    I cannot find it anywhere before the 21st century as John mentioned.