Saturday, May 19, 2012

Rasputin & Houdini

Grigori Rasputin
 In the 20th Century, it would be difficult to find two more mysterious people than Rasputin and Houdini. At first glance, one might think they have little in common, but actually they have more than you might realize. For example: they were both born in the late 1800s, they both were accused of having supernatural powers, they both did seemingly super human feats, they both were known personally by the Russian Royal Family, and the events of their deaths are both mysterious and unusual.

Grigori Rasputin was born on Jan 22, 1869 in a small village in Siberia. Later in life he would become an Russian Orthodox Monk. He had a reputation as a mystic and a healer and picked up the nickname of The Mad Monk because of his unusual ways.

It seems Rasputin and Houdini arrived in Saint Petersburg at roughly the same time 1903. Houdini was in Russia to perform and was a hit in Moscow at the prestigious Yar Restaurant and also other theatres and establishments around Moscow. Houdini was so popular in Russia that the Czar Nicholas sent for him.

Apparently the Russian Royalty had a fascination with mystics and the occult and though Houdini claimed that his feats were all done by legitimate means, he was a wonder worker and it would be easy for superstitious people to attribute unworldly powers to Houdini.

Houdini in Russia
In an Associated Press story which appeared several months after Houdini's death, it was revealed that Houdini had been asked to be a spiritual adviser to Czar Nicholas, but he refused because he was Jewish and much of Russia, especially Moscow at the time, was very anti-Semitic. The article goes on to say that Houdini again received a request from the Czar after he had left Russia to be the spiritual adviser and Houdini again turned him down. Then a third request was made and again a third refusal from Houdini. This role of spiritual adviser later went to Grigori Rasputin.

In Houdini His Life and Art by James Randi and Burt Sugar, the same 'spiritual adviser incident' is mentioned except in this version of the story, Houdini says wine was served at an elaborate ceremony and Houdini being a teetotaler, declined to drink. This was an insult and he lost favor with the Romanovs. This version of the story is repeated in the Ruth Brandon book on Houdini.

Is it a true story or just Houdini fiction? It's hard to say. The research I've done on the Romanov's shows that they were indeed very superstitious and did hire people they thought were mystics and prophets, which more often than not were just crazy people. Tsarina Alexandra had heard of Rasputin's ability to heal. Her son Alexei was sick with hemophilia and doctors had been unable to bring any relief to the boy. Rasputin seemed to heal the boy or at least ease his pain and so his esteem within the Royal Family grew.

In time however, things turned sour for Rasputin. People within and outside the Royal Family felt he was abusing his role and leading the royals down a dangerous path. On top of that he had a reputation for alcohol and women which did not seem to add up for someone who claimed to be a holy man.

In June of 1914, Rasputin was attacked by a former prostitute. She stabbed Rasputin in the gut and as his entrails burst forth from his body she screamed "I have killed the anti-Christ".  Except, Rasputin didn't die. He was operated on and he lived.

Then in December of 1916, another attempt on Rasputin's life took place. First he was poisoned, but he didn't die. Then he was shot several times and didn't die. Then apparently he was beaten and then tied up inside of a carpet and thrown into  Neva River.  Somehow, he escaped from the confines but was unable to make it out of the icy river. An autopsy showed he had not drowned, so perhaps the multiple gun shot wounds along with the severe beating and the poison finally got him.

When I read of Rasputin's death, I couldn't help but think of Houdini. Many people think he died inside the Water Torture Cell, mainly due to the Tony Curtis movie on Houdini which ended that way. We know a punch to the stomach in Montreal had something to do with it. But some speculate that perhaps the punch had been a murder attempt by angry spiritualists. There is much debate about a punch being able to cause an appendix to burst. And if I'm correct, did not the authors of Houdini-The Making of America's First Superhero make the claim that Houdini might have been poisoned!? Regardless of the what, why or how, Houdini's death is as strange as that of Rasputin.

Houdini only made one tour of Russia in 1903. He never again returned. The Silverman book on Houdini says "Houdini left Russia with a feeling of relief and liberation, looking back on the country as "some sort of mild prison" from which he had "managed to escape". These must be Houdini's words as the same sentiment is in other biographies as well.


  1. Excellent summary, Dean. I've been researching this for the past eight years and am about to publish a historical novel based on what I believe to be the real facts.

    It's very hard to ferret out the truth here. For one thing, the Bolsheviks destroyed the records of the Tsar's secret police in 1917, though the Rasputin Files were saved.

    There is some reason to believe that Houdini in fact made a secret second trip to Russia in order to meet Rasputin. Too complex to recount here but I'll be treating it at some length in The Houdini File blog and at great length, as historical fiction, in my book, The Escape Artist.

  2. Hi David, Thanks for your comments. I became interested in the Houdini/Russia connection a while ago. I'd very much like to read what you've uncovered especially if you've been researching it for 8 years. It's certainly a fascinating part of Houdini's life.

  3. Interestingly, one of the reasons Rasputin was so hated by the aristocracy was that he advocated equal rights for the oppressed Jews of Tsarist Russia. Many of the rumors about being a drunk and a womanizer were fabricated by the aristocracy, due to their antisemitism. While he was never a monk, but a 'strannik' (a wandering spiritual pilgrim), the nobility did think he was 'mad' for wanting the peasants and the Jews to have equal rights and a say in the government. Much of his 'interference' in the government had to do with proposing candidates for the Duma who were anti-war and for equal rights. The fall of the empire was due to the ineffective Tsar. If he had followed some of Rasputin's counsel, the monarchy might have been saved. As it was, after the revolution, Russia pulled out of WW I and the Jews were given equal rights.
    Delin Colón, author of "Rasputin and The Jews: A Reversal of History"

  4. Like Rasputin Houdini had many enemies who wanted to hurt him, also because of religious beliefs and reasons. We feel Houdini was being stalked by Whitehead according to various reports. The same could have been true with Rasputin who could have been stalked. Whitehead talked about religion with Houdini in the dressing room at the Princess Theater in Montreal, as he followed Houdini around, and possibly before. This was just before he viciously attacked Houdini and had to be pulled away by shocked observers. He then agreed that it could have been caused by a misunderstanding, to avoid possibly being charged with manslaughter or murder. We believe it was not his intent to murder Houdini but to hurt him. There is also reason to believe that Houdini was already sick or feeling poorly at the time. Thought to be possibly Ptomaine poisoning but it could have been early signs of appendix trouble.

    Dick Brookz & Dorothy Dietrich