For those who deal in magic, the truth should never prevent a good story. Perhaps that is why accounts of Harold Houdini’s life are so obscure and contradictory. The maestro magician par excellence understood that his legacy would be reduced by stultifying facts but enhanced by fascinating fiction. The best case of a beguiling fiction eclipsing an unenlightening fact is the story of the night when Houdini reputedly made the Kremlin bells chime after two decades of silence.

The rumour owes its modern notoriety to an anecdote Orson Welles hypnotically adumbrated on the BBC programme, Sketch Book, in 1955. That loquacious colossus of Hollywood claimed the “escape king” Houdini was his first instructor in magic, lending Welles a certain legitimacy in his role as a relayer of hearsay. During the broadcast, he describes Houdini as an “expert in miracles” before he ventures to tell his favourite Houdini legend:

In 1902, Houdini visited Russia and gave a historic display of his magical skills at a private event attended by the Tsar and his extended family. Houdini asked his illustrious audience to write on tiny scraps of paper their impossible provocations for him to perform from a small stage beside a wide window looking out onto a snow-quilted Red Square.