1874 - 1926
The world's most famous magician, Harry Houdini was born as
Ehrich Weisz in Budapest, Hungary on March 24, 1874. His father,
Mayer Samuel Weisz, was a religious scholar and teacher, who
moved his family to Appleton, Wisconsin when Houdini was two
years old. Times were difficult for the Weisz family, and they
were required to move many times to avoid the bill collectors.
Because of the family's financial situation, all of the children
began to work at an early age.
When Houdini was eight years old, he sold newspapers and worked
as a bootblack. However after his father took him to see Dr.
Lynn, a travelling magician, Houdini's interest in performing
soon consumed him. At the age of 12, Houdini ran away from home
and ended up in Kansas City. He was gone for approximately one
year, but then rejoined his family in their new home in New York
In New York, Houdini held various jobs to support his family. He
spent his free time studying magic and competing in various
athletic events, including swimming and track. During this time,
Houdini happened upon a book entitled "The Memoirs of Robert-Houdin,
Ambassador, Author, and Conjuror, Written by Himself." The book
changed his life. Houdini added an "i" to his idol's name and
assumed the name that would go down in history.
When Houdini was 16 years old, his father died, giving him the
freedom to become a full-time entertainer. His first
performances included shows at amusement parks, "dime museums,"
and several appearances at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893.
Together with his brother Theo, Houdini attempted to make a name
In 1894, Houdini met Beatrice "Bess" Raymond, a struggling
singer and dancer. The two fell in love immediately and were
married in July. Bess joined Houdini's act and Theo struck out
on his own. Houdini was constantly improving his act and
incorporating new tricks. He soon perfected a handcuff escape
and made it a featured part of his show. Although Houdini
offered one hundred dollars to anyone who could successfully
handcuff him, he never had to pay. Houdini cleverly used the
media to promote himself and his show.
Houdini was soon escaping from numerous devices, including leg
irons, coffins, straitjackets, and prison cells. Unlike other
magicians, Houdini began to make his escapes in full view of the
audience, increasing the drama. Houdini's act generated the
interest of Martin Beck who ran the Orpheum circuit, the largest
chain of vaudeville theatres in the country. He signed the
Houdini act, resulting in great success for the theatres and
Houdini himself. After proving to his critics that he could
escape from any restraint, Houdini became a headliner.
Although he was gaining in popularity, Houdini was not happy
with his success in the United States. As a result, he and Bess
began a tour of Europe and Russia at the turn of the century.
His first booking in London was quite successful, as were his
shows in Germany and across the continent. Houdini remained in
Europe for five years and became the premier vaudeville
In 1905, Houdini returned to the United States, determined to
become an even bigger star. He increased the difficulty and
originality of his stunts. One of Houdini's most famous stunts
was to be handcuffed, nailed inside a packing crate, and then
thrown underwater. Although Houdini had specially rigged the
crate, he stayed underwater as long as possible to increase the
suspense. Houdini had incredible strength and agility that aided
him in his stunts. He also spent hours practicing and
conditioning. For the underwater stunt, Houdini would practice
holding his breath in the bathtub.
For more than two decades, Houdini remained in the limelight.
From 1916 to 1923, Houdini demonstrated his skills in motion
pictures. In later years, he spent much of his time debunking
spiritualism and exposing psychic frauds.
Houdini's final days proved a tragic ending to such a
spectacular life. On October 22, 1926, Houdini was in Montreal
giving a lecture on spiritualism. While sitting in his dressing
room with several students from McGill University, Houdini was
asked if he could actually withstand a blow to the stomach
thrown by any man. Before Houdini could prepare himself by
tightening his stomach muscles, one of the students hit him
three times. Although, Houdini seemed to recover, even
performing shortly after, he soon fell ill. He would not see a
doctor for several days. By the time he was diagnosed, it was
too late. Houdini died from peritonitis on October 31.
A master showman with a knack for publicity, Houdini knew how to
interest his audiences. With his extreme self-confidence and
flair for exaggeration, Houdini kept himself in the spotlight.
Although Harry Houdini has been dead for 70 years, his name is
still instantly recognized throughout the world.
Houdini (1874-1926) - The Great Houdini - is a name that will
forever define the term "escape artist." As the Budapest-born,
American-bred performer would so often proclaim, "No prison can
hold me; no hand or leg irons or steel locks can shackle me. No
ropes or chains can keep me from my freedom."
No one before or since has so completely defined the art of
escape as Harry Houdini, magician, actor, and stage personality.
Old film footage and still photos recall Houdini as generations
remember him - suspended upside-down high over the heads of the
crowd, escaping from a straitjacket; plunging, manacled, into an
icy river, only to reappear miraculously moments later;
performing his signature Chinese Water Torture Cell illusion, in
which audiences were invited to hold their breath along with
Houdini as he made his escape from yet another watery coffin.
But there was a world of difference between what
turn-of-the-century audiences saw, and what they thought they
saw. Much of Houdini's escapes relied as much on myth and
misdirection as they did on the magician's genuine physical and
mental prowess. Likewise, Houdini made myth of his own life,
elaborating details where he thought appropriate. Though in some
documents Houdini claims to be born April 6, 1874, in Appleton,
Wisconsin, this much is known: Erich Weiss, born March 24, 1874,
in Budapest, Hungary, was the youngest of three sons of Rabbi
Samuel and Cecilia (Steiner) Weiss (the couple also had a
The Making of a Magician
To escape persecution and find a better life, the Weiss family
immigrated to Appleton - "perhaps April 6 was the date Samuel
Weiss arrived in Wisconsin, " remarked Ruth Brandon in her The
Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini. Other moves took the
Weisses to Milwaukee and, eventually, New York. But the family
remained poor. Completely devoted to his mother to the point of
obsession, the young Erich sought ways to ease her hardscrabble
life. At one point, he took to begging for coins in the street.
True to his illusionist ways, he hid the coins around his hair
and clothing, then presented himself to Cecilia with the
command, "Shake me, I'm magic." She did, and a flood of coins
Magic was Erich's second obsession - indeed, "the abounding
takes of his childhood magical exploits carry the mythic fuzz
Houdini liked to generate, " as Brandon wrote. After serving as
a young circus acrobat (Eric, Prince of the Air) the teenager
focused his attention on locks and lockpicking. He financed his
hobby by working as a necktie cutter - the garment trade being
one of the few occupations open to Jews at that time.
So it was with great dismay from his parents that Erich
announced he was giving up the tie business for show business.
At age 17 he took the stage name Houdini, after the nineteenth
century French magician Robert-Houdin. "Harry" was an accepted
Americanized version of Erich. By age 20 Houdini had married
Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner (known as Bess); she became his
partner onstage as well.
As "Mysterious Harry and La Petit Bessie, " the Houdinis played
dime museums, medicine shows, and music halls, eventually
working their way up to small billing at larger theaters. At one
point, the couple toured with a circus. When escape tricks and
magic didn't pan out, the pair billed themselves as a comedy
act, cribbing old jokes from magazines, as Brandon noted in her
Typically, during these early years, Harry would perform his
famed "Hindoo Needle Trick, " in which he appeared to swallow 40
needles, then drew them from his mouth, threaded together. Bess
became a well-prompted "mentalist, " performing mind-reading
routines based on an alpha-numeric code known to her and Harry.
In 1895, in Massachusetts, Houdini first conceived the notion of
escaping not from his own handcuffs, but from those of the local
police. These stunts brought free publicity, which eventually
led to the Houdinis' crack at the big time - a booking in the
Hopkins Theatre, a top Chicago vaudeville house.
Houdini the Headliner
American tours were followed by smash appearances in Europe. Of
course, with success came imitators; after all, anyone could buy
a version of the Hindoo Needle Trick (Houdini himself had
purchased the illusion). But Houdini clones fell by the wayside
as long as the original toured. Still, "he was always edgy with
his contemporaries, and saw younger magicians only as rivals,
ready to push him into obscurity, " wrote Brandon.
So, ever seeking the bigger and better illusion, Houdini escaped
from every combination of straitjackets, jails, coffins,
handcuffs, and leg shackles. At each performance, he invited
police officials onstage to examine him and his props for
authenticity. But even this was a ruse, as Brandon wrote:
"Houdini's skill as a magician, which meant he could palm,
misdirect attention, and hide his [lockpicks] in unlikely
places, came in useful here. A favoured hiding place was his
thick, wiry hair. When he had to strip naked, he sometimes hid a
small pick in the thick skin on the sole of a foot - not a spot
that would ordinarily be searched."
But "something new was needed, " said Brandon, "and on 5 January
1908, it appeared. It was a galvanized-iron can shaped like an
extremely large milk can - large enough to hold a man: Houdini."
As she went on to say, the can held 22 pails of water.
Handcuffed, Houdini would immerse himself inside, but not before
asking the audience to hold their breath along with him. "At the
end of three minutes, by which time the audience's lungs were
bursting … Houdini appeared, dripping but triumphant. The can
was revealed, filled to the rim, all its locks intact."
In 1918, the film industry was still in its infancy. But Houdini
was not; at age 44 he was uncertain how much longer he could
leap from bridges and squirm from straitjackets. So in June of
that year the performer made his move into film with a character
called the Master Detective. In this series of stories the
detective, named Quentin Locke, fought peril and saved damsels
through great stunts, and of course, great escapes.
"The plots were ludicrous and the acting wooden, " Brandon
reported of Houdini's films. Still, they showcased Houdini the
way his public wanted to see him. And, importantly, each magic
routine or stunt was shown as "real, " with no camera tricks or
editing to enhance the Master Detective's mastery. Other films
followed, with varying degrees of financial and critical
The Spirit World Beckoned
Houdini's varied career would take another turn. "After the
death of his mother in 1913, " as Steve and Patricia Hanson
related in a Los Angeles magazine article, the illusionist
"became obsessed with 'making contact with those who had gone
beyond."' This venture brought the performer into contact with
another notable figure of turn-of-the-century pop culture - Sir
Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes.
The association - and eventual bitter breakup - of Houdini and
Doyle began as far back as 1908, when as a publicity stunt
Houdini wrote a letter to "Holmes, " asking for help in catching
scalawags who were stealing his tricks. By 1920 the two had
formed a friendship that seemed connected not only by their
talent but by their tragedies - just as Houdini had lost his
beloved mother, Doyle lived in grief over the death of his son,
Kingsley, a casualty of World War I. Each man sought to explore
spiritualism as a way of making possible contact.
But at one point the friendship began to unravel. Houdini was
much more the skeptic than Doyle, and indeed made something of a
second career from debunking fraudulent mystics. As the Hansons
noted in Los Angeles, "Houdini thought that there was an
irrational part of Doyle's psyche that desperately wanted to
believe contact with the dead was possible. Doyle thought
Houdini's campaign against spiritualism was a 'mania.' Thus the
feud between the two quickly escalated."
The Passing of a Legend
No evidence of real contact with Houdini's mother was ever
recorded. But the specter of his mother's death followed the
illusionist until the occasion of his own passing. Even that
event has since been clouded by the mythology that always seemed
to accompany the magician. For instance, a feature film of
Houdini's life, released in 1953, had him perishing in one of
his own watery coffins during a performance. One magic expert
collected seven different versions of the death.
In reality, the magician, while on tour in Montreal, was
relaxing backstage where some college students met him. Always
proud of his physique, Houdini had often challenged people to
punch him with all their strength in the abdomen. He agreed to
let one of the students take a punch. But - reclining on a couch
at the moment of contact - Houdini had not yet prepared his
muscles for the blows. An injury to the appendix (or perhaps, as
Brandon has asserted, an aggravation of an existing appendix
problem) left untreated for some days, turned into an attack of
peritonitis that struck down Houdini during a performance in
Detroit. Rushed to a hospital where the city's finest doctor
attended him, Houdini lingered for a few days, then died in the
arms of his wife at 1:26 p.m., October 31, 1926 - Halloween day.
Even in death, Houdini knew how to create publicity. His widow
made headlines in announcing a yearly seance on the anniversary
of Houdini's passing to try and make contact with his spirit.
The ritual went on for some ten years, and though Bess once
asserted that contact was made, she later recanted her story.
While no longer among the living, Houdini lives on in a
collective cultural imagination. After a lifetime of embodying
mythic attributes, Houdini has become a myth himself.
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This web page was last updated on:
11 December, 2008