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Amazing Life of Harry Houdini

Updated on August 8, 2015

Harry Houdini aged 22

Harry Houdini’s real name was Ehrich Weisz. The man who was to become the world's most well known magician and escape artist was born in Budapest, Hungary, March 24, 1874 in relative poverty. His father, Mayer Samuel Weisz, was a religious scholar and teacher whose first wife died in childbirth. Ehrich’s mother was his father’s second wife, Cecilia Steiner.

At the age of 2 the Weisz family moved to Appleton, Wisconsin at which time his father changed their last name to Weiss. As times were difficult, the children in the family were forced to work.When Houdini was 8 he sold newspapers and worked as a shoe shine boy. However, the young lad was about to witness something that would eventually lead to his future career. His father took him to see a traveling magician and he immediately became obsessed.

The Weiss family had to move frequently to avoid bill collectors. They eventually ended up in New York where he worked various jobs to help supplement the family income. But, when he wasn’t working he studied magic and competed in his favorite athletic events, swimming, track and acrobatic stunts.

It was around this time, he came across a book entitled "The Memoirs of Robert-Houdin, Ambassador, Author, and Conjuror, Written by Himself." The book was to forever change the course of his life. The man known as Ehrich Weisz, changed his first name to Harry, added an "i" to Houdin’s last name and became Harry Houdini, a name destined to go down in history.

Houdini’s father died when he was 16 which made him free to become a full-time entertainer. At the age of 17 he began performing before civic groups, music halls, sideshows, and at New York’s Coney Island amusement park and anywhere else he could get an audience. Houdini even made several appearances at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 with his brother Theo under the billingThe Houdini Brothers.

In 1894, Houdini married Beatrice "Bess" Raymond, a teen-aged singer and dancer and she became part of his act. For reasons unknown, Theo left the act and struck out on his own performing as a solo magician under the name Hardeen.

In 1895, the Houdini’s signed on with the Welsh Brothers Circus for a short time. Harry did magic while Bess sang and danced. The duo also performed a stunt called “Metamorphosis,” in which they switched places in a locked trunk.

However, Harry wasn’t satisfied. He knew he could do infinitely better. Harry continued learning new tricks and soon became an expert at escaping from handcuffs which he incorporated into his act. Although Houdini offered $100 to anyone who could successfully handcuff him, no one was ever able to collect.

Houdini became extremely adept at escaping from leg irons, coffins, straitjackets, prison cells and other restraints. Nothing was seemingly inescapable for him. Unlike other performers, Houdini made his escapes in full view of audiences, which he knew added to the drama and excitement.

Houdini's act soon caught the attention of Martin Beck, operator of the Orpheum circuit, the largest chain of vaudeville theaters in the country. He signed them on. It proved to be a profitable venture for both parties. Houdini began to garner a measure of success and he became a headliner on the vaudeville circuit.

Although his performances were still gaining in popularity,Houdini decided to take his act to Europe where he and Bess remained for five years. They arrived in London with no bookings and only enough money to live a week. Fortunately, they were quickly able to get a booking at a London theater. The team made instant headlines when he successfully escaped after being securely bound to a pillar and handcuffed at Scotland Yard. Houdini’s fame rapidly spread resulting in sold out engagements throughout Europe. As a way to impart realism to his act Houdini routinely asked police to restrain him…many times embarrassing local law enforcement.

The escape artist also jumped into rivers handcuffed and chained. He would remain submerged until spectators were certain he was a goner. But he always emerged to the cheers of an amazed, delighted audience, holding the restraints for all to see.

After returning to America in 1905, Houdini began devising newer, more difficult stunts even though he was now an international celebrity. One of his most famous was to be handcuffed and nailed inside a packing crate, which was then submerged underwater. Although Houdini had rigged the crate to ensure a quick escape, he stayed under as long as possible for dramatic effect.

Houdini’s stunts required incredible strength and agility. He spent untold hours exercising, practicing and conditioning his body. For his underwater acts, he practiced holding his breath in an oversized bathtub.

Houdini’s notoriety continued to grow eventually resulting with him assuming the role as president of the Society of American Magicians. He also founded the Magician’s Club in London. Although he wrote articles revealing some of magic’s simpler tricks, he carefully guarded his own.

When America entered World War I in 1917, Houdini tried to enlist in the army, but at age 43 he was too old. Unable to contribute directly to the nation’s defense he entertained service men for free. Houdini also put on shows to help sell war bonds.

The greatest tragedy in Houdin’s life came with the death of his mother in 1913. At a speech to the Magician’s Club he solemnly said,“My mother was everything to me. It seemed the end of the world when she was taken from me.” Houdini continued to mourn his mother the rest of his life.

Perhaps, as a result of his mother’s death, Houdini renewed an early interest in spiritualism, specifically the ability to communicate with the dead. Houdini desperately wanted to believe such communication was possible. However, after his years performing magic, he knew all the tricks phony spiritualists used to deceive the public.

Houdini traveled the lecture circuit teaching about fraudulent spiritualists and exposing many of them. He even wrote a bestselling book, A Magician Among the Spirits and included the subject in his act, demonstrating their many methods of deception.

Houdini offered $10,000 to anyone who could produce a psychic effect that couldn’t be reproduced by natural means. Again, the money remained unclaimed. Houdini was so vehemently opposed to phony spiritualists he once testified against them before a committee of Congress. “…this thing they call spiritualism, wherein a medium intercommunicates with the dead, is a fraud from start to finish.” he said. “In thirty-five years, I have never seen one genuine medium.”

For more than 20 years, Houdini remained a household name. Houdini starred in five silent films from 1919 to 1923 and also founded his own movie company, the Houdini Picture Corporation.

Houdini’s demise was thought by many would come about during one of his death defying feats. Surprisingly it didn’t. On October 22, 1926, Houdini was in Montreal giving a lecture on spiritualism. While having a conversation in his dressing room with several students from McGill University, he was asked if he could withstand a blow to the stomach thrown by any man. Before he could prepare himself one student hit him three times. Although, Houdini seemed to recover, he soon became ill. By the time he saw a doctor several days later and diagnosed with peritonitis, it was too late. Harry Houdini died on Halloween afternoon, October 31, 1926.

Although the master showman died almost a century ago his name is still instantly recognized around the world.


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    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 6 years ago from South Africa

      Lol! Haha :) But really, considering his awesome and dangerous performances, dying of an ordinary punch in the stomach seems to be a bit absurd. But figure, I don't know of any other people who had died of this. So perhaps the moral is: "Doesn't matter how smart we are, we are but only a piece of flesh on our way to dust."

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Thanks Martie, I believe he did have that in the act, or at least I saw a pic of it. I guess the moral of the story would be never let anyone hit you in the stomach, or is that too direct of a punch line? :-)

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 6 years ago from South Africa

      Houdini was indeed a remarkable man with no equal. His death seems to be unfair. It is so completely without a 'moral of the story'. Sadly, we can accept death so much easier when it has a 'moral', which happens, of course, merely accidental. Oh well, let's just say Houdini did not die the way he lived. Or was surviving punches in the stomach part of acts?

      John, your articles are brilliant, always containing important and evergreen facts needed by people who love knowledge.

      Voted up!