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There's just something about the approach of Halloween that always reminds me of Harry Houdini.
You may know that Harry Houdini was a great magician, escape artist and illusionist, but did you realize that he happened to die on Halloween?
Harry Houdini spent much of the last years of his life debunking spiritualists such as mediums and psychics. He saw many of them utilizing some of the same tricks and illusions that he did and passing it off as supernatural powers. He wanted to show these people for the fakes they were.
I thought it would be fun to take a look at his life and learn a bit more about him. I wanted to share my research with you. I hope you enjoy it.
Houdini Fast Facts
Birth Name: Erik Weisz (later spelled Ehrich Weiss)
AKA: Harry Houdini
Born: March 24, 1874
Birthplace: Budapest, Hungary, but grew up in Applegate, Wisconsin and often told people he was born in Wisconsin
Died: October 31, 1926
Other Houdini trivia:
- Reportedly about 5'5" tall and slightly bow-legged
- Immigrated to the United States on July 3, 1878 when he was 4 yrs old
- Champion Cross Country runner as a child
- At 9 yrs old he was a trapeze artist going by the name "Ehrich, the Prince of the Air"
- He became a professional magician naming himself after two people he admired, Harry Kellar and French magician, Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin. He primarily performed card tricks in museums, sideshows and circuses.
- Houdini's big break came in 1899 when he met Martin Beck. Beck recognized his escape acts as being a marketable talent and booked him on the vaudeville circuit. Within only a few months he was performing at the top vaudeville houses in the country and Europe. For many years he was the highest paid vaudeville performer in the United States.
- While touring, he met Joe Keaton and his family vaudeville act. When Houdini witnessed Joes young son (infant of 6 months! according to Buster Keaton's bio) fall down a flight of stairs without getting hurt, he told Joe "That's a real buster". A buster is a stage name for a fall that has the potential to cause injury. This is how comedy legend Buster Keaton got his name.
- Was the president of Martinka & Co, America's oldest magic company that is still in business today.
- Had his own show called "3 Shows in One: Magic, Escapes and Fraud Mediums Exposed"
- Known as the Handcuff King
- Purchased a dress made for Queen Victoria and held a grand reception where he presented the dress to his mother
- Houdini sometimes used a fake sixth finger to hide lock picks.
- In 1975, Houdini received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
- In July 3, 2002, the US Post Office issued a postage stamp with a replica of Houdini's favorite publicity poster on it.
Escape Tricks and Illusions
Some of his escape tricks include:
- Escaping from shackles and being locked in jail
- Escaped from a Siberian prison transport van
- Escaped from handcuffs, ropes, and chains
- One of his most notable illusions was when he vanished a full-grown elephant named Jenny and the elephant trainer from a stage with a swimming pool below it.
- Escaped from riveted boilers, wet sheets, mailbags and even the belly of a washed ashore whale.
- Introduced the Needle Trick where he swallowed threaded needles and brought them back up
- Suspended by his feet in a straightjacket dangling from cranes or tall buildings above busy city streets
The 1904 London Daily Mirror Handcuff Challenge
In 1904, the London Daily Mirror newspaper challenged Houdini to escape from a special set of handcuffs. With some 4000+ people watching, Houdini spent over an hour working to get out. His wife kissed him at one point and many believe she slipped him a key in her mouth gave him a kiss. It is believed that in her mouth was the key to unlock the special handcuff. After the cheering of the crowd died down he broke down crying. He later reported that it was the most difficult escape in his career. Biographers have long tried to determine whether this entire act was staged or not.
The 1908 Introduction of the Milk Can Escape
In 1908, Houdini introduced his own original invention, the Milk Can escape. He was handcuffed and sealed inside an over-sized milk can filled with water. He would then escape behind a curtain. Over time, he began locking the can inside a wooden chest, then chained or padlocked. These items are now at the American Museum of Magic.
The 1912 Introduction of the Chinese Water Torture Cell
Since his Milk can escape was so easily imitated, Houdini replaced it with the Chinese Water Torture Cell built in England. He first publicly performed it at the Circus Busch in Berlin on September 21, 1912.
The 1912 Introduction of the Overboard Box Escape
Another popular stunt was his escape from a nailed and roped packing crate that had been lowered into water. He first performed this in New York's East River on July 7, 1912. They locked him into handcuffs and leg-irons, then put him in a crate, nailed it shut, roped it and weighted it down with 200 pounds of lead. Within 57 seconds of being lowered into the water, Houdini escaped .
The 1917 Introduction of "Buried Alive"
The first time Houdini was buried alive was in Santa Ana, California in 1917. He was buried in a pit 6 feet deep. He became exhausted from the digging and began to panic. He finally broke the surface with his hand and became unconscious. He was pulled out by his assistants. Houdini wrote that this stunt was very dangerous and that "the weight of the earth is killing".
Houdini introduced a variation of this in 1926 when he was submerged in a New York Hotel Sheraton swimming pool in a sealed casket for 1 ½ hrs. He did it to expose an Egyptian performer named Rahman Bey, who claimed to use supernatural powers to remain in a sealed casket for an hour. Houdini lasted longer and maintains that he did it with controlled breathing rather than supernatural powers.
Houdini introduced another variant of this stunt that was to be performed in 1927, but he died before he was able to do it. In this stunt he was planning to be strapped in a strait-jacket, sealed in a casket, and then buried in a large tank filled with sand. The casket for this stunt was actually used to transport his body from Detroit back to NY following his death.
- 1901- Merveilleux Exploits du Célébre Houdini à Paris featuring some of famous escapes, including his straitjacket escape.
- 1916- Special-effects consultant on The Mysteries of Myra.
- 1919- 15-part serial called The Master Mystery
- 1919- The Grim Game (1919)
- 1920- Terror Island
- 1921- The Man From Beyond (can be found on DVD)
- 1923- Haldane of the Secret Service
In April 2008, Kino International released a DVD box set of Houdini's surviving silent movies. This DVD box set includes The Master Mystery, Terror Island, The Man From Beyond, Haldane of the Secret Service, and five minutes of The Grim Game. It also includes newsreel footage of Houdini's escapes from 1907 to 1923.
Exposing Psychics and Mediums
In the 1920s, after the death of his mother, he focused his attention on exposing self-proclaimed psychics and mediums. His training in magic allowed him to expose frauds. He was a member of a Scientific American committee that offered cash money to anyone who could successfully demonstrate supernatural abilities. The first to try was medium George Valentine of Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. No one was ever able to lay claim to the money. Houdini became known as a "ghostbuster" and began attending séances in disguise, accompanied by a reporter and police officer. Probably the most famous medium he exposed was the Boston medium Mina "Margery" Crandon. Houdini wrote a book about it called, A Magician Among the Spirits.
Death, Funeral, Seances
Harry Houdini's death has been reported in several movies as being a result of the Chinese Water Torture. That is incorrect. He died of peritonitis as a result of a ruptured appendix. However, he had taken a number of blows to his stomach as part of stunt to display his dexterity. It's generally believed that his appendix was already near rupturing for days prior to the blows to his stomach. He performed his last performance at the Garrick Theater in Detroit Michigan on October 24, 1926 while running 104 fever. He passed out during the show, was revived and continued performing. He was hospitalized after the show and died a week later on Halloween at the age of 52.
Houdini's funeral was held on November 4, 1926, in New York, with more than 2,000 mourners in attendance.
He is buried at Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York. His tombstone has Society of American Magicians crest on it. Even today, the Society holds it's "Broken Wand" ceremony at his gravesite each November.
Houdini's widow, Bess Houdini held yearly séances on Halloween on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel for ten years (1927-1936) after Houdini's death, but Houdini never appeared. She and Houdini had devised a secret code that if it was given to her she'd know he could communicate from the other side. Many people around the country continue to hold séances on Halloween.
Houdini's brother initially inherited his effects and props. Houdini's will stipulated that all the effects should be "burned and destroyed" when his brother died. However, his brother sold many of the items, including the water torture to a magician and Houdini fan named Sidney Hollis Radner in the 40s. Radner had put many of the best pieces on display at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls. The museum experienced a fire in 1995 and nearly destroyed the Water Torture Cell. It was restored and it and some other items were auctioned off in 1999 and 2008. Radner stored his remaining collection in the Houdini Museum in Appleton, Wisconsin, but later actioned it off in 2004. Many of the choice props , including the restored Water Torture Cell is owned by illusionist David Copperfield.
The only known recording of Houdini's voice was made on October 29, 1914 in Flatbush, NY. The recordings were made on Edison wax cylinders. These six cylinders were found in the collection of magician John Mulholland after his death in 1970. David Copperfield now owns them too.
Great Links and Resources
- Houdini Harry
Harry Houdini Entertainment show, attractions & Museum about Harry Houdini. In Scranton, Wilkes Barre, Pocono region Pennsylvania (PA). Bio and Biography. Tour & magic show, birthday party, haunted séance near Steamtown, .
- HOUDINI: A BIOGRAPHICAL CHRONOLOGY
- And Now... Houdini ! Houdini Biography and Information |- MagicTricks.Com: Magic, Magicians and Magi
Harry Houdini information section. Biography, photos, trivia.
- Houdini\'s Magic Shop