Harry Houdini: Legendary Escape Artist
Harry Houdini was a stunt performer and American illusionist who was Hungarian-born. His claim to fame was his sensational escapes. Houdini first got known when he performed in the United States with a vaudeville act. He went on a tour of Europe and had the nickname of Harry Handcuff Houdini. During this tour, he would challenge the local members of law enforcement to try and lock him up. Soon, his act started to include straitjackets with ropes, as well as chains and more. He would escape from straitjackets while being underwater. He would get free from a straight jacket he wore when inside a sealed milk can filled with water.
Harry Houdini was born Erik Weisz on March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary. They were a Jewish family and Houdini's father was a Rabbi. He was one of seven children. On July 3, 1878, Houdini's family arrived in the United States. The family settled in Appleton, Wisconsin. There his father was the rabbi for the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation. Rabbi Weiss became an American citizen on June 6, 1882. He lost his job with the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation. Eventually, the family moved to New York City and lived in a boarding house. During his youth, Houdini took several jobs to help his family. He was a trapeze artist at 9-years old. As he grew up, Houdini was also a champion cross-country runner.
Once he became a professional performer, Erik Weisz started calling himself Harry Houdini. After reading the autobiography of French magician, Eugène Robert-Houdin, he adopted this as his last name. He added an “i” at the end of the name so in French it meant “like.” He added Harry to his name from a man he admired known as Harry Kellar.
As a young man, Houdini would spend time at the Pastime Athletic Club where he was taught magic by the well-known magician Joseph Rinn. Harry Houdini started his career as a magician in 1891 at the age of 17. Initially, he did not have much success. Houdini performed in tent acts as well as sideshows and dime museums. He even worked in a circus for a time and performed as The Wild Man.
At first, Houdini would perform traditional card tricks. During this time, he would promote himself as being the King of Cards. Many other magicians felt Houdini was competent but had no special skills with doing sleight-of-hand acts. They felt he lacked the finesse and grace to master the craft. Eventually, he started experimenting with escape acts.
Houdini was performing with his brother in 1893 at Coney Island. He met a girl who was also performing. Her name was Wilhelmina Beatrice "Bess" Rahner. The two were married in 1894. Bess replaced Houdini's brother in the act. The couple became known as The Houdinis. Bess was Houdini's stage assistant for the rest of his performing career.
In 1899, Houdini got his big show business break. In St. Paul, Minnesota, he met a show manager named Martin Beck. Houdini was able to impress Beck with his handcuffs act. Beck recommended that Houdini focus on doing escape acts. He then booked Houdini on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit. In a few short months, Houdini was performing around the United States at all the top vaudeville houses.
Houdini traveled to Russia, England, France, Wales, Germany, Scotland as well as the Netherlands. In each of these countries, Houdini was known as The Handcuff King. European police would attempt to lock Houdini in their jails as well as restrain him with shackles. During many of these escapes, Houdini performed without wearing any clothes. He escaped from a Siberian prison transport in Moscow, Russia. In 1904, thousands watched him escape from a set of special handcuffs. They had been commissioned by the London Daily Mirror. Another stunt saw Houdini being buried alive. He fought to the surface and came out in a state of near exhaustion. After experiencing extreme success, Houdini returned to the United States and purchased a brownstone home in New York City.
Success In The United States
Houdini's performances were quickly growing in popularity in the United States. During this time, he would free himself while hanging from a rope in front of street audiences as well as from straitjackets, handcuffs, jails, chains and more. His performance drew many imitators of the handcuff act, so he stopped doing it on January 25, 1908. After this, he would escape from water-filled tanks. Houdini's failure leading to his possible death seemed to always thrill the audience. To increase his popularity, Houdini would challenge the public to create devices to hold him. During this time, he escaped from riveted boilers, packing crates, mail bags, and one time, the belly of a whale that had washed ashore. Houdini even once escaped from a barrel filled with beer.
The Spirit World
Houdini became fascinated with the possibility of making contact with those who had died. This started in 1913 after his mother passed away. As he worked at this, he became friends with the famous author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle wanted to make contact with the spirit world after his son was killed in World War I. Houdini exposed all sorts of fake people claiming to have contact with the spirit world. Doyle accused Houdini of being too full of grief to see things clearly. Doyle believed Houdini was not open-minded and too dedicated to exposing the fraud. The friendship between Doyle and Houdini eventually ended.
Chinese Water Torture Cell
In 1912, Houdini started performing the Chinese water torture cell. During this act, Houdini's feet were locked in stocks. He was then placed upside down in a tank filled with water. The cell had a glass front so audiences were able to watch Houdini. The torture cell was a metal cage that prevented Houdini from moving when inside it. Houdini performed this until 1926.
Suspended Straitjacket Escape
This was Houdini's most popular public performance. He would have a regulation straight jacked put on him. Houdini was then suspended by his ankles from a crane or a tall building. In New York City, Houdini was able to escape in two minutes and thirty-seven seconds. Film footage of this performance is in the Library of Congress.
Overboard Box Escape
Another popular publicity stunt was Houdini escaping from a packing crate that was nailed shut, roped and then lowered into the water. Houdini would be locked in leg-irons and handcuffs before being placed in the crate. He would usually escape within 57 seconds. The crate would then be pulled from the water. It would still be in tack and the handcuffs and leg-irons would be inside.
Buried Alive Escape
During his career, Houdini would perform at least three different versions of this stunt. It was dangerous as he was buried without a casket under six feet of dirt. He often became exhausted as he dug his way to the surface. Once he became unconscious and needed to be helped out of the grave by his assistants.
Starting in 1906, Houdini would show films of his escapes. It was done as part of a vaudeville act. In 1909, he made a film for Cinema Lux in Paris. Houdini signed a contract with B.A. Rolfe in 1918 for a 15-part serial. It was The Master of Mystery and was released concurrently with the movie's novel. He was then signed by Paramount Pictures and was in two films. The Grim Game was released in 1919. Terror Island was released in 1920. Houdini went back to New York and started his own film company called Houdini Picture Corporation. One of Houdini's brothers ran the company. In 1923, Houdini left the movie industry. He said the profits were too meager.
Houdini bought a biplane for $5,000 in 1909. He crashed once but made a successful flight on November 26 of that year. This took place in Hamburg, Germany. The next year he went on a tour in Australia and took along his biplane. It was initially believed Houdini was the first person to fly in Australia. Later, it was proven that honor went to another person.
Harry Houdini died on October 31, 1926. The cause was a ruptured appendix. Initially, he felt he would recover, but it was reported his last words were “I'm tired of fighting.” His death is believed to have been caused by Jocelyn Gorden Whitehead who was a student at McGill University. He asked Houdini if it were true punches to the stomach didn't hurt him. Houdini said it was true. Whitehead then hit Houdini several times when Houdini was sitting on a couch and before he had time to prepare.
On November 4, 1926, Houdini's funeral was held in New York City. Thousands of people attended. He was interred in Queens at the Machpelah Cemetery. On his grave site, the Society of American Magicians crest was inscribed.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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