On March 24th of 1874 a boy named Erik Weisz was born in Budapest. He came to America four years later, being renamed Ehrich Weiss. In 1888 his parents moved his family to an east side tenement in New York. Soon he was forced to earn money, after his out of work father could no longer pay the bills. Even though he was the third born son he felt obligated to provide for the family. So, the savvy young Hungarian immigrant devised a clever plan.
Ehrich got dressed up in a little messenger boy outfit and wrote up a sign to go along with it and everything. The message read something like “Christmas is coming. Turkeys are fat. Please put a dime in the messenger boy’s hat.” Then he went out into the streets panhandling for money. After that, he hid dimes all over his body, filling every pocket and crease that he could find. Next, he went home to his mother and told her to shake him. When she did money spilled out onto the floor, and to her delight the boy claimed that he was magical.
As a young man Ehrich loved the members of the traveling circuses that would come through town. He was a natural born performer who was drawn to the illusionists more than anyone else. This kid was definitely somebody who broke the mold. For one thing, he was both a jock and a nerd. The boy was very athletic as a child, practicing acrobatics and doing a great deal of bodybuilding. He was also a voracious reader, especially after he became a teenager.
At age 15 he was at work with a fellow tie cutter who was an 18 year old named Jacob Hyman. Ehrich told his coworker that he was reading a book by a stage magician named Robert Houdin. The boy wanted to be just like that man, so Jacob suggested adding an “i” to the end of his name, which was French meaning being like Houdin. “Houdini” sounded great to Ehrich Weiss. Meanwhile, he was often called “Ehri” by his friends, which was a lot like Harry. Thus, “Harry Houdini” came into being.
When he was 17 he began performing as Harry Houdini. He teamed up with Jacob, and they became the “Brothers Houdini”. They wanted to do something that would set their act apart from other performers so they reworked an old trick. John Maskelyne was a Victorian-era performer who first came up with the substitution trunk act now known as “Metamorphosis”.
In this particular trick Jacob would lock Harry inside a large trunk, after being restrained. Harry would stand on the trunk and hold a curtain up to conceal his body. When the curtain was lowered, the figure on the box was revealed to be Jacob standing atop the box, with the magician and assistant having changed places seemingly instantaneously. Then, after the box was opened, it was shown to contain Harry, restrained as Jacob had just been.
In 1892 Houdini’s father got cancer and died when Harry was only 18 years old. So, wanting to keep things in the family, and to take the act out on the road, Houdini got rid of Jacob Hyman and brought in his brother Theo Hardeen. However, by 1894 Houdini had met a girl named Beatrice Rahner and gotten married to her within 3 weeks time.
Harry then brought Beatrice into the mix, and they worked a great deal of shows for very little pay on the dime museum circuit. Houdini started from the very bottom with the freak shows and whatnot, but he was determined to make his way to the top, no matter what it took. Harry and Bess did about ten shows a day, if not more.
Houdini’s signature rope, cuff, and trunk escapes quickly became rather legendary. After he started inviting members of the audience to restrain him with handcuffs of their own, his career really started to pick up. In knowing that the restraints were real, as well as being part of the act themselves, people were even more drawn in by Harry than they already had been. Things eventually got to the point that Houdini would challenge people to create their own devices to contain him.
Granted, part of what Houdini did was to instruct people on exactly where to restrain him. He had the handcuffs with locks that he could pick the easiest put on his wrist first so that the most complicated were the farthest up his arms. This way once the simplest devices were gotten out of, the other ones just slipped right off. Another trick he used was that he was bow-legged and when he stood to be bound by ropes he would have a seemingly wide stance. Then once he wanted to escape he would just squeeze his legs together and the rope would go slack.
Across the country, Houdini was put into bizarre medieval-looking contraptions or real police cuffs put on by actual cops or whatever the situation called for. He just encouraged people to be more and more and creative with it. He was a master locksmith and his tour as an escape artist made the papers everywhere he went. He had risen from dime museums all the way to the vaudeville stage. Houdini was becoming a symbol of liberation and an icon of freedom in middle-class America.
In 1896 while visiting an insane asylum in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Harry observed a mental patient trying to get out of a straight jacket. In that very moment he realized that this was exactly what he was looking for. Being buckled and bound by restraints like a mummy would make a great act. So in 1899 the straight jacket escape became the highlight of Houdini’s vaudeville performances. When he first introduced it on stage he went into a cabinet fully restrained and emerged several minutes later all disheveled but completely free. As time went on the act got more and more complicated.
What happened was one day Harry’s brother Hardeen suggested something that changed the course of Houdini’s career forever. Hardeen told him that people were suspect of how Houdini really did things. Plus he said it was more dramatic to just let them watch. That one insight changed everything for Harry Houdini. He realized that he would get far better results from the audience if they could actually see him struggle. So, all he had to do was make things look harder than they actually were and people were more on the edge of their seats than ever before.
Then, one day in Minnesota a famous producer named Martin Beck saw one of Houdini’s performances. Beck controlled a chain of theaters and variety halls and was very impressed by what he saw. Well, some of it at least. Martin Beck then made his own suggestion to Houdini, or more like an offer. This would also bring him to new heights, as well. That very moment Beck told him to streamline the act by only doing escape art and getting rid of all the rabbit in his hat and pigeon up his sleeve nonsense. So, Houdini did just that and Beck became his manager on the spot.
In 1899, at the age of just 25 years old, Harry Houdini became a superstar with his first great act. He was soon performing in all the major cities across the country, including but not limited to San Francisco, Kansas City, Chicago, and Denver. He became the best act among the middle class masses, hands down. Vaudeville was the perfect stage for magic, and Houdini was a must-see for every American.
He became the highest paid entertainer in the world. At the turn of the 20th century he was earning $1,500 a week, and that was absolutely unheard of at the time. He played the Hippodrome and drew in 6000 fans. The guy just became more and more famous as time went on. Like Martin Beck had promised Harry Houdini was performing for packed houses everywhere he went.
Houdini was able to attract so many people in part because he was a brilliant self-promoter. For instance, as part of his outlandish escape routines he would often break out of jails and prisons to get people to promote him by word of mouth. In July of 1899 he added a new feature to the act. He allowed himself to be locked in a cell wearing nothing more than a loincloth. Not only did he free himself from shackles as well as a cell, he went on to open every other cell. He then shuffled the inmates around and locked them all back up in different places. Following that he found his clothes and personal effects and escaped not just the cell block but the entire facility.
By the spring of 1900 Beck had Houdini booked in the biggest cities in Europe. Houdini became the self proclaimed “King of Handcuffs”. When he first got to London he found to his surprise that nothing had been scheduled properly. So being who he was, Houdini just went to Scotland Yard. There, Superintendent Melville locked Houdini’s arms around a pole with British issue cuffs and told him that they would be back in an hour. Melville said that this is what happens to Americans who come around causing trouble. So, in true form, Houdini suddenly stepped away from the pillar with cuffs in hand. Houdini then told them that’s how Americans get free, and he went with them. That stunt got Houdini booked for a week at the Alhambra. The show was then extended again and again. Harry Houdini had achieved international acclaim.
Harry ended up touring Europe for five years altogether. He would escape from jails in the day to drum up local publicity and then perform for packed houses at night. Dime Museum Harry sure had come a long way. Inevitably though, other entertainers wanted to steal his act and the constant imitation led to greater innovations as he outpaced the competition. He was constantly redefining what it meant to be a magician, especially an escape artist. Houdini just did more and more tricks and stunts as time went on.
The world was changing around him very rapidly and he needed to do whatever it took to keep up. People like the Wright brothers and Henry Ford were making history and Houdini wanted to be right there on the forefront of society with them. The problem was that by the end of the first decade of the 20th century there were dozens of people imitating him, so it got harder and harder to keep audiences coming back for more. Houdini desperately needed something that no one else would ever try, to truly set himself apart.
In his youth Houdini had nearly drowned in the Fox River, so submersion under water was the most terrifying thing he could possibly imagine. That inspired him to develop a new kind of act. To train for the novel stunt he would enter an over-sized bathtub and practice holding his breath for longer and longer periods of time. He went from one minute, to two, to three. Then, in 1907 he finally introduced the milk can escape.
People would watch as he squeezed himself inside what looked to be a small metal canister. Water would spill out onto the floor below as he got in. His genius for theatrics always made things seem far more death-defying than they actually were. Before entering the tank he even had a timer set and told the audience to watch and hold their breath for the first minute along with him. They were being tested, but they knew they were in no real danger. This heightened the experience all the same. After the first 60 seconds those who played along would breathe in and have a much better sense of the real intensity of the situation. Houdini was absolutely brilliant in this way, but he didn’t stop there.
In 1912 Houdini went a step further with an even more sensational escape act that took entombment to a whole new level. His Chinese water torture bit was something he fearfully called “the upside down”. In this new performance the audience could actually see him under water. The tank was only five and a half feet tall with a glass front door. His mouth bubbled as his hair moved about and he flailed to and fro in the water. Meanwhile, two people stood by with axes, thereby heightening the tension in the room. Some people even got so panicked they walked out of the theaters. Although he was fairly safe the audience was sure that he was in grave danger.
Houdini was a master showman and everyone took notice of him. In 1918 Houdini was even contacted by a movie producer named B. A. Rolfe who offered Harry a part in a fifteen chapter serial. It soon became a worldwide hit. Houdini’s role in the Master Mystery then led to leading roles in Hollywood blockbuster films. In no time at all, he got to work with really famous celebrities like Charlie Chaplin. All together his most remarkable part was in a movie called the Grim Game from 1919. Regardless, the point is that he was now on the big screen. His rags to riches life was coming along quite nicely.
In the summer of 1913 Houdini set sail for Sweden to perform for the King. His mother Cecilia called out from the dock asking Harry to bring her home some woolen slippers. However, within a few days of that she had suffered a stroke and died. Harry never saw her alive again. Houdini was absolutely devastated when he found out what had happened. Her death drastically altered the course of his career as a magician.
At the end of the First World War, Houdini’s second great act began. It all started when Houdini got drawn into spiritualism, while in a highly grief-stricken state. So-called mediums were known to conduct seances, claiming to be able to communicate with the dead and Harry desperately wanted to speak to his mother even just one last time. The thing was that once Houdini saw what those cold readers were actually doing he was able to spot their tricks right away. Little did they know that Houdini’s love for his dearly departed mother would soon be their undoing.
Around 1922 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini argued a lot about supernatural phenomena. Doyle desperately wanted Houdini to go to the same medium that he had gone to when his son had died. The thing was that the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories had a very overactive imagination. Arthur truly believed that the way Harry performed the metamorphosis act was by disintegrating and then reappearing next to the box. Still, Houdini was hopeful that she would somehow turn out to be the real deal.
When the time came Houdini did in fact attend a seance in Atlantic City in which the woman purported to have channeled his mother Cecilia. She then went on to claim to have made a spirit writing while in a state of possession to pass along a message from beyond the grave. The thing was that she unwittingly made a foolish mistake by spelling everything out in English, which Cecilia never learned to speak. Along with that she drew a cross on top of the words, but Houdini’s father had been a rabbi. So, in realizing that he had been taken advantage of Houdini became an outspoken skeptic and critic. He even became a prominent member of a committee for Scientific American as part of a contest to find psychics, of course he just wanted to expose all the frauds.
By 1923 Houdini was making front page headline news. He wasn’t just featured in the entertainment section anymore. Things were really starting to get serious. Houdini would even go out busting up seances with cops and reporters in tow, hoping to expose every medium he could find. It got to the point that he hired a detective to go around from town to town posing as a bereaved mother claiming she had recently lost a child. This was how they built up a dossier on charlatan psychics across the country.
Still, in 1924 the Scientific American committee was ready to award Margery with a $5,000 prize for her ability to manifest spirits. Fortunately, Houdini was smart enough to put her to the test. Harry attended five different seances conducted by Mina “Margery” Crandon. Having come to realize what she was actually doing, Houdini invented a contraption that would restrict her ability to use her head, arms, and feet to manipulate objects in the room. Then in 1925, Houdini offered $10,000 to the so-called psychic if she would in fact demonstrate her paranormal abilities once and for all in a controlled setting. Margery knew she had been beaten and never even showed up to try and claim the cash.
In 1926 Houdini took things to the next level and took his act to New York on Broadway. He opened a brand new three-act extravaganza that truly gave him the theatrical acclaim that he loved most. This was his masterpiece. The whole thing was basically sort of a re-enacted history of stage magic, along with the life story of Houdini himself. He performed a range of classic bits to showcase some of the best illusions of all times.
This was done in part as a way of paying homage to his predecessors, as well as securing his own legacy in the process. He even ended the show with debates between himself and a number of mediums who had been given free tickets to the show. He then did a performance to prove that spiritualism was just a form of stage magic. The finale was a sort of mock seance to show how things were done, by handling things with his feet for instance.
25 years after his career as a magician began people were still getting their money’s worth out of the price of admission, but Houdini was never satisfied and always wanted to give people more. At the time there was a man named Rahman Bey doing tricks and claiming to be a powerful fakir. However, it was obvious to Harry that Rahman was just an illusionist like Houdini. So, Houdini set out to debunk the Egyptian performer. He did a variation of Bey’s buried alive stunt on August 5th of 1926.
His rival had claimed to have supernatural powers that allowed him to remain sealed in a casket for an hour. So Houdini, being who he was, had himself sealed in a metal coffin that was then welded shut and submerged in a swimming pool in New York’s Hotel Shelton for an hour and a half. Harry said that all he had to do was slow his breathing to accomplish the task. This defamed Rahman Bey just as Harry Houdini had planned. Then he went on to design a third buried alive stunt that was to hit the stage the following year. Houdini had devised a way for him to be strapped in a straitjacket, sealed in a casket, and then buried in a large tank filled with sand. Unfortunately, Houdini didn’t live long enough to perform the trick.
Houdini went to Montreal in October of 1926. He had recently given a lecture at McGill College when he was approached by a few students. Harry met the guys between his matinee and evening performances. He was lying on the couch in his dressing room when the kids entered. After a little while another guy named J. Gordon Whitehead came in and challenged Houdini who had always bragged about being able to withstand a punch in the gut from anyone. Houdini got up and Whitehead gave him a good blow to the stomach and then Harry relaxed his muscles but the kid hit him a few more times. Those painful punches would end up being lethal. Whitehead had ruptured Houdini’s appendix due to an unknown, pre-existing appendicitis. However, even in the extreme agony that Houdini was in he knew that the show must go on.
As he was getting on the train to get to his next gig Harry told a fellow illusionist named Max Malini that he had let a kid punch him in the stomach and he caught him wrong and it was hurting really bad. By the time the train arrived in Detroit his appendix had burst. Before he went on stage to do what would become his last show Houdini called for a doctor who told Harry that he would have to go to the hospital. Of course, he refused. The people had paid to see Houdini perform and he wasn’t going to let them down. He took to the stage with an excruciating staph infection and a temperature of 104. He collapsed after the first act but was revived and carried on. Once he finished the last act he collapsed and the show was over. In the end he was rushed to Grace Hospital in New York, but he continued to live for an entire week. He was in severe pain the whole time, but finally came to the point of letting go. Houdini died on October 31st of 1926. Always the showman he checked out on Halloween, of all days.