Harry Houdini (born Erik Weisz in Budapest, later Ehrich Weiss, Harry Weiss, or Harry Weiß; March 24, 1874 – October 31, 1926) was a Hungarian-American illusionist and stunt performer, noted for his sensational escape acts. He first attracted notice as "Harry Handcuff Houdini" on a tour of Europe, where he challenged police forces to keep him locked up. Soon he extended his repertoire to include chains, ropes slung from skyscrapers, straitjackets under water, and having to hold his breath inside a sealed milk can.
In 1904, thousands watched as he tried to escape from special handcuffs commissioned by London's Daily Mirror, keeping them in suspense for an hour. Another stunt saw him buried alive and only just able to claw himself to the surface, emerging in a state of near-breakdown. While many suspected that these escapes were faked, Houdini presented himself as the scourge of fake magicians and spiritualists. As President of the Society of American Magicians, he was keen to uphold professional standards and expose fraudulent artists. He was also quick to sue anyone who pirated his escape stunts.
Houdini made several movies, but quit acting when it failed to bring in money. He was also a keen aviator, and aimed to become the first man to fly a plane in Australia. Even the circumstances of his death in 1926 were dramatic and mysterious.
Harry Houdini was born as Erik Weisz in Budapest, Austria-Hungary, on March 24, 1874. His parents were Rabbi Mayer Sámuel Weisz (1829–1892), and Cecília Weisz (née Steiner; 1841–1913). Houdini was one of seven children: Herman M. (1863–1885) who was Houdini's half-brother, by Rabbi Weisz's first marriage; Nathan J. (1870–1927); Gottfried William (1872–1925); Theodore "Theo" (1876–1945); Leopold D. (1879–1962); and Carrie Gladys (born 1882–1959) who was left almost blind after an accident that occurred during her childhood.
Weisz arrived in the United States on July 3, 1878, on the SS Fresia with his mother (who was pregnant) and his four brothers. The family changed the Hungarian spelling of their German surname to Weiss (the German spelling) and Erik's name was changed to Ehrich. Friends called him "Ehrie" or "Harry".
They first lived in Appleton, Wisconsin, where his father served as Rabbi of the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation.
According to the 1880 census, the family lived on Appleton Street. On June 6, 1882, Rabbi Weiss became an American citizen. Losing his tenure at Zion in 1887, Rabbi Weiss moved with Ehrich to New York City, where they lived in a boarding house on East 79th Street. He was joined by the rest of the family once Rabbi Weiss found permanent housing. As a child, Ehrich Weiss took several jobs, making his public début as a 9-year-old trapeze artist, calling himself "Ehrich, the Prince of the Air". He was also a champion cross country runner in his youth. Weiss became a professional magician and began calling himself "Harry Houdini".
After extensive research, Houdini published a book in 1908 called The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, in which he called his former idol Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin a liar and a fraud for having claimed the invention of automata and effects such as aerial suspension which had been in existence for many years.
In later life, Houdini claimed that the first part of his new name, Harry, was an homage to Harry Kellar, whom Houdini admired.
Houdini was an active Freemason and was a member of St. Cecile Lodge #568 in New York City
In 1918, he registered for selective service as Harry Handcuff Houdini.
He began his magic career in 1891. He had little success. He performed in dime museums and sideshows, and even doubled as "The Wild Man" at a circus. Houdini focused initially on traditional card tricks. At one point, he billed himself as the "King of Cards". He soon began experimenting with escape acts.
In 1893, while performing with his brother "Dash" (Theodore) at Coney Island as "The Brothers Houdini," Harry met a fellow performer, Wilhelmina Beatrice "Bess" Rahner. Bess was initially courted by Dash, but she and Houdini married in 1894, with Bess replacing Dash in the act, which became known as "The Houdinis." For the rest of Houdini's performing career, Bess worked as his stage assistant.
Houdini's big break came in 1899 when he met manager Martin Beck in rural Woodstock, Illinois. Impressed by Houdini's handcuffs act, Beck advised him to concentrate on escape acts and booked him on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit. Within months, he was performing at the top vaudeville houses in the country. In 1900, Beck arranged for Houdini to tour Europe. After some days of unsuccessful interviews in London, Houdini managed to interest Dundas Slater, then manager of the Alhambra Theatre. He gave a demonstration of escape from handcuffs at Scotland Yard, and succeeded in baffling the police so effectively that he was booked at the Alhambra for six months.
Houdini became widely known as "The Handcuff King." He toured England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Russia. In each city, Houdini challenged local police to restrain him with shackles and lock him in their jails. In many of these challenge escapes, Houdini was first stripped nude and searched. In Moscow, Houdini escaped from a Siberian prison transport van. Houdini claimed that, had he been unable to free himself, he would have had to travel to Siberia, where the only key was kept. In Cologne, he sued a police officer, Werner Graff, who alleged that he made his escapes via bribery. Houdini won the case when he opened the judge's safe (he later said the judge had forgotten to lock it). With his new-found wealth, Houdini purchased a dress said to have been made for Queen Victoria. He then arranged a grand reception where he presented his mother in the dress to all their relatives. Houdini said it was the happiest day of his life. In 1904, Houdini returned to the U.S. and purchased a house for $25,000, a brownstone at 278 W. 113th Street in Harlem, New York City.
From 1907 and throughout the 1910s, Houdini performed with great success in the United States. He freed himself from jails, handcuffs, chains, ropes, and straitjackets, often while hanging from a rope in sight of street audiences. Because of imitators, on January 25, 1908, Houdini put his "handcuff act" behind him and began escaping from a locked, water-filled milk can. The possibility of failure and death thrilled his audiences. Houdini also expanded his repertoire with his escape challenge act, in which he invited the public to devise contraptions to hold him. These included nailed packing crates (sometimes lowered into water), riveted boilers, wet sheets, mailbags, and even the belly of a whale that had washed ashore in Boston. Brewers in Scranton, Pennsylvania and other cities challenged Houdini to escape from a barrel after they filled it with beer.
Many of these challenges were pre-arranged with local merchants in one of the first uses of mass tie-in marketing. Rather than promote the idea that he was assisted by spirits, as did the Davenport Brothers and others, Houdini's advertisements showed him making his escapes via dematerializing, although Houdini himself never claimed to have supernatural powers.
In 1912, Houdini introduced perhaps his most famous act, the Chinese Water Torture Cell, in which he was suspended upside-down in a locked glass-and-steel cabinet full to overflowing with water. The act required that Houdini hold his breath for more than three minutes. Houdini performed the escape for the rest of his career. During his career, Houdini explained some of his tricks in books written for the magic brotherhood. In Handcuff Secrets (1909), he revealed how many locks and handcuffs could be opened with properly applied force, others with shoestrings. Other times, he carried concealed lockpicks or keys, being able to regurgitate small keys at will. When tied down in ropes or straitjackets, he gained wiggle room by enlarging his shoulders and chest, moving his arms slightly away from his body, and then dislocating his shoulders.
His straitjacket escape was originally performed behind curtains, with him popping out free at the end. Houdini's brother, (who was also an escape artist, billing himself as Theodore Hardeen), discovered that audiences were more impressed when the curtains were eliminated so they could watch him struggle to get out. For publicity, on more than one occasion, they both performed straitjacket escapes while dangling upside-down from the roof of a building.
For most of his career, Houdini was a headline act in vaudeville. For many years, he was the highest-paid performer in American vaudeville. One of Houdini's most notable non-escape stage illusions was performed at New York's Hippodrome Theater, when he vanished a full-grown elephant (with its trainer) from the stage, beneath which was a swimming pool. In 1923, Houdini became president of Martinka & Co., America's oldest magic company. The business is still in operation today.
In 1904, the London Daily Mirror newspaper challenged Houdini to escape from special handcuffs that it claimed had taken Nathaniel Hart, a locksmith from Birmingham, five years to make. Houdini accepted the challenge for March 17 during a matinée performance at London's Hippodrome theater. It was reported that 4000 people and more than 100 journalists turned out for the much-hyped event. The escape attempt dragged on for over an hour, during which Houdini emerged from his "ghost house" (a small screen used to conceal the method of his escape) several times. On one occasion he asked if the cuffs could be removed so he could take off his coat. The Mirror representative, Frank Parker, refused, saying Houdini could gain an advantage if he saw how the cuffs were unlocked. Houdini promptly took out a pen-knife and, holding the knife in his teeth, used it to cut his coat from his body. Some 56 minutes later, Houdini's wife appeared on stage and gave him a kiss. It is believed that in her mouth was the key to unlock the special handcuffs. Houdini then went back behind the curtain. After an hour and ten minutes, Houdini emerged free. As he was paraded on the shoulders of the cheering crowd, he broke down and wept. Houdini later said it was the most difficult escape of his career.
In 1901, Houdini introduced his own original act, the Milk Can Escape. In this act, Houdini was handcuffed and sealed inside an over-sized milk can filled with water and made his escape behind a curtain. As part of the effect, Houdini invited members of the audience to hold their breath along with him while he was inside the can. Advertised with dramatic posters that proclaimed "Failure Means A Drowning Death," the escape proved to be a sensation. Houdini soon modified the escape to include the milk can being locked inside a wooden chest, being chained or padlocked, and even inside another milk can. Houdini performed the milk can escape as a regular part of his act for only four years, but it has remained one of the acts most associated with him. Houdini's brother, Theodore Hardeen, continued to perform the milk can (and the wooden chest variation) into the 1940s.
In 1912, the vast number of imitators prompted Houdini to replace his Milk Can act with the Chinese Water Torture Cell. In this escape, Houdini's feet were locked in stocks, and he was lowered upside down into a tank filled with water. The mahogany and metal cell featured a glass front, through which audiences could clearly see Houdini. The stocks were locked to the top of the cell, and a curtain concealed his escape. In the earliest version of the Torture Cell, a metal cage was lowered into the cell, and Houdini was enclosed inside that. While making the escape more difficult (the cage prevented Houdini from turning), the cage bars also offered protection should the front glass break. The original cell was built in England, where Houdini first performed the escape for an audience of one person as part of a one-act play he called "Houdini Upside Down." This was so he could copyright the effect and have grounds to sue imitators (which he did). While the escape was advertised as "The Chinese Water Torture Cell" or "The Water Torture Cell," Houdini always referred to it as "the Upside Down" or "USD". The first public performance of the USD was at the Circus Busch in Berlin, on September 21, 1912. Houdini continued to perform the escape until his death in 1926.
One of Houdini's most popular publicity stunts was to have himself strapped into a regulation straitjacket and suspended by his ankles from a tall building or crane. Houdini would then make his escape in full view of the assembled crowd. In many cases, Houdini drew thousands of onlookers who brought city traffic to a halt. Houdini would sometimes ensure press coverage by performing the escape from the office building of a local newspaper. In New York City, Houdini performed the suspended straitjacket escape from a crane being used to build the New York subway. After flinging his body in the air, he escaped from the straitjacket. Starting from when he was hoisted up in the air by the crane, to when the straitjacket was completely off, it took him two minutes and thirty-seven seconds. There is film footage in the Library of Congress of Houdini performing the escape. After being battered against a building in high winds during one escape, Houdini performed the escape with a visible safety wire on his ankle so that he could be pulled away from the building if necessary. The idea for the upside-down escape was given to Houdini by a young boy named Randolph Osborne Douglas (March 31, 1895 – December 5, 1956), when the two met at a performance at Sheffield's Empire Theatre.
Another of Houdini's most famous publicity stunts was to escape from a nailed and roped packing crate after it had been lowered into water. Houdini first performed the escape in New York's East River on July 7, 1912. Police forbade him from using one of the piers, so Houdini hired a tugboat and invited press on board. Houdini was locked in handcuffs and leg-irons, then nailed into the crate which was roped and weighed down with two hundred pounds of lead. The crate was then lowered into the water. Houdini escaped in fifty-seven seconds. The crate was pulled to the surface and found still to be intact, with the manacles inside. Houdini performed this escape many times, and even performed a version on stage, first at Hamerstein's Roof Garden (where a 5,500-gallon tank was specially built), and later at the New York Hippodrome.
Houdini performed at least three variations on a "Buried Alive" stunt during his career. The first was near Santa Ana, California in 1915, and it almost cost Houdini his life. Houdini was buried, without a casket, in a pit of earth six feet deep. He became exhausted and panicked while trying to dig his way to the surface and called for help. When his hand finally broke the surface, he fell unconscious and had to be pulled from the grave by his assistants. Houdini wrote in his diary that the escape was "very dangerous" and that "the weight of the earth is killing.
In 1906 Houdini started showing films of his outside escapes as part of his vaudeville act. In Boston he presented a short film called Houdini Defeats Hackenschmidt. Georg Hackenschmidt was a famous wrestler of the day, but the nature of their contest is unknown as the film is lost. In 1909 Houdini made a film in Paris for Cinema Lux titled Merveilleux Exploits du Célébre Houdini à Paris (Marvellous Exploits of the Famous Houdini in Paris). It featured a loose narrative designed to showcase several of Houdini's famous escapes, including his straitjacket and underwater handcuff escapes. That same year Houdini got an offer to star as Captain Nemo in a silent version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but the project never made it into production.
In 1918 Houdini signed a contract with film producer B.A. Rolfe to star in a 15-part serial, The Master Mystery (released in January 1919). As was common at the time, the film serial was released simultaneously with a novel. Financial difficulties resulted in B.A. Rolfe Productions going out of business, but The Master Mystery led to Houdini being signed by Famous Players-Lasky Corporation/Paramount Pictures, for whom he made two pictures, The Grim Game (1919) and Terror Island (1920).
Neither Houdini's acting career nor FDC found success, and he gave up on the movie business in 1923, complaining that "the profits are too meager". His celebrity was such that, years later, he was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (at 7001 Hollywood Blvd).
The eyewitnesses, students named Jacques Price and Sam Smilovitz (sometimes called Jack Price and Sam Smiley), proffered accounts of the incident that generally corroborated one another. Price describes Whitehead asking Houdini "whether it was true that punches in the stomach did not hurt him", and after securing Houdini's permission to strike him, delivering "some very hammer-like blows below the belt". Houdini was reclining on a couch at the time, having broken his ankle while performing several days earlier. Price states that Houdini winced at each blow and stopped Whitehead suddenly in the midst of a punch, gesturing that he had had enough, and adding that he had had no opportunity to prepare himself against the blows, as he did not expect Whitehead to strike him so suddenly and forcefully. Had his ankle not been broken, he would have risen from the couch into a better position to brace himself.
Throughout the evening, Houdini performed in great pain. He was unable to sleep and remained in constant pain for the next two days, but did not seek medical help. When he finally saw a doctor, he was found to have a fever of 102 °F (38.9 °C) and acute appendicitis, and advised to have immediate surgery. He ignored the advice and decided to go on with the show. When Houdini arrived at the Garrick Theater in Detroit, Michigan, on October 24, 1926, for his last performance, he had a fever of 104 °F (40 °C). Despite the diagnosis, Houdini took the stage. He was reported to have passed out during the show, but was revived and continued. Afterwards, he was hospitalized at Detroit's Grace Hospital.
Harry Houdini died of peritonitis, secondary to a ruptured appendix at 1:26 p.m. in Room 401 on October 31, aged 52. In his final days, he optimistically held to a strong belief that he would recover, but his last words before dying were reportedly, "I'm tired of fighting.". Eyewitnesses to an incident at Houdini's dressing room in the Princess Theatre in Montreal gave rise to speculation that Houdini's death was caused by a McGill University student, J. Gordon Whitehead, who delivered a surprise attack of multiple blows to Houdini's abdomen.
After taking statements from Price and Smilovitz, Houdini's insurance company concluded that the death was due to the dressing-room incident and paid double indemnity
Houdini's funeral was held on November 4, 1926 in New York, with more than 2,000 mourners in attendance. He was interred in the Machpelah Cemetery in Glendale, Queens, New York, with the crest of the Society of American Magicians inscribed on his gravesite. A statuary bust was added to the exedra in 1927, a rarity, because graven images are forbidden in nearly all Jewish cemeteries. In 1975 the bust was knocked over and destroyed. Temporary busts were placed at the gravesite until 2011 when a group who came to be called The Houdini Commandos from the Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania placed a permanent bust with the permission of Houdini's family and of the cemetery. For a time, the Society of American Magicians took responsibility for the upkeep of the gravesite, as Houdini had willed a large sum of money to the organization he had grown from one club to its present-day 5,000-6,000 dues-paying membership worldwide. This upkeep was abandoned by the society's dean George Schindler, who said "the operator of the cemetery, David Jacobson, sends us a bill for upkeep every year but we never pay it."
Machpelah Cemetery operator Jacobson said, "The Society of American Magicians never paid the cemetery for any restoration of the Houdini family plot in my tenure since 1988," claiming that the money came from the cemetery's dwindling funds. The granite monuments of Houdini's sister, Gladys, and brother, Leopold, are missing.
The Houdini gravesite is no longer cared for by the Society of American Magicians, but by The Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
To this day the society holds a broken wand ceremony at the gravesite each November. Houdini's widow, Bess, died of a heart attack on February 11, 1943, aged 67, in Needles, California while on a train en route from Los Angeles to New York City. She had expressed a wish to be buried next to her husband, but instead was interred at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Westchester County, New York, as her Catholic family refused to allow her to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
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