Harry Houdini (1874-1926)—The Great Houdini— is a name that will forever define the term "escape artist." As the Budapest-born, American-bred performer would so often proclaim, "No prison can hold me; no hand or leg irons or steel locks can shackle me. No ropes or chains can keep me from my freedom."
No one before or since has so completely defined the art of escape as Harry Houdini, magician, actor, and stage personality. Old film footage and still photos recall Houdini as generations remember him— suspended upside-down high over the heads of the crowd, escaping from a straitjacket; plunging, manacled, into an icy river, only to reappear miraculously moments later; performing his signature Chinese Water Torture Cell illusion, in which audiences were invited to hold their breath along with Houdini as he made his escape from yet another watery coffin.
But there was a world of difference between what turn-of-the-century audiences saw, and what they thought they saw. Much of Houdini's escapes relied as much on myth and misdirection as they did on the magician's genuine physical and mental prowess. Likewise, Houdini made myth of his own life, elaborating details where he thought appropriate. Though in some documents Houdini claims to be born April 6, 1874, in Appleton, Wisconsin, this much is known: Erich Weiss, born March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary, was the youngest of three sons of Rabbi Samuel and Cecilia (Steiner) Weiss (the couple also had a daughter, Gladys).
The Making of a Magician
To escape persecution and find a better life, the Weiss family immigrated to Appleton—"perhaps April 6 was the date Samuel Weiss arrived in Wisconsin, " remarked Ruth Brandon in her The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini. Other moves took the Weisses to Milwaukee and, eventually, New York. But the family remained poor. Completely devoted to his mother to the point of obsession, the young Erich sought ways to ease her hardscrabble life. At one point, he took to begging for coins in the street. True to his illusionist ways, he hid the coins around his hair and clothing, then presented himself to Cecilia with the command, "Shake me, I'm magic." She did, and a flood of coins spilled out.
Magic was Erich's second obsession—indeed, "the abounding takes of his childhood magical exploits carry the mythic fuzz Houdini liked to generate, " as Brandon wrote. After serving as a young circus acrobat (Eric, Prince of the Air) the teenager focused his attention on locks and lockpicking. He financed his hobby by working as a necktie cutter—the garment trade being one of the few occupations open to Jews at that time.
So it was with great dismay from his parents that Erich announced he was giving up the tie business for show business. At age 17 he took the stage name Houdini, after the nineteenth century French magician Robert-Houdin. "Harry" was an accepted Americanized version of Erich. By age 20 Houdini had married Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner (known as Bess); she became his partner onstage as well.
As "Mysterious Harry and La Petit Bessie, " the Houdinis played dime museums, medicine shows, and music halls, eventually working their way up to small billing at larger theaters. At one point, the couple toured with a circus. When escape tricks and magic didn't pan out, the pair billed themselves as a comedy act, cribbing old jokes from magazines, as Brandon noted in her book.
Typically, during these early years, Harry would perform his famed "Hindoo Needle Trick, " in which he appeared to swallow 40 needles, then drew them from his mouth, threaded together. Bess became a well-prompted "mentalist, " performing mind-reading routines based on an alpha-numeric code known to her and Harry. In 1895, in Massachusetts, Houdini first conceived the notion of escaping not from his own handcuffs, but from those of the local police. These stunts brought free publicity, which eventually led to the Houdinis' crack at the big time—a booking in the Hopkins Theatre, a top Chicago vaudeville house.
Houdini the Headliner
American tours were followed by smash appearances in Europe. Of course, with success came imitators; after all, anyone could buy a version of the Hindoo Needle Trick (Houdini himself had purchased the illusion). But Houdini clones fell by the wayside as long as the original toured. Still, "he was always edgy with his contemporaries, and saw younger magicians only as rivals, ready to push him into obscurity, " wrote Brandon.
So, ever seeking the bigger and better illusion, Houdini escaped from every combination of straitjackets, jails, coffins, handcuffs, and leg shackles. At each performance, he invited police officials onstage to examine him and his props for authenticity. But even this was a ruse, as Brandon wrote: "Houdini's skill as a magician, which meant he could palm, misdirect attention, and hide his [lockpicks] in unlikely places, came in useful here. A favoured hiding place was his thick, wiry hair. When he had to strip naked, he sometimes hid a small pick in the thick skin on the sole of a foot—not a spot that would ordinarily be searched."
But "something new was needed, " said Brandon, "and on 5 January 1908, it appeared. It was a galvanized-iron can shaped like an extremely large milk can—large enough to hold a man: Houdini." As she went on to say, the can held 22 pails of water. Handcuffed, Houdini would immerse himself inside, but not before asking the audience to hold their breath along with him. "At the end of three minutes, by which time the audience's lungs were bursting … Houdini appeared, dripping but triumphant. The can was revealed, filled to the rim, all its locks intact."
In 1918, the film industry was still in its infancy. But Houdini was not; at age 44 he was uncertain how much longer he could leap from bridges and squirm from straitjackets. So in June of that year the performer made his move into film with a character called the Master Detective. In this series of stories the detective, named Quentin Locke, fought peril and saved damsels through great stunts, and of course, great escapes.
"The plots were ludicrous and the acting wooden, " Brandon reported of Houdini's films. Still, they showcased Houdini the way his public wanted to see him. And, importantly, each magic routine or stunt was shown as "real, " with no camera tricks or editing to enhance the Master Detective's mastery. Other films followed, with varying degrees of financial and critical success.
The Spirit World Beckoned
Houdini's varied career would take another turn. "After the death of his mother in 1913, " as Steve and Patricia Hanson related in a Los Angeles magazine article, the illusionist "became obsessed with 'making contact with those who had gone beyond."' This venture brought the performer into contact with another notable figure of turn-of-the-century pop culture—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes.
The association—and eventual bitter breakup—of Houdini and Doyle began as far back as 1908, when as a publicity stunt Houdini wrote a letter to "Holmes, " asking for help in catching scalawags who were stealing his tricks. By 1920 the two had formed a friendship that seemed connected not only by their talent but by their tragedies—just as Houdini had lost his beloved mother, Doyle lived in grief over the death of his son, Kingsley, a casualty of World War I. Each man sought to explore spiritualism as a way of making possible contact.
But at one point the friendship began to unravel. Houdini was much more the skeptic than Doyle, and indeed made something of a second career from debunking fraudulent mystics. As the Hansons noted in Los Angeles, "Houdini thought that there was an irrational part of Doyle's psyche that desperately wanted to believe contact with the dead was possible. Doyle thought Houdini's campaign against spiritualism was a 'mania.' Thus the feud between the two quickly escalated."
The Passing of a Legend
No evidence of real contact with Houdini's mother was ever recorded. But the specter of his mother's death followed the illusionist until the occasion of his own passing. Even that event has since been clouded by the mythology that always seemed to accompany the magician. For instance, a feature film of Houdini's life, released in 1953, had him perishing in one of his own watery coffins during a performance. One magic expert collected seven different versions of the death.
In reality, the magician, while on tour in Montreal, was relaxing backstage where some college students met him. Always proud of his physique, Houdini had often challenged people to punch him with all their strength in the abdomen. He agreed to let one of the students take a punch. But—reclining on a couch at the moment of contact— Houdini had not yet prepared his muscles for the blows. An injury to the appendix (or perhaps, as Brandon has asserted, an aggravation of an existing appendix problem) left untreated for some days, turned into an attack of peritonitis that struck down Houdini during a performance in Detroit. Rushed to a hospital where the city's finest doctor attended him, Houdini lingered for a few days, then died in the arms of his wife at 1:26 p.m., October 31, 1926—Halloween day.
Even in death, Houdini knew how to create publicity. His widow made headlines in announcing a yearly seance on the anniversary of Houdini's passing to try and make contact with his spirit. The ritual went on for some ten years, and though Bess once asserted that contact was made, she later recanted her story. While no longer among the living, Houdini lives on in a collective cultural imagination. After a lifetime of embodying mythic attributes, Houdini has become a myth himself.
Brandon, Ruth, The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini, Random House, 1993.
Los Angeles, April 1989, p. 94. □
"Harry Houdini." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/harry-houdini
"Harry Houdini." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved May 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/harry-houdini
Magician, actor, and stage personality Harry Houdini—The Great Houdini—was the greatest escape artist of all time. He often said, "No prison can hold me; no hand or leg irons or steel locks can shackle me. No ropes or chains can keep me from my freedom."
Although Harry Houdini claimed to be born on April 6, 1874, in Appleton, Wisconsin, the fact was that Erich Weiss, born March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary, was the youngest of three sons of Rabbi Samuel and Cecilia (Steiner) Weiss (who also had a daughter, Gladys). To find a better life, the Weiss family left Hungary and settled in Appleton. "Perhaps April 6 was the date Samuel Weiss arrived in Wisconsin," remarked Ruth Brandon in her The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini. Other moves took the Weisses to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and New York.
Erich was devoted to his mother and sought ways to ease her hard life. At one point he took to begging for coins in the street. He hid the coins in his hair and clothing, then presented himself to his mother and said, "Shake me, I'm magic." She did, and a flood of coins spilled out. The family remained poor, however. Erich began selling newspapers and shining shoes at the age of eight to help out.
Erich was also very interested in magic. After serving as a young circus acrobat ("Eric, Prince of the Air"), he began to study locks and how to "pick" them, or open them using a tool other than a key. He worked as a necktie cutter in a garment factory to earn money to support his hobby. At age seventeen Erich entered show business, taking the stage name Houdini after the nineteenth-century French magician Robert-Houdin. ("Harry" was an Americanized version of Erich.) By age twenty Houdini had married Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner (known as Bess), who became his partner onstage as well.
Show business success
As "Mysterious Harry and La Petit Bessie," the Houdinis played amusement parks and music halls, and they even toured with a circus for a time. When response to their escape tricks and magic was poor, they performed a comedy act, stealing old jokes from magazines. During these early years, Harry would often perform his "Hindoo Needle Trick," in which he appeared to swallow forty needles before drawing them from his mouth, all threaded together. Bess performed as a mind reader, using a code of numbers and letters known to her and Harry. In 1895, in Massachusetts, Houdini first thought up the idea of escaping not from his own handcuffs, but from those of the local police. These stunts brought free publicity, which increased Houdini's popularity.
Houdini's American tours were followed by successful appearances in Europe. With success came imitators, as anyone could buy a version of the Hindoo Needle Trick. (Houdini himself had purchased it.) Houdini worked hard to stay ahead of the pack. He began performing escapes from straitjackets, jails, coffins, handcuffs, and shackles (something that confines the arms or legs). At each performance he invited police officials onstage to examine him and his props to make sure they were real. Except, with his skill as a magician, he was still able to hide things. As Brandon wrote, "When he had to strip naked, he sometimes hid a small pick in the thick skin on the sole of a foot—not a spot that would ordinarily be searched." In 1908 Houdini began performing a trick in which he was locked inside a large iron milk can filled with water. He could escape within three minutes.
In June 1918 Houdini made his move into film, playing a character called the Master Detective. In this series of stories the detective, named Quentin Locke, saved women from danger through great stunts, and of course, great escapes. Both the stories and the performances were weak, but the films showed Houdini the way his public wanted to see him. Each magic routine or stunt was shown as "real," with no camera tricks helping out the Master Detective.
The spirit world calls
Steve and Patricia Hanson related in a Los Angeles magazine article that Houdini became interested in "making contact with those who had gone beyond" after his mother's death in 1913. His attempts in this area brought him into contact with writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930), the creator of the Sherlock Holmes character. In 1908, as a publicity stunt, Houdini had written a letter to "Holmes," asking for help in catching crooks who were stealing his tricks. By 1920 the two men had formed a friendship based on their talent and their grief—just as Houdini had lost his beloved mother, Doyle had lost his son, Kingsley, who had been killed in World War I (1914–18; a war in which Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Japan fought against Great Britain, France, Russia, and the United States). Each man sought ways to make contact with the spirit world.
After a while the friendship began to weaken. Houdini was not as strong a believer as Doyle. Part of Houdini's career was devoted to exposing fakes who pretended to be able to contact spirits. As the Hansons noted in Los Angeles, Houdini felt that Doyle was too blinded by grief to see clearly, and Doyle thought that Houdini was not open-minded enough and was too anxious to expose fraud. The two men's friendship ended.
The passing of a legend
No evidence of real contact with Houdini's mother was ever recorded, but her death haunted Houdini until the occasion of his own passing. Even that event has since been clouded by the myths that always seemed to accompany him. For instance, a feature film of Houdini's life released in 1953 showed him dying in one of his own watery coffins during a performance. There were many other incorrect stories describing his death.
What really happened was that Houdini, while on tour in Montreal, Canada, was relaxing backstage where some college students came to see him. Houdini often challenged people to punch him in the stomach with all their strength, and he agreed to let one of the students take a swing. But the punch came while Houdini was lying on a couch, before he had prepared for the impact. An injury to the appendix resulted. Left untreated for several days, it turned into an infection that struck Houdini down during a performance in Detroit, Michigan. Rushed to a hospital, he held on for a few days before dying in his wife's arms on October 31, 1926—Halloween day.
Even in death Houdini knew how to create publicity. His widow made headlines by announcing that every year on the anniversary of his death she was going to try to make contact with his spirit. This went on for some ten years, and though Bess once claimed that contact was made, she later changed her story. Houdini continues to live on in the public's imagination. After a lifetime of pretending to have mythic talents, Houdini became a myth himself.
For More Information
Borland, Kathryn Kilby, and Helen Ross Speicher. Harry Houdini, Young Magician. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969. Reprint, New York: Macmillan, 1991.
Brandon, Ruth. The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini. Random House, 1993.
Houdini, Harry. Magician Among the Spirits. New York: Harper, 1924. Reprint, Washington, DC: Kaufman and Greenberg, 1996.
Lalicki, Tom. Spellbinder: The Life of Harry Houdini. New York: Holiday House, 2000.
Silverman, Kenneth. Houdini!: The Career of Ehrich Weiss. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996.
"Houdini, Harry." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/houdini-harry
"Houdini, Harry." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved May 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/houdini-harry
Houdini, Harry (1874-1926)
Houdini, Harry (1874-1926)
Escape artist and investigator of claims of Spiritualist mediums. Houdini was born Ehrich Weiss on March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary, and taken to Appleton, Wisconsin, as a child, although he later claimed to have been born on April 6, 1874 (eastern Europe still being on the Julian calendar at that time). Weiss began his professional life as a trapeze performer. He went on to become the foremost conjuring magician and escape artist of his day.
Weiss derived the name Houdini from Jean Eugene Robert Houdin (1805-1871), a famous French illusionist who took pride in exposing fake performers of religious marvels. Houdini was similarly very proud of his amazing feats and spent many years exposing so-called Spiritualist frauds. The story of his many adventures are recounted in his 1924 book A Magician Among the Spirits. That same year he served as a member of the committee appointed by Scientific American to investigate the mediumship phenomena of "Margery" (i.e., Mina Crandon ). He was later accused of allowing his eagerness to prove fraud to lead him to tampering with the experiments.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, an enthusiastic Spiritualist, claimed that some of Houdini's own incredible feats were accomplished through psychic or supernatural powers. This infuriated Houdini, and at one time caused a break in his longstanding friendship with Doyle.
Houdini's death was precipitated by a reckless blow to the stomach from a student who visited him in his dressing room at the Princess Theater in Montreal on October 22, 1926. The student, J. Gordon Whitehead, had asked if it was true that Houdini could sustain punches to his midsection without injury. When Whitehead punched him, Houdini had been sorting his mail and was somewhat distracted.
Given permission to take a few trial punches, the student struck Houdini several times with powerful blows, and Houdini was clearly unprepared. That evening he suffered severe abdominal pains but completed his stage shows and took the train to Detroit, where he was booked for two weeks.
The train stopped at London, Ontario, where a telegram was sent to Detroit to request a medical examination. The doctor diagnosed acute appendicitis and ordered an ambulance, but Houdini refused and completed his show at the theater. After the show, his wife Bess pleaded with him to go to the hospital, and eventually, on the morning of October 25, he went to Grace Hospital, where he was found to be suffering from advanced peritonitis. He died on October 31, 1926.
The Houdini Code
Houdini's uneasy feud with Spiritualism persisted after his death, when various mediums claimed to convey messages from him lamenting his arrogant denunciation of Spiritualism. But one message was quite different. Among the challenges Houdini continuously issued to mediums was one that could be met only after his death. He stated that if spirit survival was possible, he would communicate with his wife, Bess, in a secret two-word code message known to no one else. A reward of $10,000 was offered for successfully communicating this code message.
Three years after Houdini's death, the medium Arthur Ford gave Bess Houdini a two-word message, "Rosabelle believe," in the special code used by the Houdinis in an early mind-reading act. Rosabelle had been a pet name used by Houdini for his wife. Bess Houdini signed a statement that Ford was correct. This was witnessed by a United Press reporter and an associate editor of the Scientific American, but 48 hours later the New York Graphic stated that the story was untrue, that a reporter had perpetrated a hoax, possibly with the connivance of Ford and Bess Houdini.
The original scoop story evaporated in a confusion of charges, countercharges, and denials, and Bess Houdini did not refer to the matter again in public. Many believe the evidence favors the original claim that Ford really did break the Houdini code by a mediumistic message from the beyond. Bess Houdini died February 11, 1943.
Cannell, J. C. The Secrets of Houdini. London, 1931. Reprint, Detroit: Gale Research, 1976.
Christopher, Milbourne. Houdini: The Untold Story. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1969. Reprint, New York: Pocket Books, 1970.
——. Mediums, Mystics, and the Occult. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1975.
Ernst, Bernard M. L., and Hereward Carrington. Houdini and Conan Doyle: The Story of a Strange Friendship. Albert and Charles Boni, 1932. London: Hutchinson, 1933.
Fitzsimons, Raymund. Death and the Magician: The Mystery of Houdini. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1980.
Ford, Arthur, and Margueritte Harmon Bro. Nothing So Strange. New York: Harper & Row, 1958.
Houdini, Harry. A Magician Among the Spirits. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1924. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1972.
——. The Right Way to Do Wrong. Boston: H. Houdini, 1906.
——. The Unmasking of Robert Houdin. New York: Publishers Printing, 1908.
Kellock, Harold. Houdini: His Life-Story. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1928.
Pressing, R. G., comp. Houdini Unmasked. Lily Dale, N.Y.: Dale News, 1947.
Silverman, Kenneth. Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.
Spraggett, Allen, with William V. Rauscher. Arthur Ford: The Man Who Talked with the Dead. New York: New American Library, 1973.
"Houdini, Harry (1874-1926)." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/houdini-harry-1874-1926
"Houdini, Harry (1874-1926)." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. . Retrieved May 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/houdini-harry-1874-1926
Harry Houdini (hōōdē´nē), 1874–1926, American magician and writer, b. Budapest, Hungary. His real name was Ehrich Weiss; his stage name honors the French magician Houdin. He was famed for his escapes from bonds of every sort—locks, handcuffs, straitjackets, and sealed chests underwater. Though his stage magic skills were limited, Houdini was famously the originator (1918) of the celebrated Vanishing Elephant illusion, a trick that still remains a mystery. He toured the United States and Europe, and performed (1919–23) in silent films. In his later years, he devoted himself to the exposure of fraudulent spiritualist mediums and their phenomena (see spiritism). He left his library of magic, one of the most complete and valuable in the world, to the Library of Congress. Among his many writings are The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin (1908), Miracle Mongers and Their Methods (1920), and A Magician among the Spirits (1924).
See Houdini's Magic (ed. from his notebooks, 1932); biographies by H. Kellock (1928), W. L. Gresham (1959), M. Christopher (1970), B. C. Meyer (1976), R. Brandon (1993), K. Silverman (1996), and W. Kalush and L. Sloman (2006); W. B. Gibson, Houdini's Escapes (1930); R. FitzSimons, Death and the Magician (1985); A. Phillips, Houdini's Box (2002); J. Steinmeyer, Hiding the Elephant (2003); R. K. Rapaport et al., Houdini: Art and Magic (museum catalog, 2010).
"Houdini, Harry." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/houdini-harry
"Houdini, Harry." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved May 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/houdini-harry
"Houdini, (Harry)." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/houdini-harry
"Houdini, (Harry)." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved May 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/houdini-harry
"Houdini." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/houdini
"Houdini." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved May 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/houdini