Houdini, Harry (1874–1926)

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Harry Houdini (1874–1926)

During the early twentieth century, Harry Houdini was the world's most celebrated illusionist and escape artist. He won world renown performing death-defying stunts that captured media attention and the imaginations of his audiences.

Houdini was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1874; his birth name was Erich (or Ehrich) Weiss. His family came to America in 1878. He first became intrigued by trickery and illusion while a teenager and renamed himself after famed French magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin (1805–1871). Determined to forge a career as a magician, he labored for several years in obscurity before winning national acclaim in vaudeville (see entry under 1900s—Film and Theater in volume 1) and, then, international acclaim upon performing in England.

Houdini started out executing simple magic tricks but eventually developed and perfected the escape acts that won him notoriety. In these acts, he would free himself from straitjackets, prison cells, packing crates, coffins, mail pouches, milk cans, giant paper bags, and Chinese Water Torture chambers (large glass boxes filled with water). Often, he would be tied with rope, handcuffed, or manacled. As his fame grew, Houdini also became known for exposing fake spiritualists.

In 1918, Houdini began acting in movies. In 1925, he opened on Broadway in Magic, a two-and-a-half-hour extravaganza. He died the following year. Legend has it that his death was the direct result of his being punched in the stomach by an overenthusiastic college student who wished to test the strength of Houdini's abdominal muscles. In the Hollywood biography Houdini (1953), his demise comes as he fails to complete an underwater escape trick. In fact, Houdini died of peritonitis, caused by a ruptured appendix—which may or may not have been connected to the stomach punch.

—Rob Edelman

For More Information

Hass, E. A. Houdini's Last Trick: The Amazing True Story of the World's Greatest Magician. New York: Random House, 1995.

Houdini Tribute.http://www.houdinitribute.com (accessed January 3, 2002).

Library of Congress. Houdini. "American Memory Project." http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/vshtml/vshdini.html (accessed January 3, 2002).

Silverman, Kenneth. Houdini!!! The Career of Erich Weiss. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.

Woog, Adam. Harry Houdini. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1995.

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