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Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini

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.

Further Reading

Brandon, Ruth, The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini, Random House, 1993.

Los Angeles, April 1989, p. 94. □

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Houdini, Harry

Harry Houdini

Born: March 24, 1874
Budapest, Hungary

Died: October 31, 1926
Detroit, Michigan

Hungarian-born American magician

Magician, actor, and stage personality Harry HoudiniThe Great Houdiniwas 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."

Early life

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 footnot 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 (18591930), 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 griefjust as Houdini had lost his beloved mother, Doyle had lost his son, Kingsley, who had been killed in World War I (191418; 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, 1926Halloween 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.

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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.

Sources:

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.

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Houdini, Harry

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).

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Houdini, (Harry)

Houdini, (Harry) (1874–1926) US escapologist, b. Erich Weiss in Hungary. He escaped from packing cases, handcuffs, and straitjackets, often while underwater in a tank. He also specialized in exposing fraudulent mediums. Author of The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin (1908), his extensive library on magic resides in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

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Houdini

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Houdini, Harry

HOUDINI, HARRY

HOUDINI, HARRY (originally Eric Weisz , 1874–1926), U.S. magician and escape artist. The grandson of a rabbi, Houdini was born in Budapest and taken to the United States, where his father became religious leader of a Jewish congregation in Appleton, Wisconsin. Houdini began his career at the age of nine as a trapeze artist in a five-cent circus. When his family moved to New York he changed his name to Harry (from "Eri") Houdini, in admiration of the great French magician Robert-Houdin. His extraordinary achievements as a magician included making a live elephant disappear before the eyes of a baffled audience (for the first time in the New York Hippodrome in 1918). He repeatedly escaped from shackles, ropes, chains, and handcuffs while suspended head down in a tank of water, buried alive, or thrown into a half-frozen river. The highest paid and most popular performer of his time, he appeared in theaters in Europe and America, and demonstrated his skills to members of Scotland Yard and the Moscow Police Department, breaking out of a Russian "escape-proof " prison van in 1903. He starred as an escape artist in many adventure films and was a pioneer pilot, making the first sustained flight over the continent of Australia on March 16, 1910, near Melbourne. Houdini constantly attacked the charlatanism of so-called mind readers and mediums. Two of his many books, Miracle Mongers and Their Methods (1920) and Magicianamong the Spirits (1924), were devoted to this purpose, and he offered a standing $10,000 reward for any "supernatural" manifestation he could not duplicate. He died in Detroit. His library on magic, spirits, and witchcraft was bequeathed to the Library of Congress, Washington.

bibliography:

J.F. Rinn, Searchlight on Psychical Research (1954); W.L. Gresham, Houdini; the Man Who Walked Through Walls (1960), incl. bibl.; M. Christopher, Houdini; the Untold Story (1969), incl. bibl.

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Houdini, Harry (1874-1926)

Houdini, Harry (1874-1926)

Before there was a Doug Henning, a David Copperfield, or a Siegfried and Roy, Harry Houdini was the celebrity magician without peer. A worldwide celebrity thanks to his relentless touring, he was the first entertainer to take full advantage of the emergent mass media, engaging in death-defying public stunts that cannily made use of newspapers, radio, and film. Had Houdini simply been another skilled magician, he might have been forgotten along with the generation of vaudevillians from which he sprang, but the magnitude of his exploits, combined with his tormented personality and unexpected demise, have left an allure that has hardly dimmed over the passing decades. Houdini was a figure out of Greek tragedy: the indestructible warrior with an Achilles Heel, and his legend, like all archetypal figures, has only increased with time.

Born Erich Weiss in Budapest, Hungary, Houdini was the son of a rabbinical scholar of somewhat dubious credentials who moved his family to America in 1878 after securing a position as rabbi for a small synagogue in Appleton, Wisconsin. Ultimately, Mayer Weiss was not to the liking of his small-town flock. Perhaps it was his advanced age, or his European conceits or his habit of conducting services in German, but for whatever reason the congregation cut him loose, and the Weiss family, now numbering seven, moved to Milwaukee, barely scraping by on Mayer's earnings as a freelance minister. Young Erich felt the family's poverty keenly, and was hurt by his father's humiliation; in his later years he would take pains to ennoble the hapless rabbi. When the family had finally settled in Manhattan, Erich found work as a tie-cutter at the age of eleven. His ailing father—who soon was laboring alongside Erich in the tie factory—and the rest of the family joined him in short order. It was with a measure of relief that Erich and his family witnessed the passing of the ill and unhappy head of the household in 1892.

Houdini possessed a meager education, but he retained as part of his father's legacy a deep respect for learning, and it was a book that changed his life. While reading The Conjurers Unveiled, French magician Robert-Houdin's autobiography, 17-year-old Erich discovered not only a fascination with all things illusory, but a template on which to build his own fictionalized autobiography. Robert-Houdin appears to have replaced the unsuccessful Rabbi Weiss as the young man's father figure, and Erich excised vast chunks of his tome to fill in the holes of his own shabby biography, even borrowing the dead magician's moniker to replace his own name.

With his father dead, Erich was no longer constrained in his career choices by filial piety, and embarked on his career as a professional magician as one half of the Houdini Brothers. Harry (possibly a version of his nickname, Eiri) with his young wife, Bess Rahner, acting as assistant, plied the length and breadth of the country playing dime museums, burlesque shows, traveling carnivals, and medicine shows. One trick in particular, a bait and switch act, was a favorite with audiences, and the astute Houdini was soon specializing in escape tricks of a myriad variety, which had the added advantage of familiarity in their resemblance to the stunts of many spiritualist mediums. The escape tricks were especially well suited to Houdini, a small, compact man with a lifetime enthusiasm for sports, for they demanded strenuous exertion, muscular control, and prodigious endurance. For seven years he labored in obscurity and was in the midst of rethinking his career options when he was offered a position on a vaudeville circuit by theater impresario Martin Beck.

At the turn of the century, vaudeville was the height of mass-entertainment, and theater chains, in stiff competition for audiences, were building palatial theaters to house their acts. For an entertainer such as Houdini, accustomed to making $25 a week, vaudeville was a quantum leap in remuneration and prestige. Under the management of Beck, Houdini was soon gaining nationwide notoriety and commanding a substantial salary. To promote his act, he had begun making a practice of escaping from jails and police stations, miraculously freeing himself from manacles and cells alike. Houdini was always anxious to keep one step ahead of the competition: as a refinement, he began to perform his escapes in the nude or dressed only in a loincloth, flabbergasting the police and inflaming the public's curiosity with each successive news story.

When he sailed for England in the summer of 1900, Houdini had established himself as the "Handcuff King," adept at unshackling himself under a variety of conditions. He was not long in creating a sensation in Great Britain and on the Continent. Europe embraced his act with such enthusiasm that he stayed a full five years. He continued his habit of escaping from jail cells and offering a prize to anyone who could produce a lock he could not pick. This practice almost led to public humiliation in Birmingham, when a local judo expert and teacher of physiognomy devised a system of shackles that left the magician nearly immobilized. For a torturous hour and a half he struggled with his bonds, finally freeing himself, but not without casting a pall of suspicion over the escape with the suspicious filing marks he produced in his efforts.

Returning to the United States in 1905, Houdini was alarmed by the legion of shameless imitators that had sprung up in his absence. He forsook handcuffs, leaving them to the copycats, and concentrated on new escapes, ideas for which flowed out of him in a constant stream. He had always known the importance of remaining in the public eye, and he began to perform high-visibility stunts, escaping from straitjackets, bags, crates—whatever could be thrown off a bridge. He toured for the next ten years, constantly refining his act, innovating, and pushing his body to the limits of endurance. This period saw the introduction of the milk-can escape, the Chinese Water Torture (perhaps the best remembered of his escapes and the most frequently performed today), the Vanishing Elephant and, for outdoor performances, an aerial straitjacket act. In this last, with his ankles secured by heavy rope, he was hauled to the top of a skyscraper and, suspended above the crowd, was left to wriggle free. In terms of cinematic potential the aerial straitjacket escape improved on his previous publicity stunts a hundred-fold.

With the advent of film, Houdini realized that vaudeville's days were numbered. By 1918, he was hard at work on his first film. Until his death in 1926, he would for the most part forsake live performances for film acting, and moved to Los Angeles, where he starred in his first short, The Grim Game. Not content simply to star in movies, he started his own production company, which lost money at an alarming rate. But while Houdini the movie star carried on with his work in a desultory fashion, Houdini the whistle-blower was waging a fierce battle against the forces of hokum. Besides being a possessor of tremendous energy, he had a streak of the pedant in him. He had met the author Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and a believer in spiritualism. Houdini, who had made his living artfully faking his way out of impossible situations, was skeptical of such beliefs. He had made a parlor game out of unmasking mediums and now directed his towering scorn at one Mina Crandon—better known as Margery—a society woman who, with the aid of her deceased brother, Walter, had impressed Scientific American as a legitimate medium. Houdini would have none of it, and in a series of seances where he deduced one trick after another, finally reduced Margery to fuming impotence and irrevocably splintered the Scientific American panel.

In December of 1925 Houdini launched his two-and-a-half-hour extravaganza, Magic, on Broadway. It was his first big tour in a number of years, and started with a first act consisting of nothing but magic tricks—he even went so far as to pull a rabbit out of a hat to prove he was a magician—followed by an expose of spiritualism, and then an escape act. For the status conscious Houdini, Magic was a step up. This was a theater, not a vaudeville house, and when the show opened, it placed Houdini in direct competition with the lions of Broadway. The show ran through the spring, with time out for Houdini to take his anti-spiritualist campaign to Washington where he testified for Congress. During this break, he had a chance to unmask another fraud, a fakir named Rahman Bey, who allowed himself to be submerged in a coffin for an hour, claiming he had put himself in a trance. Houdini would have none of it. He trained himself to ration oxygen, and in a glass-fronted coffin he remained underwater for an hour and a half. It was to be his last unmasking.

When the tour resumed in the fall, Houdini seemed rundown. If the testimony of his friends can be believed, he had also become convinced of his imminent death, and tearfully bade goodbye to several of his acquaintances. In Albany, he broke his ankle while being hoisted into the Chinese Water Torture apparatus and continued the tour on crutches. When he arrived in Detroit, he had a temperature of 102. Persevering through the night's performance despite his condition, he collapsed backstage immediately after, and was soon hospitalized with a ruptured appendix. After surgery, peritonitis set in and the master escapologist died six days later, on October 31, 1926. Houdini lore contends that the ruptured appendix resulted from a hit in the stomach. Houdini took great pride in his physical condition and often asked men to punch him to prove the strength of his abdomen muscles. In Detroit a man asked him if his muscles were indeed that strong and Houdini said they were. The man punched him, but Houdini was not expecting it and therefore was not prepared. It is inclear if this incident did in reality take place, but it does add to the eeriness surrounding his death.

Harry Houdini was a transitional figure in the cultural pantheon, marking the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of the modern one. A complex man, he was a textbook case of repressed neurosis in which Freud would have delighted. For a man whose very livelihood depended on nerves of steel, he was notoriously emotional. Vain and egotistical, he left a trail of broken friendships and hurt feelings in his wake. An immigrant of humble origins, he was obsessed by status, once buying a dress commissioned by the recently deceased Queen Victoria in order that his mother might wear it while entertaining her old-world relatives. Yet, despite his mother-love, his status-consciousness, his Victorianisms, Houdini was quick to embrace the expanding technical universe. A lover of gadgetry, Houdini filled his house with a surfeit of modern appliances. A masterful manipulator of the mass media, he did not allow the thrust of progress to leave him stranded as it had so many of his confederates in vaudeville. In the archetypal pattern of a tragic hero, Harry Houdini had been struck down by his own blind ambition, but it is for his extraordinary feats of endurance that his legend lives on.

—Michael Baers

Further Reading:

Kellock, Jarold. Houdini: The Life Story. New York, Blue Ribbon Books, 1928.

Meyer, Bernard. Houdini: A Mind in Chains. New York, E. P. Dutton & Company, 1976.

Milbourne, Christopher. Houdini, The Untold Story. New York, The Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1969.

Silverman, Kenneth. Houdini!!! The Career of Erich Weiss. Harper Collins, 1996.

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