Harry Houdini: Biography, Escape Acts & Death

Without a doubt, Harry Houdini was one of the most famous magicians of all time. A grand master of illusion, this son of a rabbi still conjures up images of great escape acts almost 100 years after his death.

Harry Houdini: Biography, Escape Acts, & Death. Image: Houdini and Jennie, the Vanishing Elephant, January 7, 1918

Background

Houdini was born Erik Weisz on March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Kingdom of Hungary but moved to the United States at the age of four. Fascinated by magic as a little boy, he had to take several jobs at the circus and became a trapeze artist at the age of nine.

This Hungarian-American artist read about the French magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin and decided to change his name to Harry Houdini as an homage to Robert-Houdin and American magician Harry Kellar (1849-1922).

The Magician

Houdini launched his magic career with little success in 1891, he did conventional magic tricks like playing with cards, performing in a circus, and sideshows. He was criticized for lacking finesse by other magicians. However, he started experimenting with escape acts like breaking free from handcuffs, chains and straightjackets, and slinging from skyscrapers.

Eight years later, Houdini’s big break came, when an entertainment manager Martin Beck in St. Paul, Minnesota was impressed by Houdini’s handcuff tricks. Beck booked him to perform at top vaudeville houses in America.

Beck  also arranged a European tour for the young magician and advised him to focus on his escape tricks. While in London, Houdini would involve the Scotland Yard police officers, who would strip search him, place him in shackles, and he would break free of the shackles. This caused a huge sensation in the audience, and by 1900, his shows were usually sold out.

Houdini’s Most Famous Escape Acts

Houdini would up the antics each show, from using handcuffs to straight jackets and using water tanks.

In 1904, he was challenged by a Daily Mirror reporter to escape from a handcuff that took Nathaniel Hart, a locksmith, five years to make. He accepted the challenge, and on March 17, over 4,000 people watched the famed magician break free from the handcuff.

After his death, Martin Becks noted that Houdini’s wife Bess got the keys to the handcuff and slipped it in a glass of water for him. Regardless, many consider that particular escape act to be one of his most difficult tricks.

In 1908, Houdini invited the audience to watch him as he was handcuffed and sealed in an oversize milk can filled with water. To make the act more dramatic, he asked the audience to hold their breath with him while he tried to break free. Houdini emerged free from behind the curtain to the amazement of the audience. This particular trick became a regular act in Houdini’s shows. To this day, the oversize milk can remains on display at the American Museum of Magic.

Renowned magician and escapist Houdini performing the Chinese Water Torture Cell, one of his most famous acts

In 1912, this master illusionist replaced the milk can with a Chinese water torture cell. In this act, he was suspended upside down into a glass tank filled with water. Houdini would be shackled and lowered into the tank and a curtain would be dropped to cover the tank. The curtain would be lifted showing Houdini’s swimming shackles free. This act was called “The Chinese Water Torture Cell” and he performed this act until his death.

Another famous stunt of Houdini was being handcuffed and his legs bound in iron. He would be put in a wooden crate and lowered into the water. The escape artist would break free in less than a minute and the crate would be lifted to the surface to reveal Houdini free. This act was first performed on July 7, 1912 and became a regular act of his.

Entered the magic business in the 1890s with performances of tricks and escape acts from padlocked trunks and handcuffs. Image: Harry Houdini about to jump off the Harvard Bridge in Boston in 1908

The buried alive stunt was probably Houdini’s most daring act. It was performed in 1915 when he was buried alive in a sand pit without a coffin. He dug himself out but was exhausted and had to be assisted by his assistants. Houdini noted this act was very dangerous because the weight of the sand was killing. He carried out this daring act only three times in his entire career.

Other Projects

Houdini dabbled in other projects like acting; his first work was a short film released in 1901. The film, which was titled  “Merveilleux Exploits du Célébre Houdini Paris”, documented his stunts and escapes. He invested in a production company Houdini Picture Corporation, however, it was not successful. He also featured in a few other films such as, “Master Mystery”, “The Grim Game”, and “Terror Island”. He, however, abandoned acting because it did not earn him much money.

Death of Harry Houdini

There are a lot of theories concerning Houdini’s death; some blamed a McGill University student, Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead, who punched him repeatedly in the stomach; while some believe the renowned magician was poisoned by angry spiritualists. A rational skeptic, Houdini had on so many occasions incurred the wrath of spiritualists because he exposed them as frauds.

However, the widely accepted view is that the magician died from a ruptured appendix on October 31, 1926, at the age of 52.

A few days before his death, he had fainted while performing at the Garrick Theater in Detroit, Michigan.

There are some that say Harry Houdini was murdered by spiritualists who did not appreciate Houdini constantly debunking their works.

Did you know?

As a child performer, he went by the name “Ehrich, the Prince of the Air”.

In 1923, he was appointed president of the magic company Martinka &Co. The company is the oldest magic company in the United States.

Houdini regarded French magician Robert-Houdin (1805-1871) as not only his mentor but his spiritual master.

The magician was also known as “Harry ‘Handcuff’ Houdini”.

Houdini was the president of the Society of American Magicians from 1917 to 1926.

Aside from being a master of illusion, Houdini was also an actor, businessman and aviator. He was the first person to fly an airplane on the Australian continent.

His wife Bess held an annual “Houdini séance” for a decade until 1936. Bess hoped that her deceased husband would communicate to her. The escape artist and magician had promised his wife to make contact with her from the afterlife. He made this vow despite being a huge skeptic of séances and spiritual mediums. And to this day, his fans hold annual Houdini séances in hopes of making contact with the famed magician.

Personal Life

Harry Houdini’s wife -Bess

Harry Houdini married Wilhelmina Beatrice “Bess” Rahner in 1894 and she remained his assistant until he died in 1926. His wife Bess wished to be buried beside him; however, her family, who were deeply Catholic, refused to grant her wishes as Houdini was a Jew.

Quick Facts about Harry Houdini

Birth name: Erik Weisz

Born: March 24, 1874

Place of birth: Budapest, Hungary

Died: October 31, 1926; Detroit, Michigan, U.S.

Cause of death: Peritonitis – a ruptured appendix

Parents: Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weisz and Cecília Steiner

Spouse: Wilhelmina Beatrice “Bess” Rahner

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