Harry Houdini was one of the greatest, and certainly the most famous, stage magicians of all time. His seemingly impossible escapes, everything from straitjackets to locked chains, fascinated the public, and even led to furtive whispers that Houdini must have supernatural powers.
Straightjacket used in one of Houdini’s escapes
In his publicity releases, Houdini liked to claim that he was born in Appleton, Wisconsin. But documents show that he was actually born in Budapest, Hungary, in March 1874, under the name Ehrich Weiss. His father was a rabbi, and when Hungary underwent another of its periodic anti-Semitic pogroms, Herman Weiss went to the United States, where he had a friend living in Appleton, and helped set up a synagogue. His wife and children moved there in 1878.
After a few years, Weiss had a falling-out with the synagogue, and unable to speak English, he moved the family to Milwaukee to better his chances of finding a job. The family sank into desperate poverty. Nine-year-old Ehrich took a job as a locksmith apprentice–training which would serve him well later. He also won several medals in local track and field competitions. A few years later the family moved to New York City, where young Ehrich got a job in a textile factory, making neckties.
At age 15, he happened to pick up a book by a well-known French stage magician named Robert Houdin. Weiss had always been interested in magic and had learned a few card tricks, but he later declared that reading Houdin’s stories led to his devotion to stagecraft. He began devouring books on the subject, met with other budding magicians, and learned a series of tricks. By 1891, Weiss and his friend Jacob Hyman were hired to perform a magic act at Coney Island. Combining his nickname “Ehrie” with the name of his hero Houdin, Ehrich Weiss adopted the stage name “Harry Houdini”, and the two performed as “The Brothers Houdini”. When Hyman left on his own, Harry brought in his real brother Theodore, and a year later they were performing at the Chicago World’s Fair. In 1894, Houdini married Bess Rahner, one of the singing Floral Sisters, and she replaced Theo in the act as Harry’s assistant. “The Great Houdinis” toured around the country with a circus and then with a vaudeville act.
Most of their performance consisted of card and coin tricks, and the “Metamorphosis” illusion in which the two were able to mysteriously replace each other in a locked trunk onstage. But in 1896, as a publicity stunt, Houdini added a twist to his act by performing escapes. At each city they toured, Houdini would ask the local police department to lock him in handcuffs, then deftly escape.
When the vaudeville show ended in 1896, the Houdinis took a job as the opening entertainment for a traveling quack medicine salesman, who asked them if they could do a “spiritualist seance” act. Houdini quickly learned the tricks of the trade, going so far as to read the local obituaries so he could give correct names for the “deceased spirits”. But both Harry and his wife quickly felt pangs of guilt at taking advantage of the newly-bereaved, and left the tour.
Their break came in 1899. In Chicago, Houdini once again issued his challenge to the local police, and escaped from all their handcuffs. The story was picked up in the newspapers, and the owner of the nationwide Orpheum chain of theaters signed them as a featured tour. Recognizing that the escape act was his biggest draw, “The Great Houdini” dropped his card and magic act and became known as “The King of Handcuffs”. By 1900 he and Bess were touring in London, where, in a calculated publicity stunt, he escaped from handcuffs, shackles and straitjackets, all provided by Scotland Yard. Houdini was now a sensation, and, after touring across Europe and Russia for the next five years, returned to America in 1905. In Washington DC, under the watch of the Secret Service, he escaped from the prison cell that had been occupied by presidential assassin Charles Guiteau, while handcuffed. He was now the most famous stage act in the world.
As his fame grew, his escape stunts became more dramatic. He was handcuffed and thrown into a river. He was wrapped in a straitjacket and dangled over a building. He was locked inside a sealed metal milk can filled with water. He was lowered headfirst into a large locked box filled with water. Each time, he seemingly cheated death. He also began adding some magic tricks to his act again, performing the “Metamorphosis” trick with Bess as his assistant, and making a fullgrown elephant disappear.
After the First World War, the phenomenon of “spiritualism” became popular in America and Europe, as “mediums” and “psychics” claimed to be able to contact the spirits of the dead. Houdini himself had once performed “seances” with the traveling medicine show, so he knew all the tricks and, outraged at what he saw as dishonestly taking advantage of the emotionally vulnerable, he decided to openly expose them all as fakes. He not only gave lectures and stage shows demonstrating how the tricks were done, but openly challenged any “mediums” in town to let him sit in on their performance and often showed up in disguise, often revealing their trickery right on stage. Ironically, his own seemingly impossible escapes had prompted some spiritualists, including his friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the author of Sherlock Holmes), to conclude that Houdini was concealing the fact that he himself had the supernatural ability to “dematerialize” his body and become a spirit–an argument that cost Houdini his friendship with Doyle.
During this time, Houdini continued to do live theater performances, but with stage shows losing out to motion pictures, his audiences began to decline. Houdini had himself done several movies and even started his own production company, but he did not have the same presence on screen as he did on stage, and all of his movies were bombs.
Although he was now 52 years old, Houdini was still in remarkably good shape. As part of his act, he invited men from the audience to come on stage and punch him in the stomach. His tightened stomach muscles were able to easily absorb the blow. So when Houdini invited a couple of college students to visit with him backstage in Montreal, one of them asked if he could punch him. Houdini started to sit up from his cot (he was recovering from a broken ankle), but the student hit him before he was ready. Unknown to Houdini, he was already developing appendicitis, and the blow probably ruptured his appendix. Despite medical advice, Houdini performed his remaining show in Canada and then did another act in Detroit before finally going for treatment. It was too late–infection had already set in. Houdini died from peritonitis on Halloween Day, 1926.
After Houdini’s death, most of his stage props were given to his brother Theo, who used them in his own act before donating them to the Houdini Museum in Appleton WI. Later, much of the collection was purchased by Las Vegas magician David Copperfield, but some of Houdini’s original props, including one of his straitjackets, are now on display at the County History Museum in Appleton.