Birthday: March 24, 1874
Died At Age: 52
Sun Sign: Aries
Also Known As: Erik Weisz, Ehrich Weiss, Harry Weiss
Born in: Budapest
Famous as: Illusionist
Spouse/Ex-: Bess Houdini
father: Mayer Samuel Weisz
mother: Cecelia Weisz
siblings: Carrie Gladys, Gottfried William, Herman M., Leopold D., Nathan J., Theodore Hardeen
Died on: October 31, 1926
place of death: Detroit
City: Budapest, Hungary
Founder/Co-Founder: Society of American Magicians
Who was Harry Houdini?
Harry Houdini, born as Erik Weisz, was the world’s most celebrated magician who enthralled audiences through his daring and unbelievable escape feats. This Hungarian-born American escape artist knew how to draw attention, by claiming to release himself from any kind of prison, leg-iron, steel lock, and chain. Fascinated by the French magician Jean Robert-Houdin, Harry Houdini, not only stepped into the latter’s shoes, but also adopted his surname in embarking a flourishing, money-making career. This master of illusion became an international sensation for his ability to extricate himself from assorted locked containers, right from prison cells to milk cans to airtight coffins. His fantastic stunts added to his great illusion career, with his underwater box escape being considered as one of his most remarkable tricks ever performed. His other prominent acts included Daily Mirror challenge, milk can escape, Chinese water torture cell, and buried alive stunt. Besides his near-death escapes and heart-pumping acts, he gave acting and directing a try, but wasn’t able to achieve much success in it. What’s more, as a passionate aviator, he bought his own aircraft and became the first person to fly a plane in Australia. In fact, he desired to be remembered as an aviation pioneer more than a legendary escapologist.
Childhood & Early Life
Harry Houdini was born as Erik Weisz on March 24, 1874 in Budapest, Hungary, as one of the six kids, to Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weisz and his second wife, Cecilia Steiner Weisz.
His family immigrated to the United States in 1878 and started living in Appleton, Wisconsin, where they changed their surname to German ‘Weiss’, while his name was modified to ‘Ehrich’.
In 1887, the family then relocated to New York City, where he took up odd jobs to support his family and developed an interest in trapeze arts.
He started performing as a magician in dime museums, sideshows and circuses in 1891 but didn’t see much success. He then took up escape acts using handcuffs.
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Harry Houdini started earning recognition in 1899 when he performed the handcuffs act, escaping from prisons, at the best vaudeville venues, arranged by entertainment manager Martin Beck. These acts made him the highest-paid performer in US shows.
He performed throughout the United States during the early 1900s, increasing the repertoire of his acts. His acts included escaping from handcuffs to straitjackets, coffins, nail packing crates, and locked, water-filled tanks.
He took his show to Europe and after initial struggle, he was sponsored by Dundas Slater who booked his escape acts at the Alhambra Theatre for six months.
His uncanny strength and quick thinking to get hold of locks took him to Scotland, France, Germany, England, Russia, and Netherlands, where he was locked by the local police in jails and made successful escapes.
He debuted in filmmaking with a documentary of his escapes ‘Merveilleux Exploits du Celebre Houdini Paris’ (1901) and acted in a variety of movies, such as ‘The Grim Game’, ‘The Master Mystery’, Terror Island’ and ‘The Man From Beyond’.
He launched his production company Houdini Picture Corporation and started a film lab, The Film Development Corporation; however, none of them turned fruitful.
He authored the ‘Handcuff Secrets’ in 1909, which illustrated tricks for opening locks and handcuffs by applying proper force or using concealed lockpicks, shoestrings and keys.
His love for aviation urged him to buy a French-made Voisin biplane in 1909 and he became the first person to make a successful controlled power flight over Australia soil in 1910.
His literary career saw the release of several books, like ‘Miracle Mongers and Their Methods’ (1920), ‘Magical Rope Ties and Escapes’ (1920), ‘Houdini’s Paper Magic’ (1921), and ‘A Magician Among the Spirits’ (1924).
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By persuading local magic clubs to join the Society of American Magicians (SAM) in various US cities, he went on to create the world’s richest and longest-surviving organization of magicians, in 1916.
During 1925-26, he introduced his full evening-show, ‘Three Shows in One: Magic, Escapes and Fraud Mediums Exposed’
As a challenge by London’s Daily Mirror in 1904, he went on to unlock the special handcuffs, built by a Birmingham locksmith in five years, after a 90-minute struggle and deemed it as his career’s most difficult escape.
He invented the Milk Can escape in 1908, where he was handcuffed and locked inside an over-sized milk can, filled with water (later replaced with milk), and advertised it as ‘Failure Means a Drowning Death’.
Among his most infamous stunts was the underwater box escape introduced in 1912, wherein he took 57 seconds to unlock the handcuffs and leg-irons, and escape from a crate loaded with 200 pounds of lead and immersed in water.
In 1912, he started the Chinese Water Torture Cell. In this act, he was suspended upside-down in a locked glass-and-steel cabinet filled with water and held his breath for over three minutes to escape.
By remaining submerged in a sealed bronze coffin for one-and-half hour in 1926, he broke Egyptian performer Rahman Bey’s record of one hour, claiming to have breathed quietly without using any trick or supernatural power.
Awards & Achievements
Harry Houdini became the President of the Society of American Magicians in 1917 and held this position till his death in 1926.
He was made the President of America’s oldest magic company, Martinka & Co. in 1923.
He was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 7001 Hollywood Boulevard, posthumously in 1975.
Personal Life & Legacy
Harry Houdini married his fellow performer, Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, in 1893, after which she continued to work as his partner onstage as Beatrice ‘Bess’ Houdini.
He was operated on a ruptured appendix on October 24, 1926 at Grace Hospital, Detroit, and contracted peritonitis. While undergoing a second surgery and an experimental serum, he died on October 31, 1926, at the age of 52.
He was transported from Detroit to New York in the bronze casket which was designed for his yet-to-happen buried alive stunt in 1927.
He was buried at the Machpelah Cemetery in Glendale, Queens, on November 4, 1926 in the presence of 2,000 mourners. His grave site was inscribed with a crest of the ‘Society of American Magicians’.
After becoming a professional magician, he changed his first name from Ehrich to Harry and adopted the surname Houdini after the great French magician, Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin