*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
In an industry dominated by larger-than-life personalities, one man stands above the rest as the epitome of a daring showman: Harry Houdini. Born on March 24, 1874 in Budapest, he would go on to become arguably the world’s most famous magician through a series of death-defying escapes over a 30-year career.
The third of five children born to Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weisz, Houdini’s birth name was Erik. At the age of four, the Weisz family sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to make a new life in the United States, settling in the eastern Wisconsin town of Appleton. Like many immigrants, Houdini’s father opted to change the spelling of each person’s name upon arriving in the US — young Erik Weisz became Ehrich Weiss to match the more familiar German spellings common in America. As he got older, Houdini’s friends gave him the nickname “Harry” and it stuck.
The Weiss family, stricken with poverty, relied on Houdini and his brothers to help provide income, leaving each of the boys to find odd jobs. At the age of 9, Houdini took to the stage for the first time, performing under the name “Ehrich, the Prince of the Air” as part of a trapeze act. Once in New York City, the importance of his financial support became all the more crucial, which led Houdini to believe magic — an interest shared with his younger brother Theodore — could provide him with a suitable career.
Fascinated with the work of Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, he decided to use “Houdini” as his stage name, believing it meant “like Houdin” in his hero’s native French. Just 17 years old, he began his career as a sideshow doing card tricks. Working on the boardwalks near New York City, he married Bess Rahner, a fellow performer and his future stage assistant, in 1894. Within months, “The Houdinis” were touring the country as part of a circus.
Five years later, Houdini got the advice he needed to become one of most jaw-dropping entertainers in history. Already a wizard at freeing himself from handcuffs, Houdini’s chance encounter with Martin Beck, a vaudeville entrepreneur, gave him incentive to make his escapes the center of the show. Satisfied with Houdini’s ability to stun audiences after a performance in Omaha, Nebraska just a few weeks later, Beck booked the magician on his Orpheum Circuit for the next year.
Houdini was an instant hit. He moved from one American city to the next before Beck connected him with opportunities in Europe. Though Houdini struggled to find a host stage at first, his ability to leave detectives at Scotland Yard scratching their heads landed him a gig at Alhambra Theatre in London. Now known as “The Handcuff King,” he made his way around England, Scotland, Holland, Germany, France and into Russia during the next three years, famously breaking out of a van bound for a Siberian prison.
A wealthy man after his travels, Houdini returned to the US in 1905 and purchased a house on West 113th Street in Harlem. Having reached his 30s and made his name by breaking free of handcuffs, Houdini sought new challenges — ropes, straitjackets, chains, nearly everything someone might think of. Whatever it took to grab the minds of an audience, Houdini was willing to do.
By 1910, Houdini had become possibly the best-known entertainer of his era. While some competitors attempted to play their illusions off as mysterious supernatural events, he consciously avoided the notion and focused instead on proclaiming his skill. His book, Handcuff Secrets, discussed his strategies for hiding lockpicks and keys — though most imitators did not develop the ability to spit one up at will hours after swallowing it, like Houdini could.
When he invented the Chinese Water Torture Cell in 1912, he found the death-defying escape audiences craved. Suspended upside down in a rapidly-filling watertight box made of glass and steel, Houdini held his breath for more than three minutes while wiggling free of the restraints. A personal favorite, the trick remained part of his act until his death.
With each passing year, Houdini looked for new ways to impress his audiences. He often dislocated his shoulders to break free of straitjackets, usually while hanging above the stage. On one occasion, he dazzled the viewing public at a theater in New York City by making an elephant disappear. Other than the entertainment of those who paid to see him, Houdini’s chief concern was the protection of magic as an art form, which he worked diligently to secure as President of the Society of American Magicians. (He hoped to make the group a national organization, similar to a labor union.)
In some ways, Houdini sought to become the world’s first crossover star, appearing in his first silent movie in 1919 and making four more by 1923. By this time, he was more inclined to use his expertise as a magician to out “supernaturalists” and limited his stage appearances somewhat.
While touring through Canada the northern United States in late October 1926, Houdini fell ill. Though some reports claimed he took several blows to the abdomen when surprised by a college student — Houdini often said he could take a punch from any man — the truth is rather ordinary: Houdini suffered a ruptured appendix. Stubbornly denying he needed any medical care, the famous entertainer continued performing for several days before being hospitalized in Detroit on October 24th.
A week later, October 31st of 1926, Houdini died early in the afternoon at the age of 52. Despite his distaste for the theatrics associated with psychics and mediums, he told his wife Bess he would relay “Rosabelle believe” — a line from the play she was acting in when they met — if there was some way for the dead to communicate with the living.
For the next decade, Bess held seances on Halloween to see if Houdini would speak to her. When she abandoned the practice in 1936, others took up the tradition as a way to honor his memory, leading to a number of ceremonies held worldwide by fellow magicians to this day.
Also On This Day:
1603 – The Tokugawa Shogunate is established on the orders of Japanese Emperor Go-Yozei
1707 – Great Britain is officially created when the Acts of Union 1707 pulls together the Kingdoms of England and Scotland
1900 – Ground is broken for an underground “Rapid Transit Railroad” to link Manhattan with Brooklyn, expanding the New York City subway
1944 – A prison break at Stalag Luft III occurs, later providing the inspiration for the 1963 movie The Great Escape
1989 – The tanker Exxon Valdez spills 240,000 barrels of oil into Prince William Sound in Alaska