Harry Houdini (March 22, 1874 – October 311926) whose birth name in Hungary was Erik Weisz (which was changed to Ehrich Weiss when he immigrated to the United States), was a Jewish Hungarian American magician, escapologist (widely regarded as one of the greatest ever) and stunt performer, as well as a skeptic and investigator of spiritualists, film producer and actor. Harry Houdini forever changed the world of magic and escapes.
Houdini's father was Mayer (Mayo) Samuel Weiss (1829–1892), a rabbi; his mother was Cecilia Steiner (1841–1913). Ehrich had six siblings: Herman M. (1885); Nathan J. Weiss (1870–1927); Gottfried William Weiss (1872–1925); Theodore Weiss (Dash) (1876–1945); Leopold D. Weiss (1879–1962); and Gladys Carrie Weiss (1882-?). He immigrated with his family to the United States on July 3, 1878, at the age of four, on the SS Fresia with his mother (who was pregnant) and his four brothers. Houdini's name was listed as Ehrich Weiss. Friends called him "Ehrie" or "Harry".
At first, they lived in Appleton, Wisconsin, where his father served as rabbi of the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation. In 1880, the family was living on Appleton Street. On June 6, 1882, Rabbi Weiss became an American citizen. After losing his tenure, he moved to New York City with Ehrich in 1887. They lived in a boarding house on East 79th Street. Rabbi Weiss later was joined by the rest of the family once he found more permanent housing. As a child, Ehrich took several jobs, then became a champion cross country runner. He made his public début as a 9-year-old trapeze artist, calling himself "Ehrich, the prince of the air". Weiss became a professional magician and began calling himself "Harry Houdini" because he was heavily influenced by the French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, and his friend Jack Hayman told him that in French, adding an "i" to Houdin would mean "like Houdin" the great magician. In later life, Houdini would claim that the first part of his new name, Harry, was an homage to Harry Kellar, whom Houdini admired a great deal. However, it's more likely Harry derived naturally from his nickname "Ehrie".
Initially, Houdini's magic career resulted in little success. He performed in dime museums and sideshows, and even doubled as "the Wild Man" at a circus. Houdini initially focused on traditional card tricks. At one point, he billed himself as the "King of Cards". But he soon began experimenting with escape acts. In 1893, while performing with his brother "Dash" at Coney Island as "The Brothers Houdini", Harry met and married fellow performer Wilhelmina Beatrice (Bess) Rahner. Bess replaced Dash in the act, which became known as "The Houdinis". For the rest of Houdini's performing career, Bess would work as his stage assistant.
Harry Houdini's "big break" came in 1899 when he met manager Martin Beck in rural Woodstock, Illinois. Impressed by Houdini's handcuffs act, Beck advised him to concentrate on escape acts and booked him on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit. Within months, he was performing at the top vaudeville houses in the country. In 1900, Beck arranged for Houdini to tour Europe.
Houdini was a sensation in Europe, where he became widely known as "The Handcuff King". He toured England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Russia. In each city, Houdini would challenge local police to restrain him with shackles and lock him in their jails. In many of these challenge escapes, Houdini would first be stripped nude and searched. In Moscow, Houdini escaped from a Siberian prison transport van. Houdini publicly stated that, had he been unable to free himself, he would have had to travel to Siberia, where the only key was kept. In Cologne, he sued a police officer, Werner Graff, who claimed he made his escapes via bribery. Houdini won the case when he opened the judge's safe (he would later say the judge had forgotten to lock it). With his new-found wealth and success, Houdini purchased a dress said to have been made for Queen Victoria. He then arranged a grand reception where he presented his mother in the dress to all their relatives. Houdini said it was the happiest day of his life. In 1904, Houdini returned to the U.S. and purchased a house for $25,000, a brownstone at 278 W. 113th Street in Harlem, New York. The house still stands today.
From 1907 and throughout the 1910s, Houdini performed with great success in the United States. He would free himself from jails, handcuffs, chains, ropes, and straitjackets, often while hanging from a rope in plain sight of street audiences. Because of imitators and a dwindling audience, on January 25, 1908, Houdini put his "handcuff act" behind him and began escaping from a locked, water-filled milk can. The possibility of failure and death thrilled his audiences. Houdini also expanded his challenge escape act - in which he invited the public to devise contraptions to hold him - to include nailed packing crates (sometimes lowered into the water), riveted boilers, wet-sheets, mailbags, and even the belly of a whale that washed ashore in Boston. At one point, brewers challenged Houdini to escape from his milk can after they filled it with beer. Many of these challenges were prearranged with local merchants in what is certainly one of the first uses of mass tie-in marketing. Rather than promote the idea that he was assisted by spirits, as did the Davenport Brothers and others, Houdini's advertisements showed him making his escapes via dematerializing, although Houdini himself never claimed to have supernatural powers.
In 1912, Houdini introduced perhaps his most famous act, the Chinese Water Torture Cell, in which he was suspended upside-down in a locked glass-and-steel cabinet full to overflowing with water. The act required that Houdini hold his breath for more than three minutes. Houdini performed the escape for the rest of his career. Despite two Hollywood movies depicting Houdini dying in the Torture Cell, the escape had nothing to do with his demise.
Houdini explained some of his tricks in books written for the magic brotherhood throughout his career. In Handcuff Secrets (1909), he revealed how many locks and handcuffs could be opened with properly applied force, others with shoestrings. Other times, he carried concealed lockpicks or keys, being able to regurgitate small keys at will. When tied down in ropes or straitjackets, he gained wiggle room by enlarging his shoulders and chest, moving his arms slightly away from his body, and then dislocating his shoulders. His straitjacket escape was originally performed behind curtains, with him popping out free at the end. However, Houdini's brother, who was also an escape artist billing himself as Theodore Hardeen, after being accused of having someone sneak in and let him out and being challenged to escape without the curtain, discovered that audiences were more impressed and entertained when the curtains were eliminated so they could watch him struggle to get out. They both performed straitjacket escapes dangling upside-down from the roof of a building for publicity on more than one occasion. It is said that Hardeen once handed out bills for his show while Houdini was doing his suspended straitjacket escape; Houdini became upset because people thought it was Hardeen up there escaping, not Houdini. Many people imitate some of Houdini's tricks to this day.
For the majority of his career, Houdini performed his act as a headliner in vaudeville. For many years, he was the highest-paid performer in American vaudeville. One of Houdini's most notable non-escape stage illusions was performed at New York's Hippodrome Theater when he vanished a full-grown elephant (with its trainer) from a stage, beneath which was a swimming pool. In 1923, Houdini became president of Martinka & Co., America's oldest magic company. The business is still in operation today. He also served as President of the Society of American Magicians (aka S.A.M.) from 1917 until his death in 1926. In the final years of his life (1925/26), Houdini launched his own full-evening show, which he billed as "3 Shows in One: Magic, Escapes, and Fraud Mediums Exposed."
After Houdini's death, his friend, Will Goldstone, published in his book, Sensational Tales of Mystery Men, that Houdini was bested that day and appealed to his wife, Bess, for help. Goldstone goes on to claim that Bess begged the key from the Mirror representative, then slipped it to Houdini in a glass of water.
Ándi offered no proof of his account, and many modern biographers have found evidence (notably in the custom design of the handcuff itself) that the entire Mirror challenge was pre-arranged by Houdini and the newspaper, and that his long struggle to escape was pure showmanship.
In 1908, Houdini introduced his original invention, the Milk Can escape. In this effect, Houdini would be handcuffed and sealed inside an over-sized milk can filled with water and make his escape behind a curtain. As part of the effect, Houdini would invite members of the audience to hold their breath along with him while he was inside the can. Advertised with dramatic posters that proclaimed "Failure Means A Drowning Death", the escape proved to be a sensation. Houdini soon modified the escape to include the Milk Can being locked inside a wooden chest. Houdini only performed the Milk Can escape as a regular part of his act for four years, but it remains one of the effects most associated with the escape artist. Houdini's brother, Theodore Hardeen, continued to perform the Milk Can (and the wooden chest variation) into the 1940s. The Milk Can and the Overboard Box are presently housed at the American Museum of Magic.
Due to the vast number of imitators of his Milk Can escape, in 1911 Houdini replaced the Milk Can with his most famous escape: the Chinese Water Torture Cell. In this escape, Houdini's feet would be locked in stocks, and he would be lowered upside down into a tank filled with water. The mahogany and metal cell featured a glass front, through which audiences could clearly see Houdini. The stocks would be locked to the top of the cell, and a curtain would conceal his escape. In the earliest version of the Torture Cell, a metal cage was lowered into the cell, and Houdini was enclosed inside that. While making the escape more difficult (the cage prevented Houdini from turning), the cage bars also offered protection should the glass front break.
The original cell was built in England, where Houdini first performed the escape for an audience of one person as part of a one-act play he called "Houdini Upside Down". This was so he could copyright the effect and have grounds to sue imitators (which he did). While the escape was advertised as "The Chinese Water Torture Cell" or "The Water Torture Cell", Houdini always referred to it as "the Upside Down" or "USD". The first public performance of the USD was at the Circus Busch in Berlin, on September 21, 1912. Houdini continued to perform the escape until his death in 1926. Despite two Hollywood movies depicting Houdini dying in the Torture Cell, the escape had nothing to do with his demise.
One of Houdini's most popular publicity stunts was to have himself strapped into a regulation straitjacket and suspended by his ankles from a tall building or crane. Houdini would then make his escape in full view of the assembled crowd. In many cases, Houdini would draw thousands of onlookers who would choke the street and bring city traffic to a halt. Houdini would sometimes ensure press coverage by performing the escape from the office building of a local newspaper. In New York City, Houdini performed the suspended straitjacket escape from a crane being used to build the New York subway. After flinging his body in the air, Houdini escaped from the straitjacket. Starting from when he was hoisted up in the air by the crane, to when the straitjacket was completely off, it took Houdini two minutes and thirty-seven seconds. Film footage of Houdini performing the escape in Dayton, Ohio, exists in The Library of Congress. After being battered against a building in high winds during one escape, Houdini performed the escape with a visible safety wire on his ankle so that he could be pulled away from the building if necessary.
In 1909, Houdini became fascinated with aviation. That same year, he purchased a French Voisin biplane for $5000 and hired a full-time mechanic, Antonio Brassac. Houdini painted his name in bold block letters on the Voisin's sidepanels and tail. After crashing once, Houdini made his first successful flight on November 26 in Hamburg, Germany.
In 1910, Houdini toured Australia. He brought with him his Voisin biplane and had the distinction of achieving the first controlled powered flight over Australia, doing so on March 21 at Diggers Rest, Victoria, just north of Melbourne. Colin Defries preceded him, but he crashed the plane on landing. Houdini proudly claimed to reporters that, while the world may forget about him as a magician and escape artist, it would never forget Houdini the pioneer aviator.
After his Australia tour, Houdini put the Voisin into storage in England. Although he announced he would use it to fly from city to city during his next Music Hall tour, Houdini never flew again.
Houdini made his first movie for Pathé in 1901. Titled Merveilleux Exploits du Célébre Houdini à Paris, it featured a loose narrative meant to showcase several of Houdini's famous escapes, including his straitjacket escape. Houdini returned to film in 1916 when he served as special-effects consultant on the Pathé thriller, The Mysteries of Myra. That same year, he got an offer to star as Captain Nemo in a silent version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but the project never made it into production.
In 1918, Houdini signed a contract with film producer B.A. Rolfe to star in a 15-part serial, The Master Mystery (released in January 1919). As was common at the time, the film serial was released simultaneously with a novel. Financial difficulties resulted in B.A. Rolfe Productions going out of business, but The Master Mystery was a box-office success and led to Houdini being signed by Famous Players-Lasky Corporation/Paramount Pictures, for whom he made two pictures, The Grim Game (1919) and Terror Island (1920). While filming an aerial stunt for The Grim Game, two biplanes collided in mid-air with a stuntman doubling Houdini dangling by a rope from one of the planes. Publicity was geared heavily toward promoting this dramatic "caught on film" moment, claiming it was Houdini himself dangling from the plane. While filming these movies in Los Angeles, Houdini rented a home in Laurel Canyon.
Following his two-picture stint in Hollywood, Houdini returned to New York and started his own film production company called the "Houdini Picture Corporation." He produced and starred in two films, The Man From Beyond (1921) and Haldane of the Secret Service (1923). He also started up his own film laboratory business called The Film Development Corporation (FDC), gambling on a new process for developing motion picture film. Houdini’s brother, Hardeen, left his own career as a magician and escape artist to run the company. Magician Harry Kellar was a major investor.
Neither Houdini's acting career nor FDC found success, and he gave up on the movie business in 1923, complaining that "the profits are too meager.” But his celebrity was such that, years later, he would be given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (at 7001 Hollywood Blvd).
As of 2007, only The Man From Beyond had been commercially released on DVD. Incomplete versions of The Master Mystery and Terror Island were released by private collectors on VHS. Complete 35 mm prints of Haldane of the Secret Service and The Grim Game exist only in private collections. Haldane of the Secret Service was screened in Los Angeles in 2007.
In April 2008, Kino International released a DVD box set of Houdini's surviving silent movies. The set includes The Master Mystery, Terror Island, The Man From Beyond, Haldane of the Secret Service, and five minutes of The Grim Game. The set also includes newsreel footage of Houdini's escapes from 1907 to 1923.
These activities cost Houdini the friendship of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle, a firm believer in Spiritualism during his later years, refused to believe any of Houdini's exposés. Conan Doyle actually came to believe that Houdini was a powerful spiritualist medium, had performed many of his stunts by means of paranormal abilities and was using these abilities to block those of other mediums that he was 'debunking' (see Conan Doyle's The Edge of The Unknown, published in 1931, after Houdini's death). This disagreement led to the two men becoming public antagonists. Gabriel Brownstein has written a fictionalized account of the meetings of Houdini, Conan Doyle, and "Margery" in The Man from Beyond: A Novel (2005).
The 2006 book The Secret Life of Houdini by Kalush and Sloman has an account of Conan Doyle's involvement with the camp of "Margery" and presents personal letters showing that Conan Doyle and Mina's husband strongly believed that revenging spirits (not persons) would soon kill Houdini for hiding the "truth". The book further proposes Conan Doyle's campaign to hijack Houdini's legacy when a Spiritualist minister friend of Conan Doyle, Rev. Arthur Ford, conspired with him to bring messages from Houdini and his mother back from the grave in séances, including one on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel, which would further the Spiritualists' agenda. According to the book, Houdini's wife felt so depressed that she actually tried to commit suicide on the eve of the séance. There is no mention of the fact that, twelve days after the séance, Bess Houdini wrote a moving letter to Walter Winchell, the columnist, which was published in the Graphic, denying the words she received from her deceased husband were given to Ford by herself, denying the charge Bess and Ford had conspired together to perform a publicity stunt to further their careers in the entertainment industry. She trusted Ford's reading. Neither is there any mention of the fact that the Houdini code was already widely known by the public months before the séance. (See Arthur Ford.)
Harry Houdini died of peritonitis secondary to a ruptured appendix. It has been speculated that Houdini was killed by a McGill University student, J. Gordon Whitehead, in Montreal. Houdini died of a ruptured appendix, caused by Whitehead delivering multiple blows to Houdini's abdomen.
The eyewitnesses were students named Jacques Price and Sam Smilovitz (sometimes called Jack Price and Sam Smiley). Their accounts generally agreed. The following is according to Price's description of events. Houdini was reclining on his couch after his performance, having an art student sketch him. When Whitehead came in and asked if it was true that Houdini could take any blow to the stomach, Houdini replied in the affirmative. In this instance, he was hit three times, before Houdini protested. Whitehead reportedly continued hitting Houdini several times afterwards, and Houdini acted as though he were in some pain. Price recounted that Houdini stated that if he had had time to prepare himself properly, he would have been in a better position to take the blows. Although in serious pain, Houdini nonetheless continued to travel without seeking medical attention. Harry had apparently been suffering from appendicitis for several days and refusing medical treatment. His appendix would likely have burst on its own without the trauma.
When Houdini arrived at the Garrick Theater in Detroit, Michigan, on October 24, 1926, for what would be his last performance, he had a fever of 104 degrees F (40°C). Despite a diagnosis of acute appendicitis, Houdini took the stage. He was reported to have passed out during the show, but was revived and continued. Afterwards, he was hospitalized at Detroit's Grace Hospital. Houdini died of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix at 1:26 p.m. in Room 401 on October 31 (Halloween), 1926, at the age of 52.
After taking statements from Price and Smilovitz, Houdini's insurance company concluded that the death was due to the dressing-room incident and paid double indemnity.
In Houdini's will, his vast library was offered to the American Society for Psychical Research on the condition that research officer and editor of the ASPR Journal, J. Malcolm Bird, resign. Bird refused and the collection went instead to the Library of Congress.
Fearing that spiritualists would exploit his legacy by pretending to contact him after his death, Houdini left his wife a secret code—ten words chosen at random from a letter written by Conan Doyle—that he would use to contact her from the afterlife. According to The Secret Life of Houdini, this fear of the Spiritualists was well-founded: Arthur Conan Doyle's campaign to hijack Houdini's legacy came to a head when a Spiritualist minister friend of Conan Doyle, Rev. Arthur Ford, conspired with him to bring alleged messages from Houdini and his mother back from the grave in séances. The Secret Life of Houdini alleges that Bess Houdini was ill and self-medicating with alcohol (other accounts add that she was taking pain medication after a bad fall), and Ford may have talked her into conspiring to assist him in creating the impression he had contacted Houdini's spirit. The book also states that Houdini's wife felt so depressed that she actually tried to commit suicide on the eve of the séance.
Ford claimed to have gotten other spirit messages pertaining to Houdini. In 1928, he said he had heard from Houdini's mother, who had said "forgive". However, Bess had mentioned to a reporter the previous year that an authentic message from Cecily would include this word.
At the séance, Ford claimed to have contacted both Houdini and his deceased mother via Ford's spirit guide "Fletcher", and stated that the message received was in the pre-arranged code worked out by Houdini and Bess before Houdini's death. A brief letter supposedly signed by Bess Houdini appeared, which read in full: "Regardless of any statements made to the contrary, I wish to declare that the message, in its entirety, and in the agreed upon sequence, given to me by Arthur Ford, is the correct message pre-arranged between Mr. Houdini and myself." On January 10, 1929, New York Graphic reporter Rea Jaure filed a story titled "Houdini Message a Big Hoax!" stating that Ford had confessed in an interview to having paid Bess Houdini for her cooperation, but Ford later claimed the interviewee was an impostor. Further muddying the waters were Bess Houdini's conflicting statements about the success of Ford's experiments; she is alleged to have written an impassioned letter to the famed columnist Walter Winchell initially defending Ford, and a New York Times article from January 15, 1929 has her responding to rumors that the code had been "leaked" in advance by stating that, "No one but her husband and herself could possibly have known the details of the code. Neither overtly nor covertly could it have been gleaned... To this argument she clung." But by March 18,1930, both The New York Times and Bess Houdini had modified their stance. "Numerous attempts to convince Mrs. Houdini that her husband is communicating through a medium were made," the Times said, "but she steadfastly denied that any of the mediums presented the clue by which she was to recognize a legitimate message."
Bess Houdini held yearly séances on Halloween for ten years after Houdini's death, but Houdini never appeared. In 1936, after a last unsuccessful séance on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel, she put out the candle that she had kept burning beside a photograph of Houdini since his death, later (1943) saying, "ten years is long enough to wait for any man." The tradition of holding a séance for Houdini continues by magicians throughout the world to this day; the Official Houdini Seance is currently organized by Sidney Hollis Radner, an Houdini aficionado from upstate New York. The yearly Houdini Seances are also done at the Houdini Museum in Scranton by magician Dorothy Dietrich who previously did the at New York's famous Magic Towne House with such magicial notables as Houdini biographers Walter B. Gibson and Milbourne Christopher. Bess Houdini, who did the Houdini seances for ten years then asked Walter B. Gibson to carry on the tradition. Before Mr. Gibson died he asked Dorothy Dietrich to carry on the tradition.
They stressed his smallness – "somewhat undersized" – and angular, vivid features: "He is smooth-shaven with a keen, sharp-chinned, sharp-cheekboned face, bright blue eyes and thick, curly, black hair." Some sensed how much his complexly expressive smile was the outlet of his charismatic stage presence. It communicated to audiences at once warm amiability, pleasure in performing, and, more subtly, imperious self-assurance. Several reporters tried to capture the charming effect, describing him as "happy-looking", "pleasant-faced", "good natured at all times", "the young Hungarian magician with the pleasant smile and easy confidence.
The only known recording of Houdini's voice reveals it to be heavily accented. Houdini made these recordings on Edison wax cylinders on October 24, 1914, in Flatbush, New York. On them, Houdini practices several different introductory speeches for his famous Chinese Water Torture Cell. He also invites his sister, Gladys, to recite a poem. Houdini then recites the same poem in German. The six wax cylinders were discovered in the collection of magician John Mulholland after his death in 1970. They are currently part of the David Copperfield collection.
Radner archived the bulk of his collection at the Houdini Museum in Appleton Wisconsin, but pulled it in 2003 and auctioned it off in Las Vegas on October 30, 2004. Many of the choice props, including the restored Water Torture Cell, are now owned by David Copperfield.
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