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Saturday, 1 August 2015

Harry Houdini


Harry Houdini was born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary on March 24, 1874. His parents were Rabbi Mayer Sámuel Weisz (1829–1892), and Cecília Weisz (née Steiner; 1841–1913). Erik was one of seven children.

Erik arrived in the United States on July 3, 1878, on the SS Fresia with his family. They changed the Hungarian spelling of their German surname to Weiss (the German spelling) and Erik's name was changed to Ehrich. Friends called him "Ehrie" or "Harry".

They first lived in Appleton, Wisconsin, where his father served as Rabbi of the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation.

At the age of fifteen, Ehrich discovered the autobiography of the greatest conjurer of the nineteenth century, French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. Ehrich was fascinated by the book and stayed up all night reading it. He later stated that the work sparked his enthusiasm for magic.

Erik was a natural athlete, who enjoyed running, swimming, and bicycling. He even received several medals in cross-country track competitions.


Weiss became Houdini by naming himself after Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin. The young magician added an "i" to "Houdin" to imply "like Houdin."

Harry Houdini was not the only stage name of Ehrich Weiss - others included Eric: Prince of the Air, Eric the Great and The King of Cards.

Houdini was initially unsuccessful as a magician. Early on, he touted himself as the "King of Cards" and "King of Handcuffs."

Houdini prepares to do the overboard box escape c. 1912

In 1893, while performing with his brother "Dash" (Theodore) at Coney Island as "The Brothers Houdini," Harry met a fellow performer, Wilhelmina Beatrice "Bess" Rahner. She and Houdini married in 1894, with Bess replacing Dash in the act, which became known as "The Houdinis." For the rest of Houdini's performing career, Bess worked as his stage assistant.

In 1899 Houdini's luck changed when he met his manager Martin Beck. Martin Beck was impressed with Houdini's handcuff trick and within a year Houdini was famous, playing big vaudeville shows and touring Europe.

Houdini, c. 1900 

Houdini wrote a book in 1909 called Handcuff Secrets in which he revealed many of the tricks behind his famous escapes.

In 1912, Houdini introduced his most famous act, the Chinese Water Torture Cell, in which he was left upside-down in a locked glass-and-steel cabinet overflowing with water. He had to hold his breath for more than three minutes. Houdini performed the act for the rest of his career.

Houdini could pick up pins with his eyelashes and thread a needle with his toes.

On August 5, 1926 Harry Houdini performed his greatest feat, remaining in a sealed tank, submerged in the swimming pool of New York's Hotel Shelton for 91 minutes before escaping. Houdini claimed he did not use any trickery or supernatural powers to accomplish this feat, just controlled breathing.


In 1909, Houdini became fascinated with aviation. He purchased a French Voisin biplane for $5000 and hired a full-time mechanic, Antonio Brassac. Houdini made his first successful flight on November 26th in Hamburg, Germany.

In 1910 Houdini had his plane dismantled and shipped to Australia, where he planned an extended tour. On March 18, of that year he made three flights at Diggers Rest, Victoria, near Melbourne. It was reported at the time that this was the first aerial flight in Australia, but this is disputed now.

Houdini taught himself how to drive a car during that time, so that he could get out to the airfield. After his Australian tour, Houdini abandoned the plane and also never drove again.

Following the death of his beloved mother in 1913, Houdini was approached by greedy "mediums" to bring her from the "other side" to speak to him in seances. He agreed, and paid them large sums of money. The messages were all similar and in English. However, Houdini's mother knew little English when she was alive, and spoke in a mix of German, Yiddish, and Hungarian. Houdini became enraged at the exploitation of his grief, and mounted a public crusade against so-called "spiritualists."


Harry Houdini, died of peritonitis in a Detroit hospital at 1:26 p.m. on October 31, 1926. Twelve days before, Houdini had been talking to a group of students after a lecture in Montreal and he commented on the strength of his stomach muscles and their ability to withstand hard blows. Suddenly, one of the students,  J. Gordon Whitehead, punched Houdini twice in the stomach.
The magician hadn't had time to prepare, and the blows ruptured his appendix. He fell ill on the train to Detroit, and, after performing one last time, was hospitalized. Doctors operated on him, but to no avail. The burst appendix poisoned his system.

Houdini made a pact with his wife and friends that the first to die was to try and communicate from the spirit world. He gave them his wife a password so that she would be able to tell the difference between "legit" mediums and bogus mediums. When Houdini passed away his wife waited for a communiqué from the spirit world but it never came; she declared the experiment a failure shortly before her death in 1943.


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