Erich Weisz, aka Harry Houdini
March 24, 1874 - Octiber 31, 1926
Spectacular escapes from chains and straitjackets were his stock in trade - oft hanging high in the air from a building or deep underwater. Harry Houdini's name became synonymous with magic. He died a mysterious death 90 years ago this week on Halloween, 1926.
Born Erich Weisz in Budapest, Hungary, the boy who was to become Harry Houdini moved with his family to Appleton, Wisconsin and later claimed he was born there. At 13, Erich moved with his father to New York City, taking on odd jobs and living in a boarding house before the rest of the family joined them. Ehrich sold newspapers and shined shoes to help support the family.
Houdini was fascinated with magic from an early age, launching his career at the age of 20 and adopting a new name. On October 28, 1883, nine year old Ehrich made his first appearance on stage, performing a trapeze act. He billed himself as "Ehrich, Prince of the Air."
As a youth, Ehrich hopped a freight car and ran away from home. A year later her returned to New York and continued to help support his family by working as a messenger, necktie cutter, and photography assistant. Nothing is known of his year away from his family.
His first performances were greeted with little interest. He persevered, experimenting with different acts in vaudeville houses, and eventually drew attention for an act in which he escaped from a set of handcuffs.
In 1893 he married a fellow performer, Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, finding both a wife and a lifelong stage assistant.
In 1899, Houdini's act caught the attention of Martin Beck, an entertainment manager who soon booked him at some of the best vaudeville venues in the country, followed by a tour of Europe. Houdini's feats would involve the local police, who would strip search him, place him in shackles and lock him in their jails. The show was a huge sensation, and he soon became the highest-paid performer in American vaudeville.
Houdini continued his act in the United States in the early 1900s, constantly upping the ante from handcuffs and straitjackets to locked, water-filled tanks, then nailed packing crates and coffins. He was able to escape because of both his uncanny strength and his equally uncanny ability to pick locks.
In 1912, his act reached its pinnacle, the Chinese Water Torture Cell, which would be the hallmark of his career. In it, Houdini was suspended by his feet and lowered upside-down in a locked glass cabinet filled with water, requiring him to hold his breath for more than three minutes to escape. The performance was so daring and such a crowd-pleaser that it remained in his act until his death in 1926.
Houdini's wealth allowed him to indulge in other passions, such as aviation and film. He purchased his first plane in 1909 and set out to become the first person to man a controlled power flight over Australia in 1910. While he did it after a few failed attempts, it later was revealed that Houdini was likely beaten to the punch by just a few months by a Capt. Colin Defries, who made a short flight in December 1909.
Video biography, the Discovery Channel
Houdini also launched a movie career, releasing his first film in 1901, "Merveilleux Exploits du Célébre Houdini Paris," which documented his escapes. He starred in several subsequent films, including "The Master Mystery," "The Grim Game" and "Terror Island."
He formed his own production company, Houdini Picture Corporation, and a film lab called The Film Development Corporation, but neither was a success. In 1923, Houdini became president of Martinka & Co., America's oldest magic company.
Houdini's publishing career didn't end with his literary takedown of Jean Eugène Robert-Houdine, a French magician and conjurer,whom he attacked as a fraud in his book "Miracle Mongers and Their Methods" (1920) and "A Magician Among the Spirits" (1924).
As president of the Society of American Magicians, Harry Houdini was a vigorous campaigner against fraudulent psychic mediums. Most notably, he debunked renowned medium Mina Crandon, better known as Margery. This act turned him against former friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who believed deeply in spiritualism and Margery's sight.
Despite his activism against spiritual charlatanism, Houdini and his wife did in fact experiment with otherworldly spiritualism when they decided that the first of them to die would try to communicate from beyond the grave with the survivor. Before her 1943 death, Bess Houdini declared the experiment a failure.
Reports vary on the cause of Harry Houdini's death.
What is known for certain is that he died of acute appendicitis. Some say his death was caused by a punch in the stomach from a university student Houdini dared to hit him in the stomach as hard as he could. Others suspect he was poisoned by an angry band of Spiritualists.
After his death, Houdini's props and effects were used by his brother Theodore Hardeen, who eventually sold them to magician and collector Sidney H. Radner. Much of the collection was displayed at the Houdini Museum in Appleton, Wisconsin, until Radner auctioned it off in 2004. Many pieces, including the Water Torture Cell, were purchased by magician David Copperfield.
The American Society of Magicians holds a "Broken Wand Ceremony" at his gravesite on the anniversary of his death each year.
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