The performer known world wide as Harry Houdini was born on March 24, 1874 in Budapest. Although Houdini often claimed to be born in Appleton, Wisconsin, Houdini actually came to the United States when he was four years old. To this day many connected with the small town of Appleton still claim the untruth that Houdini was born there strictly to attract tourists. It is clear from copies of birth records and early family records on file at the Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania in the Pocono region, that Houdini was in fact born in Budapest, on March 24, 1874. Historians are now finally agreed on this fact. In later years, in a magazine interview, Houdini said about Appleton, “the greatest escape I ever made was when I left Appleton, Wisconsin.”
Houdini’s early years.
Houdini’s father was Mayer Samuel Weiss. His father was a Rabbi. Mayer was Rabbi for a short time for the German Zoin Jewish Congregation in Appleton. His mother’s name was Cecilia Steiner Weiss. Houdini’s original family pictures are on display at the Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania in the Pocono region.
His parents spoke only Yiddish, Hungarian, and German. The family was quite poor so most of the children began to work at an early age. From the age of eight young Ehrich Weiss sold newspapers and worked as a shoe shine boy. Please note that when coming to the United States there were often many spellings of names as people adjusted to English. At the age of 12, young Ehrich left home to make his way in the world in an attempt to help support his family. This was a great sign of independence. This is contrary to those who incorrectly claim he was overly obsessed with his mother. However he did love her very much.
Houdini moves to New York City at the age of 13.
Young Ehrich traveled the country for about a year, always sending money home when he could. Finally he joined up with his father in New York City. His father would die about five years later on October 5, 1892; the move to New York would change his life and introduce him to the world of big time magic. The family moved to New York in the hope of finding a better life there. In New York, Houdini worked as a messenger and as a cutter in a garment center sweatshop, Richter & Sons, a tie factory to help support his family. He was very athletic and won awards in swimming and track. He would use these athletic and swimming talents to great use in his future as an escape artist.
Houdini began performing magic as a teenager first calling himself Eric the Great. Always a reader, two books would change his life. He read, as a teenager in New York, “Revelations of a Spirit Medium” by A. Medium, which exposed the tricks of phony psychics, who after being tied up would secretly release themselves to make ghostly things happen in darkened rooms. The second book was “The Memoirs of Robert-Houdin,” the autobiography of one of the greatest magicians of the day. Influenced by what he read and learned about the internationally known magician Robert Houdini, young Ehrich changed his name to Houdini, hoping to be in some way like his new found mentor.
Houdini’s first magic shows consisted of card tricks and other simple magic. Houdini early on called himself “The King Of Cards.” Soon Houdini began experimenting with handcuffs and using them in his acts. Houdini performed with another young man who worked with him in the tie factory in New York. They called themselves the Houdini Brothers. Soon Houdini’s younger brother Theo took the place of the boy from the factory. Houdini’s father died when Houdini was a teenager. Together with his brother Theo, they tried to succeed as the Houdini Brothers. Their first performances included shows at amusement parks, beer halls, “dime museums,” and at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
In 1894, Houdini met Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, who was singing and dancing as part of the Floral Sisters. They were working Coney Island at the time.
After knowing each other only two weeks they were married in the month of July. Bess, as she was called, worked and traveled with Houdini and helped by singing, dancing, and performing the Metamorphosis exchange, which Houdini invented.
Bess took Theo’s place in the act that would now be called “The Houdini’s”. He then travels throughout the United States and then the world for the next thirty-three years. Needless to say he leaves mom behind again proving his independence from his mother, though he did love her greatly. His early travels take him to Northeast Pennsylvania where the Houdini Museum is now located, for 2 seasons with the Welch Brothers Circus which traveled throughout Northeast Pennsylvania. He would return in later years to the Scranton area as a major star, and present several unique challenges. His brother Hardeen would also appear in the area as well.
Houdini invents the challenge escape act. The concept of the escape artist is born.
Houdini began offering rewards to anyone who could successfully restrain him, first in handcuffs and later in all manners of objects. Houdini escaped from handcuffs, leg irons, straightjackets, jails and prison cells, a mail pouch, packing crates, a giant paper bag (without tearing the paper), a giant football, an iron boiler, milk cans, coffins, and the famousWater Torture Cell. In most of these escapes, upon later examination, there was never a sign of how Houdini accomplished the release, that added to the miracle. Some of Houdini’s escapes, such as the Straight Jacket or being tied with a hundred feet of rope, Houdini would do in full view of the audience. To help draw crowds and sell tickets, Houdini would do escape challenges, often at police stations with newspaper reporters present, assuring a headline story.
Houdini is discovered.
Martin Beck, Vaudeville’s most important booking agent caught Houdini’s act in 1899 and was impressed with his dynamic personality and booked him as a “challenge escape artist,” a new form of entertainment. Martin Beck booked the Orpheum circuit, the largest chain of vaudeville theaters in the country and booked all of the stars of vaudeville. He had a trained eye for talent. He immediately placed Houdini in big time vaudeville as a supporting act. Houdini soon began to headline in several theaters throughout the country. Houdini having invented a new form of entertainment, “The Challenge Escape” soon would become an international star.
Houdini as “King of Handcuffs” goes to Europe at the age of 26.
Houdini having invented a new form of entertainment, “The Challenge Escape” soon would become an international star. Houdini as “King of Handcuffs” goes to Europe at the age of 26.
After some success in the United States Houdini decided to go to Europe in the year 1900, on the advice of a friend, the greatest coin magician of all time, T. Nelson Downs. Houdini created a sensation in London, England and went on to travel throughout Europe for five years as a headliner. Houdini had so much work in Europe that he summoned his brother Theo to work there under the name Hardeen.
Houdini returned to the United States, determined to become an even bigger star in the country he loved. He would cris-cross between Europe and the United States going where he could get the biggest offers. On one trip here he purchased a building in New York City on 113th Street that was to become his residence for the rest of his life. As escape artist imitators popped up to take advantage of Houdini’s tremendous success, Houdini began to originate new and more difficult and dangerous escapes. Houdini invented the underwater packing box escape as a fabulous publicty stunt that was copied by many others. He was the first person to do the Straight Jacket Escape as well. He introduced the sensational Milk Can Escape in St. Louis on January 27, 1908.
He was a pioneer aviator, a fact not well known, and was the first person on record to fly a plane in Australia a feat he accomplished at Digger’s Rest in 1910. Some claim he was one of the first 17 record breaking aviators of the day. After those series of flights he would never fly again. In 1913 he introduced his legendary Chinese Water Torture Cell.
This was the same year his mother died which was a great shock, as he was in Europe and not told of his mother’s illness. He was also the first to do the largest stage illusion to that day, making the largest object known at the time – an elephant disappear. This was done in 1918 at the Hippodrome in New York City. According to Houdini the elephant Jenny, weighed 10,000 pounds. Houdini was very creative and introduced and invented many magic tricks that are depicted at the Houdini Museum in the Scranton, Pennsylvania Pocono region. After escaping underwater Houdini would often hide under a dock forcing people to think Houdini might have drowned. At the opportune moment Houdini would make his reappearance. Houdini had great strength and agility that he used in accomplishing his stunts. Houdini also spent many hours studying, practicing and conditioning. For Houdini’s underwater stunts, Houdini would practice holding his breath in the bathtub for up to four minutes. He also stayed in an underwater “coffin” for over an hour.
Houdini’s film career.
In 1916 Houdini began a film career. This gave people all over the world a chance to see the great artist. Houdini made five major silent films up until1923. He is the only magician in history to have starred in 5 films. He also wrote several of them. His films include “The Master Mystery,” “The Grim Game,” “Terror Island” and “The Man From Beyond.” Houdini was given one of the first stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his contribution to the film industry. The star is in a prominent spot out side of Hollywood’s famous Chinese Theater. Houdini was the first magician to be so honored. Houdini is the only magician in history to make five feature films, and the only one to have a full length feature film made about his life story. Houdini wrote and even directed several of his movies. Had Houdini lived longer he would have probably made more films, possibly a talking movie, as they were just coming into prominence. Houdini’s film “The Man From Beyond,” as well as “Terror Island” is on constant view at the Houdini Museum in the Scranton, Pennsylvania Pocono region. Both are also available from the museum.
Houdini hated cheats and frauds.
Throughout his career Houdini exposed cheats and frauds in the areas of gambling, spiritualism, and psychic frauds. Houdini never believed in spiritualism, but would often pretend to in order to gain entry to seances, etc. Early on he attempted to do a spiritualist act when he was down and out, but found it so distasteful that he stopped and would forever expose those who made such claims.
Houdini would write many books and articles throughout his life. They included “The Right Way To Do Wrong,” an expose of swindlers, “A Magician Among The Spirits,” an expose of psychic frauds, and “The Unmasking of Robert-Houdini,” which was up until that time the greatest book on the history of magic.
Death to Legend.
On October 22, 1926, Houdini was in Montreal performing at the Princess Theater. Houdini also gave a lecture exposing spiritualism at McGill University. In his dressing room at the theater, while lying on a couch backstage, a young athlete from McGill University asked if Houdini could actually withstand punches to the stomach as he had heard. Before Houdini could prepare himself by tightening his stomach muscles, the student began to punch the legendary magician in the mid section. Houdini did not know it, but his appendix was ruptured. Houdini did several more shows in Montreal and then headed for Detroit. Houdini did one performance there and then collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. Houdini did not die in an escape or fail in some final escape, as many believe. The greatest “ghost buster” of all time died on October 31, 1926, Halloween of peritonitis.