This essay is based primarily on material provided in the biography Harry Houdini by Adam Woog (Lucent Books, 1995).
Throughout his life, Harry Houdini claimed that he was born April 6, 1874 in Appleton, Wisconsin. In fact, he was born with the name Ehrich Weisz on March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary. His father was Mayer Samuel Weisz, a religious teacher, whose first wife had died in childbirth. Ehrich was a child of his second wife, Cecilia Steiner. How many children the couple had is unclear, although six of their children survived to adulthood. Hoping for a better life for his family, Mayer emigrated to America and changed the spelling of his last name to Weiss. Through a friend, he gained a job serving as a rabbi to a small Jewish congregation in Appleton, with an annual salary of $750. His family is believed to have followed him to America in 1876, when Ehrich was a toddler. Stories of Ehrich performing magic and escape tricks while in Appleton have never been verified. His mother claimed that as a child he learned to open locked cabinets to get at pies and sweets she had baked, but the story may be more legend than fact.
Mayer Weiss’s religious views were considered old-fashioned by the Appleton congregation and after a few years he was dismissed from his post. The family moved to Milwaukee when Ehrich was about eight, but times were difficult. From a young age, Ehrich sold newspapers and shined shoes to help support the family. When not working, Ehrich engaged in athletic activities and practiced acrobatic stunts. Ehrich claimed October 28, 1883 as the date of his first appearance before an audience. The nine year-old performed on a trapeze hung from a tree while wearing red socks made by his mother. He billed himself as “Ehrich, the Prince of the Air.”
At age 12, Ehrich ran away from home by hopping a freight car. The train took him to Kansas City, but where else he may have gone, and what he did during that time, is not known. A year later he re-joined his family, now living in New York City but still struggling to survive. Ehrich continued to work at a variety of jobs, including messenger, necktie cutter, and photographer’s assistant. At about this time, Ehrich and his younger brother Theo began to pursue an interest in magic. Ehrich’s idol was the great French magician Robert-Houdin. When Ehrich started performing magic before small groups, he added an “i” to the end of his hero’s name and called himself “Houdini.” The “Harry” is most likely an American version of his childhood nickname Ehrie.
Harry Houdini began his professional career at age 17 doing magic shows before civic groups, in music halls, at sideshows, and at New York’s Coney Island amusement park, where he sometimes performed 20 shows each day. For a time he worked with his brother Theo as The Houdini Brothers. This changed when Harry met Beatrice Raymond, a teenaged singer and dancer who was also attempting a career in show business. Harry and Bess married in 1894 and Bess joined the act as Harry’s new partner. (Theo started a solo career as a magician under the name Hardeen.) Harry and Bess remained devoted companions for the rest of his life. He depended on her to care for him and handle the necessities of life. Harry gave her the credit for his success, and developed the habit of writing her a love note every day.
In 1895, the Houdinis joined the Welsh Brothers Circus for six months. Harry did magic, Bess sang and danced, and together they performed a trick called “Metamorphosis,” in which they switched places in a locked trunk. Not satisfied with the small scale of the act, Harry continued to work on new tricks and to develop his speaking voice and showmanship. He also became an expert at handcuffs. Arriving in a new town, Houdini would claim the ability to escape from any handcuffs provided by the local police. His easy escapes provided excellent publicity for his shows. Houdini offered $100 to anyone who provided handcuffs from which he could not escape, but he never had to pay. Through his increasingly complex escapes and his shrewd use of publicity, Houdini became a headliner on the vaudeville circuit, playing in cities across the country. Not satisfied with that low level of fame, however, Houdini decided to gamble by taking his act to Europe.
In 1900, Harry and Bess sailed to England with no bookings and only enough money to survive a week. Houdini was able to get an engagement at a London theater, but his breakthrough came when he successfully broke free after being wrapped around a pillar and handcuffed at Scotland Yard. The publicity from that escape caused the theater to extend Houdini’s booking. His fame quickly spread and he eventually played there for six months. Sold-out engagements quickly followed in Germany and then throughout Europe. Wherever he went, Houdini called upon local police to restrain him, but he continually confounded the authorities and escaped. To increase publicity, he also jumped into rivers while handcuffed and chained. Allowing the suspense to build, Houdini remained underwater long after many observers were certain he couldn’t survive, only to spring up, waving the chains over his head.
By the time Houdini returned to the United States in 1905, he was an international celebrity. Among the stunts performed to publicize his American appearances, Houdini escaped from the prison cell that held the assassin of President James Garfield, squirmed from a straitjacket while hanging upside down, and broke free from a packing crate that had been nailed shut and immersed underwater. This showmanship also extended to his act. As a regular feature of his performances, Houdini was shackled and lowered into an oversize milk can filled with water and then hidden by a curtain. Though he was usually able to escape in three minutes, Houdini frequently stayed behind the curtain for up to a half hour, making his re-appearance all the more dramatic. On one occasion in England, Houdini allowed the milk can to be filled with beer rather than water. As someone who never drank alcohol, Houdini was not used to the effects of the beer and had to be pulled to safety by his assistants. It was one of his rare failures.
Houdini the Man
Houdini was able to perform his difficult feats by remaining in excellent physical and mental condition. He pushed himself relentlessly. To develop his capacity for holding his breath, Houdini installed an oversize bathtub in his house so that he could practice regularly. Through extensive training, he was able use his left hand nearly as well as his right. While casually chatting with friends, he would perform card and coin tricks without looking at his hands, or tie and untie knots in pieces of rope with his feet. Determined to stay on top of the entertainment field, Houdini refined techniques he had already mastered and continually developed new and more daring escapes.
As his reputation grew, Houdini assumed a leadership role among other magicians. He served as president of the Society of American Magicians and founded the Magician’s Club in London. Houdini was generous with other magicians, but jealous of anyone who attempted to duplicate his escapes. He wrote books and magazine articles that revealed some of magic’s simpler tricks, but carefully guarded his own secrets. Though known to be friendly and warm, Houdini had a large ego, could be touchy and petty at times, and frequently displayed a volatile tempter to his assistants.
In 1909, just six years after the Wright brothers proved that human flight was possible, Houdini became fascinated with airplanes. He bought his own plane, and learned to drive a car solely in order to get to the airport faster. In 1910, he became the first to successfully fly a plane in Australia. After that flight, however, his interest ended and he never piloted a plane or drove a car again. Houdini was also a great collector, with extensive collections of locks, magic memorabilia, autographs, historical items and, especially, books. Houdini collected so many books that he hired a full-time librarian to care for them, and traveled with hundreds at a time.
When America entered the First World War in 1917, Houdini tried to enlist in the army, but was rejected as being too old at age 43. Unable to fight, Houdini preformed free shows for service men, during which he would produce five dollar gold pieces from the air and toss them to the audience. He claimed to have distributed $7,000 in that manner. Houdini also organized shows in support of Liberty Bonds to help finance the war.
After the war, Houdini became an actor, appearing in a 13-part silent film serial called The Master of Mystery. The series was sufficiently successful that Houdini was hired to make two feature films. When those films performed poorly at the box office, Houdini blamed the movie company and opted to make his own movies. He formed a production company with his brother Theo, and controlled every aspect of his next two films, The Man from Beyond and Haldane of the Secret Service. Like his earlier movies, they featured daring stunts and escapes, but also like the earlier movies, they were not successful. Though some of the action sequences were thrilling, critics panned Houdini’s wooden acting and ineffective love scenes. He was so embarrassed at having to kiss another woman onscreen that he gave his wife five dollars every time he did so. Accepting defeat, Houdini gave up on the film business.
When not traveling, Harry and Bess lived in a large house they purchased in New York. The couple had no children, but Harry’s mother lived with them. Houdini was very close to his mother, and her death in 1913 was the greatest tragedy of his life. For weeks after her death, he made almost daily visits to the cemetery, sometimes lying on her grave to speak to her. “My mother was everything to me,” he said in a speech to the Magician’s Club. “It seemed the end of the world when she was taken from me…All desire for fame and fortune had gone from me. I was alone with my bitter agony…” Eventually, Houdini was able to return to work, but he continued to mourn his mother for the rest of his life.
Partly as a result of his mother’s death, Houdini renewed an early interest in spiritualism, the so-called ability to communicate with the dead. Houdini wanted to believe that such communication was possible, but after many years performing magic, he was familiar with the methods employed by phony spiritualists to fool the public. Passing up better-paying opportunities, Houdini lectured on the subject of fraudulent spiritualists and unmasked many in the cities he visited. In his act, Houdini demonstrated many of the tricks used by spiritualists and wrote a best-selling book, A Magician Among the Spirits, which detailed their deceptions. Houdini had a standing offer of $10,000 to anyone who could produce a psychic effect that couldn’t be reproduced by natural means, but no one ever collected the money. Houdini so strongly opposed the phony spiritualists that he testified against them before a committee of Congress. “Please understand that, emphatically, I am not attacking a religion,” he said. “I respect every genuine believer in spiritualism or any other religion…But this thing they call spiritualism, wherein a medium intercommunicates with the dead, is a fraud from start to finish...In thirty-five years, I have never seen one genuine medium.”
Because of his interest in spiritualism, Houdini developed a friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, who was a firm believer in spiritualism. Conan Doyle was convinced that psychic powers enabled Houdini to perform his stunning escapes, and refused to accept Houdini’s denials and explanations. Eventually their disagreement over spiritualism and psychic ability led to an estrangement. The friendship ended as they attacked each other publicly.
The Last Days
In the fall of 1926, Houdini took a new show on the road. It was an elaborate, two and half hour performance, requiring Houdini to be on stage almost the entire time. The show featured magic, a section debunking spiritualism, and escapes from a coffin and a Chinese water torture, which had become one of Houdini’s most famous stunts. In the Chinese water torture escape, Houdini’s hands and feet were bound and he was lowered, upside down, into a glass tank filled with water, which was then securely closed. In mid-October, the tour took a bad turn in Providence, Rhode Island when Bess contracted a case of food poisoning. Despite the presence of a nurse, Houdini was deeply worried about his wife and stayed awake all night at her side. By the time they reached the next stop, Albany, New York, Houdini had gone three nights without sleep, his only rest coming from brief naps. Then, during the Albany show, the frame holding his leg in place for the Chinese water torture jerked, causing his ankle to break. Used to performing with smaller injuries, Houdini refused medical care and insisted on completing the show, but was awake all night from the pain. The tour nonetheless proceeded to the next stop in Montreal, Canada.
Ignoring a doctor’s advice to stay off his foot, Houdini stuck to his schedule, including a lecture at McGill University. While there, Houdini met an art student who presented him with a sketch he had made of the great escape artist. Houdini invited the student to visit him backstage before the afternoon performance of his show. The next day, the student and two friends were chatting with Houdini in his dressing room when one of the students, an amateur boxer, asked if it was true that Houdini could withstand any blow to his body above the waist, excluding his face. Houdini admitted that it was true and, despite his weakened state due to his injury and lack of sleep, gave the student permission to test him. Houdini began to rise from the couch where he was seated, but before he had time to tighten his abdomen muscles, the student punched him three times in the stomach. Houdini fell back on the couch, his face white. Although in pain, Houdini performed his show that afternoon. The pain was worse in the evening, but Houdini refused to consult a doctor.
The next day, October 24, despite chills and sweating, Houdini performed two more shows before the company moved on to Detroit, Michigan. Once there, Houdini finally saw a doctor, who urged that he immediately go to the hospital. Houdini refused and, despite a temperature of 102, went on to give his usual performance that night. Only after completing the show did Houdini finally agree to enter the hospital. When doctors operated, they found that his appendix had burst, causing peritonitis, a usually fatal disease in this age before the development of antibiotics. Another operation was later performed, but Houdini was given little hope of surviving. Bess, meanwhile, still suffering from food poisoning, was checked into the same hospital. Believing he was near death, Houdini reportedly shared a secret message with Bess to be used as proof that he was communicating with her from beyond the grave. She would know it was really him if she heard the words “Rosabelle, believe.” “Rosabelle” was the name of a song that Bess had sung at Coney Island in the period when she met Houdini.
Houdini’s brother Theo was at his side when Houdini spoke his last words: “I’m tired of fighting…I guess this thing is going to get me.” Harry Houdini died on the afternoon of Halloween, October 31, 1926.
Houdini’s funeral was held in New York City, where thousands of mourners lined the streets as the funeral procession passed. A representative of the Society of American Magicians broke a wand at the services, beginning a new tradition that has been used for Society members ever since. Houdini was buried at the Machpelah Cemetery in Long Island, New York, beside his parents. Beneath his head was placed a pillow containing his mother’s letters.
Houdini’s collection of over 5,000 books was bequeathed to the Library of Congress. His brother Theo received most of his magic equipment and memorabilia. Theo continued to work as a magician under the name Hardeen; he died in 1945. The bulk of Houdini’s estate went to Bess, who, after paying Houdini’s extensive debts, had enough to live comfortably. For many years Bess tried to contact Houdini through a séance on the anniversary of his death, but died in 1943 without succeeding.