On this day 142 years ago, Erik Weisz was born in Budapest in Austria-Hunagry, the son of the rabbinical lawyer Meyer Sámuel Weisz (1829–1892), and Cecília Weisz (née Steiner; 1841–1913). Four years after his birth, his family emigrated to the United States, where their name was changed to “Weiss” by the immigration officers, “Erik” became “Ehrich”, later “Harry”. Erik’s father had arranged to work as Rabbi of the German-speaking Zion Reform Jewish Congregation in Appleton, Wisconsin. As there was never enough money, Harry began to work young.
Photos also tell the story of a teenager who enjoyed acrobatics and athletics, where he revealed his competitive nature. Eventually, he would try his hand at magic performances to earn money, and after reading the autobiography of the French master illusionist Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805-1871), considered the “Father of Modern Magic”, in 1890, Harry adopted “Houdini” as his name as an artist.
He and his brother Ferencz Deszo (1876-1945) (stage name: “Theodore Hardeen”) tried their success as magicians in sideshows, dime museums, and even at the circus. In 1893, while performing together as the “Houdini Brothers” at Coney Island, Harry met his future wife Wilhemina Beatrice (Bess) Rahner (1876-1943), then member of the Floral Sisters’ sing and dance group. They were soon married, and “Bess” became Houdini’s assistant henceforth. Fame came only after Harry had met the impresario Martin Beck in 1899, who advised him to focus on ‘escapology’. Houdini emerged as “the King of Handcuffs”, was booked on Beck’s large vaudeville Orpheum Circuit, and soon made headlines with his escapes from special handcuffs and security prisons without trickery or assistance from others. Of that, the police had made sure beforehand.
In 1900, he embarked on a European tour, from which he returned a confirmed star about to become legendary: In England he had escaped Scotland Yard’s manacles, in Germany he had proved that neither shackles on hands and feet, nor additional handicaps like straightjackets or rivers could keep him imprisoned. In Russia he had successfully defied a Siberian prison transport van, and so on.
Each further successful and daring performance in public, carefully set up and publicised in advance, added to the legend. From 1908, because of a growing number of imitators, Houdini made the act of escape more difficult and spectacular: escape from a water-filled milk can, from nailed packing crates, riveted boilers, wet sheets, a barrel of beer, the belly of a dead whale, and, most famously, from the Upside Down Water Torture Cell (from 1913). Famous among his merely illusionist performances was the vanishing of a full-grown elephant at New York’s Hippodrome Theater. From 1906 onward, Houdini would also work his performances into a number of films.
Throughout his life, Houdini collected all available material on magic and spiritualism, past and present, and became a leading expert on the art of magic as it ought to be practised professionally. He published several books on the subject, and would go to some length denouncing fraud when it crossed his path, especially in the case of psychics and mediums. In 1906, he founded the magazine Conjurers’ Monthly Magazine; from 1917 to his death he served as President of the Society of American Magicians (founded 1902), which, owing to his incessant campaigns to increase membership and cohesion, is now one of the richest and longest-surviving organisations of magicians worldwide. From 1923 to his death, he was also President of Martinka & Co., America’s oldest magic company, still in operation today.
Harry Houdini died of peritonitis at Detroit’s Grace Hospital on Halloween, 31 October 1926. More about his untimely death here. You may find the following sites of interest:
- John Cox’s fan site “Wild about Houdini“
- Excerpts from John C. Cannell’s The Secrets of Houdini
- Houdini: His Life and His Art
- This Interview with Houdini
- Some of Houdini’s books at http://www.gutenberg.org