When Ehrich was four years old, the Weiss family immigrated to the United States, settling in the progressive small town of Appleton, Wisconsin, where Mayer Samuel had secured work as a rabbi on an earlier trip. Here Ehrich (whose name would evolve to "Ehrie," then "Harry") developed an interest in athletics and acrobatics. He performed circus feats in his backyard and called himself "Ehrich, Prince of the Air." At age 8 he was impressed by a performance of the English conjurer, Dr. Lynn.
When Mayer Samuel lost his job at the Appleton Synagogue, the family moved to Milwaukee, where they lived in poverty. Ehrich, who was never educated past the third grade, worked shining shoes and as a messenger boy. At age 12 he ran away from home, possibly twice. Very little is known about these runaway days, except that he planned to go to Galveston, Texas and went by the name Harry White. He later re-joined his family in New York City.
It was at this time that Harry read the autobiography of a famous French magician, The Memoirs of Robert Houdin, and became fascinated with magic. Adding an "i" to the name Houdin, he adopted the stage name Harry Houdini and formed an act with his friend and fellow tie-cutter Jacob Hyman called "The Brothers Houdini." The high point of their act was a substitution trunk trick called Metamorphosis, which Houdini is said to have purchased for $25, and which he would perform throughout his entire career.
Houdini's real brother, Theo, aka Dash, soon replaced Hyman in the act. (Hyman continued to perform as "Houdini" well into the 1900s.) The brothers performed on the midway at the Columbia Exposition of 1893 alongside another future great, Howard Thurston. The following year they were performing in Coney Island when Harry met Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, aka Bess, a showgirl in an act called The Floral Sisters. After only three weeks’ courtship, Harry and Bess were married -- much to the horror of Bess's strict German Catholic mother, who refused to speak with her daughter or Jewish son-in-law (whom she thought was demonic) for many years.
Despite an engagement at Tony Pastor’s popular vaudeville theater in New York, the couple found little success with their magic act. Harry tried to sell his entire show, including his original "Handcuff Act" and Metamorphosis, in 1898. There were no buyers. At one point the struggling Houdinis met another performing couple in a boarding house, the Keatons. When Houdini observed their baby boy fall down a flight of stairs unharmed, he gave him the nickname "Buster"… Buster Keaton.
|The Handcuff King|
Impressing the powerful manager of the Alhambra Theater, reportedly by escaping from handcuffs at Scotland Yard, Houdini was booked for a trial run. During his first performance, he was unexpectedly challenged by a rival escape artist, Cirnoc. Houdini bested the challenger onstage with a pair of Bean Giant handcuffs. Soon Houdini's feats -- both onstage and off -- caught the attention and imagination of the public.
|The European sensation|
Houdini also embraced the new medium of motion pictures. He filmed his outdoor stunts and played them as part of his vaudeville turn. In 1909 he made a short narrative film for Cinema Lux in Paris called Merveilleux Exploits du Célébre Houdini à Paris. The film played in the United States as The Celebrated Houdini. Houdini, who had told the American press that he was Austrian, now emphasized an American lineage, billing himself as "The Elusive American.” From this point on, he would forever claim to have been born in Appleton, Wisconsin on April 6. (His Hungarian birth would not be publically revealed until the 1950s.)
|The death defier|
Back in America, Houdini pushed the boundaries of his "challenge act." Now it wasn't just handcuffs that he could be challenged with; it was anything man could devise. He freed himself from government mail bags, a giant football, riveted boilers, packing crates, a convict ship, an iron maiden, and even from the belly of a gigantic washed-up sea turtle in Boston. In New York he escaped from a packing crate after it was nailed shut and dropped into the East River. He would later escaped from a straitjacket while suspended by his ankles hundreds of feet in the air. All his outdoor escapes drew tens of thousands of spectators. Before long, Houdini was the highest paid entertainer in Vaudeville and one of the most famous men alive.
The following year, Houdini became fascinated with aviation. He purchased a French-made Vision biplane and flew exhibitions in Germany, England, and France. His aviation exploits culminated when he became the first man ever to fly a plane in Australia on March 18, 1910. Ironically, Houdini believed it was for this feat that he would be most remembered.
Frustrated by how many imitators were copying his Milk Can escape, Houdini introduced his most famous stage escape in 1912, the Water Torture Cell (later called the Chinese Water Torture Cell). It would become the staple of his act for the next 14 years. The act was so daring that very few rivals attempted their own versions. Even Hardeen never performed the USD (as Houdini called it). He was content to work with the Milk Can for the rest of his career.
|The loving son|
With the outbreak of World War I (and with the European market closed to him), Houdini threw himself into the war effort, selling war bonds and teaching American soldiers how to free themselves from German restraints. He also starred in a gala review at the New York Hippodrome called "Cheer Up." It was here that he famously made an elephant disappear. At a second review, "Everything," he produced an Eagle named Abraham Lincoln from the folds of an American flag.
|The movie star|
While filming an aerial stunt for The Grim Game, two biplanes collided in mid-air, with a stuntman, Robert Kennedy, doubling Houdini dangling by a rope from one of the planes. Publicity was geared heavily toward promoting this dramatic "caught on film" moment, claiming it was Houdini himself dangling from the plane. Houdini never denied it.
Houdini threw himself into the task of debunking fraudulent mediums with great energy. He attended séances in disguise and broke them up at key points; wrote exposés for newspapers; denounced mediums from the stage and demonstrated how they performed their tricks; and even employed a private "secret service" of agents who attended séances and collected information for him. He offered $10,000 to any medium who could produce phenomena he could not explain, and also joined several committees of investigators, including a committee for Scientific American magazine. In 1925 he championed a bill before Congress to outlaw fortune telling in the District of Columbia (it didn't pass). Houdini's exposés brought him renewed fame, while they drew the ire of Spiritualists who, by the time of his death, had mounted a total of $2 million worth of lawsuits against him.
Houdini's most famous encounter was with Mina "Margery" Crandon, an attractive Boston socialite who performed séances in the nude and produced "ectoplasm" from her nether regions. When Houdini learned that Scientific American was about to reward her the prize for legitimate phenomena, he cancelled his theater engagements and rushed to Boston to sit with her. In a series of highly contentious and controversial séances, Houdini exposed her methods, and even constructed a special box to contain her. Despite this, her supporters, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, continued to believe she was genuine. Margery’s foul-mouthed “spirit guide” Walter predicted Houdini's death within a year.
Having performed in Vaudeville for his entire career, Houdini fulfilled a dream in 1925 when he mounted his own full evening roadshow. Billed as "Three Shows in One", the evening featured Magic, Escapes, and Fraudulent Mediums Exposed. Houdini even purchased the original magic apparatus of Dr. Lynn, using it during his show to perform "Mysterious Effects that Startled and Pleased Your Grand and Great-Grand-Parents."
|The Master Mystifier|
In October of 1926, while performing in Montreal, Canada, Houdini was assaulted in his dressing room by a 30-year-old McGill University student named J. Gordon Whitehead. Whitehead, who may have been mentally unbalanced due to a plate in his head from a work injury, struck the magician several times in the stomach. Houdini ignored the pain and increasing fever, until they became unbearable and caused him to collapse during a performance at the Garrick Theater in Detroit.
Houdini was rushed to Grace Hospital and operated on. Only then was it discovered that he had been suffering from appendicitis, and that his appendix had ruptured -- most likely while on the train to Detroit. Peritonitis had set in. A second operation and an experimental serum (murder conspiracies make much of this mystery serum) failed to save him. Harry Houdini died at 1:26 pm on Halloween, 1926. His last words were said to have been, "I’m tired of fighting."