Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Houdini Begins

When did Harry Houdini become a magician? The answer is not always clear. While there are many tales of young Ehrich Weiss performing acrobatics and magic in five cent circuses in Wisconsin, most serious Houdini biographies attribute the start of his magic career with his reading The Memories of Robert-Houdin in 1891.

But according to the remarkable book, Sixty Years of Psychical Research, written by Houdini's boyhood friend Joseph F. Rinn in 1950, Houdini was giving semi-professional magic performances two years before he ever read the Robert-Houdin book. Rinn's recollections begin on page 65:

[In 1886] I joined the Pastime Athletic Club, which had grounds at Sixty-seventh Street and the East River, where I quickly developed as a runner. I became captain of the club and was its champion sprint runner in 1889, when a new member joined by the name of Ehrich Weiss, who later became famous as Harry Houdini, the magician and escape artist.

As Weiss was ambitious to win a running prize, he turned to me as captain for advice, and under my instruction he trained and won his first prize.

At the time, Weiss (or Houdini, as I shall henceforth call him) was making and lining ties at a low wage for H. Richter's Sons. His ambition to be a boy magician was curtailed by lack of funds for the purchase of paraphernalia, for performances he gave after working hours at small social affairs and in public schools.

When Houdini learned that I was a magic fan and a friend of the Herrmanns, we became good pals.

In the spring of 1889 Houdini has another friends in his shop, named Jacob Hayman, who was a magic fan, and they frequently worked together, giving amateur magic performances.

On April 30, 1889, Houdini informed me that he and Jack Hayman were booked to give a magic performance at some social affair. "I guess we'll make a flop of it," said Houdini ruefully, "because we haven't enough paraphernalia."

"Oh, I can remedy that," I said, "Come over to Martinka's with me and I'll make you a present of some magic apparatus. Consider it my Christmas present," I added, as Houdini was quite proud and touchy about money matters."

As this is before Houdini's exposure to Robert-Houdin, I wonder what named he and Jack used at what sounds like their first professional engagement?

Later in the book, Rinn recalls when his friend read that seminal work of magic and truly set off to become a professional magician:

It was early 1891 that Ehrich Weiss read The Memories of Robert Houdin, the French magician, and determined to become a professional magician under the name of Harry Houdini, which name he legally made his own at a later date.

A short time after he made his decision, he said to me, "I've made up my mind, Joe, to quite my job and become a professional magician under the name of Harry Houdini."

"But Ehrich, you are only seventeen," I protested. "Isn't that rather young to give up a good job for an uncertain theatrical career?

Houdini replied, "It may seem daffy to a solid businessman like you, Joe, but I've the urge in my blood to be a professional magician and nothing can stop me."

"Well, it's your funeral, Ehrich," I said resignedly; "but get a recommendation for your present employer in case you can't make a success of being a magician."

A few days later Houdini saw me and reported: "Well, I've quit my job, Joe. I followed your advice and got a recommendation. Here it is." I read the letter, which I now possess.

502 & 504 Broadway

New York, April 3, 1891.
To Whom It May Concern:

We hereby certify that Mr. Ehrich Weiss has been in our employ for two years and six months as assistant lining cutter and we cheerfully recommend him as an honest, industrious young man.
H. Richter's Sons

It's interesting that this oft quoted recommendation letter found its way into Rinn's collection. He doesn't say how he got it, but I can imagine Houdini giving to it to his friend once he had achieved fame as The Handcuff King. Maybe he even gave it to him as "a Christmas present."

Joseph F. Rinn (Library of Congress Collection)


  1. Great stuff John. Escape into Legend The Early Years 1862-1900 by Manny Weltman collaborates this as well in Chapter 4. In addition, it mentions that between his messenger job in 1887 and the autumn of 1888, Hardeen may have showed him a simple coin trick, and that his interest in sleight of hand grew from there and he began to read books on conjuring; it also mentions that during the Spring of 1889, he started performing at small social affairs around town at night using the name “Eric the Great”.

    1. Ah, that's great info, Joe. Thanks. I gotta re-read Manny's book. I haven't read it in ages and there's such gold in there.

  2. Fascinating. It's really neat to get a sense of Houdini's brazen confidence at this early stage in his life, and how Rinn helped him in his ambitions.

    I wonder though, why does the letter from H. Richter & Sons appear in the Houdini biographies so readily, but (to my memory) not much, if any, of Rinn's particular account?

  3. If you read Rinn's book, you'll see he tends to put himself in the center of events, with Houdini as his acolyte and satellite. I have no way to know what is true or not in Rinn's book, of course, but I think Rinn's tone of all-knowingness causes some people to doubt his accuracy. He's like the Forrest Gump of Houdini's life.

    1. Yes, you are very right about, Eric. Even the above photo, which is from the book, makes Houdini look smaller and highlights Rinn as "Captain."

  4. I don't have my copy in front of me, but I remember anecdotes about them visiting mediums, and Rinn's account goes something like this. Harry: "Gosh, Joe, I just don't see how she could have done that through trickery." Joe: "Well, Harry, it's like this..."

    Rinn's book does have a good, detailed account of an spirit expose performed by Alexander Herrmann. Always good to read anything about Herrmann.

  5. Does anyone have a spare copy of the Escape into Legend The Early Years 1862-1900 by Manny Weltman that they want to sell been trying to find that for awhile