The life of Harry Houdini

By John Cox

The boy
Harry Houdini was born Erik Weisz (later spelled Ehrich Weiss) in Budapest, Hungary on March 24, 1874. His parents were Cecelia Steiner and Mayer Samuel Weiss, a rabbinical lawyer and sometimes soap maker. Ehrich was the fourth boy in a family that would ultimately total seven children (including one child from a previous marriage).

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.

The athlete
In New York, the teenage Harry landed a job as a tie-cutter at H. Richter's Sons. His father also worked a sewing bench for a time. As a member of the Pastime Athletics Club and the Amateur Athletic Union, Harry competed in, and won, several foot races, boxing matches, bicycle races, and swim meets.

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 would perform throughout his entire career.

Houdini's real brother, Theodore, 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 alongside another future great, Howard Thurston. In 1894 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 to her daughter or new son-in-law (who she thought was the devil) for many years.

The Houdinis
Renaming the act "The Houdinis," Harry and Bess played beer halls and dime museums, and traveled with circuses and medicine shows throughout the U.S. and Canada. Sometimes they performed comedic playlets as "The Rahners: American’s Greatest Comedy Act." To make ends meet, Harry also performed a solo magic act as the “King of Cards” or “Cardo,” and masqueraded as "Projea The Wild Man of Mexico" in a circus sideshow -- where his sleight of hand skills made it appear as if he ate cigarettes thrown into his cage. He also co-managed an ill-fated Burlesque show called The American Gaiety Girls.

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.

The Handcuff King
In 1899 Houdini received his big break when vaudeville impresario Martin Beck saw his act at the Palmgarden beer hall in St. Paul, Minnesota and booked him in the national Keith-Orpheum circuit. Houdini promoted his appearances by escaping from handcuffs and jail cells in local police stations, notably in San Francisco and Chicago where he performed his escapes in the nude to prove he had no keys. His escapes drew headlines in local papers. Following the successful run, Beck arranged for a European tour, but when Harry and Bess arrived in London in early 1900, they discovered the bookings had not been secured.

Impressing the 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 onstage by a rival escape artist, Cirnoc. Houdini bested the challenger with a pair of Bean Giant handcuffs. Soon Houdini's exploits -- both onstage and off -- caught the attention and imagination of the public. 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 publicly revealed until after his death.)

The European sensation

Houdini "The Handcuff King" became a sensation, breaking attendance records in every theater he played throughout England, Scotland, and Wales. In one theatre the doors had to be removed to accommodate the massive crowds. Houdini claimed in some cities patrons rioted for tickets. At the London Hippodrome in 1904, Houdini was challenged by the London Daily Mirror newspaper to escape a specially made handcuff that was said to have taken a Birmingham locksmith several years to construct. He freed himself from the Mirror Handcuff in a dramatic 90 minute ordeal. Exactly how he escaped is still hotly debated today.

The brother
Houdini's success continued abroad, where he drew sold-out crowds in Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Russia. His escape from a Siberian Transport Cell and his defiance of German police in court became the stuff of legend. He also added a dash of death defiance to his outdoor stunts, by leaping into rivers while handcuffed. Capitalizing on his success, he brought his brother and former partner Dash to Europe, and set him up as a "rival" handcuff king by the name of Hardeen. Together the brothers dominated the European vaudeville circuits. It was Dash who discovered the power of escaping from a straitjacket in full view of the audience. Houdini quickly adopted the technique and made it a signature performance.

Houdini also embraced the new medium of motion pictures. He filmed his outdoor stunts, such as his 1907 Rochester bridge jump, 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.

The death defier
Houdini returned to the United States in 1905 as "Europe's Eclipsing Sensation." He quickly established himself by escaping from the Murderers Row jail cell that once held Presidential assassin Charles Guiteau. Not only did he escape, but he released all the prisoners and moved them into different cells.

Houdini continued to push the boundaries of his "challenge act." Now it wasn't just handcuffs that he could be challenged with; it was anything any person 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 "sea monster" that had washed-up in Boston harbor. In New York he escaped from a packing crate after it was nailed shut and dropped into the East river. He would later escape 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 innovator
In 1908 Houdini gave up handcuff escapes and introduced his Milk Can escape, his own invention. Colorful posters warned that "Failure Means a Drowning Death." He also built up an impressive library of books on theatre, magic, and Spiritualism in his large new home in Harlem. He drew from this collection in several books that he authored. In 1908 he published a savage exposé of his boyhood hero called The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin. Houdini called his book "The First Authentic History of Magic Ever Published." The magic community, however, were not converted, and Robert-Houdin's status as "the father of modern magic" remains intact to this day.

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 was recognized as the first man to fly a plane in Australia on March 18, 1910. Ironically, Houdini believed it was for this feat that he would be most remembered.

The aviator

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
Houdini was fanatically devoted to his mother, and was therefore devastated in 1913 when she died suddenly from a stroke. For the remainder of his life he would grieve and remain morbidly obsessed with death, cemeteries, and whether it was possible to communicate with the dead. After a two-month hiatus, he returned to performing. Many said he was never the same after his mother died.

In 1914 Houdini attempted to launch a straight magic show in England called the Grand Magical Revue. The show featured several original effects, but the public expected Houdini the escape artist and he soon folded the show. But Houdini continued to invent and perform occasional magic, including Walking Through a Brick Wall his famous East Indian Needle trick. He also once amazed President Theodore Roosevelt aboard an ocean liner with an effect involving spirit slates.

With America's entry into World War I in 1917, 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 another review, "Everything," he produced an Eagle named Abraham Lincoln from the folds of an American flag. During this time he also became President of the Society of American Magicians (S.A.M.), and had a brief affair with the widow of author Jack London.

The movie star
In 1918 Vaudeville was on the wane as movies become the more popular form of mass entertainment. Houdini, who had dabbled in motion pictures since the turn of the century, signed with producer B.A. Rolfe to star in a 15-part serial, The Master Mystery. The serial is notable in that it featured the very first movie robot, called The Automaton. This success of the serial led to Houdini being signed by Jesse L. Lasky’s Famous Players/Artcraft, one of the biggest producers in Hollywood. For the company Houdini made two movies, The Grim Game (1919) and Terror Island (1920). Both films were distributed by Paramount and featured loose plots meant to showcase a cavalcade of Houdini's famous escapes. While in Hollywood Houdini rented a home in Laurel Canyon. He also attempted a Buried Alive escape that went wrong.

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.

The mythmaker

Following his two-picture stint in Hollywood, Houdini returned to New York and created his own film production company, the Houdini Picture Corporation. He produced and starred in two films, The Man From Beyond (1921) and Haldane of the Secret Service (1923), and made deals to distribute European films with new English inter-titles. He also founded his own film laboratory business called Film Developing Corporation (FDC), banking on a new process for developing motion picture film. Hardeen left stage performing to run FDC for his brother, but it proved to be an expensive failure, along with Houdini's independent movie-making efforts.

In 1922 Houdini vacationed in Atlantic City with Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle was a passionate supporter of Spiritualism, which had experienced a resurgence following World War I, and was now being touted as a serious religion. Houdini was a skeptic. He had a lifetime of experience with Spiritualist trickery, going back to his earliest days in New York, when he and fellow Pastime Athletic Club member Joe Rinn attended séances to learn the craft. In fact, some of Houdini's earliest rope escapes employed methods used by the Davenport Brothers, a pair of early stage mediums.

The crusader
Doyle and Houdini's private debate turned public after Doyle gave him a séance in which he believed his wife had contacted Houdini's mother. Their public debate turned ugly and ruined their friendship, but it opened the door to a new career for Houdini as an anti-Spiritualist crusader.

Houdini threw himself into the task of debunking fraudulent mediums with great energy. He made two nationwide lecture tours in 1924 demonstrating the methods of frauds. He attended séances in disguise; wrote exposés for newspapers; denounced mediums from the stage; 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 1926 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, but 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.

The Master Mystifier
Having performed in Vaudeville for his entire career, Houdini fulfilled a dream in August 1925 when he mounted his own full evening roadshow. Billed as "3 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 show played on Broadway and toured with a great success.

The following year, Houdini survived for 91 minutes in an air-tight coffin submerged in the pool of the Shelton Hotel in New York. He repeated the feat two more times in Worcester, MA, and performed a Buried Alive stunt onstage in which he escaped from a casket buried under a ton of sand.

In October of 1926, while performing in Montreal, Canada, Houdini was punched in his dressing room by a 30-year-old McGill University student named J. Gordon Whitehead. Believing a boast that Houdini could withstand a blow to the stomach, Whitehead struck the magician several times before he was ready. Houdini ignored the pain and increasing fever and pushed on to his next engagement at the Garrick Theater in Detroit. After struggling through a performance with a 104 degree temperature, Houdini gave into doctor's orders and was rushed to Grace Hospital.

Only after Houdini was operated on 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 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."

The End

First published January 3, 2011. Most recent revision Feb. 20, 2022.