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 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 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 to her daughter or new son-in-law (who she thought was the devil) 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.
|The Handcuff King|
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 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 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 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.
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|
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|
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 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|
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."
First published January 3, 2011. Most recent revision June 6, 2020.