"No prison can hold me; no hand or leg irons or steel locks can shackle me. No ropes or chains can keep me from my freedom."1, 2
Houdini’s Fist Escape, From Misfortune to Fame
Born Erich Weiss on April 6, 1874, Houdini’s family emigrated from Budapest, Hungary to Appleton, Wisconsin just days after his birth, March 24, 1874. Seeking better fortune, the family moved to New York City 13 years later. However, good fortune did not come easily to the struggling Weiss family.
As well as a life-long fixation with magic, Houdini held a deep devotion for his mother that neared obsession. She may have been his first audience. To ease her burdens, young Erich Weiss took to the street, begging for coins. He would hide the coins in his clothing and in his mop of thick, black hair. Once home, he told his mother, “Shake me. I’m magic,” and when she did, the coins would tumble from their hiding places.1, 3
At age 17, while working in a necktie-cutting factory, Erich developed an interest in locks and lock picking, a hobby-turned-vocation that would transform the young man’s life. After reading The Memoirs of Robert-Houdin. Weiss was so impressed with Jean Robert-Houdin, who was the premier magician of the time, that he quit his job and joined the circus. After a stint billed as Eric, Prince of the Air3, the young Erich Weiss changed his stage name to Harry (an Americanized version of Erich) Houdini, in tribute to his idol.
Ironically, after Houdini became famous in his own right, he wrote a book that exposed Robert-Houdin’s secrets. In The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, Houdini actually concluded that his onetime idol was a fraud (Steinmeyer, 10).
Using the name that, today, defines “escape artist”, Harry Houdini combined his lock-picking skills with talents for illusion, manipulation, and self-promotion finally escaping the bonds of poverty.
The King of Cards
Fascinated with the stage magic of Jean Robert-Houdin and other famous magicians of his time, Houdini developed his own act, billing himself as “The King of Cards”. He performed handkerchief and card tricks adding a new twist to some of the most popular tricks of the day.
Yet, although Houdini’s manipulations netted him a spot at the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893, he never experienced true success as a stage magician. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most popular magicians were tall, slender individuals that sported curly moustaches and performed while clad in long-tailed tuxedos5. Houdini’s five-foot, two-inch frame with slightly bowed legs and muscular upper body deviated from public expectations, especially since he would, at the beginning of each show, rip the sleeves from his tuxedo in near parody of, “Nothing up my sleeves,” performing bare-armed throughout the remainder of his show3.
Houdini toured with a New Hampshire burlesque troupe and a Kansas medicine show. Working with a small tent circus in Pennsylvania, in addition to his magic act, the young illusionist also performed as a singing clown, and a caged “wild man” (Steinmeyer, 7).
By the time he was twenty, Houdini and Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner (Bess) married and partnered onstage as “Mysterious Harry and La Petit Bessie”. When magic and escape tricks fell flat, the couple finished their act with comedy, stealing their jokes from magazines2. Their early acts also revealed the couple’s interest in the paranormal pop culture of the era. Bess performed as a mind reader taking cues from Harry through a code of numbers and letters.
In 1895, Houdini thought up the idea that led to his ultimate fame. Instead of escaping from his own handcuffs, he dared local police to handcuff him with theirs. The free publicity generated from his successful escaped skyrocketed Houdini’s popularity and provided the young couple with the opportunities to tour both the United States and the world.
In 1899, Houdini headlined in the largest chain of vaudeville theaters in the United States, and in 1900, Houdini achieved world recognition after performing in London where he demonstrated his skill in setting himself free from every type of confinement: straitjackets, handcuffs, shackles—“impossible traps”—even while submerged in water or suspended in mid-air6. He made every escape attempt a heart-stopping, death-defying feat by prolonging his releases to a point where the audience believed that his death was imminent.
One of Houdini’s greatest tricks was the “milk can escape” wherein he would emerge from a 42-inch tall, water-filled can that had been secured with six padlocks. To add to the suspense, he would direct the audience to hold their breath until he reappeared. Fortunately for the audience, Houdini was able to free himself from the can in less than three minutes!
At each performance, Houdini would invite local officials to examine him and his props for signs of trickery. His skill as a magician allowed him to misdirect the attention of his investigators as well as hide his lock picks in unlikely places, such as the calloused skin in the soul of his foot or in his thick, wiry, hair that had hidden coins from his mother in his youth1.
Harry Houdini Locked Out
There was only one lock that Harry Houdini was unable to pick, the lock of death.
In 1913, Harry Houdini’s mother, Cecelia Weiss passed to the “other side”. Feverishly Houdini hired medium after medium in an effort to contact her. All efforts were unsuccessful. Although Houdini was unable to unlock the secrets of the after life, he was able to unlock and expose the chicanery of popular mediums. After years spent in mastering the arts of illusion and manipulation. Exposing the ruses of charlatans, who called themselves “Spiritualists” was as easy for Houdini as walking through an unlocked door.
By 1920, Houdini was known as one of the most tenacious opponents of Spiritualism7. In the preface to his book, Miracle Mongers and Their Methods, Houdini wrote:
"Much has been written about the feats of miracle-mongers, and not a little in the way of explaining them. Chaucer was by no means the first to turn shrewd eyes upon wonder-workers and show the clay feet of these popular idols. And since his time innumerable marvels, held to be supernatural, have been exposed for the tricks they were. Yet to-day, if a mystifier lack the ingenuity to invent a new and startling stunt, he can safely fall back upon a trick that has been the favorite of press agents the world over in all ages."
One after another, Houdini publicly exposed the tricksters and their trickery, divulging their secrets during the final minutes of each of his shows. He offered a $5,000 reward to anyone who “can ‘put over’ anything in so-called psychic phenomena that I cannot detect.”
Houdini also traveled from town to town, exposing frauds and demonstrating the tricks they used. His opening speech was titled, “Can the Dead Speak to the Living?”
"The first step towards the lunatic asylum is the Ouija board. Anyone who claims to be able to talk with the dead is either a self-deluded person or a cheat. Can the Dead Speak to the Living? I say they do not. I am particularly well qualified to discuss this subject, as I have always been interested in spiritualistic and psychic phenomena. I have personally known most of the leading spiritualists of the last quarter of a century.”
Yet, throughout his life, Houdini firmly maintained that he did not oppose Spiritualism, but only the frauds who perverted it for monetary gain11. Some historical evidence suggests that Houdini believed in the possibility that the departed can contact the living.
- Houdini once said that if anyone could break the shackles of death, he would. The first ten years after his death, his widow, Bess, held a séance at his graveside on the anniversary of his passing. She once claimed to have made contact with Houdini’s spirit, but later recanted the story1. His devotees carried on the annual séance for decades2.
- Houdini left coded letters behind that only his spirit could answer. One letter, sent to his one time friend, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, rests at the Houdini Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls, N.Y., apparently still unanswered10.
The “Mysterious Harry”—in Life and After
History records several versions of the events surrounding the death of Harry Houdini. One magic expert recorded seven different versions of Houdini’s death2.
On October 22, 1926, at The Princess Theatre in Montréal, Houdini invited some college students to join him backstage. Proud of his muscular physique, Houdini often challenged others to punch him in the stomach.
- Some accounts say only that it was “a student” that took Houdini’s challenge1, 3, and others indicate that the student was a McGill University boxing star9.
- One account names J. Gordon Whitehead, an amateur boxer as the person who punched Houdini and relates that Houdini sustained not one, but three blows from Whitehead2.
- The Whitehead account states that the boxer punched Houdini as he was rising from sitting on his couch. Others report only that Houdini wasn’t prepared to take the punch.
Accounts also vary about the outcome. The punch either aggravated a pre-existing appendix problem or caused Houdini’s appendix to rupture. Whatever the details, the incident resulted in peritonitis caused by a ruptured appendix, which led to Houdini’s death.
Houdini suffered through four more performances in Montréal3. On October 24, he opened at Detroit’s Garrick Theater. He completed a series of vanishing acts, the last one where he made a woman disappear from the stage and a flowering bush appear in her place. Moments later the woman shouted, “Here I am,”’ as she ran down the aisle from the back of the theater.
As Houdini began his next trick, the pain from his midsection caused him to turn aside. He completed the first act with the help of his assistants. As the curtain fell, Houdini collapsed, and was taken to his dressing room. Although he had a 104° fever, he was determined to finish the 2½-hour show. After the show, Houdini was rushed to Grace Hospital, Detroit. Doctor’s removed his appendix, but the infection had already poisoned his system3.
Here again, details of Houdini’s final hours vary from one account to the next. Most accounts say
that the magician died on October 31 in the arms of his wife1, 2, 9. Yet, at least one account relates
that he whispered to his brother, Theo, “I’m tired of fighting ... guess this is going to get me.” Then
glancing at his wife, Houdini closed his eyes and died3.
2. "Houdini, Harry." U*X*L Encyclopedia of World Biography. The Gale Group, Inc. 2003. HighBeam Research. 7 May. 2009 <http://www.highbeam.com>.
3. Winchell, Ryan. "Houdini's final act.(Harry Houdini)(Biography)." Michigan History Magazine. State of Michigan, through its State Administrative Board and Department of History, Arts and Libraries. 2000. HighBeam Research. 7 May. 2009 <http://www.highbeam.com>.
4. Jim Steinmeyer et al. Hiding the Elephant. Carroll & Graf Publishers. 2004. 7 May, 2009.
5. “Hamilton”. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2008. HighBeam Research. 22 Apr. 2009 <http://www.highbeam.com>.
6. Morton S. Freeman. "Houdini." A New Dictionary of Eponyms. 1997. HighBeam Research. 7 May. 2009 <http://www.highbeam.com>.
7. "magician." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. The Gale Group, Inc, 2001. Answers.com 20 Apr. 2009. <http://www.answers.com/topic/magician>
8. Rivkin, Steven E. "A Reconstruction of Houdini's Famous Show Exposing Séance Fraud." Skeptic. Millennium Press, Inc. 2008. HighBeam Research. 7 May. 2009 <http://www.highbeam.com>.
9. DAVID ACER, BRUCE POSGATE. "Magic." Canadian Encyclopedia. 2002. HighBeam Research. 31 Mar. 2009 <http://www.highbeam.com>.
10. "'HOUDINI!,' A TRIBUTE TO THE ESCAPE ARTIST." The New York Times. 1987. HighBeam Research. 7 May. 2009 <http://www.highbeam.com>.
11. Joan Townsend. “Spiritualism .” Canadian Encyclopedia. 2002. 1 Sep 2008 <http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P1-70917687.html>.