Harry Houdini's feats of escapology ensured that he made headlines and he's been remembered long after his last tragic performance.
Erik Weisz, Ehrich Weiss
Escapologist Harry Houdini was born on the 24th March 1874 as Erik Weisz in Budapest, then in the Kingdom of Hungary. He was one of the seven children of Mayer Samuel, a Jewish rabbi and his wife Cecilia. He was given the nickname Ehrie.
The Weisz family emigrated to the USA in 1878. The rabbi travelled ahead of his family and Ehrie, his pregnant mother and siblings arrived on American soil on the 3rd July 1878. The decision was made to alter their surname to Weiss and Erik became Ehrich. He claimed his birthday was the 6th April not the 24th March from this time. Their first home was in Appleton, Wisconsin and the Weiss’ relocated to Milwaukee in 1892.
Their financial situation became increasingly desperate after the rabbi lost his job. Ehrie and his father moved to New York. The physically strong Ehrie took several jobs, including one as a trapeze artist when he was 9 years old. The other family members eventually joined Mayer and Ehrie in the city.
Why Harry Houdini Was Called Harry Houdini
From an early age Ehrie showed an interest in performing magic tricks and he trained with Joseph Rinn, an acclaimed magician who was known to be sceptical about paranormal activity. In the 1890’s Ehrie began to call himself Harry Houdini and he performed alongside his brother Dash, real name Theodore.
The inspiration for Harry probably came from its similar sound to Ehrie rather than Houdini’s later claim that it was to honour the American magician Harry Keller. His adopted surname was a tribute to an outstanding French magician of the age, Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin. Ehrie believed that by placing an “i” at the end of Houdin he was saying that he was like his hero Houdin. This was a misconception but at least the thought was there. In 1908, obviously no longer in awe of Houdin and his legacy, he wrote a critical book that questioned Houdin’s skills.
Houdini's Big Break on the Orpheum Circuit
Harry worked as a magician and as a wild man in a circus with limited success. He noticed that he drew larger crowds whenever he broke free of his handcuffs so he honed his escapology skills to attract more attention. In 1894 he married fellow performer Wilhemina Beatrice Rahner, better known as Bess. Originally she was Dash’s girlfriend; she replaced him in Ehrie’s act and Dash went solo.
In 1899 talent agent Martin Beck spotted Houdini and signed him to appear on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit and to tour Europe. As Harry “Handcuff” Houdini’s fame grew so too did his fees. He became the highest paid vaudeville performer on the circuit. Always a salesman and a master of self publicity Harry captured the press and public’s attention in each place that he travelled to. His special PR trick was to challenge the local police force to lock him up in a prison cell, very often naked, so that they were confident that it was impossible for him to escape. Then he released himself to the police’s amazement and to great fanfares in the press.
Houdini's Straight Jacket Escape
Escapologist Without Equal
Seemingly, nothing could hold Houdini. Not chains, milk cans, straightjackets, trunks or crates, even when these were lowered into rivers or suspended from high rise buildings on a burning rope.
The Chinese Water Torture Cell became his signature escape. For this he was submerged by the ankles upside down in a tank filled with water whilst wearing restraints and with limited oxygen and time available to break free. It was a life or death situation with a wide eyed, open mouthed audience. The great Houdini never shied away from suing his impersonators so that his place as the king of escapology was assured. He also made films and took up flying, both in their infancy, and this helped to sustain the insatiable public appetite for his exploits.
Between 1917-1926 Harry Houdini was the President of the Society of American Magicians.
Fraudulent Mediums and a Fan Challenge
Harry Houdini's steadfast campaign to expose fraudulent spiritualist mediums, just as Joseph Rinn did, earned him enemies. Countless mediums were ruined or found their reputations in shreds thanks to Harry’s efforts. He promised Bess that if he died before her and there was a way to contact her with an agreed codeword that he would do so. Little did he realise that the opportunity was to occur far sooner than imagined.
On the 30th October he accepted a challenge from a fan to show his strength, which he often agreed to. He was punched in the abdomen and there seemed to be no ill effects. As the 31st October ticked on Harry felt greater discomfort and was feverish. Bess was worried about Harry performing the Chinese Water Torture Cell escape but he refused to cancel the feat although it required him to be at his most alert and agile.
Halloween 1926: Houdini's Death
The punch to his abdomen resulted in appendicitis. Harry fell unconscious in the water tank and strongmen on the stage broke him free. He passed away in hospital shortly afterwards. The cause of death for the 52 year old performer was officially recorded as peritonitis. Sporadic claims that he was poisoned by disgruntled mediums have not been rewarded with much agreement.
He was buried in New York five days later with the greatest members of the magic fraternity in attendance. Bess' annual Halloween attempts to communicate with Harry proved fruitless, the codeword never came through. Bess suffered a fatal heart attack in 1943.
Dash used many of his brothers magic props and these were later placed in a museum. Most of the props were purchased by American magician David Copperfield in 2004, including the infamous Chinese Water Torture Cell.
- WILD ABOUT HARRY: The life of Harry Houdini
- The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini Hardcover – Ruth Brandon, September 27, 1994
- Harry Houdini | Biography & Facts | Britannica
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Joanne Hayle