Today, if we met Harry Houdini, we would think he was one scary man. Not because he would scare the bejeezus out of us with a loud noise or using some monstrous mask. No, we would be afraid that he had failed or worse, died. Harry Houdini did death-defying tricks at the end of his career that, even today, the audience and also practitioners of magic would be hard-pressed to do or even figure out. His whole career was about getting into situations that seemed impossible to escape from.
Houdini’s real name was Ehrich and he was born March 24, 1874 in Budapest, Hungary, to Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weiss and his second wife, Cecilia. Rabbi Weiss was married previously, but his first wife died giving birth to the Rabbi’s eldest son, Herman. Cecilia was greatly loved by her sons, Ehrich especially. Life for the family was very hard; Jews were often persecuted for their beliefs, had to live in restricted areas, and were prevented from owning property.
The Rabbi left his home country for America, without his family, to try to find a better life. Eventually the Weiss’s were reunited in Appleton, Wisconsin, but the Rabbi lost his job with a small congregation shortly thereafter—he had not learned English and perhaps the congregation thought him out of step.
The financial struggle for the family was persistent. Ehrich wanted people to believe he was born in Appleton. His attendance at school was poor and spelling would be a downfall all his life. And yet, at age nine he starred in his first backyard circus by performing stunts on a homemade trapeze and called himself, “The Prince of the Air.” Still and all, he started earning money to help the family at age 11 by shining shoes, selling newspapers and running errands.
When Ehrich was 12, the family was transplanted to New York City where his father asked Ehrich to promise to take care of his mother. And this he promised. His father was unable to provide for the other six children he had fathered and Ehrich ran away hoping to find work elsewhere to support them.
He sent his mother a postcard saying he was headed for Galveston, Texas, and would be home in a year. He signed it, “Your truant son, Ehrich Weiss.” Hard-knock school on the streets, traveling, and living on the road made him a clever boy. His hopes were always to send money back to his family.
A Turning Point
Reunited in New York, Ehrich developed an interest in practicing magic. When he was almost 16, he came across a book called, The Memoirs of Robert-Houdin, Ambassador, Author and Conjuror, Written by Himself. This now-famous nineteenth-century magician was French, and he had started by performing magic shows in outdoor markets or on street corners. Robert-Houdin was an inventor of sorts too, and even used electromagnetism to move objects around the stage. Ehrich was hooked. If Robert-Houdin could use magic to become famous, so could he. Ehrich was often called “Ehrie” for short—sounded like Harry—and he added an “i” to Houdin’s name and instantly became, Harry Houdini!
Magician in Training
Times were different in the 1890s. People didn’t have professionally-made movies and music in their homes, so they often went to the theater, a church or barn to see the traveling entertainers or the circus passing through. The biggest near-to-professional venue was called vaudeville and featured dancers, musicians and comedians, who got famous there.
In the meantime, Harry was trying to learn magic. There was no magic school and it took him years as he read books, wrote everything down and practiced. He practiced over and over and over again. He performed card tricks and sleight of hand and could make a coin walk over his fingers and go anywhere he wanted. He stayed flexible by constantly flipping coins; and mastering disappearing acts and illusions was an everyday endeavor. He would rip paper into bits and then—presto—put it back into one piece. He could retrieve a coin from someone’s ear. He and his brother Theo (the Brothers Houdini) put on a show anywhere they could, and they even got into the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair sideshow.
Harry was small in stature, about 5'5”, but he made up for it with his enthusiasm and showmanship. And 1894 was a good year, he met Beatrice Raymond from a song-and-dance act called—the Floral Sisters. She was a small, five-feet-tall ball of dynamite, just like Harry and they fell in love at first sight. She was eighteen, Harry was twenty and one night she snuck out of the house to meet him and was afraid to go home. She told Harry this and he proposed right there. She was not only a perfect wife for him, but she became his manager and responsible stage partner—announcing him with style; singing and learning the tricks to help him perform.
They began to appear in large halls called dime museums. Eventually his act took on a whole new persona. Harry found he had an affinity for locks—he loved them and could crack any lock in an instant, so he added that to his show. Soon, he was so ingenious at escaping, he put his body in locked chains, inside locked trunks, locked boxes, cabinets, and anything to do with locks. When he got to a new town, he would visit police stations and challenge them to lock him up. That made the headlines in hometown newspapers. Of course, by now he was an escape artist extraordinaire and had a show that no one had ever seen before. His tricks felt electric and modern.
The King of Handcuffs
Water Torture Cell
In the spring of 1899, Houdini was toying with the idea of becoming a locksmith and teaching magic. Then while playing a beer hall in Minnesota, a man named Martin Beck, a vaudeville tycoon—offered Harry a job, a real job with a salary. Soon he was earning $250 a week, which was what the top stars and headliners made. He would never have to work with the Dog-Faced Man, the Zulu Warriors, the Contortionists, or any of the other crazy acts of the dime museum era. His tricks became more challenging, and as he and Bess traveled, he created newsworthy events and the reporters and newspapers ate it up. He pioneered the famous “Metamorphosis” trick, where he was placed in a sack and tied up; the sack was put into a trunk and locked with heavy chains then placed in a cabinet. Bess would close a curtain around the cabinet, clap three times and step behind the curtain. When the curtain is opened, Harry is standing next to the trunk and he opens both the trunk and the sack and Bess is inside!! The illusions were stunning. One of his scariest tricks was Harry swallowing sewing needles and then pulling them out of his mouth, all strung together.
Man of Character
Houdini not only became a European sensation—well-known around the world for his daring escapes, but he developed into a man of great character. He always sent money home to his mother, until the day she died, but he also supported military families and the war effort.
Houdini lived to touch many other lives and achieved many firsts. For example, he was the first aviator of Australia, a historian, a film producer and the President of the Society of American Magicians. And he died on Halloween.
Cobb, Vicki. Harry Houdini: A photographic story of a life. New York: DK Publishing Inc., 2005. Book.
Sutherland, Tui T. Who Was Harry Houdini? New York: Penguin Random House LLC., 2002. Book.
Landers, Jack. Escape Artist Harry Houdini Was an Ingenious Inventor, He Just Didn’t Want Anybody to Know. _Smithsonian_mag.com.
Wild About Harry: The mystery of the two Torture Cells
Photos - Library of Congress