Dubbed the most famous magician of all time,
Harry Houdini's actual name was Ehrich Weiss. He was born on
March 24, 1874 in Budapest, (although Houdini often claimed
to be born in Appleton, Wisconsin, he actually came to the
United States when he was four years old). To this day many
connected with the small town of Appleton still claim the untruth
that Houdini was born there strictly to attract tourists. It
is clear from copies of birth records and early family records
on file at the Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania in
the Pocono region, that Houdini was in fact born in Budapest,
on March 24, 1874. Historians are now finally agreed on this
fact. In later years, in a magazine interview, Houdini said
about Appleton, "the greatest escape I ever made was when
I left Appleton, Wisconsin."
Houdini's early years
Houdini's father was a Rabbi named Mayer Samuel Weiss. For a short time he was
Rabbi for the German Zoin Jewish Congregation in Appleton. His mother's name
was Cecilia Steiner Weiss. His parents spoke Yiddish, Hungarian, and German.
The family was quite poor so most of the children began to work at an early age.
From the age of eight young Ehrich Weiss sold newspapers and worked as a shoe
shine boy. At the age of 12, he left home in an attempt to help support his family.
This was a great sign of independance and is contrary to those who incorrectly
claim he was overly obsessed with his mother, although he did love her very much.
Houdini moves to New York City at the
age of 13
Young Ehrich traveled the country for about a year, always sending money home
when he could. Finally he joined up with his father in New York City. The move
to New York would change his life and introduce him to the world of big time
magic. The family moved to New York in the the hope of finding a better life
there. In New York, Houdini worked as a messenger and as a cutter at Richter & Sons
tie factory (a garment center sweat shop) to help support his family. He was
very athletic and won awards in swimming and track. He would use this athletic
and swimming talents to great use in his future as an escape artist.
How Houdini got his name
Houdini began performing magic as a teenager first calling himself "Eric
the Great". Always a reader, two books would change his life. As a teenager
in New York, he read, "Revelations of a Spirit Meduim" by A. Medium,
which exposed the tricks of phony psychics, who after being tied up would secretly
release themselves to make ghostly things happen in darkened rooms. The second
book was "The Memoirs of Robert-Houdin," the autobiography of one of
the greatest magicians of the day. Influenced by what he read and learned about
the internationally known magician Robert Houdin, young Ehrich changed his name
to Houdini, hoping to be in some way like his new found mentor.
Houdini's early shows
Houdini's first magic shows consisted of card tricks and other simple magic.
Houdini early on called himself "The King Of Cards." Soon he began
experimenting with hand cuffs and using them in his acts. He performed with another
young man who worked with him in the tie factory in New York and they called
themselves the Houdini Brothers. Soon afterwards Houdini's younger brother, Theo,
took the place of the boy from the factory. Their first performances included
shows at amusement parks, beer halls, "dime museums," and at the Chicago
World's Fair in 1893.
Houdini invents the challenge escape
act and the concept of the escape artist is born
Houdini began offering rewards to anyone who could successfully restrain him,
first in handcuffs and later in all manner of objects. Houdini escaped from handcuffs,
leg irons, straightjackets, jails and prison cells, a mail pouch, packing crates,
a giant paper bag (without tearing the paper), a giant football, an iron boiler,
milk cans, coffins, and the famousWater Torture Cell. In most of these escapes,
upon later examination, there was never a sign of how Houdini accomplished the
release, which added to the amazement. Some of his escapes - such as the Straight
Jacket or being tied with a hundred feet of rope - Houdini would do in full view
of the audience. To help draw crowds and sell tickets, Houdini would do escape
challenges, often at police stations with newspaper reporters present, assuring
a headline story.
Houdini gets discovered
Martin Beck, Vaudeville's most important booking agent, caught Houdini's act
in 1899 and was impressed with his dynamic personality. Beck had a trained eye
for talent and he immediately placed Houdini in big time vaudeville as a supporting
act. Houdini soon began to headline in several theaters throughout the country.
Houdini having invented a new form of entertainment, "The Challenge Escape," soon
would become an international star. Houdini decided to go to Europe, on the advice
of his friend, the greatest coin magician of all time, T. Nelson Downs. He created
a sensation in London, England and went on to travel throughout Europe for five
years as a headliner. Houdini had so much work in Europe that he summoned his
brother Theo to work there under the name Hardeen.
Houdini's fame continues to grow throughout
Houdini returned to the United States, determined to become an even bigger star
in the country he loved. He would travel between Europe and the United States
going where he could get the best offers. On one trip to the United States, he
purchased a building in New York City on 113th Street that was to become his
residence for the rest of his life.
As escape artist imitators poped up to take advantage of Houdini's tremendous
success, Houdini began to originate new and more difficult and dangerous escapes.
He invented the underwater packing box escape as a fabulous publicity stunt that
was copied by many others. He was also the first person to do the Straight Jacket
Escape and he introduced the sensational Milk Can Escape in St. Louis on January
27, 1908. In 1913 he introduced his legendary Chinese Water Torture Cell.
In 1918, at the Hippodrome in New York City, he was to do the largest stage illusion
ever done by making an elephant disappear. According to Houdini, the elephant
weighed 10,000 pounds. Houdini was very creative and introduced and invented
many magic tricks. After escaping from underwater Houdini would often hide under
a dock forcing people to think he might have drowned. Then when he felt the timing
was right, Houidni would make his reappearance. He had great strength and agility
which he used for accomplishing his stunts and he spent many hours studying,
practicing and conditioning. For his underwater stunts, Houdini would practice
holding his breath in the bathtub for up to four minutes. In one stunt, he also
stayed in an underwater "coffin" for over an hour.
Death to A Legend
On October 22, 1926, Houdini was in Montreal performing at the Princess Theater.
In his dressing room, he was approached by a young athlete from McGill University,
who asked if Houdini could actually withstand punches to the stomach as he had
heard. Before Houdini could prepare himself by tightening his stomach muscles,
the student began to punch the legendary magician in the mid-section. Houdini
did not know it at the time, but his appendix was ruptured. He did several more
shows in Montreal and then headed for Detroit where he did one more performance
before collapsing. Houdini did not die in an escape or fail in some final escape
as many believe. The greatest "ghost buster" of all time died on October
31, 1926, of peritonitis.For some twenty six years Houdini was a major headliner.
He not only earned a place in history but in the dictionary as well.