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Harry Houdini (1874 - 1926)

Showman, Magician

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 the world
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.