The Amazing Harry Houdini
Harry Houdini. Source: (itstactical.com)
Harry Houdini was a man of many talents. Despite only living to the age of fifty-two, his résumé included such titles as a circus performer, aviator, actor, and writer. But it was his skill as an illusionist for which he became known as one of the most famous magicians of all time.
One of seven children, Houdini was born Ehrich Weisz on March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary, to Rabbi Mayer Weisz and Cecilia Steiner. In 1876, the family moved to the United States, specifically Appleton, Wisconsin, where the father continued to work as a rabbi and changed the family name to Weiss. In 1882, they moved again - this time to Milwaukee. During this time, young Houdini helped to support his family by selling newspapers and shining shoes. At the age of nine, he made his circus debut by performing a trapeze act and going by the stage name of “Ehrich, the Prince of the Air.” At twelve years old, Houdini performed his first disappearing act - though not on any stage - by running away from home. He reappeared a year later and moved to New York with his family. He continued to help support his family by working various jobs including messenger, necktie cutter, and photography assistant.
It was around this time that he developed an interest in magic and came up with the stage name by which he is now known. He chose the name Houdini in honor of the French magician Robert Houdin and Harry was simply an Americanized version of his childhood nickname Ehrie. At the age of seventeen, he left home once again, but this time it was to pursue a career in magic. He struggled at first, performing small acts around New York before rejoining the circus. In 1893, he married Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner who became his stage assistant performing as Beatrice “Bess” Houdini.
It was his escape acts which eventually launched his career and, with the help of entertainment manager Martin Beck, began getting bookings across the country and abroad. He gained fame by escaping from jails after having the police shackle and lock him up. He eventually expanded this feat to include escaping from coffins and straitjackets, and later to locked, water-filled tanks and nailed packing crates. In one of his most popular acts, the Chinese Water Torture Cell, he would be lowered by his feet into a glass cabinet filled with water. Houdini would continue to perform this act right up to his death in 1926.
In addition to amazing the masses with his magical feats, Houdini still had time to pursue other interests. He bought his first plane in 1909 in the hopes of becoming the first person to pilot a controlled flight over Australia. He completed the task in 1910, but it was later discovered that Colin Defries beat him to it in December of 1909. Houdini also pursued a career in film, with his first release being the 1909 Merveilleux Exploits du Célébre Houdini Paris, which document many of his famous escapes. He starred in several other films including The Master Mystery (1918), The Grim Game (1919), and Terror Island (1920). He also started a film production company called Houdini Picture Corporation and a film lab called The Film Development Corporation, though neither was very successful.
In the 1920s, Houdini began to use his skills as an illusionist to debunk alleged mediums and psychics. He published two books, Miracle Mongers and Their Methods (1920) and A Magician Among the Spirits (1924), in which he exposed several magicians and spiritualists as frauds. There are those who believe it was this debunking which led to his death. Houdini died on October 31, 1926, in Detroit, Michigan, of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix after having willingly been punched in the stomach by a university student; however, many people speculate that he was actually poisoned by spiritualists angry at being exposed.