Harry Houdini AKA Erik Weisz was born on March 24, 1874 in Budapest Hungary. His parents were Mayer Samuel Weiss a rabbinical lawyer and Cecilia Sterner. Erik was the fourth of seven children. The family moved to the United States in 1878 and settled in Appleton Wisconsin where his father got work as a Rabbi.
The position of Rabbi would not last long and the family found themselves living in poverty in Milwaukee. At this time Erik whose first name would slowly change to Harry ran away from home. He changed his last name to White and was trying to make it to Galveston Texas. This however did not occur and the family had again moved, this time to New York, Harry would soon join them there.
In New York, Harry’s father found work on a sawing bench, Harry was working as a tie cutter and was now in his teens. It was during this time that Harry read the Memoirs of Robert Houdin, a famous French magician. Harry became fascinated with the working of illusion and a dream began.
Harry soon adapted a stage name by adding an I to Houdin and Harry Houdini was born.
Harry’s first act was that of a team called The Brothers Houdini, but this was not actually the case. He performed the act with a co worker by the name of Jacob Hyman. The crowd pleaser of the act was The Metamorphosis. This was a substitution trunk trick which supposedly csat Harry $25.00. Hyman was soon replaced by Harry’s real brother Theo, who was nick named Dash.
The real Houdini Brothers then began to perform in a number of venues including the midway of The Columbia Exposition in 1893 and Coney Island. It was in Coney Island that Harry would meet Bess Rahner, a showgirl in an act called The Floral Sisters. After a brief three week courtship the couple was married much to the dismay of Bess’s family who were Catholic.
The act was now renamed The Houdini’s and Bess and Harry traveled the country getting any work they could. They would, of course, do the standard act that Harry had created, but they also worked in other show business venues including doing comedy sketches and card tricks. Harry even masqueraded as Projea The Wild Man of Mexico in a circus sideshow.
In 1899 Harry was seen by Martin Beck, A Vaudeville great. Beck told Harry to get rid of the magic act part of his performance and start concentrating on The Metamorphosis and Harry’s handcuff escapes which had become a staple of the act by this time. Harry took the advice and Beck booked Harry in his circuit of theaters in the west. Harry soon began to promote his act by escaping the handcuffs in local jails using actual police cuffs. This gave Harry plenty of press coverage and insured an audience for his shows.
Soon Beck booked Harry for a tour of Europe, but when the Houdini’s reached London they found that the bookings had not actually been secured. So, Harry came up with a plan and ended up escaping handcuffs at the great Scotland Yard. The European act was then insured complete success
Returning to The United States Harry quickly went to work to secure his fame in his adapted country. He was invited to escape from the infamous Murderers Row after he had had successfully escaped from the cells of many other prisons. The prison was along the eastern branch of the Potomac River in Washington and the cell Harry would escape from once held the man who had assassinated President James Garfield. Harry did not only escape the cell, he also rearranged all the other prisoners in the wing, moving them from one cell to another.
According To John Cox, “Now it wasn’t just handcuffs that harry could be challenged with. It was anything man could devise. He freed himself from government mail bags, a giant football, riveted boilers, packing crates, a convict ship, and an iron maiden. In New York he escaped from a packing crate after it was nailed shut, and dropped into a river. He would later escape from a straightjacket while suspended by his ankles 100s of feet in the air. All of his outdoor escapes drew tens of thousands of spectators. Before long, Houdini was the highest paid entertained in Vaudeville”
Harry’s working life continued to be along the lines of escape artistry and magic, but his personal life took a different turn. In the early part of the twentieth century, society had become much involved in what is known as spiritualism. Spiritualism allowed you to connect to the world of the dead through a medium. Harry had worked much of his life around circus people and magicians and he knew most of this was fakery. He set out to debunk the whole thing. And he had great success, exposing some of the most notable mediums of the time.
Harry at one time became great friends with the author of The Sherlock Holmes series of books and stories, Arthur Conan Doyle. The friendship was strained however as Doyle believed in spiritualism and Harry did not. One has to ask, what Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes would think of his creator’s beliefs.
Houdini would go on to perform many other escapes even going so far as to allow himself to be buried in a coffin under a tone of sand. In 1926 Houdini was performing in Montreal Canada. A college student entered his dressing room and, believing that Harry could with stand any blow to his stomach. the student struck him several times. Harry ignored the pain and went on stage and then with a fever well over a hundred degrees Harry went to perform in Detroit Michigan. It was there with a fever of 104 degrees that Harry gave in and went to the hospital.
At the hospital it was discovered that his appendix had ruptured and he had appendicitis, after a second operation to save him Harry Houdini died on Halloween 1926. His last words were reported as being “I’m tired of fighting.”