Erik Weisz (March 24, 1874 – October 31, 1926)

Harry Houdini, born Erik Weisz was a Hungarian-American escape artist, magician and stunt performer, most noted for his illusionist escape acts. His pseudonym is a reference to his spiritual master, French magician Robert-Houdin (1805–1871).

Few performers have ever captured the public imagination as much as Harry Houdini. From his breakthrough in 1899 to his untimely death in 1926, Houdini was one of the world’s most popular entertainers, a true star of stage and screen. Time and again, his escapes from seemingly impossible predicaments thrilled audiences, who found in him a metaphor for their own lives; an affirmation of the human capacity to overcome adversity. Escapism in both senses of the word. But while nearly everyone is familiar with Houdini’s stage persona, his little-known personal life is equally revealing. Taken as a whole, the public and private views make “The Elusive American” a uniquely powerful window on his times. 

His love of America was such that he always claimed Appleton, Wisconsin, as his birthplace. But the man known as Houdini was actually born on March 24, 1874 as Ehrich Weiss to a jewish family in Budapest, Hungary. 

His parents were Rabbi Mayer Sámuel Weisz (1829–1892) and Cecília Steiner (1841–1913). Houdini was one of seven children. Weisz arrived in the United States when he was only four years old on July 3, 1878, onboard the SS Fresia with his mother (who was pregnant) and his four brothers. The family changed their name to the German spelling Weiss, and Erik became Ehrich. The family lived in Appleton, Wisconsin, where his father served as rabbi of the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation.

In 1887, after a series of failed rabbinic appointments in the Midwest, Herman Mayer Weiss brought young Ehrich with him to New York, where they lived in a boardinghouse and found what work they could. When he wasn’t working, Ehrich excelled in sports, particularly swimming, boxing, and running, developing the natural athletic gifts which would be vital to his future act. He also rediscovered a childhood interest in magic, and in 1891 teamed up with a friend named Jacob Hyman in an act they called “The Brothers Houdini.” After his hard-luck father died in 1892, eighteen year old Ehrich left his mother and brothers in New York and went on the road where The Brothers Houdini would perform their act — an unremarkable collection of card and other mundane magic tricks in dime museums and small theaters throughout upstate New York and the Midwest. They performed on the Midway of the remarkable 1893 World’s Columbia Exposition in Chicago.

When Weiss became a professional magician he began to call himself “Harry Houdini,” after the French magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, after reading Robert-Houdin’s autobiography in 1890. Weiss incorrectly believed that an i at the end of a name meant “like” in French.

In 1894, while performing with his brother “Dash” (Theodore) at Coney Island as “The Brothers Houdini,” Houdini met a fellow performer, Wilhelmina Beatrice “Bess” Rahner. Bess was initially courted by Dash, but she and Houdini later married, with Bess replacing Dash in the act, which then became known as “The Houdinis.” For the rest of Houdini’s performing career, Bess worked as his stage assistant.

Houdini’s big break came in 1899 when he met manager Martin Beck in St. Paul, Minnesota. Impressed by Houdini’s handcuffs act, Beck advised him to concentrate on escape acts and booked him on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit. Within months, he was performing at the top vaudeville houses in the country. In 1900, Beck arranged for Houdini to tour Europe.

Between 1900 and 1920 he appeared in theatres all over Great Britain performing escape acts, illusions, card tricks and outdoor stunts, becoming one of the world’s highest paid entertainers. He also toured the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Russia and became widely known as “The Handcuff King.” In each city, Houdini challenged local police to restrain him with shackles and lock him in their jails. In many of these challenge escapes, he was first stripped nude and searched. In Moscow, he escaped from a Siberian prison transport van, claiming that, had he been unable to free himself, he would have had to travel to Siberia, where the only key was kept.

In Cologne, he sued a police officer, Werner Graff, who claimed he made his escapes using bribery. Houdini won the case when he opened the judge’s safe (he later said the judge had forgotten to lock it). With his new-found wealth, Houdini purchased a dress said to have been made for Queen Victoria. He then arranged a grand reception where he presented his mother in the dress to all their relatives. Houdini said it was the happiest day of his life. In 1904, Houdini returned to the U.S. and purchased a house for $25,000 (equivalent to $753,981 in 2021), a brownstone at 278 W. 113th Street in Harlem, New York City.

Houdini became an active Freemason and was a member of St. Cecile Lodge No. 568 in New York City.

Although being an entertainer meant constant travel, the brownstone became home base for his family, particularly his mother, Cecelia Weiss. Houdini had always been close to his mother, but since his father’s death had demonstrated a fierce devotion rivaled only by his love for his wife, Bess. When word of Cecelia’s death reached him in Sweden in 1913, he reportedly fainted, then wept uncontrollably when he came to. “I am what would be called a Mothers-boy,” admitted the man hailed around the world as a real-life superman. He would grieve for her the rest of his life.

From 1907 and throughout the 1910s, Houdini performed with great success in the United States. He freed himself from jails, handcuffs, chains, ropes, and straitjackets, often while hanging from a rope in sight of street audiences. Because of imitators, Houdini put his “handcuff act” behind him on January 25, 1908, and began escaping from a locked, water-filled milk can. The possibility of failure and death thrilled his audiences. Houdini also expanded his repertoire with his escape challenge act, in which he invited the public to devise contraptions to hold him. These included nailed packing crates (sometimes lowered into water), riveted boilers, wet sheets, mail bags and even the belly of a whale that had washed ashore in Boston.

Houdini introduced the Chinese Water Torture Cell at the Circus Busch in Berlin, Germany, on September 21, 1912. He was suspended upside-down in a locked glass-and-steel cabinet full to overflowing with water, holding his breath for more than three minutes. He would go on performing this escape for the rest of his life. For most of his career, Houdini was a headline act in vaudeville.

For many years, he was the highest-paid performer in American vaudeville. One of Houdini’s most notable non-escape stage illusions was performed at the New York Hippodrome, when he vanished a full-grown elephant from the stage. He had purchased this trick from the magician Charles Morritt. In 1923, Houdini became president of Martinka & Co., America’s oldest magic company. A business which is still in operation today.

In 1908, Houdini introduced his next own original act, the Milk Can Escape. In this act, Houdini was handcuffed and sealed inside an oversized milk can filled with water and made his escape behind a curtain. As part of the effect, Houdini invited members of the audience to hold their breath along with him while he was inside the can. Advertised with dramatic posters that proclaimed “Failure Means A Drowning Death,” the escape proved to be a sensation.

One of Houdini’s most popular publicity stunts was to have himself strapped into a regulation straitjacket and suspended by his ankles from a tall building or crane. Houdini would then make his escape in full view of the assembled crowd. In many cases, Houdini drew tens of thousands of onlookers who brought city traffic to a halt. Houdini would sometimes ensure press coverage by performing the escape from the office building of a local newspaper.

Another of Houdini’s most famous publicity stunts was to escape from a nailed and roped packing crate after it had been lowered into water. He first performed the escape in New York’s East River on July 7, 1912. Police forbade him from using one of the piers, so he hired a tugboat and invited press on board. He escaped in 57 seconds. The crate was pulled to the surface and found still to be intact, with the manacles inside.

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Houdini made the only known recordings of his voice on Edison wax cylinders on October 29, 1914, in Flatbush, New York. On them, Houdini practices several different introductory speeches for his famous Chinese Water Torture Cell. He also invites his sister, Gladys, to recite a poem. Houdini then recites the same poem in German. The six wax cylinders were discovered in the collection of magician John Mulholland after his death in 1970. They are now part of the David Copperfield Collection.

In 1918, Houdini signed a contract with film producer B. A. Rolfe to star in a 15-part serial, The Master Mystery (released in November 1918). As was common at the time, the film serial was released simultaneously with a novel. Financial difficulties resulted in B. A. Rolfe Productions going out of business, but The Master Mystery led to Houdini being signed by Famous Players-Lasky Corporation/Paramount Pictures, for whom he made two pictures, The Grim Game (1919) and Terror Island (1920).

In 1919, Houdini moved to Los Angeles to film. He resided in 2435 Laurel Canyon Boulevard, a house of his friend and business associate Ralph M. Walker, who owned both sides of the street, 2335 and 2400, the latter address having a pool where Houdini practiced his water escapes. 2400 Laurel Canyon Boulevard, previously numbered 2398, is presently known as “The Houdini Estate,” thus named in the honor of Houdini’s time there. The same estate where Bess Houdini threw a party for 500 magicians years after his death. After decades of abandonment, the estate was acquired in 2006 by José Luis Nazar, a Chilean/American citizen who has since restored it to its former splendor.

Theater Poster for “The Grim Game”

The Grim Game was Houdini’s first full-length movie and is reputed to be his best. Because of the flammable nature of nitrate film and their low rate of survival, film historians considered the film lost. One copy did exist hidden in the collection of a private collector only known to a tiny group of magicians that saw it. Dick Brookz and Dorothy Dietrich of The Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania, had seen it twice on the invitation of the collector. After many years of trying, they finally got him to agree to sell the film to Turner Classic Movies who restored the complete 71-minute film. The film, not seen by the general public for 96 years was shown by TCM on March 29, 2015, as a highlight of their yearly 4-day festival in Hollywood.

In 1909, Houdini became fascinated with aviation. He purchased a French Voisin biplane for $5,000 (equivalent to $145,411 in 2021) from the Chilean aviators José Luis Sánchez-Besa and Emilio Eduardo Bello and hired a full-time mechanic, Antonio Brassac. After crashing once, he made his first successful flight on November 26 in Hamburg, Germany. The following year, Houdini toured Australia and brought along his Voisin biplane with the intention to be the first person to fly in Australia.

“Melbourne people will shortly have an opportunity of witnessing the ascent of a flying machine, for Houdini, whose Voision [sic] bi-plane has arrived, has determined to make a flight before his season closes at the [New] Opera House [in Melbourne, at the end of March]. The 60 to 80 horse-power motor used is of the E.N.V. pattern. The machine has been erected at Diggers’ Rest.” — Table Talk, March 3, 1910.

In the 1920s, Houdini turned his energies toward debunking psychics and mediums, a pursuit that was in line with the debunkings by stage magicians since the late nineteenth century.

Houdini’s training in magic allowed him to expose frauds who had successfully fooled many scientists and academics. He was a member of a Scientific American committee that offered a cash prize to any medium who could successfully demonstrate supernatural abilities. None were able to do so, and the prize was never collected. Houdini’s exposure of phony mediums has inspired other magicians to follow suit, including The Amazing Randi, Dorothy Dietrich, Penn & Teller, and Dick Brookz.

Witnesses to an incident at Houdini’s dressing room in the Princess Theatre in Montreal speculated that Houdini’s death was caused by Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead (1895–1954), who repeatedly struck Houdini’s abdomen.

Whitehead asked Houdini “if he believed in the miracles of the Bible” and “whether it was true that punches in the stomach did not hurt him.” Houdini offered a casual reply that his stomach could endure a lot. Whitehead then delivered “some very hammer-like blows below the belt.” Houdini was reclining on a couch at the time, having broken his ankle while performing several days earlier. A witness said that Houdini winced at each blow and stopped Whitehead suddenly in the midst of a punch, gesturing that he had had enough, and adding that he had had no opportunity to prepare himself against the blows, as he did not expect Whitehead to strike him so suddenly and forcefully.

Throughout that evening, Houdini performed in great pain. He was unable to sleep and remained in constant pain for the next two days, but did not seek medical help. When he finally saw a doctor, he was found to have a fever of 102 °F and acute appendicitis, and was advised to have immediate surgery. He ignored the advice and decided to go on with the show. When Houdini arrived at the Garrick Theater in Detroit, Michigan, on October 24, 1926, for what would be his last performance, he had a fever of 104 °F. Despite the diagnosis, Houdini took the stage. He was reported to have passed out during the show, but was revived and continued. Afterwards, he was hospitalized at Detroit’s Grace Hospital.

Houdini died on Halloween evening, October 31st, 1926 and his funeral was held on November 4, 1926 in New York, with more than 2,000 mourners in attendance. He was interred in the Machpelah Cemetery in Glendale, Queens, with the crest of the Society of American Magicians inscribed on his grave site.

Before Houdini died, he and his wife agreed that if Houdini found it possible to communicate after death, he would communicate the message “Rosabelle believe,” a secret code which they agreed to use. Rosabelle was their favorite song. Bess held yearly séances on Halloween for ten years after Houdini’s death. She did claim to once make contact through Arthur Ford in 1929 when Ford conveyed the secret code, but later Bess said the incident had been faked. The code seems to have been such that it could be broken by Ford or his associates using existing clues. Evidence to this effect was discovered by Ford’s biographer after he died in 1971. In 1936, after a last unsuccessful séance on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel, she put out the candle that she had kept burning beside a photograph of Houdini since his death. In 1943, Bess said that “ten years is long enough to wait for any man.”


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