Many people have heard of Harry Houdini and associate him with daring acts of escape and a performer of incredible stunts, but not many know very much about his life in general. Though indeed he was a Hungarian American magician born on March 24, 1874 and died October 31, 1926, his real name was originally Erik Weisz (later he changed the spelling to Ehrich Weiss) and he was much more than the average carnival magician. He was not only also a stunt performer, an actor, a film producer and of course an escapologist, but was known to be a famous skeptic who had an interest in the supernatural, and many times exposed frauds related to this phenomena.
Houdini started out with magic in sideshows and dime museums and because he got quite good at card tricks he was soon known as the “King of cards”. Before long, after realizing that doing card tricks was never going to make him famous, he started experimenting with escape acts, and it was in 1893 while working with his brother “Dash”, at Coney Island, that he met his future wife, Wilhelmina Beatrice(Bess) Rahner. Bess soon replaced Dash as Houdini’s stage assistant, and would remain so until the end of his performing career.
It was in 1899 in Woodstock, Illinois that Houdini really got his big break when he met Martin Beck, who soon became his manager. Beck was truly impressed with Houdini’s handcuff act and advised him to stick to escape acts. He eventually got him booked on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit and before long Houdini was performing in the top vaudeville houses around the country. He soon went on tour throughout Europe and visited countries like Germany, France, Russia, Scotland, England and the Netherlands and was know as “The handcuff King” because in each city he would have the local police lock him in shackles and put him in jail, and in many cases, he was first stripped and searched, but somehow he always managed to escape, to the dismay of the prison officials.
Houdini returned to the U.S. in 1904 and bought a house for $25,000 at 278 W. 113th Street in Harlem New York, which still stands to this day. Harry became famous throughout the United States and from 1907-1911 he performed such escape acts as freeing himself from straitjackets, chains, ropes and handcuffs, with most of these escapes being done while hanging from a rope, in plain view of his audiences.
Soon he was bored with these tricks and began far more risky and dangerous escapes like getting out of locked water filled milk cans, mailbags, riveted boilers, nailed packing crates(that were sometimes lowered in water), and even the belly of a real Whale that had unfortunately washed ashore in Boston. The audiences were fascinated and thrilled by the chance of failure that could result in his death!
It was in 1912 that Houdini performed the Chinese Water Torture Cell, which turned out to be his most famous act. He was locked in a glass and steel cabinet, suspended upside down and the container was filled with water. In order to escape Houdini had to hold his breath for more than 3 minutes and a simple mistake would kill him. Harry Houdini performed for many more years before his death in 1926 and is known as the world’s best escape artist.
Harry was definitely Hollywood material. While we’re on the subject why not check out some Hollywood fun facts.