Harry Houdini (1874 - 1926)

Harry Houdini
1874 - 1926
updated March 24, 2020
Harry Houdini was born on March 24, 1874 in Budapest, Hungary. He died on October 31, 1926 in Detroit, Michigan at age 52.

Harry Houdini
Born Erik Weisz March 24, 1874 Budapest, Hungary
Died October 31, 1926 (aged 52) Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
Cause of death Peritonitis]
Occupation Illusionist, stunt performer, actor, historian, film producer, pilot, and debunker.
Years active 1891–1926
Spouse(s) Wilhelmina Beatrice "Bess" Rahner (m. 1894)
Relatives Theodore Hardeen (brother)
Harry Houdini (/huːˈdiːni/; born Erik Weisz, later Ehrich Weiss or Harry Weiss; March 24, 1874 – October 31, 1926) was a Hungarian-born American illusionist and stunt performer, noted for his sensational escape acts. He first attracted notice in vaudeville in the US and then as "Harry Handcuff Houdini" on a tour of Europe, where he challenged police forces to keep him locked up. Soon he extended his repertoire to include chains, ropes slung from skyscrapers, straitjackets under water, and having to escape from and hold his breath inside a sealed milk can with water in it.
In 1904, thousands watched as he tried to escape from special handcuffs commissioned by London's Daily Mirror, keeping them in suspense for an hour. Another stunt saw him buried alive and only just able to claw himself to the surface, emerging in a state of near-breakdown. While many suspected that these escapes were faked, Houdini presented himself as the scourge of fake spiritualists. As President of the Society of American Magicians, he was keen to uphold professional standards and expose fraudulent artists. He was also quick to sue anyone who imitated his escape stunts.
Houdini made several movies but quit acting when it failed to bring in money. He was also a keen aviator and aimed to become the first man to fly a plane in Australia.
Erik Weisz was born in Budapest to a Jewish family. His parents were Rabbi Mayer Sámuel Weisz (1829–1892) and Cecília Steiner (1841–1913). Houdini was one of seven children: Herman M. (1863–1885) who was Houdini's half-brother by Rabbi Weisz's first marriage; Nathan J. (1870–1927); Gottfried William (1872–1925); Theodore (1876–1945); Leopold D. (1879–1962); and Carrie Gladys (1882–1959), who was left almost blind after a childhood accident.
Weisz arrived in the United States on July 3, 1878, on 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.
According to the 1880 census, the family lived on Appleton Street in an area that is now known as Houdini Square. On June 6, 1882, Rabbi Weiss became an American citizen. Losing his job at Zion in 1882, Rabbi Weiss and family moved to Milwaukee and fell into dire poverty.[9] In 1887, Rabbi Weiss moved with Ehrich to New York City, where they lived in a boarding house on East 79th Street. He was joined by the rest of the family once Rabbi Weiss found permanent housing. As a child, Ehrich Weiss took several jobs, making his public début as a 9-year-old trapeze artist, calling himself "Ehrich, the Prince of the Air". He was also a champion cross country runner in his youth. When Weiss became a professional magician he began calling 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 later life, Houdini claimed that the first part of his new name, Harry, was an homage to Harry Kellar, whom he also admired, though it was more likely adapted from "Ehri," a nickname for "Ehrich," which is how he was known to his family. When he was a teenager, Houdini was coached by the magician Joseph Rinn at the Pastime Athletic Club.
Houdini began his magic career in 1891, but had little success. He appeared in a tent act with strongman Emil Jarrow. He performed in dime museums and sideshows, and even doubled as "The Wild Man" at a circus. Houdini focused initially on traditional card tricks. At one point, he billed himself as the "King of Cards". Some - but not all - professional magicians would come to regard Houdini as a competent but not particularly skilled sleight-of-hand artist, lacking the grace and finesse required to achieve excellence in that craft. He soon began experimenting with escape acts.
In 1906, Houdini created his own publication, the Conjurers' Monthly Magazine. It was a competitor to The Sphinx, but was short-lived and only two volumes were released until August 1908. Magic historian Jim Steinmeyer has noted that: "Houdini couldn't resist using the journal for his own crusades, attacking his rivals, praising his own appearances, and subtly rewriting history to favor his view of magic."
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. Brewers in Scranton, Pennsylvania and other cities challenged Houdini to escape from a barrel after they filled it with beer.
Many of these challenges were arranged with local merchants in one of the first uses of mass tie-in marketing. Rather than promote the idea that he was assisted by spirits, as did the Davenport Brothers and others, Houdini's advertisements showed him making his escapes via dematerializing, although Houdini himself never claimed to have supernatural powers.
After much research, Houdini wrote a collection of articles on the history of magic, which were expanded into The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin published in 1908. In this book he attacked his former idol Robert-Houdin as liar and a fraud for having claimed the invention of automata and effects such as aerial suspension, which had been in existence for many years. Many of the allegations in the book were dismissed by magicians and researchers who defended Robert-Houdin. Magician Jean Hugard would later write a full rebuttal to Houdini's book.
In 1913, Houdini introduced the Chinese Water Torture Cell, in which 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.
During his career, Houdini explained some of his tricks in books written for the magic brotherhood. In Handcuff Secrets (1909), he revealed how many locks and handcuffs could be opened with properly applied force, others with shoestrings. Other times, he carried concealed lockpicks or keys. When tied down in ropes or straitjackets, he gained wiggle room by enlarging his shoulders and chest, moving his arms slightly away from his body.


Houdini and Jennie, the Vanishing Elephant, January 7, 1918

Houdini in handcuffs, 1918
His straitjacket escape was originally performed behind curtains, with him popping out free at the end. Houdini's brother, (who was also an escape artist, billing himself as Theodore Hardeen), discovered that audiences were more impressed when the curtains were eliminated so they could watch him struggle to get out. On more than one occasion, they both performed straitjacket escapes while dangling upside-down from the roof of a building in the same city.[29]
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Harry Houdini Biography

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Harry Houdini
Most commonly known name
Male
Gender
Harry
First name
Unknown
Middle name
Houdini
Last name(s)
Erik Weisz
Nickname(s) or aliases
Unknown. Did Harry move a lot? Where was his last known location?
Last known residence
Harry Houdini was born on in Budapest, Hungary
Birth
Harry Houdini died on in Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan United States
Death
Harry Houdini was born on in Budapest, Hungary
Harry Houdini died on in Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan United States
Birth
Death
Punch in stomach
Cause of death
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Ethnicity & Lineage

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Nationality & Locations Lived

Unknown

Religion

Reform Judaism, Father Rabbi

Education

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Professions

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.[35] He had purchased this trick from the magician Charles Morritt. In 1923, Houdini became president of Martinka & Co., America's oldest magic company. The business is still in operation today.
He also served as President of the Society of American Magicians (a.k.a. S.A.M.) from 1917 until his death in 1926. Founded on May 10, 1902, in the back room of Martinka's magic shop in New York, the Society expanded under the leadership of Harry Houdini during his term as National President from 1917 to 1926. Houdini was magic's greatest visionary. He sought to create a large, unified national network of professional and amateur magicians. Wherever he traveled, he gave a lengthy formal address to the local magic club, made speeches, and usually threw a banquet for the members at his own expense. He said "The Magicians Clubs as a rule are small: they are weak ... but if we were amalgamated into one big body the society would be stronger, and it would mean making the small clubs powerful and worthwhile. Members would find a welcome wherever they happened to be and, conversely, the safeguard of a city-to-city hotline to track exposers and other undesirables."
For most of 1916, while on his vaudeville tour, Houdini had been recruiting—at his own expense—local magic clubs to join the S.A.M. in an effort to revitalize what he felt was a weak organization. Houdini persuaded groups in Buffalo, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City to join. As had happened in London, he persuaded magicians to join. The Buffalo club joined as the first branch, (later assembly) of the Society. Chicago Assembly No. 3 was, as the name implies, the third regional club to be established by the S.A.M., whose assemblies now number in the hundreds. In 1917, he signed Assembly Number Three's charter into existence, and that charter and this club continue to provide Chicago magicians with a connection to each other and to their past. Houdini dined with, addressed, and got pledges from similar clubs in Detroit, Rochester, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Cincinnati and elsewhere. This was the biggest movement ever in the history of magic. In places where no clubs existed, he rounded up individual magicians, introduced them to each other, and urged them into the fold.
By the end of 1916, magicians' clubs in San Francisco and other cities that Houdini had not visited were offering to become assemblies. He had created the richest and longest-surviving organization of magicians in the world. It now embraces almost 6,000 dues-paying members and almost 300 assemblies worldwide. In July 1926, Houdini was elected for the ninth successive time President of the Society of American Magicians. Every other president has only served for one year. He also was President of the Magicians' Club of London.
In the final years of his life (1925/26), Houdini launched his own full-evening show, which he billed as "Three Shows in One: Magic, Escapes, and Fraud Mediums Exposed".

Personal Life & Organizations

Houdini became an active Freemason and was a member of St. Cecile Lodge #568 in New York City. In 1918, he registered for selective service as Harry Handcuff Houdini.
Magician, escape artist

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In 1893, 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 married in 1894, with Bess replacing Dash in the act, which 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. After some days of unsuccessful interviews in London, Houdini's British agent Harry Day helped him to get an interview with C. Dundas Slater, then manager of the Alhambra Theatre. He was introduced to William Melville and gave a demonstration of escape from handcuffs at Scotland Yard.[19] He succeeded in baffling the police so effectively that he was booked at the Alhambra for six months. His show was an immediate hit and his salary rose to $300 a week.
Houdini became widely known as "The Handcuff King." He toured England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Russia. 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 alleged that he made his escapes via bribery.[21] 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 $697,130 in 2018), a brownstone at 278 W. 113th Street in Harlem, New York City.[22]

Whilst on tour in Europe in 1902, Houdini visited Blois with the aim of meeting the widow of Emile Houdin, the son of Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, for an interview and permission to visit his grave. He did not receive permission but still visited the grave.[23] Houdini believed that he had been treated unfairly and later wrote a negative account of the incident in his magazine, claiming he was "treated most discourteously by Madame W. Emile Robert-Houdin."[23] In 1906, he sent a letter to the French magazine L'Illusionniste stating: "You will certainly enjoy the article on Robert Houdin I am about to publish in my magazine. Yes, my dear friend, I think I can finally demolish your idol, who has so long been placed on a pedestal that he did not deserve."

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1874 - 1926 World Events

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In 1874, in the year that Harry Houdini was born, on September 14th, the Battle of Liberty Place occurred in New Orleans - the capital of Louisiana. Some members of the previous Confederate Army assembled for the purpose of "driving the usurpers from power" and the Republican Governor - William P. Kellogg - was physically driven from his office. The former Confederates temporarily replaced him with (the former) Democratic Governor John McEnery. Federal forces arrived, put down the insurrection, and five days later the legally elected government was restored.

In 1894, he was 20 years old when large reserves of oil were discovered on the Osage Indian reservation in Oklahoma. Previously thought to be "useless" land - not even good for farming - the tribe had bought the land themselves. The discovery of oil made the Osage the "richest group of people in the world" at the time.

In 1904, when he was 30 years old, the first underground line of the New York City subway system opened. London's underground system was opened in 1863 and Boston opened one in 1897, but New York quickly became the largest system in the U.S. More than 100,000 people paid 5 cents to ride under Manhattan that first day.

In 1917, by the time he was 43 years old, Russian government offices were seized and the Romanov's Winter Palace was stormed in the Russian February and October Revolutions. The February revolution resulted in the abdication of Tsar Nicholas and a coalition of the Parliament and workers parties taking control of the government. The October revolution resulted in Lenin and the Bolsheviks taking complete control.

In 1926, in the year of Harry Houdini's passing, on November 15th, NBC was founded. It was the U.S.'s first major broadcast network. Ownership of the network was split between RCA (a majority partner at 50%), its founding corporate parent General Electric (which owned 30%), and Westinghouse (which owned the remaining 20%).

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