Magician, escape artist. Born Erich Weisz on March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary. One of seven children born to a Jewish rabbi and his wife, Erich moved with his family as a child to Appleton, Wisconsin, where he later claimed he was born. When he was 13, Erich moved with his father to New York City, taking on odd jobs and living in a boarding house before the rest of the family joined them. It was there that he became interested in trapeze arts.
In 1894, Erich launched his career as a professional magician and renamed himself Harry Houdini, the first name being a derivative of his childhood nickname, “Ehrie,” and the last an homage to the great French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. Though his magic met with little success, he soon drew attention for his feats of escape using handcuffs. In 1893, he married fellow performer Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, who would serve as Houdini’s lifelong stage assistant.
In 1899, Houdini’s act caught the attention of Martin Beck, an entertainment manager who soon got him booked at some of the best vaudeville venues in the country, followed by a tour of Europe. Houdini’s feats would involve the local police, who would strip search him, place him in shackles, and lock him in their jails. The show was a huge sensation, and he soon became the highest-paid performer in American vaudeville.
Houdini continued his act in the United States in the early 1900s, constantly upping the ante from handcuffs and straightjackets to locked, water-filled tanks and nailed packing crates. In 1912, his act reached its pinnacle, the Chinese Water Torture Cell, which would be the hallmark of his career. In it, Houdini was suspended by his feet and lowered upside-down in a locked glass cabinet filled with water, requiring him to hold his breath for more than three minutes to escape. The performance was so daring and such a crowd-pleaser that it remained in his act until his death in 1926.
Houdini’s wealth allowed him to indulge in other passions, such as aviation and film. He purchased his first plane in 1909 and became the first person to man a controlled power flight over Australia in 1910. He also launched a movie career, releasing his first film in 1901, Merveilleux Exploits du Célébre Houdini Paris, which documented his escapes. He starred in several subsequent films, including The Master Mystery, The Grim Game and Terror Island. In New York, he started his own production company, Houdini Picture Corporation, and a film lab called The Film Development Corporation, but neither was a success. In 1923, Houdini became president of Martinka & Co., America’s oldest magic company.
As president of the Society of American Magicians, Harry Houdini was a vigorous campaigner against fraudulent psychic mediums. Most notably, he debunked renowned medium Mina Crandon, better known as Margery. This act turned him against former friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who believed deeply in Spiritualism and Margery’s sight.
Though there are mixed reports as to the cause of Henry Houdini’s death, it is certain that he suffered from acute appendicitis. Whether his demise was caused by a McGill University student who was testing his will by punching him in the stomach (with permission) or by poison from a band of angry Spiritualists, it is unknown. What is known is that he died of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix on October 31, 1926 at age 52.
After his death, Houdini’s props and effects were used by his brother Theodore Hardeen, who eventually sold them to magician and collector Sidney H. Radner. Much of the collection could be see at the Houdini Museum in Appleton, Wisconsin, until Radner auctioned it off in 2004. Most of the prized pieces, including the Water Torture Cell, went to magician David Copperfield.