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Jewish Biography --> Biographies --> List of Jews --> Harry Houdini
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Harry Houdini (March 24, 1874 – October 31, 1926) whose birth name in Hungary was Erik Weisz[1] (which was changed to Ehrich Weiss[2] when he immigrated to the United States), was a Hungarian American magician, escapologist (widely regarded as one of the greatest ever) and stunt performer, as well as a skeptic and investigator of spiritualists, film producer and actor. Harry Houdini forever changed the world of magic and escapes.

Houdini and his wife Bess
Houdini and his wife Bess

Harry Houdini died of peritonitis secondary to a ruptured appendix. It has been speculated that Houdini's ruptured appendix was caused by multiple blows to his abdomen from a McGill University student, J. Gordon Whitehead, in Montreal.

The eyewitnesses were students named Jacques Price and Sam Smilovitz (sometimes called Jack Price and Sam Smiley). Their accounts generally agreed. The following is according to Price's description of events. Houdini was reclining on his couch after his performance, having an art student sketch him. When Whitehead came in and asked if it was true that Houdini could take any blow to the stomach, Houdini replied in the affirmative. In this instance, he was hit three times, before Houdini protested. Whitehead reportedly continued hitting Houdini several times afterwards, and Houdini acted as though he were in some pain. Price recounted that Houdini stated that if he had had time to prepare himself properly, he would have been in a better position to take the blows[25]. Although in serious pain, Houdini nonetheless continued to travel without seeking medical attention. Harry had apparently been suffering from appendicitis for several days and refusing medical treatment. His appendix would likely have burst on its own without the trauma.[26]

When Houdini arrived at the Garrick Theatre in Detroit, Michigan, on October 24, 1926, for what would be his last performance, he had a fever of 104 degrees F (40°C). Despite a diagnosis of acute appendicitis, Houdini took the stage. Afterwards, he was hospitalized at Detroit's Grace Hospital.[27] Houdini died of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix at 1:26 p.m. in Room 401 on October 31 (Halloween), 1926, at the age of 52.

After taking statements from Price and Smilovitz, Houdini's insurance company concluded that the death was due to the dressing-room incident and paid double indemnity. [28].

Kalush and Sloman in the previously cited book The Secret Life of Houdini claim that during the First World War Houdini was a spy for the British and Americans against Germany. The book suggests that Houdini's death was induced by agents sent by Adolf Hitler out of concern that Houdini, an ethnic Jew, would do to the coming Third Reich what he had supposedly done already to the German Empire during the First World War.


Houdini's funeral was held on November 4, 1926, in New York, with more than 2,000 mourners in attendance.[citation needed] He was interred in the Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York, with the crest of the Society of American Magicians inscribed on his gravesite. To this day, the Society holds its "Broken Wand" ceremony at the gravesite on the anniversary of his death. Houdini's wife, Bess, died in February 1943 and was not permitted to be interred with him at Houdini's Machpelah Cemetery gravesite, because she was not Jewish.[citation needed]



In Houdini's will, his vast library was offered to the American Society for Psychical Research on the condition that research officer and editor of the ASPR Journal, J. Malcolm Bird, resign. Bird refused and the collection went instead to the Library of Congress.

Code words

Fearing that spiritualists would exploit his legacy by pretending to contact him after his death, Houdini left his wife a secret code -- ten words chosen at random from a letter written by Conan Doyle -- that he would use to contact her from the afterlife.[29] According to The Secret Life of Houdini, this fear of the Spiritualists was well-founded: Arthur Conan Doyle's campaign to hijack Houdini's legacy came to a head when a Spiritualist minister friend of Conan Doyle, Rev. Arthur Ford[30], conspired with him to bring alleged messages from Houdini and his mother back from the grave in séances. The Secret Life of Houdini alleges that Bess Houdini was ill and self-medicating with alcohol (other accounts add that she was taking pain medication after a bad fall [31]), and Ford may have talked her into conspiring to assist him in creating the impression he had contacted Houdini's spirit. The book also states that Houdini's wife felt so depressed that she actually tried to commit suicide on the eve of the séance.

Ford claimed to have gotten other spirit messages pertaining to Houdini. In 1928, he said he had heard from Houdini's mother, who had said "forgive". However, Bess had mentioned to a reporter the previous year that an authentic message from Cecily would include this word. [32]

Conflicting statements

At the séance, Ford claimed to have contacted both Houdini and his deceased mother via Ford's spirit guide "Fletcher", and stated that the message received was in the pre-arranged code worked out by Houdini and Bess before Houdini's death. A brief letter supposedly signed by Bess Houdini appeared, which read in full: "Regardless of any statements made to the contrary, I wish to declare that the message, in its entirety, and in the agreed upon sequence, given to me by Arthur Ford, is the correct message pre-arranged between Mr. Houdini and myself." On January 10, 1929, New York Graphic reporter Rea Jaure filed a story entitled "Houdini Message a Big Hoax!" stating that Ford had confessed in an interview to having paid Bess Houdini for her cooperation, but Ford later claimed the interviewee was an imposter. Further muddying the waters were Bess Houdini's conflicting statements about the success of Ford's experiments; she is alleged to have written an impassioned letter to the famed columnist Walter Winchell initially defending Ford, and a New York Times article from January 15, 1929 has her responding to rumors that the code had been "leaked" in advance by stating that, "No one but her husband and herself could possibly have known the details of the code. Neither overtly nor covertly could it have been gleaned... To this argument she clung." But by March 18,1930, both the New York Times and Bess Houdini had modifed their stance. "Numerous attempts to convince Mrs. Houdini that her husband is communicating through a medium were made," the Times said, "but she steadfastly denied that any of the mediums presented the clue by which she was to recognize a legitimate message."

Yearly séances

Bess Houdini held yearly séances on Halloween for ten years after Houdini's death, but Houdini never appeared. 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, later (1943) saying, "ten years is long enough to wait for any man." The tradition of holding a séance for Houdini continues by magicians throughout the world to this day; the Official Houdini Seance is currently organized by Sidney H. Radner.[33]

Appearance and voice

Unlike the image of the classic magician, Houdini was short and stocky and typically appeared on stage in a long frock coat and tie. Most biographers peg his height as 5'5", but descriptions vary. Houdini was also said to be slightly bow-legged, which aided in his ability to gain slack during his rope escapes. In the 1996 biography Houdini!!!: The Career of Ehrich Weiss, author Kenneth Silverman summarizes how reporters described Houdini's appearance during his early career:
“ They stressed his smallness – "somewhat undersized" – and angular, vivid features: "He is smooth-shaven with a keen, sharp-chinned, sharp-cheekboned face, bright blue eyes and thick, curly, black hair." Some sensed how much his complexly expressive smile was the outlet of his charismatic stage presence. It communicated to audiences at once warm amiability, pleasure in performing, and, more subtly, imperious self-assurance. Several reporters tried to capture the charming effect, describing him as "happy-looking", "pleasant-faced", "good natured at all times", "the young Hungarian magician with the pleasant smile and easy confidence."[34] ”

The only known recording of Houdini's voice reveals it to be heavily accented. Houdini made these recordings on Edison wax cylinders on October 24, 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.[35] They are currently part of the David Copperfield collection.


Houdini's brother, Theodore Hardeen, who returned to performing after Houdini's death, inherited his brother's effects and props. Houdini's will stipulated that all the effects should be "burned and destroyed" upon Hardeen's death. But Hardeen sold much of the collection to magician and Houdini enthusiast Sidney H. Radner during the 1940s, including the Water Torture Cell. [36] Radner allowed choice pieces of the collection to be displayed at The Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls, Canada. In 1995, a fire destroyed the museum. While the Water Torture Cell was reported to have been destroyed, its metal frame remained, and the cell was restored by illusion builder John Gaughan.[37] Many of the props contained in the museum such as the Mirror Handcuffs, Houdini's original packing crate, a Milk Can, and a straight-jacket, survived the fire and were auctioned off in 1999 and 2008.

Radner archived the bulk of his collection at the Houdini Museum in Appleton Wisconsin, but pulled it in 2003 and auctioned it off in Las Vegas on October 30, 2004. Many of the choice props, including the restored Water Torture Cell, are now owned by David Copperfield.[38]

Proposed exhumation

On March 22, 2007, around 80 years after Houdini died, his grandnephew (on his wife's side) George Hardeen announced that the courts would be asked to allow exhumation of Houdini's body. The purpose was to look for evidence that Houdini was poisoned by Spiritualists, as suggested in The Secret Life of Houdini.[39] In a statement given to the Houdini Museum in Scranton, opposed the application and suggested it was a publicity ploy for the book. [40]


* 1936 - On October 31, 1936, Houdini's widow held the "Final Houdini Seance" atop of the roof of The Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood, California. While Houdini did not come back, a sudden mysterious rain storm after the memorial candle had been extinguished led some press to speculate this was Houdini's way of signaling from beyond the grave. A recording of the séance was made and issued as a record album.
* 1953 - Houdini, a mostly fictionalized biopic of Houdini's life, was made. This movie, starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, has contributed, in part, to several misconceptions about Houdini's life. For example, it portrays the cause of Houdini's death to be the magician's failure to escape from the Chinese Water Torture Cell. (Curtis' Houdini agrees to seek medical attention "when the tour is over.")
* 1968 - The Houdini Magical Hall of Fame was opened on Clifton Hill in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada. At its opening, this museum contained the majority of Houdini's personal collection of magic paraphernalia. One of Houdini's death wishes was that his entire collection be given to his brother Theodore (also known as the magician Hardeen) and burned upon Theodore's death. Against his wishes, forty years after Houdini's death, the items were taken from storage and sold. Two entrepreneurs purchased the items and renovated a former meat-packing plant on Clifton Hill, Ontario, Canada, to house the museum. The Hall of Fame was moved in 1972 to its final location on the top of Clifton Hill. Séances were held every year at the museum on October 31, the anniversary of Houdini's death.
* 1968 - Stuart Damon plays Houdini in a lavishly staged London musical, Man of Magic.
* 1975 - Houdini received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The star is located on the northwest corner of Hollywood Blvd. and Orange Drive, just across from the Grauman's Chinese Theater and down the street from The Magic Castle.
* 1976 - Houdini was played by Paul Michael Glaser, of Starsky and Hutch fame, in a 1976 TV movie called The Great Houdinis (aka The Great Houdini), which was also highly fictionalized. The film focused on Houdini's relationship with his wife and mother, who were portrayed as frequently bickering (although, in reality, they had cordial relations) and on his fascination with life after death. The cast also included Sally Struthers, Bill Bixby, and Ruth Gordon.
* 1977 - Poem "Ha! Ha! Houdini!" published by Patti Smith.
* 1978 - Houdini was a key historical figure appearing in Ragtime the 1978 novel, the 1981 film, and the 1998 musical.
* 1982 - The Kate Bush album The Dreaming includes a song inspired by Houdini and his wife.
* 1985 - The City of Appleton, Wisconsin, constructed the Houdini Plaza on the site of the magician's childhood home.
* 1985 - Wil Wheaton played Houdini in Young Harry Houdini, a made-for-TV movie that aired on ABC as a "Disney Sunday Movie." The film also featured Jeffrey DeMunn as the adult Houdini. DeMunn first played Houdini in the film version of Ragtime.[41]
* 1989 - Canadian synth pop act Kon Kan release "Harry Houdini," the third single from the Move to Move album.
* 1993 - Grunge rock band The Melvins released Houdini, their second album. In the band illustration, each band member is shown with six fingers (Houdini sometimes used a fake sixth finger to hide lock picks).
* 1994 - Appears in Spawn issue #20 and serves as Spawn's mentor
* 1996 - Australian Rock Band The Church released their album, Magician Among the Spirits, inspired by Houdini's life; the cover features a negative of a photograph of Houdini.
* 1997 - Actor Harvey Keitel plays Houdini and Peter O'Toole Conan Doyle in the film FairyTale: A True Story, set during World War I and portraying the alleged photographing of live fairies by two English schoolgirls. The two are seen as collegial even though they disagree as to the validity of spiritualism.
* 1998 - Ragtime, the Broadway musical version of the movie, premiered on January 18, 1998. It featured Houdini as a character and has a song called "Harry Houdini, Master Escapist." The book was written by Terrence McNally, with music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. The play ran on Broadway until January 16, 2000, and won four Tony Awards. Both the movie and the play are based on E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel of the same title.
* 1998 - Johnathon Schaech played Houdini in the TNT original movie Houdini. The film co-starred Stacy Edwards as Bess and Mark Ruffalo as his brother, Dash (aka Theo. Hardeen). The TV movie first aired on December 6, 1998.
* 1999 - Novelist Norman Mailer played Houdini in the highly experimental film Cremaster 2, which told the story of murderer Gary Gilmore, who, in real life, claimed to be related to Houdini.[41]
* 2001 - Houdini appears as a character in Glen David Gold's bestselling novel Carter Beats The Devil.
* 2001 - The Houdini Seance is mounted as a theatrical piece in Chicago by Neil Tobin and becomes an annual Halloween event at Excalibur (nightclub).[42]
* 2002 - The United States Postal Service issued a postage stamp with a replica of Houdini's favorite publicity poster on July 3, 2002.[43]
* Penn and Teller make references to Houdini in their show Bullshit!. They are doing some of the same things that Houdini did: magic tricks and debunking claims of the supernatural.
* There is a Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania. It claims to be the only building in the world entirely dedicated to Houdini and is run by magicians Dick Brooks and Dorothy Dietrich. The museum also holds an annual Houdini séance.
* While touring in the United States, Houdini met Joe Keaton and his family vaudeville act. It's said that after Joe's young son fell down a flight of stairs unscathed, Houdini remarked, "Your kid is quite the buster" (buster being a stage name for a fall) and gave a name to comedy legend Buster Keaton (the kid).
* 2007 - Houdini - The Musical, a theatrical production based on the life of Houdini, premiered at The Playhouse, Weston-super-Mare before going on tour across the United Kingdom.[44] The show features many of Houdini's famous acts, including the Chinese Water Torture Cell.
* 2007 - A movie, Death Defying Acts, starring Guy Pearce and Catherine Zeta Jones was made which is based on Houdini's life.
* 2008 - Stone Temple Pilots would reunite for the first time at his estate in Hollywood


Houdini published numerous books during his career (some of which were written by his good friend Walter Brown Gibson, the creator of The Shadow [3]):

* The Right Way to Do Wrong (1906)
* Handcuff Secrets (1907)
* The Unmasking of Robert Houdin (1908)
* Magical Rope Ties and Escapes (1920)
* Miracle Mongers and their Methods (1920)
* Houdini's Paper Magic (1921)
* A Magician Among the Spirits (1924)
* Under the Pyramids (1924) with H. P. Lovecraft.


* Brandon, Ruth. The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini (Seeker & Warburg, Ltd. GB, 1993) ISBN 081297042X; ISBN 978-0812970425 (USA edition): ISBN 0-679-42437-7 ISBN 978-0-679-42437-6.
* Henning, Doug with Charles Reynolds. Houdini: His Legend and His Magic (Times Books, NY, 1978). ISBN 0446873284; ISBN 978-0446873284.
* Christopher, Milbourne. Houdini: The Untold Story (Thomas Y. Crowell Co, 1969). ISBN 0891909818; ISBN 978-0891909811; ISBN 069040431X; ISBN 978-0690404319.
* Fleischman, Sid. Escape! The Story of The Great Houdini, (Greenwillow Books, 2006). ISBN 9780060850944.
* Gresham, William Lindsay Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls (Henry Holt & Co, NY, 1959).
* Kalush, William and Larry Sloman. The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero, 2006 ISBN 0743272072.
* Kellock, Harold. Houdini: His Life-Story from the recollections and documents of Beatrice Houdini, (Harcourt, Brace Co., June, 1928).
* Kendall, Lance. Houdini: Master of Escape (Macrae Smith & Co., NY, 1960). ISBN 006092862X.
* Meyer, M.D., Bernard C.Houdini: A Mind in Chains (E.P. Dutton & Co. NY, 1976). ISBN 0841504482.
* Randi, James & Bert Randolph Sugar. Houdini: His Life and Art (Grosset & Dunlap, NY, 1977).ISBN 9780448125466; ISBN 0448125463.
* Silverman, Kenneth. Houdini!!!: The Career of Ehrich 1996 ISBN 006092862X.
* Williams, Beryl & Samuel Epstein. The Great Houdini: Magician Extraordinary (Julian Messner, Inc., NY, 1950).

Further reading

* Houdini's Escapes and Magic by Walter B. Gibson, Prepared from Houdini’s private notebooks Blue Ribbon Books, Inc., 1930. Reveals some of Houdini's magic and escape methods (also released in two separate volumes: Houdini's Magic and Houdini's Escapes).
* The Secrets of Houdini by J.C. Cannell, Hutchinson & Co., London, 1931. Reveals some of Houdini's escape methods.
* Houdini and Conan Doyle: The Story of a Strange Friendship by Bernard M. L. Ernst, Albert & Charles Boni, Inc., NY, 1932.
* Sixty Years of Psychical Research by Joseph F. Rinn, Truth Seeker Co., 1950, Rinn was a long time close friend of Houdini. Contains detailed information about the last Houdini message (there are 3) and its disclosure.
* Houdini's Fabulous Magic by Walter B. Gibson and Morris N. Young Chilton, NY, 1960. Excellent reference for Houdini’s escapes and some methods (includes the Water Torture Cell).
* The Houdini Birth Research Committee’s Report, Magico Magazine (reprint of report by The Society of American Magicians), 1972. Concludes Houdini was born March 24, 1874 in Budapest.
* Mediums, Mystics and the Occult by Milbourne Christopher, Thomas T. Crowell Co., 1975, pp 122-145, Arthur Ford-Messages from the Dead, contains detailed information about the Houdini messages and their disclosure.
* Arthur Ford: The Man Who Talked with the Dead by Allen Spraggett with William V. Rauscher, 1973, pp 152-165, Chapter 7, The Houdini Affair contains detailed information about the Houdini messages and their disclosure.
* Houdini: Escape into Legend, The Early Years: 1862-1900 by Manny Weltman, Finders/Seekers Enterprises, Los Angeles, 1993. Examination of Houdini’s childhood and early career.
* Houdini Comes To America by Ronald J. Hilgert, The Houdini Historical Center, 1996. Documents the Weiss family’s immigration to the United States on July 3, 1878 (when Ehrich was 4).
* Houdini Unlocked by Patrick Culliton, Two volume box set: The Tao of Houdini and The Secret Confessions of Houdini, Kieran Press, 1997.
* The Houdini Code Mystery: A Spirit Secret Solved by William V. Rauscher, Magic Words, 2000.
* The Man Who Killed Houdini by Don Bell, Vehicle Press, 2004. Investigates J. Gordon Whitehead and the events surrounding Houdini's death

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