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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.

Birth and name

Houdini was born in Budapest Hungary. A copy of his birth certificate was found and published in The Houdini Birth Research Committee's Report (1972). [3] His family name, Weiß, is German, meaning "White" in English. As to his birth date, from 1907 onwards, Houdini claimed in interviews to have been born in Appleton Wisconsin, on April 6, 1874.

Houdini's father was Mayer (Mayo) Samuel Weiss (1829-1892), a rabbi; his mother was Cecilia Steiner (1841-1913). Ehrich had six siblings: Herman M. (1885); Nathan J. Weiss (1870-1927); Gottfried William Weiss (1872-1925); Theodore Weiss (Dash) (1876-1945); [4] Leopold D. Weiss (1879-1962); and Gladys Carrie Weiss (1882-?).

He immigrated with his family to the United States on July 3, 1878, at the age of four, on the SS Fresia with his mother (who was pregnant) and his four brothers. Houdini's name was listed as Ehrich Weiss.[5] Friends called him "Ehrie" or "Harry".

At first, they lived in Appleton, Wisconsin, where his father served as rabbi of the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation. In 1880, the family was living on Appleton Street.[6] On June 6, 1882, Rabbi Weiss became an American citizen. After losing his tenure, he moved to New York City with Ehrich in 1887. They lived in a boarding house on East 79th Street. Rabbi Weiss later was joined by the rest of the family once he found more permanent housing. As a child, Ehrich took several jobs, then became a champion cross country runner. He made his public début as a 10-year-old trapeze artist, calling himself "Ehrich, the prince of the air". Weiss became a professional magician and began calling himself "Harry Houdini" because he was heavily influenced by the French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, and his friend Jack Hayman told him that in French, adding an "i" to Houdin would mean "like Houdin" the great magician. In later life, Houdini would claim that the first part of his new name, Harry, was an homage to Harry Kellar, whom Houdini admired a great deal. However, it's more likely Harry derived naturally from his nickname "Ehrie".

Magic career

Initially, Houdini's magic career resulted in little success. He performed in dime museums and sideshows, and even doubled as "the Wild Man" at a circus. Houdini initially focused on traditional card tricks. At one point, he billed himself as the "King of Cards". But he soon began experimenting with escape acts. In 1893, while performing with his brother "Dash" at Coney Island as "The Brothers Houdini", Harry met and married fellow performer Wilhelmina Beatrice (Bess) Rahner. Bess replaced Dash in the act, which became known as "The Houdinis". For the rest of Houdini's performing career, Bess would work as his stage assistant.
"My Two Sweethearts". Houdini with his wife and mother, ca. 1907.
"My Two Sweethearts". Houdini with his wife and mother, ca. 1907.

Harry Houdini's "big break" came in 1899 when he met manager Martin Beck. 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.

Houdini was a sensation in Europe, where he became widely known as "The Handcuff King". He toured England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Russia. In each city, Houdini would challenge local police to restrain him with shackles and lock him in their jails. In many of these challenge escapes, Houdini would first be stripped nude and searched. In Moscow, Houdini escaped from a Siberian prison transport van. Houdini publicly stated 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 via bribery.[7] Houdini won the case when he opened the judge's safe (he would later say the judge had forgotten to lock it). With his new-found wealth and success, 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, a brownstone at 278 W. 113th Street in Harlem, New York.[8] The house still stands today.
Poster promoting Houdini taking up the challenge of escaping an "extra strong and large traveling basket".
Poster promoting Houdini taking up the challenge of escaping an "extra strong and large traveling basket".

From 1907 and throughout the 1910s, Houdini performed with great success in the United States. He would free himself from jails, handcuffs, chains, ropes, and straitjackets, often while hanging from a rope in plain sight of street audiences. Because of imitators and a dwindling audience, on January 25, 1908, Houdini put his "handcuff act" behind him and began escaping from a locked, water-filled milk can. The possibility of failure and death thrilled his audiences. Houdini also expanded his challenge escape act - in which he invited the public to devise contraptions to hold him - to include nailed packing crates (sometimes lowered into the water), riveted boilers, wet-sheets, mailbags, and even the belly of a whale that washed ashore in Boston. At one point, brewers challenged Houdini to escape from his milk can after they filled it with beer. Many of these challenges were prearranged with local merchants in what is certainly 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[9], although Houdini himself never claimed to have supernatural powers.

In 1912, Houdini introduced perhaps his most famous act, the Chinese Water Torture Cell, in which he was suspended upside-down in a locked glass-and-steel cabinet full to overflowing with water. The act required that Houdini hold his breath for more than three minutes. Houdini performed the escape for the rest of his career. Despite two Hollywood movies depicting Houdini dying in the Torture Cell, the escape had nothing to do with his demise.

Houdini explained some of his tricks in books written for the magic brotherhood throughout his career. 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, being able to regurgitate small keys at will. 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, and then dislocating his shoulders. His straitjacket escape was originally performed behind curtains, with him popping out free at the end. However, Houdini's brother, who was also an escape artist billing himself as Theodore Hardeen, after being accused of having someone sneak in and let him out and being challenged to escape without the curtain, discovered that audiences were more impressed and entertained when the curtains were eliminated so they could watch him struggle to get out. They both performed straitjacket escapes dangling upside-down from the roof of a building for publicity on more than one occasion. It is said that Hardeen once handed out bills for his show while Houdini was doing his suspended straitjacket escape; Houdini became upset because people thought it was Hardeen up there escaping, not Houdini. Many people imitate some of Houdini's tricks to this day.
1925 souvenir program
1925 souvenir program

For the majority of his career, Houdini performed his act as a headliner 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 New York's Hippodrome Theater when he vanished a full-grown elephant (with its trainer) from a stage, beneath which was a swimming pool. 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 (aka S.A.M.) from 1917 until his death in 1926. In the final years of his life (1925/26), Houdini launched his own full-evening show, which he billed as "3 Shows in One: Magic, Escapes, and Fraud Mediums Exposed."

Notable escapes

The Mirror Escape

In 1909, the London Daily Mirror newspaper challenged Houdini to escape from a special handcuff that it claimed had taken Nathaniel Hart, a locksmith from Birmingham, five years to make. Houdini accepted the challenge for March 20 during a matinee performance at London's Hippodrome theater. It was reported that 4000 people and more than 100 journalists turned out for the much-hyped event. The escape attempt dragged on for over an hour, during which Houdini emerged from his "ghost house" (a small screen used to conceal the method of his escape) several times. On one occasion, he asked if the cuff could be removed so he could take off his coat. The Mirror representative, Frank Parker, refused, saying Houdini could gain an advantage if he saw how the cuff was unlocked. Houdini promptly took out a pen-knife and, holding the knife in his teeth, used it to cut his coat from his body. Some 56 minutes later, Houdini's wife appeared on stage and gave him a kiss. It is believed that in her mouth was the key to unlock the special handcuff. Houdini then went back behind the curtain. After an hour and ten minutes, Houdini emerged free. As he was paraded on the shoulders of the cheering crowd, he broke down and wept. Houdini later said it was the most difficult escape of his career. [10]

After Houdini's death, his friend, Will Goldstone, published in his book, Sensational Tales of Mystery Men, that Houdini was bested that day and appealed to his wife, Bess, for help. Goldstone goes on to claim that Bess begged the key from the Mirror representative, then slipped it to Houdini in a glass of water.

Ándi offered no proof of his account, and many modern biographers have found evidence (notably in the custom design of the handcuff itself) that the entire Mirror challenge was pre-arranged by Houdini and the newspaper, and that his long struggle to escape was pure showmanship.[11]
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