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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.

The Milk Can

In 1908, Houdini introduced his original invention, the Milk Can escape. [12] In this effect, Houdini would be handcuffed and sealed inside an over-sized milk can filled with water and make his escape behind a curtain. As part of the effect, Houdini would invite members of the audience to hold their breath along with him while he was inside the can. Advertised with dramatic posters that proclaimed "Failure Means A Drowning Death", the escape proved to be a sensation. [13] Houdini soon modified the escape to include the Milk Can being locked inside a wooden chest. Houdini only performed the Milk Can escape as a regular part of his act for four years, but it remains one of the effects most associated with the escape artist. Houdini's brother, Theodore Hardeen, continued to perform the Milk Can (and the wooden chest variation[14]) into the 1940s. The Milk Can and the Overboard Box are presently housed at the American Museum of Magic‎.

The Chinese Water Torture Cell

Due to the vast number of imitators of his Milk Can escape, in 1911 Houdini replaced the Milk Can with his most famous escape: the Chinese Water Torture Cell. In this escape, Houdini's feet would be locked in stocks, and he'd be lowered upside down into a tank filled with water. The mahogany and metal cell featured a glass front, through which audiences could clearly see Houdini. The stocks would be locked to the top of the cell, and a curtain would conceal his escape. In the earliest version of the Torture Cell, a metal cage was lowered into the cell, and Houdini was enclosed inside that. While making the escape more difficult (the cage prevented Houdini from turning), the cage bars also offered protection should the glass front break.

The original cell was built in England, where Houdini first performed the escape for an audience of one person as part of a one-act play he called "Houdini Upside Down". This was so he could copyright the effect and have grounds to sue imitators (which he did). While the escape was advertised as "The Chinese Water Torture Cell" or "The Water Torture Cell", Houdini always referred to it as "the Upside Down" or "USD". The first public performance of the USD was at the Circus Busch in Berlin, on September 21, 1912. Houdini continued to perform the escape until his death in 1926. Despite two Hollywood movies depicting Houdini dying in the Torture Cell, the escape had nothing to do with his demise.[15]

Suspended straitjacket escape

One of Houdini's most popular publicity stunts was to have himself strapped into a regulation straitjacket and suspended by his ankles from a tall building or crane. Houdini would then make his escape in full view of the assembled crowd. In many cases, Houdini would draw thousands of onlookers who would choke the street and bring city traffic to a halt. Houdini would sometimes ensure press coverage by performing the escape from the office building of a local newspaper. In New York City, Houdini performed the suspended straitjacket escape from a crane being used to build the New York subway. After flinging his body in the air, Houdini escaped from the straitjacket. Starting from when he was hoisted up in the air by the crane, to when the straitjacket was completely off, it took Houdini two minutes and thirty-seven seconds. Film footage of Houdini performing the escape in Dayton, Ohio, exists in The Library of Congress. After being battered against a building in high winds during one escape, Houdini performed the escape with a visible safety wire on his ankle so that he could be pulled away from the building if necessary.

Pioneer aviator

In 1909, Houdini became fascinated with aviation. That same year, he purchased a French Voisin biplane for $5000 and hired a full-time mechanic, Antonio Brassac. Houdini painted his name in bold block letters on the Voisin's side panels and tail. After crashing once, Houdini made his first successful flight on November 26 in Hamburg, Germany.

In 1910, Houdini toured Australia. He brought with him his Voisin biplane and had the distinction of achieving the first controlled powered flight over Australia, doing so on March 21 at Diggers Rest, Victoria, just north of Melbourne. [1]. Colin Defries preceded him, but he crashed the plane on landing. [2]. Houdini proudly claimed to reporters that, while the world may forget about him as a magician and escape artist, it would never forget Houdini the pioneer aviator.

After his Australia tour, Houdini put the Voisin into storage in England. Although he announced he would use it to fly from city to city during his next Music Hall tour, Houdini never flew again.[16]

Movie career
"The Houdini Serial", 1919
"The Houdini Serial", 1919

Houdini made his first movie for Pathé in 1901. Titled Merveilleux Exploits du Célébre Houdini à Paris, it featured a loose narrative meant to showcase several of Houdini's famous escapes, including his straitjacket escape. Houdini returned to film in 1916 when he served as special-effects consultant on the Pathé thriller, The Mysteries of Myra. That same year, he got an offer to star as Captain Nemo in a silent version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but the project never made it into production.[17]

In 1918, Houdini signed a contract with film producer B.A. Rolfe to star in a 15-part serial, The Master Mystery (released in January 1919). As was common at the time, the film serial was released simultaneously with a novel. Financial difficulties resulted in B.A. Rolfe Productions going out of business, but The Master Mystery was a box-office success and led to Houdini being signed by Famous Players-Lasky Corporation/Paramount Pictures, for whom he made two pictures, The Grim Game (1919) and Terror Island (1920). While filming an aerial stunt for The Grim Game, two biplanes collided in mid-air with a stuntman doubling Houdini dangling by a rope from one of the planes. Publicity was geared heavily toward promoting this dramatic "caught on film" moment, claiming it was Houdini himself dangling from the plane. While filming these movies in Los Angeles, Houdini rented a home in Laurel Canyon.
Houdini swims above Niagara Falls in a scene from The Man from Beyond (1922)
Houdini swims above Niagara Falls in a scene from The Man from Beyond (1922)

Following his two-picture stint in Hollywood, Houdini returned to New York and started his own film production company called the "Houdini Picture Corporation." He produced and starred in two films, The Man From Beyond (1921) and Haldane of the Secret Service (1923). He also started up his own film laboratory business called The Film Development Corporation (FDC), gambling on a new process for developing motion picture film. Houdini’s brother, Hardeen, left his own career as a magician and escape artist to run the company. Magician Harry Kellar was a major investor.[18]

Neither Houdini's acting career nor FDC found success, and he gave up on the movie business in 1923, complaining that "the profits are too meager.” But his celebrity was such that, years later, he would be given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (at 7001 Hollywood Blvd).

As of 2007, only The Man From Beyond had been commercially released on DVD. Incomplete versions of The Master Mystery and Terror Island were released by private collectors on VHS. Complete 35 mm prints of Haldane of the Secret Service and The Grim Game exist only in private collections. Haldane of the Secret Service was screened in Los Angeles in 2007.[19]

In April 2008, Kino International released a DVD box set of Houdini's surviving silent movies. The set includes The Master Mystery, Terror Island, The Man From Beyond, Haldane of the Secret Service, and five minutes of The Grim Game. The set also includes newsreel footage of Houdini's escapes from 1907 to 1923. [20]

Debunking spiritualists

In the 1920s, after the death of his beloved mother, Cecilia, he turned his energies toward debunking self-proclaimed psychics and mediums, a pursuit that would inspire and be followed by later-day conjurers Milbourne Christopher, James Randi, Martin Gardner, P.C. Sorcar, Criss Angel, and Penn and Teller. Houdini's magical training allowed him to expose frauds who had successfully fooled many scientists and academics. He was a member of a Scientific American committee which offered a cash prize to any medium who could successfully demonstrate supernatural abilities. Thanks to the contributions and skepticism of Houdini and four other committee members, the prize was never collected. As his fame as a "ghostbuster" grew, Houdini took to attending séances in disguise, accompanied by a reporter and police officer. Possibly the most famous medium whom he debunked was the Boston medium Mina Crandon, also known as "Margery". Houdini chronicled his debunking exploits in his book, A Magician Among the Spirits.
Houdini demonstrates how a photographer could produce fraudulent "spirit photographs" that documented the apparition and social interaction of deceased individuals.
Houdini demonstrates how a photographer could produce fraudulent "spirit photographs" that documented the apparition and social interaction of deceased individuals.[21]

These activities cost Houdini the friendship of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle, a firm believer in Spiritualism during his later years, refused to believe any of Houdini's exposés. Conan Doyle actually came to believe that Houdini was a powerful spiritualist medium, had performed many of his stunts by means of paranormal abilities and was using these abilities to block those of other mediums that he was 'debunking' (see Conan Doyle's The Edge of The Unknown, published in 1931, after Houdini's death). This disagreement led to the two men becoming public antagonists. Gabriel Brownstein has written a fictionalized account of the meetings of Houdini, Conan Doyle, and "Margery" in The Man from Beyond: A Novel (2005).
All or part of this article may be confusing or unclear.
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The 2006 book The Secret Life of Houdini by Kalush and Sloman has an account of Conan Doyle's involvement with the camp of "Margery" and presents personal letters showing that Conan Doyle and Mina's husband strongly believed that revenging spirits (not persons) would soon kill Houdini for hiding the "truth". The book further proposes Conan Doyle's campaign to hijack Houdini's legacy when a Spiritualist minister friend of Conan Doyle, Rev. Arthur Ford[22], conspired with him to bring messages from Houdini and his mother back from the grave in séances, including one on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel, which would further the Spiritualists' agenda. According to the book, Houdini's wife felt so depressed that she actually tried to commit suicide on the eve of the séance. There is no mention of the fact that, twelve days after the séance, Bess Houdini wrote a moving letter to Walter Winchell, the columnist, which was published in the Graphic, denying the words she received from her deceased husband were given to Ford by herself, denying the charge Bess and Ford had conspired together to perform a publicity stunt to further their careers in the entertainment industry. She trusted Ford's reading.[23][24] Neither is there any mention of the fact that the Houdini code was already widely known by the public months before the séance. (See Arthur Ford.)

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