How was the extraordinary life of Harry Houdini?

by Shirley Williams
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Today, the public remembers Harry Houdini as one of the most successful vaudevillian performers and stage magicians of the early Twentieth Century. His became one of the most famous celebrities during his lifetime. His performed dangerous stunts requiring him to escape from a variety of restraints.

An emigrant from Hungary

Born in Budapest on March 24, 1874 as Erik Weisz, the future “Harry Houdini” emigrated with his parents and siblings to the United States aboard the S.S. Fresia. He arrived in the USA as a 4-year old in 1878.

His father, a rabbi, changed their surname to the German spelling of “Weiss” and eventually became a U.S. citizen. The family settled first in Appleton Wisconsin, later relocating to New York City via Milwaukee. “Harry” Weiss spent much of his childhood in poverty. He began performing as a trapeze artist at the age of 9 in order to assist the household financially. By age 17, he had trained as a magician. He experimented with sleight-of-hand tricks, but eventually developed an aptitude for escapism stunts.

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Some early career successes

The young magician adopted the stage name “Harry Houdini” and appeared at Coney Island and other vaudeville centers with his brother. In 1893, he married Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner (nicknamed “Bess”), a Catholic vaudeville entertainer. She became his on-stage assistant. They began performing in a magic act together as “The Houdinis.”

After struggling for six years, Harry Houdini obtained an important career boost in 1899. His stage performances impressed Martin Beck, who agreed to serve as his manager. Mr. Beck arranged for the Houdinis to join the traveling Orpheum Vaudeville lineup. In that connection, Harry Houdini by 1900 started touring England and other European nations. He infatuated audiences by escaping from handcuffs and shackles. He performed for an extended period of time at the Alhambra Theatre in London. By the time he returned to the United States in 1904, he had become one of the best known (and most highly paid) vaudeville performers.

Death defying stunts

Harry Houdini performed a wide array of escape feats during his career. He enjoyed fame and notoriety between 1904 and his death in 1926. Some of his most famous tricks included:

  • Winning a challenge proposed by a newspaper in 1904 to escape from a set of handcuffs designed by a famous locksmith;
  • Escaping from a huge milk can filled with water and submerged inside a padlocked packing crate;
  • Freeing himself from a custom-made “Chinese Water Torture Cell,” a glass and steel cabinet filled with water in which he hung suspended upside down for 3 minutes;
  • Escaping from a straightjacket while he hung suspended from a rope by his ankles;
  • Freeing himself from a casket submerged in a New York City hotel swimming pool;
  • Escaping from a six foot deep pit of earth in California during a “Buried Alive” stunt.

During his career, Harry Houdini broke free from an assortment of handcuffs, chains, straitjackets, shakles, packing crates, and cells.

Movie career and more

Harry Houdini appeared in several silent films. Between 1919 and 1923, he starred in The Grim Game, Terror Island, The Man From Beyond, and Haldane of the Secret Service. He reportedly performed escape stunts in these films. He served as a nationally celebrated magician and daredevil performer during the early 1900s.

During the 1920s, Harry Houdini debunked some mediums as charlatans. He reportedly told his wife if he passed away first, he would reveal a secret message to her during a seance. Bess later denied receiving this confirmation. Harry Houdini passed away in 1926 unexpectedly at age 52. He died on Halloween from internal injuries caused when another magician punched his torso before he had prepared to withstand the blow.

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