There is no question that Houdini is the most famous magician in history. His name is synonymous with escapes; his ability to get out of seemingly impossible situations- and his knack for publicizing these events- made him a legend in his own time. The Houdini myth is about to be examined, and truth really is stranger than fiction!
The Houdini Family
Houdini was born Erich Weiss on March 24, 1874. Though he claimed throughout his life that Appleton, Wisconsin was his birthplace (and April 6 his birthdate), he was really born in Budapest, Hungary. He was four years old when his family moved to America, sailing into New York on July 3, 1878 on the S.S. Fresia.
He had five brothers and a sister. Herman M. (1863-1885), Nathan J. (1870-1927), Gottfried William (1872-1925), Theodore "Theo" aka "Dash" (1876-1945), Leopold D. (1879-1962) and one sister, Gladys Carrie (born 1882 - unknown year of death). Herman was really Houdini's half brother, from Rev. Weiss' first marriage.
Heading the family were Mayer Samuel (1829-1892) and Cecilia (1841-1913), Houdini's mother and father. Rev. Dr. M. Samuel Weiss was a rabbi who died in 1892 of cancer, before his son's magical career got started. Though a lot has been written about Houdini's devotion to his mother, it is clear that he was also close to, and proud of, his father, as can be seen the notes he wrote in the family bible.
Houdini Family Scandal
Houdini's family had its share of conflicts. Not only was Houdini's childhood spent in poverty, but the individual family members seemed often to be at odds with each other. Consequently, permanent animosity arose when brother Nathan's wife Sadie divorced him and, within two weeks, married brother Leopold. (Houdini was so angry with Sadie that he specified in his will, "No part either of the principal or income of my estate shall ever directly or indirectly go to SADIE GLANTZ WEISS!") Houdini himself caused friction in his Jewish family when he married Bess (Wilhelmina Rahner), who was Catholic. This choice would have consequences after Houdini's death: though he stipulated in his will that he wanted Bess buried beside him, the Machpelah cemetery would not allow the interment of someone outside the Jewish faith. Bess, who passed away aboard a passenger train traveling cross-country between Los Angeles and New York, instead is buried in the Gate of Heaven Cemetery (Hawthorne, NY), near Babe Ruth, Jimmy Cagney, Sal Mineo and Dutch Schultz.
Houdini was small, standing a mere 5'5", with dark, wavy hair, dark gray eyes and a high-pitched voice. Like many people in his day (especially those from immigrant families), Houdini was poorly educated. He was, however, extremely athletic and highly motivated to succeed.
Houdini allowed his brother Leopold, New York's first X-ray specialist, to X-ray him frequently. Most likely this caused sterilization; Houdini had no children.
According to an autobiographical pamphlet published by the magician in 1920, Houdini said that his favorite place was Hollywood, California and that his favorite song was Auld Lang Syne (the traditional New Year's Eve tune). Houdini's motto? "And this, too, shall pass".
Houdini's Interest in Magic
Houdini became fascinated with magic as a young boy after seeing Dr. Lynn, a traveling magician, perform the Linking Rings trick. He did not, as legend has it, run away with a circus, nor was he an apprentice to a locksmith. In reality, he turned to magic at age 17 as an alternative to factory work. He teamed up with Jack Hayman, a fellow magic enthusiast, to form the Houdini Brothers. (The name "Houdini" was used in tribute to Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, the most famous magician of the era). The team's specialty was the Crate Escape. When Hayman became bored, Houdini's brother Theodore (later known as Hardeen) became his partner. Shortly, Hardeen was replaced by Bess Rahner, the woman who became Houdini's partner both in the act and in his life.
Surprising as it may seem, Houdini was not an instant success. For the first five years, he tried every type of magic, from card manipulations (billed as the "King of Cards") to illusions and run-of-the-mill box escapes. In 1896, ready to give up, he actually ran a newspaper ad offering to sell all of his magic and secrets for $20. There were no takers.
His one big success was the Needle Trick, a grisly effect involving the swallowing of dozens of needles and thread, then the regurgitation of the thread with all the needles neatly threaded on. This effect would be a cornerstone of his act throughout his life.
By 1898, Houdini had come up with the Challenge Act, the act that would make him a legend. As the Handcuff King, Houdini would escape from any pair of handcuffs produced by the audience. Generally, this act was well received. By 1904, Houdini was forced to make some modifications in the act, due to repeated attempts by various police officers who tried to spoil his routine by secretly jamming the cuffs offered.
Until the success of the Challenge Act, Houdini had even resorted to posing as a "spirit medium", gathering information from cemeteries and town clerks before shows to make his "messages" more convincing.
The Challenge Act was the turning point for Houdini. With its success came the development of the spectacular escapes that would make Houdini a legend.
During a visit to a psychiatrist friend in Nova Scotia in 1896, Houdini saw his first strait jacket. Rather than be shocked by it, he was inspired to create an act around escaping from it. And Houdini didn't just escape from a strait jacket- he did it hanging upside down from his ankles, suspended many feet above the ground.
Houdini then expanded his Challenge Act to escape not only from any handcuffs offered, but from most any location suggested. Houdini escaped from jail cells, from handcuffed bridge jumps, from padlocked crates thrown into rivers, from locked canvas mailbags- even from a giant paper bag, without making a single tear in it.
Possibly his most memorable escapes were the stage illusions he made famous: the Water Torture Cell, the Milk Can Escape and Buried Alive.
Houdini was so strongly connected with the idea of escapes that in 1921, Funk and Wagnall's New Dictionary turned his name into a verb, "Houdinize", which was defined as "to release or extricate oneself from confinement, bonds or the like, as by wriggling out."
Houdini vs. the Spiritualists
The death of Houdini's mother focused his attention on the thriving business of spirit mediumship, or the contacting of the dead. Whether Houdini was genuinely outraged at the victimization of the bereaved, or whether he simply saw an opportunity to capitalize on public interest, Houdini spent the last 13 years of his life in a highly publicized battle with the spiritualists. Using his knowledge of illusion, Houdini was able to duplicate the ghostly apparitions, noises and mysterious levitations produced by the working mediums and their "spirits". His "exposures" became so popular with his audiences that they took up more than a third of his regular program. Coached by the famous psychic Anna Eva Fay, Houdini cleverly became, in his way, the most famous "spiritualist" of all.
Houdini's Other Accomplishments
Houdini is credited with the invention or unique improvement of a number of important illusions (the Strait Jacket Escape, Walking Through a Brick Wall, Metamorphosis, Buried Alive, the Hindu Needle Trick, the Chinese Water Torture Cell and the Milk Can Escape). He also owned the Martinka magic shop in New York City for a short while (saving it from bankruptcy); he would spend days on end sitting in the shop, autographing and selling his books to eager magic fans. He was also president of the Society of American Magicians for several years until his death in 1926.
In 1910, he purchased a Voisin biplane in Germany. He had the plane dismantled and shipped to Australia, where he planned an extended tour. His plane was the first controlled-power plane flown in Australia, and on March 10, 1910 he became the first to pilot a plane there. Interestingly, he taught himself how to drive a car during that time, so that he could get out to the airfield. After his Australian tour, Houdini abandoned the plane and coincidentally, also never drove again.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Houdini tried to enlist in the army, but at age 43 was rejected as being too old. Still wishing to show his patriotism, Houdini preformed many free shows for service men, during which he would produce five dollar gold pieces from the air and toss them to the audience as souvenirs. He claimed to have distributed more than $7,000 in that manner. Houdini also organized shows to promote the sale of Liberty Bonds to help finance the war effort.
In 1919, he became a film producer/actor/stunt man, creating the Houdini Pictures Corporation and actively participating in such films as The Grim Game, Terror Island, The Master of Mystery, The Man From Beyond, and Haldane of the Secret Service. He actually performed his own stunts, a very dangerous proposition. Incredibly, Houdini had starred in a very early 1901 experimental film by French cinema pioneer Charles Pathé, so Houdini was actually one of the first true movie stars.
Houdini also held a patent for a style of diving suit. The innovation was granted U.S. Patent Number 1,370,316 on March 1, 1921. The improved construction of the suit was a direct result of Houdini's interest in underwater escapes. The patent reads: "The invention relates to deep sea diving suits or armors, and its object is to provide a new and improved diver's suit arranged to permit the diver, in case of danger for any cause whatever, to quickly divest himself of the suit while being submerged and to safely escape and reach the surface of the water. Another object is to enable the diver to put on or take off the suit without requiring assistance." The trick to the suit was that it was constructed of two separate parts, with a latch for locking the two parts together in the middle. The diver simply had to reach this latch and the two pieces came apart. Obviously this type of suit would have been very useful to Houdini in performing one of his underwater escapes. Houdini never used such a suit, though, in any public perfgormance.
In the early 1900's while performing on the vaudeville circuit, Houdini worked with a couple named Keaton. Their young son Joseph was intrigued by Houdini's amazing magic, and Houdini was quite taken with the boy. Houdini nicknamed him "Buster", and the name stuck, explaining how Buster Keaton, the famous film comedian, got his name.
Houdini was understandably protective of his position as the World's Most Famous Magician, and he often went to great lengths to distance himself from the other magicians of his day. His strong ego and rather cold relationships with other magic entertainers made him a natural target for their sarcasm. In fact, Dai Vernon, later to be regarded in the late 20th century as a master close-up magician, was widely regarded as "The Man Who Fooled Houdini". Whether Vernon actually stumped the great magician is irrelevant; the claim was a reputation-maker for Vernon.
Paradoxically, Houdini also went out of his way to support the magic community. In 1917, he became the 10th president of the Society of American Magicians, a position he held until his death in 1926. The S.A.M. is still going strong, and Houdini was the only president to serve for more than one year. In 1919, Houdini served as president of the legendary Martinka Magic Co., saving it from financial failure.
The Strange Truth About Houdini's Death
The 1953 movie Houdini starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh did much to create the commonly-held belief that Houdini died onstage attempting to perform the Water Torture Cell illusion.
The sad truth is that Houdini was in the middle of a U.S. tour in the fall of 1926 when he and Bess began to experience severe stomach discomfort. A performer to the core, Houdini refused medical treatment, because that would have meant missing some shows. Quite possibly Houdini was suffering from the onset of appendicitis, and his own stubborn refusal to see a doctor might have spelled his doom. Houdini was tired, and unusually accident-prone. In Albany, NY, his ankle broke as he was being lifted into the Water Torture Cell. In pain, he continued to perform. A few days later, in Canada, he allegedly was punched in the stomach by J. Gordon Whitehead, a McGill university student who was testing Houdini's well-known ability to withstand blows to the body. That punch may or may not have been the cause of Houdini's ruptured appendix; regardless, Houdini collapsed onstage in Detroit, and was admitted to Grace Hospital, suffering from peritonitis.
Bess was also admitted to the hospital to be treated for her stomach ailments. Every day for nearly a week, she was wheeled into Houdini's room to see him.
On October 31, with his brother Hardeen at his side, Houdini passed away. His last words were, "I'm tired of fighting".
Since Houdini was such an important magic personality, the Society of American Magicians honored him with a Broken Wand ceremony. At the ceremony, his fellow magicians broke a wand to symbolize the loss of the magic that came with the death of Houdini. This ritual was so emotionally powerful that the magic fraternity adopted it and still perform it at every magician's funeral today. And, in fact, each year the magic fraternity gathers at Houdini's grave to repeat the ceremony on the anniversary of Houdini's death.
Houdini left an estate of about $500,000 to his wife. To his brother Hardeen, he left his show, his equipment and his magic secrets. Houdini's instructions were that Hardeen should use the equipment, but that it should be burned at Hardeen's death. Luckily for magic historians and collectors, Hardeen sold the show and nothing was destroyed. (Jack Flosso, owner of Flosso-Hornmann Magic Co., remembers seeing Hardeen lining the bottom of his doves' cages with Houdini posters, however.)
Though Houdini officially died of peritonitis, Bess was able to collect double indemnity on his insurance policy, claiming the blow was equivalent to "an accident directly causing the premature demise of Harry Houdini".
One macabre sidebar: in the summer of 1926, a few months before he died, Houdini heard about a magician who had sealed himself inside a box and had been lowered into water, where he allegedly stayed for over an hour, submerged, before coming up out of the water and the box, triumphant. Houdini purchased a bronze coffin and had himself locked into it and submerged in a hotel swimming pool for an hour and a half before the coffin was pulled out of the water and opened to reveal a smiling, healthy Houdini. Houdini took the coffin on tour with him in the fall, displaying it in the lobbies of the theaters he played and planning it feature the illusion on his tour. (The famous Buried Alive! poster was designed to promote this very illusion.) He jokingly instructed his wife to use the coffin should anything happen to him while on tour. Sadly, it was in that very coffin that Houdini's body was returned to New York for burial.
Houdini Haunted Houses?
Both Houdini's New York and Los Angeles homes were said to be haunted by his ghostly spirit. The New York townhouse still stands at 278 W. 113th Street (it was recently offered for sale); Houdini's "HH" initials are set in mosaic tile on the bathroom floor. His Los Angeles home at 2350 Laurel Canyon burned many years after his death, but the site is still rumored to be visited by ghostly apparitions.
The Houdini Séances
For ten years, Bess presided over annual well-publicized séances held on October 31, the anniversary of Houdini's death. Though she stopped participating in 1938, séances to contact Houdini continued.
Houdini's Enduring Fame
The word "Houdini" still means "magic" today. It was only fitting that Houdini be honored with a commemorative U.S. postage stamp, issued on July 3, 2002. By the way, the stamp itself does some magic!
In 1960, Harry Houdini was given a star on the famous Hollywood Walk of Fame. The star is located at 7001 Hollywood Boulevard, across the street from Grauman's Chinese Theater. His icon is the camera, as he was honored for his contributions to the Motion Picture industry. In 2008, the star was replaced and rededicated.
Why is Houdini as famous now as he was more than 85 years ago? Perhaps it was because he was a unique, talented and motivated magician. Perhaps it was because Houdini was a terrific showman and self-promoter. Or perhaps it was because Bess kept a full-time publicist on her payroll for sixteen years after her husband's death, just to keep the Houdini legend alive. She did a great job.