The Great Houdini (with rare Houdini video)

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Harry Houdini is known as the greatest magician and escape artist in history. His "Chinese Water Torture Cell" routine made him internationally famous, and the inspiration of every magician since his time. At séances all around the world, he will be

The Great Houdini (Erich Weisz) was born on March 24th, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary.  One of seven children, Erich moved with his family to Appleton, Wisconsin as a child.  At the age of 13, he moved with his father to New York City where the two took on odd jobs while living in a boarding house before bringing the rest of the family to join them.  It was during this time that Erich, who was naturally athletic,  became interested in trapeze arts and considered working in the circus..

In 1894, Erich, who stood 5' 5" with  dark, wavy hair and grey eyes, launched his professional career as a magician, renaming himself Harry Houdini, the first name taken from his childhood nickname, “Ehrie,” and the last an homage to the great French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin who is said to have been the only magician Houdini actually knew of.  Though his magic met with little immediate success, it wasn’t long before he drew sizable crowds for his amazing feats of escape from handcuffs.  In 1893, at the age of 20, Houdini married Wilhelmina “Bess” Beatrice Rahner who would serve as Houdini's lifelong assistant and companion.

Harry and Bess

In 1899, Houdini’s act caught the attention of Martin Beck, an entertainment manager who soon got him booked at some of the best vaudeville venues in America, followed by a tour of Europe.  During these early years, Harry would typically perform his famed “Hindoo Needle Trick,” in which he appeared to swallow 40 needles, then drew them from his mouth threaded together.  Bess also performed minor feats, becoming a well-prompted “mentalist,” performing mind-reading routines based on an alpha-numeric code known only to her and Harry.

In 1895 Houdini first conceived the notion of escaping not from his own handcuffs, but from those of the local police.  From that time on, Houdini routinely involved local law enforcement whom he would prompt to strip search him, place him in shackles, and then lock him in jail.  The show was a huge success and soon made him the highest-paid performer in American vaudeville.

Through the early 1900s, Houdini continued to hone his act, constantly upping the risk-factor--from handcuffs to straightjackets; locked, water-filled tanks to sealed packing crates.  His growing success depended on his exceptional physical strength and agility, and his remarkable skill in picking locks. Houdini was seen escaping from every combination of straitjacket, jail, coffin, handcuff, and leg shackle.  And at each performance he invited local police officials onstage to examine him and his props for authenticity.

In 1912, Houdini’s act reached its pinnacle, an illusion he dubbed, “the Chinese Water Torture Cell,” which would become his signature act.  In it, Houdini was suspended by his feet and lowered upside-down in a locked glass cabinet filled with water, requiring him to hold his breath for more than three minutes to escape.  Handcuffed, Houdini would immerse himself inside the giant tank, but not before inviting the audience to hold their breath as well.  At the end of three minutes--by which time the audience’s lungs were said to be "bursting"--Houdini would suddenly surface, dripping wet and exuberant. This performance was such a crowd-pleaser that it remained in his act to the end of his life.

Public Life and Beyond

As the public came to know well, Houdini’s passion for excitement often spilled from his professional life into his private, his fame and wealth allowing him to indulge in a number of personal passions including flying and film making.  Purchasing his first plane in 1909, he became the first person to “fly a controlled power flight” over Australia in 1910.  He also launched his own movie career, releasing his first film, Merveilleux Exploits du Célébre Houdini Paris, in 1901, which documented his daring escapes (a must-own for all modern aspiring magicians).  In New York, he also started his own production company, Houdini Picture Corporation, but it failed after only a few years.

In 1923, at the age of 49, Houdini became president of the Society of American Magicians, becoming a very vocal crusader against fraudulent psychic mediums even though following the death of his mother in 1913, he apparently became obsessed with making contact with her.  His interest brought him into contact with another notable pop-culture figure of the era, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. But after Houdini publicly debunked renowned medium Mina Crandon, known as “Margery,” whom Conan Doyle deeply believed in, the two parted ways, their relationship becoming contentious.  And while no evidence of real contact with Houdini's mother was ever noted, the image of his mother’s death is said to have followed the great magician to the end of his life.

Harry's fake summoning of Lincoln

Though there have been a number of erroneous reports concerning Houdini’s death, what is now certain is that he suffered from acute appendicitis and ultimately died of peritonitis.  As surviving medical reports attest, several days before his death, while relaxing in his dressing room between performances at the Princess Theater in Montreal, Canada, Houdini was visited by a student from Montreal’s McGill University. The young man asked Houdini if it was true that he could actually withstand “un-pulled” punches to his stomach.  Houdini replied that he could, but before he could brace himself, the student punched the magician full force several times in the gut.  Houdini performed that night and several more, but after a show in Detroit a short time later, collapsed and was rushed to the hospital.

At the time, it was assumed that his appendix had been ruptured by the blows from the student.  Modern interpretation of the medical records, however, indicates that Houdini already had appendicitis at the time he was punched, and only thought the blows were the cause of his pain.  A short time later The Great Houdini died from a ruptured appendix, on Halloween night, October 31, 1926, at the age of 52.  But the story doesn’t end there.

From Beyond the Grave

Immediately after Houdini's death, Bess made headlines by announcing that a yearly séance would be held on Halloween to try and make contact with Houdini’s spirit. The ritual went on for some ten years, and though Bess once stated that contact had indeed been made, she later recanted her story.

Houdini’s contentious feud with Spiritualits persisted even after his death, with various mediums claiming to have received messages from him voicing his regret at denouncing Spiritualism.  And one message appeared especially significant.  Among the challenges Houdini had repeatedly issued to mediums in his final years was one that could only be met after his death.  He stated that if spirit survival was possible, he would communicate with his wife, Bess, in a secret two-word coded message known only to the two of them.  He offered a standing reward of $10,000 to anyone able to successfully communicate this coded message.

Three years after Houdini’s death, the well-know medium, Arthur Ford, conveyed a two-word message to Bess, “Rosabelle believe,” in the special code used by her and Houdini in their early mind-reading act; “Rosabelle” being Houdini’s pet name for his wife.  Bess signed a sworn statement affirming that Ford was correct.  But 48 hours later, the New York Graphic stated that the story was untrue and that a reporter had perpetrated a hoax, possibly in collusion with Ford and Bess Houdini. The original story escalated to a rash of charges, countercharges, and denials, which Bess Houdini never addressed.  Many still believe the evidence favors the original claim that Ford really did break the Houdini code by a mediumistic message from beyond.

Bess Houdini died February 11, 1943.  Every year, magicians and mediums throughout the world continue her tradition of gathering on Halloween night in Houdini’s honor, hoping to witness him “escape” from the grave. 

References:

houdinitribute.com

magictricks.com

houdinifans.org

Images via wikipedia.org

 

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Gerald Gardner

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