Could it be more fitting that the world’s most famous magician, escape artist and illusionist died on Halloween? (cue spooky music)
Harry Houdini, as he later became to be known, was born Ehrich Weisz on March 24, 1874 in Budapest, Hungary. Nobody knows for sure how many children were in the Weisz household but it is known that at least 6 of them made it to adulthood. In search of a better life for his family, they decided to emigrate to the United States, Appleton, Wisconsin to be precise. Houdini, as he got older and tried to fit in with the other kids, claimed to have been born in the states. This probably marked his first attempt at “deceiving” the public.
His father got a job as a rabbi for the small Jewish congregation in and around Appleton. Due to his conservative ways, he soon fell into disfavor with the more radical Jews in Appleton (what, all three of them?) and was subsequently dismissed.
The family had nowhere to go and nothing to do. When Harry was around eight, they re-located to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Since times were tough, Harry took to the streets and helped out by selling newspapers, shining shoes and performing other odd jobs. He also started to refine his athletic abilities by performing gymnastics and acrobatics. Little did he know how much this practice would pay off. By the time he reached the age of nine, he was billing himself as “Ehrich, the Prince of the Air” and performed stunts dangling from a trapeze that hung from a nearby tree.
By the time he reached the age of 12, Harry felt the road calling to him. He bolted from home and jumped on a freight car headed for Kansas City. After that, it becomes a blur. In the interim, his family had re-located to New York City and Harry rejoined them about a year later. Still struggling to make ends meet, Harry took on a variety of low paying positions.
Not long thereafter, Harry became interested in the field of magic. He began to idolize the renowned French magician Robert Houdin and soon he and his younger brother joined forces and started a magic act based upon Houdin’s tricks.
By the time he turned 17, the act was in full swing. Many of his performances were done on the streets of New York, in various music halls and at the then popular vacation spot, Coney Island. The duo, billed as “The Houdini Brothers, performed upwards of 20 times a day to a variety of crowds.
Not long after, Harry met a young lady by the name of Beatrice (Bess) Raymond. She was teenager trying to break into show business as a singer and dancer. They married in 1894 and she joined the act. I guess Harry’s brother wasn’t too enthralled with the prospect of sharing the limelight and he dropped himself from the act. He went on to form his solo act and in a stunning display of creativity, named himself “Hardeen”. Harry and Bess went on to form an awesome duo. She took care of all the day to operations such as bookings, supplies, and travel schedules and he was free to concentrate on making improvements to existing stunts and devising newer ones. To show his appreciation, Harry composed a love letter to her on an almost daily basis. This practice would continue for the rest of his life.
During the year 1895, Harry and Bess decided to take their act on the road. They joined something called the Welsh Brothers Circus and took off for six months. At first Harry did the tricks solo and Bess did the singing and dancing. That all changed when they performed the trick “Metamorphosis” in which they somehow managed to switch places in a trunk that was locked. Audiences were enthralled but Harry wasn’t. He was looking for new and bigger things and began to concentrate his efforts on improving his showmanship and his delivery.
It was also at this time that Harry began to become fascinated with handcuffs. He got so good at extricating himself from them that he offered $100.00 from his own pocket to anybody that could come with a pair of them from which he couldn’t escape. He also challenged all of the local police forces on the circus circuit to do the same. He never had to pay a dime.
Always a publicity hound, Harry became somewhat of a star on the vaudeville circuit. That still wasn’t enough for him and he decided to take a gamble. With no guaranteed bookings or source of income, he decided to take his act to Europe.
In 1900, they boarded a ship bound for England. With only enough money to last a week or so and his magician’s supplies they arrived in London. He managed to land a small gig at a local theater and it looked like that was going to be it. His “breakout” performance came from an impromptu setting when he managed to escape from some handcuffs after being wrapped around a pillar at Scotland Yard. Word spread quickly about his amazing feat and his performances at the local theater began to sell out. His act was extended for six more months and received rave reviews.
Flush with success, Harry and Bess again took to the road and toured extensively. They started in Germany and wound up getting through most of Europe. Harry kept up his practice of challenging the local authorities to somehow restrain him and managed to frustrate them each and every time.
It was also at this time that they began to lend an air of danger to the act. Rather than simply escape from handcuffs on dry land, Harry had himself bound, chained and handcuffed and tossed into rivers. He also had a great capacity to hold his breath and in order to increase suspense, would remain underwater for several minutes as onlookers gasped and gaped. Just when he was about to be “rescued”, he would break the surface of the water, free from chains and other assorted contraptions to thundering applause. At his peak, his act was grossing over $2000 a week, a very tidy sum in those days.
In 1905 it was time to return to the States. The publicity he had received in Europe served him well and he had attained the status of an international celebrity. In order to prevent his act from getting stale, he devised newer and even more dangerous stunts. In no particular order, he managed to escape from a prison cell that once held the convicted assassin of President James Garfield, extricate himself from a straitjacket as he was dangled upside down, and break out of packing crates that had been nailed shut and tossed underwater. He also subjected himself to being shackled and deposited into an oversize milk can. The can would then be filled with water and sealed. The curtain would close and the audience would be made to wait. As the suspense grew and the audience got unnerved, Harry, ever the showman, would wait silently behind the curtain. He was usually able to free himself in a little under three minutes but of course the audience didn’t know that. He sometimes kept them waiting for up to a half hour in order before “re-appearing”, exhausted, on stage. To say he had a flair for the dramatic would be quite the understatement. The milk can stunt only failed once. Instead of filing the can with water, Harry, at the behest of a local sponsor, allowed the can to be filled with beer. Since Harry was a lifelong teetotaler, the beer had an unanticipated effect on him and he had to be rescued by his handlers.
So how did he manage to perform all of his stunts? Well, for starters he kept to a strict regimen of physical and mental exercises. He had an oversized bathtub installed in his house to practice staying underwater. He practiced his dexterity to such a degree that there was almost no difference in his ability to use either his left or right hand. He somehow managed to teach himself to untie knots with his bare feet. All of this conditioning led to newer, bolder and even more dangerous stunts such as the Chinese Water Torture and the “Needle Trick”.
I guess with fame there comes a certain amount of responsibility and Harry proved up to the task. He was named the president of Society of American Magicians and founded something called the Magicians Club in London. He was quick to help out fellow magicians who were down on their lock but like any good tradesmen, guarded the secret to his own tricks tenaciously. He also scorned other magicians and escape artists who tried to duplicate his feats of derring-do. He also began to accumulate the tricks of trade. He became an obsessive collector of magic memorabilia and books on the subject. As a matter of fact, his collection of books became so large that he needed a full time librarian in order to keep up with his constantly changing and expanding catalogue.
In 1909, just six or so years after the Wright Brothers rocked the world with the first successful flight, Harry became fascinated by airplanes. He even bought one of his own and in a little known episode, became the first person to pilot a plane in Australia. Apparently he didn’t have that good of an experience for he never piloted a plane or even drove a car again for the rest of his life.
With the outbreak of World War I, Harry tried to do his patriotic duty. He tried to enlist in the Army but was rejected because of his age (43). Harry was disappointed but found other ways to help the cause. He was a one man USO before there was one and performed free shows for the servicemen. He also got on the stump and pitched Liberty Bonds on behalf of the war effort.
As World War I drew to a close, Harry decided to take a chance on the fledgling film industry. He appeared in a 13 part series of short silent films called the “Master of Mystery”. It was only partially successful but it was enough to convince him that there was indeed a future for him and his trade in films. He went to appear in two full-length films that were flops. Houdini blamed everybody but himself for his performance and the movies were widely criticized. These episodes do provide an insight into Houdini’s character though. During one of the films the script called for him to kiss a woman other than his wife. He was so embarrassed that each time he did so, he paid his wife five dollars. It wasn’t long before Houdini and the film industry parted ways.
Perhaps that major turning point in Houdini’s life came when his mother died. They had been extremely close throughout their life and Houdini was devastated. He made daily pilgrimages to her grave and would actually lay down on the ground in an effort to speak to her. After getting no response, Harry decided to investigate the possibility of spiritualism.
In an effort to re-establish contact with his deceased mother, Houdini consulted with mediums far and wide. Since he was familiar with the world of magic and trickery he was able to see through their tricks and expose them as fakes. Though he sincerely wanted to believe in them, he traveled the country in a series of lectures designed to protect people from becoming innocent victims. He even published a book titled “A Magician Among the Spirits” that detailed their methods and the extremes that these so-called mediums would go to to try and defraud the public. To back up his claims, he had a standing offer of $10,000 to anyone who could prove that they could communicate with dead. Many tried but none succeeded. Houdini went so far as to testify in Congress to a committee that was brought together to investigate such a possibility. Here’s what he had to say.
“Please understand that, emphatically, I am not attacking a religion. I respect every genuine believer in spiritualism or any other religion…But this thing they call spiritualism, wherein a medium intercommunicates with the dead, is a fraud from start to finish...In thirty-five years, I have never seen one genuine medium.”
Houdini resumed touring in 1926. Things did not start off well. His wife Bess, developed a case of food poisoning and became gravely ill. Houdini was so worried that he hired a nurse and maintained a constant vigil by her side. Ever the showman, he went on with his shows and went without sleep for over three days. While performing the Chinese Water Torture trick in Albany, New York, things took a turn for the worse. One of the straps that secured his ankle shifted and Houdini’s efforts to escape caused him to break it. Since injuries were commonplace, he refused medical treatment and went on to the next show. Despite being in serious pain and against a doctor’s advice, Houdini went up to Montreal in order fulfill his obligation to perform.
While he was there, he invited some admiring fans backstage. One of them inquired if it was true that Houdini could withstand a punch to the stomach delivered by any man. As Houdini rose from the couch and prepared to take the blow, the fan, an amateur boxer, caught him by surprise and delivered three quick punches to his midsection. Given his weakened condition and lack of time to prepare, Houdini fell back to the couch gasping for breath.
He went on to do his evening performance but all was not right. In the days that followed Houdini gave two more performances but was sweating profusely and suffering from chills. The show left Montreal and made its way to Detroit, Michigan and Houdini finally consulted a doctor. The doctor recognized his weakened state and advised Houdini to get to the hospital. He refused and despite having a temperature of 102 went on with the show.
Houdini had finally had enough and entered himself into the hospital. It was too late. Doctors discovered that the blows to his stomach (see note at the end of the w/u) had caused his appendix to burst. The result was a case of peritonitis. They tried to operate but Houdini’s fate was sealed.
Sensing that he was near death, Houdini summoned Bess to his side. Perhaps still trying to recognize the possibility of communicating with the dead, he reportedly made a pact with her. If he could communicate from beyond the grave, Bess would hear the words “Rosabelle, believe.” The words were from a song Bess used to croon when they first met.
Harry Houdini finally died on the afternoon of October 31, 1926. The day was Halloween and his brother was at his bedside. His last words were…
I’m tired of fighting…I guess this thing is going to get me.”
Houdini’s vast collection of books on magic was donated to the Library of Congress. His brother received all of his magic equipment and resumed his career as “Hardeen”. The rest of his estate went to Bess.
Bess also tried to fulfill her end of the promise made while Houdini lie dying. Each year, on the anniversary of his death, she held a séance and waited to hear the words “Rosabelle, believe” spoken by her beloved, Harry. Each year she tried and each year she failed. She kept that practice until she herself died in 1943. She never heard the words….
Note: There is some dispute as to whether the punches to Houdini's stomach had anything to do with rupturing his appendix. Sid points out that information at http://www.snopes.com/horrors/freakish/houdini.htm states that he might have ruptured the organ previously and that the blows to the midsection could not have possibly caused the fatal case of peritonitis. Since the account of the incident was by written by Arthur Conan Doyle, whom Houdini had first been friends while investigating spirituality and later came to severely disagree with over the matter, the version might be slanted. Truth be told, nobody will probably ever know. Being the man that he was, I think Houdini might want it that way.