Biography of Harry Houdini

The Great Escape Artist

Picture of famous magician Harry Houdini.
Hungarian-born American magician and escape artist Harry Houdini. (circa 1900). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Harry Houdini remains one of the most famous magicians in history. Although Houdini could do card tricks and traditional magic acts, he was most famous for his ability to escape from what seemed like anything and everything, including ropes, handcuffs, straightjackets, jail cells, water-filled milk cans, and even nailed-shut boxes that had been thrown into a river. After World War I, Houdini turned his knowledge about deception against Spiritualists who claimed to be able to contact the dead.

Then, at age 52, Houdini died mysteriously after being hit in the abdomen.

Dates: March 24, 1874 – October 31, 1926

Also Known As: Ehrich Weisz, Ehrich Weiss, The Great Houdini

Houdini’s Childhood

Throughout his life, Houdini propagated many legends about his beginnings, which have so oft been repeated that it has been difficult for historians to piece together the true story of Houdini’s childhood. However, it is believed that Harry Houdini was born Ehrich Weisz on March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary. His mother, Cecilia Weisz (neé Steiner), had six children (five boys and one girl) of which Houdini was the fourth child. Houdini’s father, Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weisz, also had a son from a previous marriage.

With conditions looking bleak for Jews in Eastern Europe, Mayer decided to emigrate from Hungary to the United States. He had a friend who lived in the very small town of Appleton, Wisconsin, and so Mayer moved there, where he helped form a small synagogue.

Cecilia and the children soon followed Mayer to America when Houdini was about four years old. While entering into the U.S., immigration officials changed the family’s name from Weisz to Weiss.

Unfortunately for the Weiss family, Mayer’s congregation soon decided that he was too old-fashioned for them and let him go after only a few years.

Despite being able to speak three languages (Hungarian, German, and Yiddish), Mayer couldn’t speak English— a serious drawback for a man trying to find a job in America. In December 1882, when Houdini was eight years old, Mayer moved his family to the much larger city of Milwaukee, hoping for better opportunities.

With the family in dire financial straits, the children got jobs to help support the family. This included Houdini, who worked odd jobs selling newspapers, shining shoes, and running errands. In his spare time, Houdini read library books regarding magic tricks and contortionist movements. At age nine, Houdini and some friends established a five-cent circus, where he wore red woolen stockings and called himself "Ehrich, Prince of the Air.” At age eleven, Houdini worked as a locksmith apprentice.

When Houdini was about 12 years old, the Weiss family moved to New York City. While Mayer tutored students in Hebrew, Houdini found a job cutting fabrics into strips for neckties. Despite working hard, the Weiss family was always short on money. This forced Houdini to use both his cleverness and confidence to find innovative ways to make a little extra money.

In his spare time, Houdini proved himself a natural athlete, who enjoyed running, swimming, and bicycling.

Houdini even received several medals in cross-country track competitions.

The Creation of Harry Houdini

At age fifteen, Houdini discovered the magician’s book, Memoirs of Robert-Houdin, Ambassador, Author, and Conjurer, Written by Himself. Houdini was mesmerized by the book and stayed up all night reading it. He later stated that this book truly sparked his enthusiasm for magic. Houdini would eventually read all of Robert-Houdin’s books, absorbing the stories and advice contained within. Through these books, Robert-Houdin (1805-1871) became a hero and a role model to Houdini.

To get started on this new passion, the young Ehrich Weiss needed a stage name. Jacob Hyman, a friend of Houdini’s, told Weiss that there was a French custom that if you add the letter “I” to the end of your mentor’s name it showed admiration.

Adding an “I” to “Houdin” resulted in “Houdini.” For a first name, Ehrich Weiss chose “Harry,” the Americanized version of his nickname “Ehrie.” He then combined “Harry” with “Houdini,” to create the now famous name “Harry Houdini.” Liking the name so much, Weiss and Hyman partnered together and called themselves “The Brothers Houdini.”

In 1891, the Brothers Houdini performed card tricks, coin swaps, and disappearing acts at Huber’s Museum in New York City and also at Coney Island during the summer. About this time, Houdini purchased a magician trick (magicians often bought tricks of the trade from each other) called Metamorphosis that involved two people trading places in a locked trunk onstage behind a screen.

In 1893, the Brothers Houdini were allowed a spot to perform outside the world’s fair in Chicago. By this time, Hyman had left the act and had been replaced by Houdini’s real brother, Theo (“Dash”).

Houdini Marries Bessie and Joins the Circus

After the fair, Houdini and his brother returned to Coney Island, where they performed at the same hall as the singing and dancing Floral Sisters. It wasn’t long before a romance blossomed between 20-year-old Houdini and 18-year-old Wilhelmina Beatrice (“Bess”) Rahner of the Floral Sisters. After a three-week courtship, Houdini and Bess were married on June 22, 1894.

With Bess being of petite stature, she soon replaced Dash as Houdini’s partner since she was better able to hide inside various boxes and trunks in vanishing acts. Bess and Houdini called themselves Monsieur and Mademoiselle Houdini, Mysterious Harry and LaPetite Bessie, or The Great Houdinis.

The Houdinis performed for a couple of years in dime museums and then in 1896, the Houdinis went to work in the Welsh Brothers Traveling Circus. Bess sang songs while Houdini did magic tricks, and together they performed the Metamorphosis act.

The Houdinis Join Vaudeville and a Medicine Show

In 1896, when the circus season ended, the Houdinis joined a traveling vaudeville show. During this show, Houdini added a handcuff-escape trick to the Metamorphosis act. In each new town, Houdini would visit the local police station and announce that he could escape from any handcuffs they put on him. Crowds would gather to watch as Houdini easily escaped. These pre-show exploits were often covered by a local newspaper, creating publicity for the vaudeville show. To keep audiences further amused, Houdini decided to escape from a straitjacket, using his agility and flexibility to wiggle free from it.

When the vaudeville show ended, the Houdinis scrambled to find work, even contemplating work other than magic. Thus, when they were offered a position with Dr. Hill’s California Concert Company, an old-time traveling medicine show selling a tonic that “could cure just about anything,” they accepted.

In the medicine show, Houdini once again performed his escape acts; however, when attendance numbers began to dwindle, Dr. Hill asked Houdini if he could transform himself into a spirit medium. Houdini was already familiar with many of the spirit medium’s tricks and so he began leading séances while Bess performed as a clairvoyant claiming to have psychic gifts.

The Houdinis were very successful pretending to be spiritualists because they always did their research. As soon as they pulled into a new town, the Houdinis would read recent obituaries and visit graveyards to seek the names of the newly dead. They would also subtly listen to town gossip. All this allowed them to piece together enough information to convince crowds that the Houdinis were real spiritualists with amazing powers to contact the dead. However, feelings of guilt about lying to grief-stricken people eventually became overwhelming and the Houdinis ultimately quit the show.

Houdini’s Big Break

With no other prospects, the Houdinis went back to performing with the Welsh Brothers Traveling Circus. While performing in Chicago in 1899, Houdini once again performed his police station stunt of escaping handcuffs, but this time it was different.

Houdini had been invited into a room full of 200 people, mostly policemen, and spent 45 minutes shocking everyone in the room as he escaped from everything the police had. The following day, The Chicago Journal ran the headline “Amazes the Detectives” with a large drawing of Houdini.

The publicity surrounding Houdini and his handcuff act caught the eye of Martin Beck, the head of the Orpheum theater circuit, who signed him for a one-year contract. Houdini was to perform the handcuff escape act and Metamorphosis at the classy Orpheum theaters in Omaha, Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, and San Francisco. Houdini was finally rising from obscurity and into the spotlight.

Houdini Becomes an International Star

In the spring of 1900, 26-year-old Houdini, exuding confidence as “The King of Handcuffs,” left for Europe in the hopes of finding success. His first stop was London, where Houdini performed at the Alhambra Theater. While there, Houdini was challenged to escape from Scotland Yard’s handcuffs. As always, Houdini escaped and the theater was filled every night for months.

The Houdinis went on to perform in Dresden, Germany, at the Central Theater, where ticket sales broke records. For five years, Houdini and Bess performed throughout Europe and even in Russia, with tickets often selling out ahead of time for their performances. Houdini had become an international star.

Houdini’s Death-Defying Stunts

In 1905, the Houdinis decided to head back to the United States and try to win fame and fortune there as well. Houdini’s specialty had become escapes. In 1906, Houdini escaped from jail cells in Brooklyn, Detroit, Cleveland, Rochester, and Buffalo. In Washington D.C., Houdini performed a widely publicized escape act involving the former jail cell of Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President James A. Garfield. Stripped and wearing handcuffs supplied by the Secret Service, Houdini freed himself from the locked cell, and then unlocked the adjoining cell where his clothes were waiting -- all within 18 minutes.

However, escaping just from handcuffs or jail cells was no longer enough to get the public’s attention. Houdini needed new, death-defying stunts. In 1907, Houdini unveiled a dangerous stunt in Rochester, N.Y., where, with his hands handcuffed behind his back, he jumped from a bridge into a river. Then in 1908, Houdini introduced the dramatic Milk Can Escape, where he was locked inside a sealed milk can filled with water.

The performances were huge hits. The drama and flirting with death made Houdini even more popular.

In 1912, Houdini created the Underwater Box Escape. In front of a huge crowd along New York's East River, Houdini was handcuffed and manacled, placed inside a box, locked in, and thrown into the river. When he escaped just moments later, everyone cheered. Even the magazine Scientific American was impressed and proclaimed Houdini’s feat as "one of the most remarkable tricks ever performed."

In September of 1912, Houdini debuted his famous Chinese Water Torture Cell escape at the Circus Busch in Berlin. For this trick, Houdini was handcuffed and shackled and then lowered, head first, into a tall glass box that had been filled with water. Assistants would then pull a curtain in front of the glass; moments later, Houdini would emerge, wet but alive. This became one of Houdini’s most famous tricks.

It seemed like there was nothing Houdini could not escape from and nothing he could not make audiences believe. He was even able to make Jennie the elephant disappear!

World War I and Acting

When the U.S. joined World War I, Houdini tried to enlist in the army. However, since he was already 43-years old, he was not accepted.

Nonetheless, Houdini spent the war years entertaining soldiers with free performances.

When the war was drawing to a close, Houdini decided to try acting. He hoped that motion pictures would be a new way for him to reach mass audiences. Signed by Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount Pictures, Houdini starred in his first motion picture in 1919, a 15-episode serial titled The Master Mystery. He also starred in The Grim Game (1919), and Terror Island (1920). However, the two feature films did not do well at the box office.

Confident it was bad management that had caused the movies to flop, the Houdinis returned to New York and founded their own film company, the Houdini Picture Corporation. Houdini then produced and starred in two of his own films, The Man From Beyond (1922) and Haldane of the Secret Service (1923).

These two films also bombed at the box office, leading Houdini to the conclusion that it was time to give up on moviemaking.

Houdini Challenges Spiritualists

At the end of World War I, there was a huge surge in people believing in Spiritualism. With millions of young men dead from the war, their grieving families looked for ways to contact them “beyond the grave.” Psychics, spirit mediums, mystics, and others emerged to fill this need.

Houdini was curious but skeptical. He, of course, had pretended to be a gifted spirit medium back in his days with Dr. Hill’s medicine show and thus knew many of the fake medium’s tricks. However, if it were possible to contact the dead, he would love to once again talk to his beloved mother, who had passed away in 1913. Thus Houdini visited a large number of mediums and attended hundreds of séances hoping to find a real psychic; unfortunately, he found every one of them to be a fake.

Along this quest, Houdini befriended famous author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was a devoted believer in Spiritualism after having lost his son in the war. The two great men exchanged many letters, debating the truthfulness of Spiritualism. In their relationship, Houdini was the one always looking for rational answers behind the encounters and Doyle remained the devoted believer. The friendship ended after Lady Doyle held a séance in which she claimed to channel automatic-writing from Houdini’s mother. Houdini was not convinced. Among other issues with the writing was that it was all in English, a language Houdini’s mother never spoke.

The friendship between Houdini and Doyle ended bitterly and led to many antagonistic attacks against each other in newspapers.

Houdini began to expose the tricks used by mediums. He gave lectures on the topic and often included demonstrations of these tricks during his own performances. He joined a committee organized by Scientific American who analyzed claims for a $2,500 prize for a true psychic phenomena (no one ever received the prize). Houdini also spoke in front of the U.S. House of Representatives, supporting a proposed bill that would ban telling fortunes for pay in Washington D.C.

The result was that even though Houdini brought about some skepticism, it seemed to create more interest in Spiritualism. However, many Spiritualists were extremely upset at Houdini and Houdini received a number of death threats.

Death of Houdini

On October 22, 1926, Houdini was in his dressing room preparing for a show at McGill University in Montreal, when one of the three students he had invited backstage asked if Houdini really could withstand a strong punch to his upper torso. Houdini answered that he could. The student, J. Gordon Whitehead, then asked Houdini if he could punch him. Houdini agreed and started to get up off a couch when Whitehead punched him three times in the abdomen before Houdini had a chance to tense his stomach muscles. Houdini turned visibly pale and the students left.

To Houdini, the show must always go on. Suffering from severe pain, Houdini performed the show at McGill University and then went on to do two more the following day.

Moving on to Detroit that evening, Houdini grew weak and suffered from stomach pain and fever. Instead of going to the hospital, he once again went on with the show, and collapsed offstage. He was taken to a hospital and it was discovered that not only had his appendix burst, it was showing signs of gangrene. The next afternoon surgeons removed his appendix.

The next day his condition worsened; they operated on him again. Houdini told Bess that if he died he would try to contact her from the grave, giving her a secret code - “Rosabelle, believe.” Houdini died at 1:26 p.m. on Halloween day, October 31, 1926. He was 52-years old.

Headlines immediately read “Was Houdini Murdered?” Did he really have appendicitis? Was he poisoned? Why was there no autopsy? Houdini’s life insurance company investigated his death and ruled out foul play, but for many, uncertainty regarding the cause of Houdini’s death lingers.

For years after his death, Bess attempted to contact Houdini through séances, but Houdini never contacted her from beyond the grave.

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Schwartz, Shelly, Contributing History Writer. "Biography of Harry Houdini." ThoughtCo, Mar. 20, 2017, thoughtco.com/harry-houdini-1779815. Schwartz, Shelly, Contributing History Writer. (2017, March 20). Biography of Harry Houdini. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/harry-houdini-1779815 Schwartz, Shelly, Contributing History Writer. "Biography of Harry Houdini." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/harry-houdini-1779815 (accessed November 23, 2017).