Best known for: Performing dangerous and innovative escapes.
Where was Harry Houdini born?
Harry Houdini was born on March 24, 1874 in Budapest, Hungary. When he was four years old his family moved to the United States. They lived in Wisconsin for a while and then moved to New York City.
What was his real name?
Harry Houdini's real name was Ehrich Weiss. He started using the name "Harry Houdini" as a stage name in 1894. The name "Harry" came from his childhood nickname "Ehrie." The name "Houdini" came from one of his favorite musicians, a Frenchman with the last name Houdin. He added the "i" to "Houdin" and he had the name Harry Houdini.
Houdini in Handcuffs by Unknown Source: Library of Congress
Harry worked various odd jobs to help out the family while growing up. He worked as a locksmith for a time where he became an expert at picking locks (this skill would come in handy later). Young Harry always had an interest in magic and performing. Around the age of seventeen he began doing a magic show with his brother "Dash" called "The Brothers Houdini." Harry would spend hours working on magic tricks and practicing quick hand movements.
A New Partner
While Harry and his brother were working at Coney Island, Harry met a dancer named Bess. They fell in love and married a year later. Bess and Harry started their own magic act called "The Houdinis." For the rest of his career, Bess would act as Harry's assistant.
Tour of Europe
Upon the advice of his manager, Martin Beck, Harry began to focus his act on escapes. He would escape from all sorts of things like handcuffs, straitjackets, and ropes. He then traveled to England to perform. At first, he had little success. Then he challenged the English police at Scotland Yard to an escape. The police searched Harry thoroughly and handcuffed him inside a cell. They were sure they had him secure. However, Houdini escaped in a matter of a few minutes. They couldn't believe it! Now Harry was famous and everyone wanted to see his amazing escapes.
Famous Escapes and Illusions
Harry traveled around Europe and then returned to the United States performing all sorts of dangerous escapes and amazing illusions. These escapes made him the most famous magician in the world.
Water Torture Cell - In this trick, Harry was lowered head first into a glass tank filled with water. His feet were chained with locks to a lid that was then locked to the tank. A curtain would cover the front while Houdini worked his escape. Just in case he failed, an assistant stood by with an axe.
The Water Torture Cell by Unknown Source: Library of Congress
Straitjacket Escape - Houdini took escaping from a straitjacket to a whole new level. He would be suspended in the air by his feet from a tall building while strapped into a straitjacket. He would then escape from the straitjacket with everyone watching.
Box in a River - This trick seemed especially dangerous. Houdini would be locked up with handcuffs and leg-irons and placed into a crate. The crate would be nailed shut and tied with ropes. It would also be weighed down with around 200 pounds of lead. The crate would then be tossed into the water. After Houdini escaped (sometimes in under a minute), the crate would be pulled to the surface. It would still be nailed together with the handcuffs inside.
Other escapes - Houdini performed a variety of escapes. He often invited the local police to try and handcuff him or hold him in a cell. He always escaped. He also performed an escape where he was buried alive six feet underground and another where he was put in a casket under water for over an hour.
Later Life and Career
In his later life, Houdini took on many other activities such as making movies, learning to fly an airplane, and debunking psychics (proving they were fake).
One night before a show in Montreal, Canada, two young men visited Houdini backstage. Rumor had it that Houdini was invincible to blows to the body. One of the students decided to test out this rumor and punched Houdini in the stomach. A few days later, on October 31, 1926 (Halloween), Houdini died from a ruptured appendix.
Interesting Facts about Harry Houdini
One of Houdini's most famous illusions was the "vanishing elephant" during which he caused a 10,000 pound elephant to disappear.
Houdini may have worked as a spy for the British Secret Service gaining information while performing for world leaders such as Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.
He was an excellent athlete and long distance runner.
He taught U.S. soldiers how to escape capture during World War I.