Houdini in 1899
March 24, 1874
|Died||October 31, 1926
Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
|Occupation||Illusionist, magician, escapologist, stunt performer, actor, historian, film producer, pilot, debunker|
|Spouse(s)||Wilhelmina Beatrice "Bess" Rahner (1894-1926; his death)|
Harry Houdini (born Erik Weisz in Budapest, later Ehrich Weiss or Harry Weiss; March 24, 1874 – October 31, 1926) was an American stunt performer, noted for his sensational escape acts. He first attracted notice as "Harry Handcuff Houdini" on a tour of Europe, where he challenged different police forces to try to keep him locked up. This revealed a talent for gimmickry and for audience involvement that characterized all his work. Soon he extended his repertoire to include chains, ropes slung from skyscrapers, straitjackets under water, and having to hold his breath inside a sealed milk can.
In 1904, thousands watched as he tried to escape from special handcuffs commissioned by London's Daily Mirror, keeping them in suspense for an hour. Another stunt saw him buried alive and only just able to claw himself to the surface, emerging in a state of near-breakdown. While many suspected that these escapes were fabricated, Houdini meanwhile presented himself as the scourge of fake magicians and spiritualists. As President of the Society of American Magicians, he was keen to uphold professional standards and expose fraudulent artists who gave practitioners a bad name. He was also quick to sue anyone who pirated his own escape stunts.
Houdini made a number of movies, but quit acting when it failed to bring in money. He was also a keen aviator, and aimed to become the first man to fly a plane in Australia. Even the circumstances of his death in 1926 were dramatic and mysterious. According to one version, a student in Montreal asked him if his stomach was hard enough to take any blow, to which he replied that it was, whereupon the student rained a series of blows on it before Houdini had time to tense up. A few days later, he died of peritonitis caused by a ruptured appendix. This may have been unconnected, as he had already been suffering appendicitis and refusing to seek medical attention.
Harry Houdini was born as Erik Weisz in Budapest, Austria-Hungary, on March 24, 1874. His parents were Rabbi Mayer Sámuel Weisz (1829–1892), and Cecília Weisz (née Steiner; 1841–1913). Houdini was one of seven children: Herman M. (1863–1885) who was actually Houdini's half-brother, by Rabbi Weisz's first marriage; Nathan J. (1870–1927); Gottfried William (1872–1925); Theodore "Theo" (1876–1945); Leopold D. (1879–1962); and Carrie Gladys (born 1882–1959) who tragically was left almost completely blind after an accident in her childhood.
Weisz arrived in the United States on July 3, 1878, sailing on the SS Fresia with his mother (who was pregnant) and his four brothers. The family changed the Hungarian spelling of their German surname to Weiss (the German spelling) and Erik's name was changed to Ehrich. Friends called him "Ehrie" or "Harry".
They first lived in Appleton, Wisconsin, where his father served as Rabbi of the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation. From 1907 on, Houdini would claim in interviews to have been born in Appleton, which was not true.
According to the 1880 census, the family lived on Appleton Street. On June 6, 1882, Rabbi Weiss became an American citizen. Losing his tenure at Zion in 1887, Rabbi Weiss moved with Ehrich to New York City. They lived in a boarding house on East 79th Street. He was joined by the rest of the family once Rabbi Weiss found permanent housing. As a child, Ehrich Weiss took several jobs, making his public début as a 9-year-old trapeze artist, calling himself "Ehrich, the Prince of the Air". He was also a champion cross country runner in his youth. Weiss became a professional magician and began calling himself "Harry Houdini" because he was heavily influenced by the French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, and his friend Jack Hayman told him, erroneously, that in French, adding an "i" to Houdin would mean "like Houdin", the great magician.
However, after extensive research, Houdini published a book in 1908 called The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, in which he called his former idol a liar and a fraud for having claimed the invention of automata and effects which had been in existence for many years.
In later life, Houdini would claim that the first part of his new name, Harry, was an homage to Harry Kellar, whom Houdini admired.
He began his magic career in 1891. At the outset, he had little success. He performed in dime museums and sideshows, and even doubled as "The Wild Man" at a circus. Houdini focused initially on traditional card tricks. At one point, he billed himself as the "King of Cards". But he soon began experimenting with escape acts.
In 1893, while performing with his brother "Dash" (Theodore) at Coney Island as "The Brothers Houdini", Harry met a fellow performer, Wilhelmina Beatrice "Bess" Rahner. Though Bess was initially courted by Dash, she and Houdini married in 1894, with Bess replacing Dash in the act, which became known as "The Houdinis." For the rest of Houdini's performing career, Bess would work as his stage assistant.
Houdini's big break came in 1899 when he met manager Martin Beck in rural Woodstock, Illinois. Impressed by Houdini's handcuffs act, Beck advised him to concentrate on escape acts and booked him on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit. Within months, he was performing at the top vaudeville houses in the country. In 1900, Beck arranged for Houdini to tour Europe. After some days of unsuccessful interviews in London, Houdini managed to interest Dundas Slater, then manager of the Alhambra Theatre. He gave a demonstration of escape from handcuffs at Scotland Yard, and succeeded in baffling the police so effectively that he was booked at the Alhambra for six months.
Houdini became widely known as "The Handcuff King." He toured England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Russia. In each city, Houdini would challenge local police to restrain him with shackles and lock him in their jails. In many of these challenge escapes, Houdini would first be stripped nude and searched. In Moscow, Houdini escaped from a Siberian prison transport van. Houdini claimed that, had he been unable to free himself, he would have had to travel to Siberia, where the only key was kept. In Cologne, he sued a police officer, Werner Graff, who alleged that he made his escapes via bribery. Houdini won the case when he opened the judge's safe (he would later say the judge had forgotten to lock it). With his new-found wealth and success, Houdini purchased a dress said to have been made for Queen Victoria. He then arranged a grand reception where he presented his mother in the dress to all their relatives. Houdini said it was the happiest day of his life. In 1904, Houdini returned to the U.S. and purchased a house for $25,000, a brownstone at 278 W. 113th Street in Harlem, New York City.
From 1907 and throughout the 1910s, Houdini performed with great success in the United States. He would free himself from jails, handcuffs, chains, ropes, and straitjackets, often while hanging from a rope in plain sight of street audiences. Because of imitators, on January 25, 1908, Houdini put his "handcuff act" behind him and began escaping from a locked, water-filled milk can. The possibility of failure and death thrilled his audiences. Houdini also expanded his repertoire with his escape challenge act, in which he invited the public to devise contraptions to hold him. These included nailed packing crates (sometimes lowered into water), riveted boilers, wet sheets, mailbags, and even the belly of a whale that had washed ashore in Boston. Brewers in Scranton, PA and other cities challenged Houdini to escape from a barrel after they filled it with beer.
Many of these challenges were pre-arranged with local merchants in what is certainly one of the first uses of mass tie-in marketing. Rather than promote the idea that he was assisted by spirits, as did the Davenport Brothers and others, Houdini's advertisements showed him making his escapes via dematerializing, although Houdini himself never claimed to have supernatural powers.
In 1912, Houdini introduced perhaps his most famous act, the Chinese Water Torture Cell, in which he was suspended upside-down in a locked glass-and-steel cabinet full to overflowing with water. The act required that Houdini hold his breath for more than three minutes. Houdini performed the escape for the rest of his career. Despite two Hollywood movies depicting Houdini dying in the Torture Cell, the act had nothing to do with his death. Throughout his career, Houdini explained some of his tricks in books written for the magic brotherhood. In Handcuff Secrets (1909), he revealed how many locks and handcuffs could be opened with properly applied force, others with shoestrings. Other times, he carried concealed lockpicks or keys, being able to regurgitate small keys at will. When tied down in ropes or straitjackets, he gained wiggle room by enlarging his shoulders and chest, moving his arms slightly away from his body, and then dislocating his shoulders.
His straitjacket escape was originally performed behind curtains, with him popping out free at the end. However, Houdini's brother, (who was also an escape artist, billing himself as Theodore Hardeen), discovered that audiences were more impressed when the curtains were eliminated so they could watch him struggle to get out. For publicity, on more than one occasion, they both performed straitjacket escapes while dangling upside-down from the roof of a building .
For most of his career, Houdini was a headline act in vaudeville. For many years, he was the highest-paid performer in American vaudeville. One of Houdini's most notable non-escape stage illusions was performed at New York's Hippodrome Theater, when he vanished a full-grown elephant (with its trainer) from the stage, beneath which was a swimming pool. In 1923, Houdini became president of Martinka & Co., America's oldest magic company. The business is still in operation today.
He also served as President of the Society of American Magicians (aka S.A.M.) from 1917 until his death in 1926. Founded on May 10, 1902 in the back room of Martinka's magic shop in New York, the Society expanded under the leadership of Harry Houdini during his term as National President from 1917–1926. Houdini was magic's greatest visionary. He sought to create a large, unified national network of professional and amateur magicians. Wherever he traveled, Houdini would give a lengthy formal address to the local magic club, make speeches, and usually threw a banquet for the members at his own expense. He said "The Magicians Clubs as a rule are small: they are weak...but if we were amalgamated into one big body the society would be stronger, and it would mean making the small clubs powerful and worth while. Members would find a welcome wherever they happened to be and, conversely, the safeguard of a city-to-city hotline to track exposers and other undesirables."
For most of 1916, while on his vaudeville tour, Houdini, at his own expense, had been recruiting local magic clubs to join the S.A.M. in an effort to revitalize what he felt was a weak organization. Houdini persuaded groups in Buffalo, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City to join. As had happened in London, Houdini persuaded magicians to join. The Buffalo club joined as the first branch, (later assembly) of the Society. Chicago Assembly No. 3 was, as the name implies, the third regional club to be established by the S.A.M., whose assemblies now number in the hundreds. In 1917, he signed Assembly Number Three's charter into existence, and that charter and this club continue to provide Chicago magicians with a connection to each other and to their past. Houdini dined with, addressed, and got pledges from similar clubs in Detroit, Rochester, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Cincinnati and elsewhere. This was the biggest movement ever in the history of magic. In places where no clubs existed, he rounded up individual magicians, introduced them to each other, and urged them into the fold.
By the end of 1916, magicians clubs in San Francisco and other cities that Houdini had not visited were offering to become assemblies. He had created the richest and longest-surviving organization of magicians in the world. It now embraces almost 6,000 dues-paying members and almost 300 assemblies worldwide. In July, 1926, Houdini was elected for the ninth successive time President of the Society of American Magicians. Every other president has only served for one year. He also was President of the Magicians' Club of London.
In the final years of his life (1925/26), Houdini launched his own full-evening show, which he billed as "Three Shows in One: Magic, Escapes, and Fraud Mediums Exposed".
In 1904, the London Daily Mirror newspaper challenged Houdini to escape from special handcuffs that it claimed had taken Nathaniel Hart, a locksmith from Birmingham, five years to make. Houdini accepted the challenge for March 17 during a matinée performance at London's Hippodrome theater. It was reported that 4000 people and more than 100 journalists turned out for the much-hyped event. The escape attempt dragged on for over an hour, during which Houdini emerged from his "ghost house" (a small screen used to conceal the method of his escape) several times. On one occasion he asked if the cuffs could be removed so he could take off his coat. The Mirror representative, Frank Parker, refused, saying Houdini could gain an advantage if he saw how the cuffs were unlocked. Houdini promptly took out a pen-knife and, holding the knife in his teeth, used it to cut his coat from his body. Some 56 minutes later, Houdini's wife appeared on stage and gave him a kiss. It is believed that in her mouth was the key to unlock the special handcuffs. Houdini then went back behind the curtain. After an hour and ten minutes, Houdini emerged free. As he was paraded on the shoulders of the cheering crowd, he broke down and wept. Houdini later said it was the most difficult escape of his career.
After Houdini's death, his friend Martin Beck was quoted in Will Goldstone's book, Sensational Tales of Mystery Men, as admitting that Houdini was bested that day and had appealed to his wife, Bess, for help. Goldstone goes on to claim that Bess begged the key from the Mirror representative, then slipped it to Houdini in a glass of water. However, it was stated in the book The Secret Life of Houdini that the key required to open the specially designed Mirror handcuffs was 6" long, and thus could not have been smuggled to Houdini in a glass of water. Goldstone offered no proof of his account, and many modern biographers have found evidence (notably in the custom design of the handcuffs) that the Mirror challenge was arranged by Houdini and that his long struggle to escape was pure showmanship. In support of this contention it has been reported that the sterling silver replica of the Mirror cuffs presented to Houdini in honor of his escape was actually made the year before the escape actually took place.
This revelation was recently discussed in depth on the Travel Channel's Mysteries At The Museum in an interview with Houdini expert, magician and escape artist Dorothy Dietrich of Scranton's Houdini Museum.
A full-sized design of the same Mirror Handcuffs, as well as a replica of the Bramah style key for it, is on display to the public at the Houdini Museum in Scranton, PA. This is the only public display of this style cuff anywhere.
Milk Can Escape
In 1901, Houdini introduced his own original act, the Milk Can Escape. In this act, Houdini would be handcuffed and sealed inside an over-sized milk can filled with water and make his escape behind a curtain. As part of the effect, Houdini would invite members of the audience to hold their breath along with him while he was inside the can. Advertised with dramatic posters that proclaimed "Failure Means A Drowning Death", the escape proved to be a sensation. Houdini soon modified the escape to include the milk can being locked inside a wooden chest, being chained or padlocked, and even inside another milk can. Houdini performed the milk can escape as a regular part of his act for only four years, but it has remained one of the acts most associated with him. Houdini's brother, Theodore Hardeen, continued to perform the milk can (and the wooden chest variation) into the 1940s.
Chinese Water Torture Cell
In 1912, the vast number of imitators prompted Houdini to replace his Milk Can act with the Chinese Water Torture Cell. In this escape, Houdini's feet would be locked in stocks, and he would be lowered upside down into a tank filled with water. The mahogany and metal cell featured a glass front, through which audiences could clearly see Houdini. The stocks would be locked to the top of the cell, and a curtain would conceal his escape. In the earliest version of the Torture Cell, a metal cage was lowered into the cell, and Houdini was enclosed inside that. While making the escape more difficult (the cage prevented Houdini from turning), the cage bars also offered protection should the front glass break. The original cell was built in England, where Houdini first performed the escape for an audience of one person as part of a one-act play he called "Houdini Upside Down". This was so he could copyright the effect and have grounds to sue imitators (which he did). While the escape was advertised as "The Chinese Water Torture Cell" or "The Water Torture Cell", Houdini always referred to it as "the Upside Down" or "USD". The first public performance of the USD was at the Circus Busch in Berlin, on September 21, 1912. Houdini continued to perform the escape until his death in 1926. After being battered against a building in high winds during one escape, Houdini performed the escape with a visible safety wire on his ankle so that he could be pulled away from the building if necessary. The idea for the upside-down escape was given to Houdini by a young boy named Randolph Osborne Douglas (March 31, 1895 – Dec 5, 1956), when the two met at a performance at Sheffield's Empire Theatre.
Overboard box escape
Another one of Houdini's most famous publicity stunts was to escape from a nailed and roped packing crate after it had been lowered into water. Houdini first performed the escape in New York's East River on July 7, 1912. Police forbade him from using one of the piers, so Houdini hired a tugboat and invited press on board. Houdini was locked in handcuffs and leg-irons, then nailed into the crate which was roped and weighed down with two hundred pounds of lead. The crate was then lowered into the water. Houdini escaped in fifty-seven seconds. The crate was pulled to the surface and found still to be intact, with the manacles inside. Houdini would perform this escape many times, and even performed a version on stage, first at Hamerstein's Roof Garden (where a 5,500-gallon tank was specially built), and later at the New York Hippodrome.;
Buried Alive stunt
Houdini performed at least three variations on a "Buried Alive" stunt/escape during his career. The first was near Santa Ana, California in 1915, and it almost cost Houdini his life. Houdini was buried, without a casket, in a pit of earth six feet deep. He became exhausted and panicky trying to dig his way to the surface and called for help. When his hand finally broke the surface, he fell unconscious and had to be pulled from the grave by his assistants. Houdini wrote in his diary that the escape was "very dangerous" and that "the weight of the earth is killing."
Houdini's second variation on Buried Alive was an endurance test designed to expose mystical Egyptian performer Rahman Bey, who claimed to use supernatural powers to remain in a sealed casket for an hour. Houdini bettered Bey on August 5, 1926, by remaining in a sealed casket, or coffin, submerged in the swimming pool of New York's Hotel Shelton for one hour and a half. Houdini claimed he did not use any trickery or supernatural powers to accomplish this feat, just controlled breathing. He repeated the feat at the YMCA in Worcester Massachusetts on September 28, 1926, this time remaining sealed for one hour and eleven minutes.
Houdini's final Buried Alive was an elaborate stage escape that was to feature in his full evening show. The stunt would see Houdini escape after being strapped in a strait-jacket, sealed in a casket, and then buried in a large tank filled with sand. While there are posters advertising the escape (playing off the Bey challenge they boasted "Egyptian Fakirs Outdone!"), it is unclear whether Houdini ever performed Buried Alive on stage. The stunt was to be the feature escape of his 1927 season, but Houdini died on October 31, 1926. The bronze casket Houdini created for Buried Alive was used to transport Houdini's body from Detroit back to New York following his death on Halloween.
In 1906 Houdini started showing films of his outside escapes as part of his vaudeville act. In Boston he presented a short film called Houdini Defeats Hackenschmidt. Georg Hackenschmidt was a famous wrestler of the day, but the nature of their contest is unknown as the film is lost. In 1909 Houdini made a film in Paris for Cinema Lux titled Merveilleux Exploits du Célébre Houdini à Paris (Marvellous Exploits of the Famous Houdini in Paris). It featured a loose narrative designed to showcase several of Houdini's famous escapes, including his straitjacket and underwater handcuff escapes. That same year Houdini got an offer to star as Captain Nemo in a silent version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but the project never made it into production.
It is often erroneously reported that Houdini served as special-effects consultant on the Wharton/International cliffhanger serial, The Mysteries of Myra, shot in Ithaca, New York, because Harry Grossman, director of The Master Mystery also filmed a serial in Ithaca at about the same time. Houdini had nothing to do with "Myra", which treated spiritualism as real, something of which he never would have approved. The actual consultants on the serial were pioneering psychic investigator Hereward Carrington and magician Aleister Crowley.
In 1918 Houdini signed a contract with film producer B.A. Rolfe to star in a 15-part serial, The Master Mystery (released in January 1919). As was common at the time, the film serial was released simultaneously with a novel. Financial difficulties resulted in B.A. Rolfe Productions going out of business, but The Master Mystery led to Houdini being signed by Famous Players-Lasky Corporation/Paramount Pictures, for whom he made two pictures, The Grim Game (1919) and Terror Island (1920).
While filming an aerial stunt for The Grim Game, two biplanes collided in mid-air with a stuntman doubling Houdini dangling by a rope from one of the planes. Publicity was geared heavily toward promoting this dramatic "caught on film" moment, claiming it was Houdini himself dangling from the plane. While filming these movies in Los Angeles, Houdini rented a home in Laurel Canyon. Following his two-picture stint in Hollywood, Houdini returned to New York and started his own film production company called the "Houdini Picture Corporation". He produced and starred in two films, The Man From Beyond (1921) and Haldane of the Secret Service (1923). He also founded his own film laboratory business called The Film Development Corporation (FDC), gambling on a new process for developing motion picture film. Houdini's brother, Theodore Hardeen, left his own career as a magician and escape artist to run the company. Magician Harry Kellar was a major investor.
Neither Houdini's acting career nor FDC found success, and he gave up on the movie business in 1923, complaining that "the profits are too meager". But his celebrity was such that, years later, he would be given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (at 7001 Hollywood Blvd).
In April 2008 Kino International released a DVD box set of Houdini's surviving silent films, including The Master Mystery, Terror Island, The Man From Beyond, Haldane of the Secret Service, and five minutes from The Grim Game. The set also includes newsreel footage of Houdini's escapes from 1907 to 1923, and a section from Merveilleux Exploits du Célébre Houdini à Paris (although it is not identified as such).
In 1909, Houdini became fascinated with aviation. He purchased a French Voisin biplane for $5000 and hired a full-time mechanic, Antonio Brassac. After crashing once, he made his first successful flight on November 26 in Hamburg, Germany. The following year (1910), Houdini toured Australia. He brought along his Voisin biplane with the intention to be the first person in Australia to fly.
Falsely reported as pioneer
On March 18 he made three flights at Diggers Rest, Victoria, near Melbourne. It was reported at the time that this was the first aerial flight in Australia, and a century later, some major news outlets still credit him with this feat.
Wing Commander Harry Cobby wrote in Aircraft in March 1938 that "the first aeroplane flight in the Southern Hemisphere was made on December 9, 1909 by Mr Colin Defries, a Londoner, at Victoria Park Racecourse, Sydney, in a Wilbur Wright aeroplane". Colin Defries was a trained pilot, having learnt to fly in Cannes, France. By modern standards his flight time was minimal, but in 1909 he had accumulated enough to become an instructor. On his first flight he took off, maintained straight and level flight, albeit briefly, and landed safely. His crash landing on his second flight, when he tried to retrieve his hat which was blown off, demonstrated what a momentary lack of attention could cause while flying a Wright Model A.
It is acknowledged by Australian historians and the Aviation Historical Society of Australia that the definition of flight established by the Gorell Committee on behalf of the Aero Club of Great Britain dictates the acceptance of a flight or its rejection, giving Colin Defries credit as the first to make an aeroplane flight in Australia, and the Southern Hemisphere.
In 1965 aviation journalist Stanley Brogden formed the view that the first powered flight in Australia took place at Bolivar in South Australia; the aircraft was a Bleriot monoplane with Fred Custance as the pilot. The flight took place on March 17, 1910. The next day when Houdini took to the air, the Herald newspaper reported Mr Custance's flight, stating it had lasted 5 minutes 25 seconds at a height of between 12 and 15 feet.
In 2010 Australia Post issued stamps commemorating Colin Defries, Houdini and John Robertson Duigan, crediting only Defries and Duigan with historical firsts. Duigan was an Australian pioneer aviator who built and flew the first Australian-made aircraft. Australia Post did acknowledge the part Houdini played (Harry Houdini can't escape being part of Australia's history) but did not attribute any record to him.
After completing his Australia tour, Houdini put the Voisin into storage in England. He announced he would use it to fly from city to city during his next Music Hall tour, and even promised to leap from it handcuffed, but in fact he never flew again.
In the 1920s Houdini turned his energies toward debunking self-proclaimed psychics and mediums, a pursuit that would inspire and be followed by latter-day stage magicians. Houdini's training in magic allowed him to expose frauds who had successfully fooled many scientists and academics. He was a member of a Scientific American committee that offered a cash prize to any medium who could successfully demonstrate supernatural abilities. None were able to do so, and the prize was never collected. The first to be tested was medium George Valentine of Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. As his fame as a "ghostbuster" grew, Houdini took to attending séances in disguise, accompanied by a reporter and police officer. Possibly the most famous medium whom he debunked was Mina Crandon, also known as "Margery".
Houdini chronicled his debunking exploits in his book, A Magician Among the Spirits, co-authored with C. M. Eddy, Jr. (uncredited). These activities cost Houdini the friendship of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle, a firm believer in Spiritualism during his later years, refused to believe any of Houdini's exposés. Doyle came to believe that Houdini was a powerful spiritualist medium, and had performed many of his stunts by means of paranormal abilities and was using these abilities to block those of other mediums that he was "debunking" (see Conan Doyle's The Edge of The Unknown, published in 1931). This disagreement led to the two men becoming public antagonists and led Sir Arthur to view Houdini as a dangerous enemy.
Before Houdini died, he and his wife agreed that if Houdini found it possible to communicate after death, he would communicate the message "Rosabelle believe", a secret code which they agreed to use. This was a phrase from a play in which Bess performed, at the time the couple first met. Bess held yearly séances on Halloween for ten years after Houdini's death. She did claim to have contact through Arthur Ford in 1929 when Ford conveyed the secret code, but Bess later said the incident had been faked. In 1936, after a last unsuccessful séance on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel, she put out the candle that she had kept burning beside a photograph of Houdini since his death. In 1943, Bess said that "ten years is long enough to wait for any man."
The tradition of holding a séance for Houdini continues, held by magicians throughout the world. The Official Houdini Séance is currently organized by Sidney Hollis Radner, a Houdini aficionado from Holyoke, Massachusetts. Yearly Houdini Séances are also conducted in Chicago at the Excaliber nightclub by "necromancer" Neil Tobin on behalf of the Chicago Assembly of the Society of American Magicians; and at the Houdini Museum in Scranton by magician Dorothy Dietrich who previously held them at New York's famous Magic Towne House with such magical notables as Houdini biographers Walter B. Gibson and Milbourne Christopher. Gibson was asked by Bess Houdini to carry on the tradition. Before he died, Walter passed on the tradition to Dorothy Dietrich.
In 1926, Harry Houdini hired H. P. Lovecraft and his friend C. M. Eddy, Jr., to write an entire book about debunking superstition, which was to be called The Cancer of Superstition. Houdini had earlier asked Lovecraft to write an article about astrology, for which he paid $75. The article does not survive. Lovecraft's detailed synopsis for Cancer does survive, as do three chapters of the treatise written by Eddy. Houdini's untimely death derailed the plans, as his widow did not wish to pursue the project.
Appearance and voice recordings
Unlike the image of the classic magician, Houdini was short and stocky and typically appeared on stage in a long frock coat and tie. Most biographers peg his height as 5 ft 5 in, but descriptions vary. Houdini was also said to be slightly bow-legged, which aided in his ability to gain slack during his rope escapes. In the 1997 biography Houdini!!!: The Career of Ehrich Weiss, author Kenneth Silverman summarizes how reporters described Houdini's appearance during his early career:
|“||They stressed his smallness—"somewhat undersized"—and angular, vivid features: "He is smooth-shaven with a keen, sharp-chinned, sharp-cheekboned face, bright blue eyes and thick, curly, black hair." Some sensed how much his complexly expressive smile was the outlet of his charismatic stage presence. It communicated to audiences at once warm amiability, pleasure in performing, and, more subtly, imperious self-assurance. Several reporters tried to capture the charming effect, describing him as "happy-looking", "pleasant-faced", "good natured at all times", "the young Hungarian magician with the pleasant smile and easy confidence".||”|
Houdini made the only known recordings of his voice on Edison wax cylinders on October 29, 1914, in Flatbush, New York. On them, Houdini practices several different introductory speeches for his famous Chinese Water Torture Cell. He also invites his sister, Gladys, to recite a poem. Houdini then recites the same poem in German. The six wax cylinders were discovered in the collection of magician John Mulholland after his death in 1970. They are part of the David Copperfield collection.
Harry Houdini died of peritonitis, secondary to a ruptured appendix. Eyewitnesses to an incident at Houdini's dressing room in the Princess Theater in Montreal gave rise to speculation that Houdini's death was caused by a McGill University student, J. Gordon Whitehead, who delivered a surprise attack of multiple blows to Houdini's abdomen.
The eyewitnesses, students named Jacques Price and Sam Smilovitz (sometimes called Jack Price and Sam Smiley), proffered accounts of the incident that generally corroborated one another. Price describes Whitehead asking Houdini "whether it was true that punches in the stomach did not hurt him", and after securing Houdini's permission to strike him, delivering "some very hammer-like blows below the belt". Houdini was reclining on a couch at the time, having broken his ankle while performing several days earlier. Price states that Houdini winced at each blow and stopped Whitehead suddenly in the midst of a punch, gesturing that he had had enough, and adding that he had had no opportunity to prepare himself against the blows, as he did not expect Whitehead to strike him so suddenly and forcefully. Had his ankle not been broken, he would have risen from the couch into a better position to brace himself.
Throughout the evening, Houdini performed in great pain. He was unable to sleep and remained in constant pain for the next two days, though he did not seek medical help. When he finally saw a doctor, Harry was found to have a fever of 102 °F (38.9 °C) and acute appendicitis, and advised to have immediate surgery. He ignored the advice and decided to go on with the show. When Houdini arrived at the Garrick Theater in Detroit, Michigan on October 24, 1926, for what would be his last performance, he had a fever of 104 °F (40 °C). Despite the diagnosis, Houdini took the stage. He was reported to have passed out during the show, but was revived and continued. Afterwards, he was hospitalized at Detroit's Grace Hospital.
Houdini died of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix at 1:26 p.m. in Room 401 on October 31, aged 52. In his final days, he optimistically held to a strong belief that he would recover, but his last words before dying were reportedly, "I'm tired of fighting."
Houdini's funeral was held on November 4, 1926, in New York, with more than 2,000 mourners in attendance. He was interred in the Machpelah Cemetery in Glendale, Queens, New York, with the crest of the Society of American Magicians inscribed on his gravesite. A statuary bust was added to the exedra in 1927, a rarity, because graven images are forbidden in nearly all Jewish cemeteries. In 1975 it was knocked over and destroyed. Temporary ones were placed there until 2011 when a group who came to be called The Houdini Commandos from The Houdini Museum in Scranton, PA placed a permanent bust with the permission of Houdini's family and the cemetery. To this day the Society holds a broken wand ceremony at the grave site in November. Houdini's widow, Bess, died of a heart attack on February 11, 1943, aged 67, in Needles, California while on a train en route from Los Angeles to New York City. She had expressed a wish to be buried next to him but instead was interred at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Westchester, New York, as her Catholic family refused to allow her to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
On March 22, 2007, Houdini's grand-nephew (the grandson of his brother Theo), George Hardeen, announced that the courts would be asked to allow exhumation of Houdini's body. The purpose was to investigate the possibility of Houdini being murdered by Spiritualists, as suggested in the biography The Secret Life of Houdini. In a statement given to the Houdini Museum in Scranton, the family of Bess Houdini opposed the application and suggested it was a publicity ploy for the book. The Washington Post stated that the press conference was not orchestrated by the family of Houdini. Instead, the Post reported, it was orchestrated by authors Kalush and Sloman, who hired the PR firm Dan Klores Communications to promote their book.
In 2008 it was revealed the parties involved never filed legal papers to perform an exhumation.
Houdini's brother, Theodore Hardeen, who returned to performing after Houdini's death, inherited his brother's effects and props. Houdini's will stipulated that all the effects should be "burned and destroyed" upon Hardeen's death. Hardeen sold much of the collection to magician and Houdini enthusiast Sidney Hollis Radner during the 1940s, including the Water Torture Cell. Radner allowed choice pieces of the collection to be displayed at The Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls, Ontario. In 1995, a fire destroyed the museum. While the Water Torture Cell was reported to have been destroyed, its metal frame remained, and the cell was restored by illusion builder John Gaughan. Many of the props contained in the museum such as the Mirror Handcuffs, Houdini's original packing crate, a Milk Can, and a straitjacket, survived the fire and were auctioned off in 1999 and 2008.
Radner loaned the bulk of his collection for archiving to the Outagamie Museum in Appleton, Wisconsin; but pulled it in 2003, and auctioned it off a year later in Las Vegas, on October 30, 2004.
Houdini was a "formidable collector," and bequeathed many of his holdings and paper archives on magic and spiritualism to the Library of Congress, which became the basis for the Houdini collection in cyberspace.
More than half of Houdini's archival estate holdings and memorabilia, however, were willed to his fellow magician and friend, John Mulholland (1897–1970). In 1991, well-known illusionist and television performer David Copperfield purchased the entirety of Mulholland's Houdini holdings from Mulholland's estate. These are now archived and preserved in Copperfield's museum in a warehouse at his headquarters in Las Vegas. His museum there contains the world's largest collection of Houdini memorabilia, and all told, preserves approximately 80,000 items of magic memorabilia of Houdini and many other famous practitioners of the arts of magic and illusion – including, among others of Houdini's stage props and material, his famous "Water Torture Cabinet" and "Metamorphosis Trunk". The museum is not open to the public, but tours are available by invitation-only to fellow magicians, scholars, researchers, journalists, and serious collectors.
- The Right Way to Do Wrong: An Exposé of Successful Criminals. Boston: Harry Houdini. 1906. Audio book at Librivox
- Handcuff Secrets (1907)
- The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin. New York: The Publisher’s Printing Company. 1908. Retrieved March 26, 2011. at Internet Archive, a debunking study of Robert-Houdin’s abilities.
- Conjuring (13th ed.). Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1926. Retrieved March 26, 2011.
- Magical Rope Ties and Escapes (1920)
- Miracle Mongers and their Methods: an Exposé by Harry Houdini. New York: E.P. Dutton. 1920. Retrieved March 28, 2011.
- Houdini's Paper Magic (1921)
- A Magician Among the Spirits (1924) Arno Press, A New York Times Company, New York, 1972. Original printing, 1924. ISBN 0-405-02801-6
- Under the Pyramids (1924) with H. P. Lovecraft.
- Films starring Houdini
- Merveilleux Exploits du Célébre Houdini à Paris—Cinema Lux (1909)—playing himself
- The Master Mystery—Octagon Films (1918)—playing Quentin Locke
- The Grim Game—Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount Pictures (1919)—playing Harvey Handford
- Terror Island—Famous Players Lasky/Paramount (1920)—playing Harry Harper
- The Man from Beyond—Houdini Picture Corporation (1922)—playing Howard Hillary
- Haldane of the Secret Service—Houdini Picture Corporation/FBO (1922)—playing Heath Haldane
- Biographical films
- Houdini (1953)—played by Tony Curtis
- The Great Houdini aka The Great Houdinis (1976)—played by Paul Michael Glaser (TV movie)
- Ragtime (1981)—played by Jeffrey DeMunn
- Young Harry Houdini (1987)—played by Wil Wheaton & Jeffrey DeMunn (TV movie)
- A Night at the Magic Castle (1988)—played by Arte Johnson
- FairyTale: A True Story (1997)—played by Harvey Keitel
- Houdini (1998)—played by Johnathon Schaech (TV movie)
- Cremaster 2 (1999)—played by Norman Mailer
- Death Defying Acts (2007)—played by Guy Pearce
- American Museum of Magic
- List of magic museums
- List of magicians
- Magic (illusion)
- Stunt performer
- Swami Laura Horos
- Arthur Ford The three Houdini messages and others
- Walford Bodie A friend of Houdini, and fellow magician.
- Houdini, Harry (1926). Conjuring (13th ed.). Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved March 26, 2011.
- "137 years ago in Budapest...". Wild About Harry. Retrieved March 24, 2011.
- "Hardeen Dead, 69. Houdini's Brother. Illusionist, Escape Artist, a Founder of Magician's Guild. Gave Last Show May 29". New York Times. June 13, 1945, Wednesday. "Theodore Hardeen, a brother of the late Harry Houdini, illusionist and a prominent magician in his own right, died yesterday in the Doctors Hospital. His age was 69."
- Meyer, Bernard C. (1976), Houdini: A Mind in Chains, E.P. Dutton & Co., Chapter 1, p. 5, ISBN 0-8415-0448-2.
- "The mystery of Carrie Gladys Weiss". Wild About Harry. Retrieved Sept 30, 2011.
- US National Archives Microfilm serial: M237; Microfilm roll: 413; Line: 38; List number: 684.
- 1880 US Census with Samuel M. Weiss, Cecelia (wife), Armin M., Nathan J., Ehrich, Theodore, and Leopold.
- "Larger Images". Archives.gov. Retrieved February 14, 2010.
- Rocha, Guy. "MYTH #56 – No Disappearing Act for Harry Houdini at Piper's Opera House". Nevada State Library and Archives. Retrieved March 24, 2011.
- Silverman, p. 81.
- Silverman, p. 109
- Cannell, J. C. (1973). The Secrets of Houdini. New York: Dover Publications. pp. 36–41. ISBN 0486229130. Retrieved August 17, 2012. ISBN 9780486229133
- "Houdini's escapes and magic – Houdini's unique challenges in Scranton, PA. during the vaudeville era". Retrieved May, 2011.
- Kalush, William; Sloman, Larry (October 2006). The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-7432-7207-0.
- Kalush, William; Sloman, Larry (October 2006). The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-7432-7207-0.
- Kenneth Silverman (October 1997). Houdini! The Career of Ehrich Weiss: American Self-Liberator, Europe's Eclipsing Sensation, World's Handcuff King & Prison Breaker. HarperCollins. p. 544. ASIN 006092862X.
- "Houdini: A Biography". Wild About Harry. Retrieved December, 2010.
- Houdini's Mirror Handcuff Challenge, Getting Closer to the Truth by Mick Hanzlik, 2007, reproduction in full of Daily Mirror article "Houdini's Great Victory" March 18, 1904
- Silverman, pp. 59–62.
- Kalush, Sloman, p. 160.
- "Keys To Houdini's Secrets". Travel Channel Mysteries. Retrieved 2011-11-29.
- Randi, pp. 175–178.
- Randi, Milk Can poster on page 177
- Christopher, Milbourne Houdini A Pictorial Life, 1976, ISBN 0-690-01152-0 p. 54
- "American Museum of Magic". Marshall area Chamber of Commerce. Retrieved 2008-04-20.
- "Thousands see Harry Houdini escape from a straitjacket while hanging in mid-air, Chicago, Ill.", International news [1923 or 1924?]
- Houdini His Legend and His Magic by Doug Henning, 1977, p. 1960
- Christopher, Milbourne. Houdini: The Untold Story (Thomas Y. Crowell Co, 1969). ISBN 0-89190-981-8, p. 140.
- "Digging into Houdini's Buried Alive". Retrieved January 6, 2011.
- Silverman, pp. 397–403.
- "Uncovering Houdini's second underwater test". Retrieved January 26, 2010.
- Silverman, p. 406.
- "Houdini Defeats Hackenschmidt and other revelations from Disappearing Tricks". Retrieved January 31, 2010.
- Disappearing Tricks by Matthew Solomon, 2010, p. 95
- Silverman, p. 205.
- The Mysteries of Myra by Eric Stedman, 2010, p. 8
- "Adroit Harry and ancient hokum". Retrieved December 30, 2012.
- Silverman, pp. 226–249
- "Houdini The Movie Star DVD collection released". Retrieved April 8, 2008.
- Papers Past — Evening Post — 19 March 1910 — AERIAL FLIGHT IN AUSTRALIA. Paperspast.natlib.govt.nz (1910-03-19). Retrieved on 2012-02-28.
- Houdini's Australian dream: one for the record books – National. smh.com.au. Retrieved on 2012-02-28.
- "Australian National Aviation Museum – Early Australian Aviation". Aarg.com.au. Retrieved April 1, 2011.
- The Art and Magic of Harry Houdini. CBS News (2010-11-02). Retrieved on 2012-02-28.
- Entertainment Houdini's flight into history. Weekly Times Now (2010-03-18). Retrieved on 2012-02-28.
- The Powerhouse Museum is the major branch of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney. First Powered Flight in Australia- Episode 4 « Inside the collection – Powerhouse Museum. Powerhousemuseum.com. Retrieved on 2012-02-28.
- Australia Post – Harry Houdini can't escape being part of Australia's history. Auspost.com.au. Retrieved on 2012-02-28.
- Silverman, pp. 137–154
- Notes to Houdini and the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, Library of Congress. Retrieved October 3, 2007.
- Pamphlet, Margery. "The American Experience: Houdini". Retrieved March 24, 2011.
- Houdini Facts from the History Museum at the Castle[dead link]
- Houdini's Halloween[dead link] from WGN-TV and Red Eye, October 28, 2005
- Joshi, Collected Essays, 3, New York, 2005, pp. 11–12.
- Silverman, p. 31
- "Houdini speaks in 1970". Retrieved November 13, 2010.
- Conan Doyle, Arthur (1930). Edge of the Unknown. ISBN 1406820555.
- The Man Who Killed Houdini by Don Bell, Vehicule Press, 2004
- Benoit, Tod (May 2003). Where Are They Buried? How Did They Die?. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. p. 469. ISBN 1-57912-287-6.
- Houdini laid on his death bed for eight days after being given just seven hours to live with a ruptured appendix and a 105 degree fever. "Urban Legends Reference Pages – Death of Houdini". snopes.com.
- Final Escape for the Master of Illusion? Houdini's Family Press for Exhumation.
- Dunlap, David W. (October 24, 2011). "Houdini Returns". The New York Times. Retrieved October 24, 2011.
- "Bess Houdini dies in 1943". Houdini.net. Retrieved April 1, 2011.
- "Grandnephew seeks to 'set record straight' about Houdini's death". Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. March 23, 2007. Retrieved March 23, 2007.
- "Family Statement re: exhumation". Retrieved March 26, 2007.
- Segal, David (March 24, 2007). "Why Not Just Hold a Seance?". The Washington Post. Retrieved March 24, 2007.
- "Time to bury the Houdini exhumation". Retrieved February 29, 2009.
- "In Sadness, Prime Houdini Artifact Collector Puts Items on Auction Block". New York Times. October 29, 2004. "... Mr. Radner, aka Rendar the Magician, owns one of the world's biggest and most valuable collections of Harry Houdini artifacts, including the Chinese Water Torture Cell, one of Houdini's signature props from 1912 until his death in 1926. Most of the items were given to Mr. Radner in the 1940s by Houdini's brother, Theodore Hardeen. Hardeen considered Radner, then a student at Yale with a reputation for jumping from diving boards in handcuffs, as his protégé. Until early this year, the collection was on display at the Outagamie Museum in Appleton, Wisconsin, where Houdini's father was the town rabbi in the 1870s. But after a rancorous falling out between Mr. Radner and museum officials, the 1,000-piece collection was packed up and shipped here, where it will be auctioned on Saturday in the windowless back room at the Liberace Museum and on eBay."
- "The Mystery of the Two Torture Cells". Wild About Harry. Retrieved May 14, 2007.
- [dead link]
- Higbee, Joan. "Great Escapes". American Memory Web Site, Hosts Houdini Collection. Library of Congress. Retrieved March 24, 2011.
- "James Randi's Swift". randi.org. July 14, 2006.
- Brandon, Ruth. The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini (London: Secker & Warburg, Ltd., 1993) ISBN 0-8129-7042-X; ISBN 978-0-8129-7042-5 (U.S. edition): ISBN 0-679-42437-7 ISBN 978-0-679-42437-6.
- Fleischman, Sid. Escape! The Story of The Great Houdini, (Greenwillow Books, 2006). ISBN 978-0-06-085094-4.
- Gresham, William Lindsay Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1959).
- Henning, Doug with Charles Reynolds. Houdini: His Legend and His Magic (New York: Times Books, 1978). ISBN 0-446-87328-4; ISBN 978-0-446-87328-4.
- Kalush, William; Sloman, Larry (October 2006). The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-7432-7207-0.
- Kellock, Harold. Houdini: His Life-Story from the recollections and documents of Beatrice Houdini, (Harcourt, Brace Co., June 1928).
- Kendall, Lance. Houdini: Master of Escape (New York: Macrae Smith & Co., 1960). ISBN 0-06-092862-X.
- Meyer, M.D., Bernard C. Houdini: A Mind in Chains (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1976). ISBN 0-8415-0448-2.
- Randi, James & Bert Randolph Sugar. Houdini: His Life and Art (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1977). ISBN 978-0-448-12546-6; ISBN 0-448-12546-3.
- Silverman, Kenneth. Houdini!!!: The Career of Ehrich Weiss 1997 ISBN 0-06-092862-X.
- Stanyon, Ellis (1901). Magic: Harry Houdini Collection. London: Ellis Stanyon.
- Williams, Beryl & Samuel Epstein. The Great Houdini: Magician Extraordinary (New York: Julian Messner, Inc., 1950).
- Houdini's Escapes and Magic by Walter B. Gibson, Prepared from Houdini's private notebooks Blue Ribbon Books, Inc., 1930. Reveals some of Houdini's magic and escape methods (also released in two separate volumes: Houdini's Magic and Houdini's Escapes).
- The Secrets of Houdini by J.C. Cannell, Hutchinson & Co., London, 1931. Reveals some of Houdini's escape methods.
- Houdini and Conan Doyle: The Story of a Strange Friendship by Bernard M. L. Ernst, Albert & Charles Boni, Inc., NY, 1932.
- Sixty Years of Psychical Research by Joseph F. Rinn, Truth Seeker Co., 1950, Rinn was a long time close friend of Houdini. Contains detailed information about the last Houdini message (there are 3) and its disclosure.
- Houdini's Fabulous Magic by Walter B. Gibson and Morris N. Young Chilton, NY, 1960. Excellent reference for Houdini's escapes and some methods (includes the Water Torture Cell).
- The Houdini Birth Research Committee's Report, Magico Magazine (reprint of report by The Society of American Magicians), 1972. Concludes Houdini was born March 24, 1874, in Budapest.
- Mediums, Mystics and the Occult by Milbourne Christopher, Thomas T. Crowell Co., 1975, pp. 122–145, Arthur Ford-Messages from the Dead, contains detailed information about the Houdini messages and their disclosure.
- Arthur Ford: The Man Who Talked with the Dead by Allen Spraggett with William V. Rauscher, 1973, pp. 152–165, Chapter 7, The Houdini Affair contains detailed information about the Houdini messages and their disclosure.
- Houdini: Escape into Legend, The Early Years: 1862–1900 by Manny Weltman, Finders/Seekers Enterprises, Los Angeles, 1993. Examination of Houdini's childhood and early career.
- Houdini Comes To America by Ronald J. Hilgert, The Houdini Historical Center, 1996. Documents the Weiss family's immigration to the United States on July 3, 1878 (when Ehrich was 4).
- Houdini Unlocked by Patrick Culliton, Two volume box set: The Tao of Houdini and The Secret Confessions of Houdini, Kieran Press, 1997.
- The Houdini Code Mystery: A Spirit Secret Solved by William V. Rauscher, Magic Words, 2000.
- Final Séance. The Strange Friendship Between Houdini and Conan Doyle by Massimo Polidoro, Prometheus Books, 2001.
- The Man Who Killed Houdini by Don Bell, Vehicle Press, 2004. Investigates J. Gordon Whitehead and the events surrounding Houdini's death.
- Disappearing Tricks: Silent Film, Houdini, and the New Magic of the Twentieth Century by Matthew Solomon, University of Illinois Press, 2010. Contains new information about Houdini's early movie career.
- Houdini Art and Magic by Brooke Kamin Rapaport, Jewish Museum, 2010. Essays on Houdini's life and work are accompanied by interviews with novelist E.L. Doctorow, Teller, Kenneth Silverman, and more.
- Houdini The Key by Patrick Culliton, Kieran Press, 2010. Reveals the authentic working methods of many of Houdini effects, including the Milk Can and Water Torture Cell. Limited to 278 copies.
||This article's use of external links may not follow Wikipedia's policies or guidelines. (July 2011)|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Harry Houdini|
- Higbee, Joan. "Great Escapes". American Memory Web Site, Hosts Houdini Collection. Library of Congress. Retrieved March 24, 2011.
- Houdini Tribute 400+ Photos, videos, multimedia, and hear Houdini's voice.
- Harry Houdini at the Internet Movie Database
- Harry Houdini on National Public Radio in 2010
- Harry Houdini: His Life and His Art
- Harry Houdini at Find a Grave
- Wild About Harry—Website devoted to what's new in the world of Houdini; books, DVDs, auctions, movies, events, and pop culture references.
- Timeline of Houdini's life
- "No Escaping Houdini"—A documentary on PBS in 2010
- The Houdini Museum in Scranton Pennsylvania.
- House of Deception article on Houdini's handwriting & signature.
- CFI's 10th Annual Houdini Séance – Halloween 2006 — séance held to get in touch with Houdini, Point of Inquiry, October 31, 2006.
- Michigan Time Traveler, Lansing State Journal, Harry Houdini and Michigan magic.
- MSNBC report on possible murder of Houdini and the attempts to exhume his body.
- The History Museum operated by the Local History Museum in Appleton, WI home of the AKA Houdini Exhibit.
- Houdini in Russia. (in Russian).
- Collection of Houdini's personal equipment
- The Final Halloween Houdini Seance—audio documentary.
- Festival of Flight Official website for Houdini Centenary celebrations.
- "Tricks of Fake Mediums" by Harry Houdini, Liberty, November 25, 1925
- Houdini archives in the Harry Price papers
- Houdini Escapes the Smithsonian
- rare autochrome color version of Harry Kellar/Harry Houdini photograph