Harry Houdini: Stories, Myths, And Facts About Magic's Godfather
Harry Houdini may have passed away in 1936, but he remains the most well-known magician and escape artist of the 20th century. He was the scourge of false mystics and imitators, a hero to the Jewish people, and a mystery to the world at large. There are few people who use their life to its full potential and Houdini was one of them. When he found something that he loved, he followed his bliss until he day he died.
Born In Budapest, Raised In Wisconsin
Born in Budapest on March 24, 1874, Harry Houdini wasn't raised "Hardy Houdini." In the old country, he was known as Erik Weiss, one of seven children born into a Jewish family who left for America in 1878. The family settled in Appleton, Wisconsin, where Houdini took on a myriad of different jobs to help his family get by. Even at a young age, he was drawn toward performing, making his trapeze debut at nine years old as "Ehrich, the Prince of the Air."
The King Of Cards
As you can imagine, Weiss's childhood trapeze act didn't catapult him to the mainstream. As a teenager, he switched to slight of hand and escape tricks, studying under magician Joseph Rinn at the Pastime Athletic Club. In 1891, Weiss's career began in earnest as the young man began marketing himself as "The Wild Man" and later the "King Of Cards" with an act made up mostly of traditional card tricks, a far cry from what he became famous for.
Houdini's Famous Escape
After taking inspiration from the name of the magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin in 1899, the newly christened Harry Houdini began working as an escape artist, an avenue in which he found much greater success. After manager Martin Beck saw Houdini's performance in St. Paul, he booked the young escape artist on the vaudeville circuit. Houdini did okay in the vaudeville houses of the day, but it was his trip to Europe in the 1900s that made him a star. After demonstrating his ability to escape from a set of handcuffs in front of the police at Scotland Yard, his baffling abilities made him a success. He only became more famous over the next 20 years as he continued to perform more and more complicated escapes.
Houdini Taught Soldiers
Houdini may have been born in Hungary, but he was a red-blooded American, so much so that he took a break from his highly successful act during World War I to train soldiers to escape from handcuffs. In addition to escape techniques, he taught them how to keep cool under pressure, because if there was a secret to his "tricks," that was it.
Houdini Was A Pioneer Of Marketing
Houdini didn't become an overnight sensation on the strength of his talent alone. That was certainly a big part of it, but he also knew how to work the media. Teller (as in "Penn and") explained Houdini's marketing expertise:
As an innovator, he's the guy who kind of figured out how to use the press. When you think back, he's the first prominent person that you see doing co-promotions with corporations. If he's coming to your town and you are centered around the beer industry, he would talk to the brewery and arrange to escape from a giant beer keg or something.
Houdini Tried His (Sleight Of) Hand At Acting
As one of seven children, Harry Houdini was definitely money-conscious. He'd been working a variety of jobs since he was a child, and that didn't stop when he began performing. He worked in film since his days on the vaudeville circuit, playing shorts before his escapes. In 1918, he signed a deal with film producer B. A. Rolfe for a 15-part serial before starring in two films, The Man From Beyond and Haldane Of The Secret Service. Unfortunately, neither film was as successful as he hoped, and he gave up on the film industry.
Houdini Was A Big Fan Of The Magic Union
Houdini had his money on his mind and his mind on the money of every magician out there. He thought it was important for the brotherhood of performing magicians to make a living with their craft, so he joined the Society of American Magicians in 1903, a year after they formed in the back room of Martinka's magic shop in New York. From the moment he joined, he began recruiting a massive network of professional magicians. He served as the union's National President from 1917 to 1926 and even gave talks to amateur magicians at his tour stops.
Houdini Could Fly
Well ... not like that. Aside from his interest in magic, unions, and the United States Army, Houdini had an obsession with aviation. In 1909, he bought a French Voisin biplane for $5,000 to learn to fly it. It didn't take long for Houdini to get off the ground, but it did take him a while to learn how to pilot his craft. He crashed at least once, but by November 26 of that year, he made his first successful flight over Hamburg, Germany. On March 18, 1910, Houdini became the first person to fly across Australia. After his Australian flight, he said:
When I went up for the first time, I thought for a minute that I was in a tree, then I knew I was flying. The funny thing was that as soon as I was aloft, all the tension and strain left me. As soon as I was up, all my muscles relaxed, and I sat back, feeling a sense of ease. Freedom and exhilaration, that's what it is.
A Punch To The Gut Did Not Kill Houdini
The final days of Houdini's life have taken on a mythological air due to the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death. On October 24, 1926, in Detroit, Michigan, Houdini was punched in the abdomen by a college student while he was sitting in his dressing room. According to witnesses, a McGill student named Joselyn Gordon Whitehead asked Houdini's permission to test the strength of the escape artist's six-pack, delivering "hammer-like blows" to Houdini's midsection while he was sitting to nurse his already broken ankle. Although he'd agreed to the demonstration, Houdini was clearly in an unusual amount of pain. Still, after he finally stopped Whitehead, he went on with the performance.
Houdini Died On Halloween
For the next two days, Houdini complained of a pain in his abdomen but never went to the hospital. After he was finally convinced to see a doctor, he was found to have appendicitis and need immediate surgery. Houdini wasn't the kind of person to take a break, however, so he went on with his show instead of undergoing the life-saving surgery. On October 31, 1926, Houdini died of peritonitis, secondary to a ruptured appendix. Supposedly, his final words were "I'm tired of fighting ... I do not want to fight anymore."