Ehrich Weiss - the real name of the escapologist Harry Houdini - was born on 24 March, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary, to a Rabbi and his wife. The large family - five sons and a daughter - moved to Appleton, Wisconsin in 1878, when Weiss was four years old, and for the rest of his life Weiss would claim this was where he was born.
Ehrich, Prince of the Air
Weiss's first brush with showmanship began with a show for his friends when he was nine years old, adopting the stage name Erich, Prince of the Air1, but it was another eight years before he became one half of The Houdini Brothers.
In the meantime Weiss and his family had a rough time, struggling with poverty and eventually moving to New York. Accounts of Weiss's life vary during these years, with tales of him joining the circus and becoming apprentice to a locksmith probably being untrue. However he definitely did join Jacob Hyman, a friend from a factory he worked in, to form magic act The Houdini Brothers - who named themselves after Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, the most famous magician of the day. Weiss took the nickname 'Harry', possibly from his own nickname of Ehrie.
The partnership lasted two years before Hyman left, to be briefly replaced with Houdini's brother 'Dash'. Dash was himself replaced when Houdini met Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner - Bess. Houdini married her and made her his partner in the act, which was renamed The Houdinis.
Houdini's rise to fame took several years, and during the course of it he changed his style of magic from traditional illusions to escapology, and it was probably his handcuff act that first made him famous. From there he continued the escapology theme with ever more daring and dangerous escapes.
Houdini's first successful trick, however, wasn't escapology - it was the needle trick. He would swallow several needles and a length of thread, and then regurgitate them with the needles all threaded2.
Houdini probably wasn't the first to perform a Handcuff Challenge Act, but his presentation and his determination to find new ways to confuse the audience made him the most famous handcuff manipulator in the world at the time3. Basically, Houdini would escape from a pair of handcuffs, often first being bound and then concealed inside a cabinet. The number of sets used and the positions he was bound in varied, as did the methods he used to escape from them. Houdini often concealed keys about his person, but he also claimed to be able to open nearly any pair of handcuffs with a simple shoelace. On other occasions Houdini opted for trick handcuffs, or handcuffs loose enough to slip over his hands.
As opposed to the trickery of the handcuffs acts, Houdini's rope and straightjacket acts required much more strength, agility and good old fashioned struggling. Houdini would help himself as much as possible by breathing in when being bound, flexing his muscles and moving his arms a little way away from his body, but the trick was usually no trick at all - just amazing agility. Of course, being an illusionist Houdini wasn't averse to cheating a little - he often used to carry a small blade with him. As the man himself said, 'a short piece cut from the end of the rope will never be missed'. Houdini also needed a knife when being bound in an unfamiliar straightjacket - his own were often 'modified'.
Houdini's water tricks were his most dramatic, with posters promising that death was only one mistake away. This was largely true, as although Houdini had methods of escaping, had something gone wrong he would have drowned before his assistants could help him. Houdini had many variants of the theme of escaping from an underwater prison. One involved him being confined in a modified milk can, which was then filled with water, sealed with chains and concealed from the audience. The lid was specially modified to allow Houdini to open it from the inside, but it was still a highly risky trick. He also performed a variation on the trick with a coffin filled with earth - claiming that the coffin would be useful should anything happen to him while he was on tour.
The most famous water trick, though, was the Chinese4 Water Torture. Houdini would be bound in chains, lowered upside down into a glass tank of water which would then be concealed from the audience, usually with a curtain. Several tension-filled minutes would pass before the curtains would be drawn back to reveal an empty tank, and Houdini alive and well, if a little wet. Popular belief is that he died during this trick, thanks to the 1953 George Marshall film Houdini, starring Tony Curtis as the man himself. In fact, Houdini wasn't killed doing this trick, although like the Milk Can trick it carried very real risks, first requiring him to escape the chains and then open the modified lid of the tank.
Houdini the Publicist
Houdini had a great talent for self promotion, and in an age where magicians were always The Amazing, The Spectacular or The Magnificent, Houdini managed to stand out and become the most famous magician in the world.
He also did his best to attract attention wherever he went. When on tour he frequently used to challenge the local police to do their best to restrain him, and his inevitable escape would ensure that his performances sold out. Houdini also used to offer varying sums of money during his public appearances to people who could successfully restrain him, to people who could escape from the same situation he had or even to people who could explain how he did certain tricks.
When touring Australia, Houdini hit upon an even better way of getting publicity - he became the first man to fly a plane in Australia, buying, dismantling, transporting and then rebuilding a German biplane. It was said that he learnt to drive especially to get himself to the airfield, after which he never drove again5.
In 1918 Houdini starred in a 15-episode serial called The Master Mystery, and recognised the publicity value of starring in films. In 1921 he set up the Houdini Pictures Corporation, producing and starring in films which showcased his ability. Although Houdini's involvement in the company was short-lived6, the company itself is still afloat today - after a long period of inaction it is now producing magic-themed films.
Houdini also published many books on how he did his tricks, keeping people's interest alive by letting them a little way into his world, while increasing speculation about how the other tricks were accomplished. Even after his death his wife Bess continued to pay a publicist to keep Houdini in the spotlight.
The Man Who Fooled Houdini
In 1919 Dai Vernon7 managed to fool Houdini with The Ambitious Card. This is a trick in which a card is selected, marked and put into the middle of the deck, only to appear on the top. Houdini reputedly could not explain how the trick was done even after seeing it eight times, and for the next 20 years Vernon called himself 'The Man Who Fooled Houdini'.
When his mother died in 1913 Houdini was desperate to contact her. Spiritualism was very much in fashion at the time, and many prominent figures believed in the ability of mediums to contact the dead - including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was to become a lifelong friend of Houdini's. However, upon attending meetings Houdini saw many tricks being used, and became angry at what he viewed as the exploitation of people's grief. He was to spend the rest of his life as a firm opposer of spiritualism.
Houdini eventually came to believe that no séance was anything more than trickery. He began incorporating these tricks into his act - sometimes devoting nearly half his show to a spiritualism theme, and even attending séances in disguise to expose fraudulent mediums.
Despite his anger at the Spiritualist frauds, Houdini continued to believe in some kind of afterlife. He announced that he fully intended to come back if he was able to do so, and even devised a ten word code which he gave to his wife. After his death many mediums claimed to have been contacted by him, but crucially none were able to recite the code.
Houdini's death itself is somewhat mysterious. As has already been mentioned, he did not die during the Chinese Water Torture, although he may have died as a result of a different trick. Houdini died in 1926, at the age of 52, of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix. This may have been caused by a well-meaning member of the public punching him in the stomach - Houdini was fond of showing off his ability to withstand blows to the stomach in informal settings. This time, however, he didn't have time to tense his stomach muscles, and there is speculation that the punch may have been the trigger that ruptured his appendix.
And perhaps as a final way of attracting a little more attention regarding spirits and spooks, Houdini managed to die on Hallowe'en and was buried in the coffin he used in his acts.