Harry Houdini was born in Budapest, Hungary, on March 24th 1874. The name on his birth certificate was Erik Weisz, although he spelled his name Ehrich Weiss.
At the age of four, his family moved to the United States and aged 10 he made his performing debut, doing a trapeze act billed as “Ehrich, the prince of the air”.
By the age of twenty, Weiss was working as a professional magician and the name Harry Houdini was born. The name was chosen to reflect two of the main influences in his life. Harry, was a tribute to Harry Kellar, the great American stage magician. Houdini was a reference to the French magician Robert Houdin. Adding the i to the end of Houdin is the french way of saying “like Houdin”.
Initially, Harry Houdini’s career met with little success, but in 1893 within three weeks he met and married Bess Rahner, who would work as his stage assistant for the rest of his performing career.
Disillusioned with his lack of success, Houdini experimented with many different types of magic, including escape acts which draw on all the childhood experience he had developed as a locksmith’s apprentice. Finally, his big break arrived in 1899 when he met Martin Beck who booked him to perform is handcuffs act on the Orpheum Vaudeville circuit. Word of his amazing abilities soon spread and by 1900 he was performing in front of packed audiences in both Europe and America where he became known as “The Handcuff King”.
As part of his act, Houdini would challenge the local police force to strip him, search him, shackle him and lock him in jail. He would then promptly escape, much to everyone’s continued amazement. During one publicity stunt in Moscow, he managed to escape from a prison van bound for Siberia. The story goes that if he couldn’t get out, he would have had to travel all the way to Siberia where the only key was kept. It goes without saying that Houdini managed to escape long before the van left Moscow.
In Cologne, a police officer claimed that Houdini only managed to escape because of bribery. He sued, and won the case when he opened the judge’s safe.
For the next 10 years Houdini performed to massive audiences, escaping from handcuffs, chains, straitjackets, ropes and jails. To further spice up his act, he often made his escape while hanging from a rope high above the ground in full view of his audience.
However, by 1908, due to competitors and dwindling audiences, Harry had to improve his act, so he started escaping from water filled containers. The prospect of imminent death thrilled audiences and made him more popular than ever. His most famous act is the Chinese water torture cell, which involved him being shackled and suspended upside down in a locked glass tank completely filled with water. He had to hold his breath more than three minutes to allow his escape.
Throughout his career, Houdini revealed some of his tricks to fellow magicians. He explained how many locks and handcuffs could be opened with strategically applied force. He also explained how he could swallow various items, such as keys, pins and lockpicks to help with his escape and regurgitate them at will. In fact, one of his best tricks involved swallowing a succession of needles and a piece of thread and pulling it out with all the needles threaded through the cotton.
He also explained how to escape from a straitjacket, which involved gaining wiggle room by enlarging his chest and shoulders and holding his arms slightly away from his body when the jacket was being fitted. The extra space, and the fact that he could dislocate his shoulders, allowed him to escape from the straitjacket within a few minutes.
Harry Houdini died on October 31st in 1926 at the age of 52.