Harry Houdini affected all facets the magic in America and was commemorated as the world’s greatest escape artist. He rose from humble beginnings to come to be a famous magician and illusionist.

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Throughout his life, harry Houdini declared that he to be born April 6, 1874 in Appleton, Wisconsin. He started his expert career at period 17 act magic shows prior to civic groups, in music halls, in ~ sideshows, and at brand-new York’s Coney Island amusement park.

*Houdini handcuffed come a ladder -- photograph courtesy Outagamie County historic Society


A biographical essay by employee at the Appleton public Library

This essay is based mostly on material noted in the story Harry Houdini by Adam Woog (Lucent Books, 1995).

Early Life

Throughout his life, harry Houdini claimed that he was born April 6, 1874 in Appleton, Wisconsin. In fact, he to be born with the surname Ehrich Weisz on march 24, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary. His father to be Mayer Samuel Weisz, a spiritual teacher, whose first wife had passed away in childbirth. Ehrich to be a kid of his second wife, Cecilia Steiner. Exactly how many children the pair had is unclear, although 6 of their children survived to adulthood. Hoping for a far better life because that his family, Mayer emigrated come America and adjusted the order of his last surname to Weiss. Through a friend, he obtained a job serving as a rabbi to a tiny Jewish congregation in Appleton, v an annual salary the $750. His household is believed to have adhered to him to America in 1876, when Ehrich to be a toddler. Stories of Ehrich performing magic and escape tricks if in Appleton have never been verified. His mother claimed that together a boy he learned to open locked cabinets to get at pies and also sweets she had actually baked, but the story might be much more legend than fact.

Mayer Weiss’s spiritual views were thought about old-fashioned by the Appleton congregation and also after a couple of years he was dismissed from his post. The family moved come Milwaukee when Ehrich was about eight, however times were difficult. Native a young age, Ehrich sold newspapers and shined pair of shoes to assist support the family. When not working, Ehrich engaged in athletic tasks and exercised acrobatic stunts. Ehrich asserted October 28, 1883 together the day of his very first appearance prior to an audience. The ripe year-old carry out on a trapeze hung from a tree while wearing red socks made by his mother. The billed himself together “Ehrich, the Prince of the Air.”

At age 12, Ehrich ran away from home by to dance a freight car. The train take it him to Kansas City, but where else he may have actually gone, and also what that did throughout that time, is not known. A year later he re-joined his family, now living in new York City however still struggling come survive. Ehrich ongoing to work at a range of jobs, including messenger, necktie cutter, and also photographer’s assistant. At around this time, Ehrich and his younger brothers Theo started to go after an interest in magic. Ehrich’s idol to be the great French magician Robert-Houdin. When Ehrich began performing magic before tiny groups, he added an “i” to the end of his hero’s name and called self “Houdini.” The “Harry” is most most likely an American variation of his childhood nickname Ehrie.

Professional Career

Harry Houdini started his expert career at age 17 doing magic shows before civic groups, in music halls, at sideshows, and at brand-new York’s Coney Island amusement park, wherein he occasionally performed 20 mirrors each day. Because that a time he functioned with his brothers Theo together The Houdini Brothers. This readjusted when bother met Beatrice Raymond, a teenaged singer and dancer who was also attempting a job in display business. Harry and Bess married in 1894 and Bess joined the act as Harry’s brand-new partner. (Theo started a solo career as a magician under the surname Hardeen.) Harry and also Bess remained devoted companions for the rest of his life. He depended on her to care for him and also handle the necessities that life. Harry gave her the credit transaction for his success, and developed the habit of writing her a love note every day.

In 1895, the Houdinis join the Welsh brother Circus for six months. Harry did magic, Bess sang and danced, and together lock performed a trick referred to as “Metamorphosis,” in which castle switched places in a locked trunk. Not satisfied v the little scale the the act, Harry continued to work on new tricks and to develop his speak voice and showmanship. He additionally became an skilled at handcuffs. Getting here in a new town, Houdini would claim the ability to escape from any handcuffs noted by the neighborhood police. His easy escapes provided excellent publicity for his shows. Houdini available $100 to anyone who noted handcuffs native which he could not escape, however he never had to pay. With his increasingly complex escapes and also his shrewd use of publicity, Houdini became a headliner on the vaudeville circuit, playing in cities throughout the country. Not satisfied v that short level of fame, however, Houdini determined to gamble by acquisition his act to Europe.

In 1900, Harry and Bess sailed to England through no bookings and only sufficient money to survive a week. Houdini to be able to acquire an engagement in ~ a London theater, yet his breakthrough came once he properly broke cost-free after being wrapped around a pillar and also handcuffed at Scotland Yard. The public from that escape led to the theatre to expand Houdini’s booking. His fame quickly spread and he eventually played over there for 6 months. Sold-out engagements conveniently followed in Germany and also then throughout Europe. Where he went, Houdini dubbed upon neighborhood police come restrain him, yet he continually confounded the authorities and escaped. To increase publicity, he likewise jumped right into rivers if handcuffed and also chained. Permitting the suspense come build, Houdini stayed underwater lengthy after countless observers were particular he couldn’t survive, just to feather up, waving the chains end his head.

By the time Houdini returned to the United states in 1905, he was an worldwide celebrity. Amongst the stunts performed come publicize his American appearances, Houdini escaped indigenous the prison cell that held the assassin of president James Garfield, squirmed from a straitjacket while hanging upside down, and broke cost-free from a pack crate that had been nailed shut and immersed underwater. This showmanship additionally extended to his act. As a continual feature of his performances, Houdini was shackled and lowered into an oversize milk deserve to filled through water and then covert by a curtain. Despite he was typically able come escape in three minutes, Houdini frequently stayed behind the curtain for up to a fifty percent hour, make his re-appearance every the an ext dramatic. ~ above one chance in England, Houdini permitted the milk can to be filled v beer rather than water. As someone who never ever drank alcohol, Houdini was not supplied to the results of the beer and also had come be pulled to security by his assistants. The was among his rare failures.

Houdini the Man

Houdini was able to perform his difficult feats by remaining in fantastic physical and mental condition. He propelled himself relentlessly. To construct his capacity for hold his breath, Houdini mounted an oversize bathtub in his home so the he might practice regularly. Through substantial training, he to be able use his left hand almost as well as his right. While casually chatting with friends, he would carry out card and also coin tricks without looking in ~ his hands, or tie and untie knots in pieces of rope with his feet. Established to continue to be on height of the entertain field, Houdini refined approaches he had already mastered and continually developed brand-new and an ext daring escapes.

As his call grew, Houdini assumed a leadership duty among other magicians. He served as chairman of the culture of American Magicians and founded the Magician’s club in London. Houdini to be generous with other magicians, but jealous the anyone who attempted to duplicate his escapes. He created books and magazine posts that revealed few of magic’s simpler tricks, but carefully guarded his own secrets. Though recognized to it is in friendly and warm, Houdini had actually a huge ego, could be touchy and also petty at times, and also frequently displayed a volatile tempter come his assistants.

In 1909, simply six years after the light brothers verified that human trip was possible, Houdini ended up being fascinated v airplanes. That bought his very own plane, and learned to journey a car solely in order to acquire to the plane faster. In 1910, he became the first to successfully fly a airplane in Australia. After the flight, however, his interest ended and he never piloted a plane or journey a automobile again. Houdini was also a good collector, with comprehensive collections that locks, magic memorabilia, autographs, historical items and, especially, books. Houdini collected so many books that he rental a full-time librarian to treatment for them, and also traveled v hundreds at a time.

When America gone into the very first World battle in 1917, Houdini tried to enlist in the army, however was rejected as being also old at period 43. Unable to fight, Houdini preformed free shows for business men, during which he would create five dissension gold piece from the air and also toss them to the audience. He claimed to have dispersed $7,000 in the manner. Houdini additionally organized mirrors in assistance of Liberty binding to help finance the war.

After the war, Houdini ended up being an actor, appearing in a 13-part quiet film serial dubbed The grasp of Mystery. The series was sufficiently effective that Houdini was hired to make two function films. When those movies performed poorly at the box office, Houdini blamed the movie agency and choose to do his own movies. He created a production company with his brothers Theo, and also controlled every element of his next two films, The male from Beyond and also Haldane of the mystery Service. Like his previously movies, castle featured daring stunts and also escapes, but additionally like the previously movies, they were not successful. Though few of the activity sequences were thrilling, critics panned Houdini’s wooden acting and also ineffective love scenes. He to be so awkward at having to kiss one more woman onscreen the he gave his wife 5 dollars every time he did so. Accepting defeat, Houdini provided up on the movie business.

When no traveling, Harry and also Bess stayed in a big house castle purchased in brand-new York. The pair had no children, but Harry’s mom lived with them. Houdini was really close to his mother, and also her death in 1913 to be the best tragedy the his life. For weeks after her death, that made virtually daily visits to the cemetery, sometimes lying on her grave to speak to her. “My mom was whatever to me,” he claimed in a speech to the Magician’s Club. “It seemed the end of the human being when she to be taken indigenous me…All desire for fame and fortune had actually gone from me. Ns was alone v my bitter agony…” Eventually, Houdini was able to return to work, but he continued to mourn his mom for the rest of his life.


Partly as a an outcome of his mother’s death, Houdini renewed very early interest in spiritualism, the so-called capacity to interact with the dead. Houdini wanted to believe that such interaction was possible, yet after countless years performing magic, he was familiar with the methods employed by phony spiritualists come fool the public. Passing increase better-paying opportunities, Houdini lectured ~ above the subject of fraudulent spiritualists and also unmasked plenty of in the cities he visited. In his act, Houdini demonstrated many of the tricks provided by spiritualists and also wrote a best-selling book, A Magician amongst the Spirits, which comprehensive their deceptions. Houdini had a standing sell of $10,000 come anyone who could produce a psychic result that can not be reproduced by herbal means, but no one ever gathered the money. Houdini therefore strongly protest the phony spiritualists that he testified against them before a committee of Congress. “Please know that, emphatically, ns am not attacking a religion,” that said. “I respect every actual believer in spiritualism or any type of other religion…But this point they speak to spiritualism, wherein a tool intercommunicates v the dead, is a fraud from begin to finish...In thirty-five years, I have actually never seen one actual medium.”

Because the his interest in spiritualism, Houdini occurred a friendship through Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, writer of the Sherlock Holmes stories, who was a for sure believer in spiritualism. Conan Doyle was persuaded that psychic powers enabled Houdini to perform his stunning escapes, and refused to expropriate Houdini’s denials and also explanations. Eventually their disagreement end spiritualism and also psychic ability led come an estrangement. The friendship ended as they assaulted each various other publicly.

The last Days

In the autumn of 1926, Houdini take it a brand-new show top top the road. It was an elaborate, 2 and fifty percent hour performance, requiring Houdini to it is in on stage practically the whole time. The show featured magic, a section debunking spiritualism, and escapes native a coffin and also a Chinese water torture, i beg your pardon had come to be one of Houdini’s most well known stunts. In the Chinese water torture escape, Houdini’s hands and also feet to be bound and also he to be lowered, upside down, into a glass tank filled through water, which was then securely closed. In mid-October, the tourism took a poor turn in Providence, Rhode Island once Bess contract a instance of food poisoning. In spite of the presence of a nurse, Houdini was deeply worried around his wife and stayed awake every night at she side. By the time they reached the following stop, Albany, new York, Houdini had actually gone 3 nights there is no sleep, his only rest coming from quick naps. Then, throughout the Albany show, the framework holding his leg in ar for the Chinese water torture jerked, leading to his ankle to break. Offered to performing with smaller injuries, Houdini refused medical care and insisted on perfect the show, however was awake all night indigenous the pain. The tour however proceeded come the next stop in Montreal, Canada.

Ignoring a doctor’s advice to stay off his foot, Houdini stuck to his schedule, consisting of a great at mcgill University. When there, Houdini met an arts student who presented him v a map out he had actually made of the great escape artist. Houdini invited the college student to visit him backstage before the afternoon performance of his show. The next day, the student and two friends to be chatting with Houdini in his dressing room as soon as one the the students, one amateur boxer, request if it to be true that Houdini can withstand any type of blow come his body over the waist, not included his face. Houdini admitted that it to be true and, regardless of his weakened state due to his injury and also lack that sleep, gave the student permission to test him. Houdini began to climb from the couch where he to be seated, but before he had time come tighten his abdomen muscles, the student punched him 3 times in the stomach. Houdini fell earlier on the couch, his challenge white. Although in pain, Houdini perform his display that afternoon. The pain was worse in the evening, yet Houdini refused to above a doctor.

The following day, October 24, in spite of chills and sweating, Houdini perform two an ext shows before the company moved on come Detroit, Michigan. As soon as there, Houdini finally saw a doctor, who urged that he immediately go to the hospital. Houdini refuse and, despite a temperature that 102, walk on to provide his usual performance the night. Just after completing the show did Houdini ultimately agree to go into the hospital. When doctors operated, they found that his appendix had actually burst, resulting in peritonitis, a generally fatal disease in this age before the breakthrough of antibiotics. One more operation was later on performed, but Houdini to be given little hope of surviving. Bess, meanwhile, still experiencing from food poisoning, was checked right into the exact same hospital. Believing that was close to death, Houdini reportedly common a mystery message through Bess come be provided as proof the he was connecting with she from beyond the grave. She would understand it was really him if she heard the words “Rosabelle, believe.” “Rosabelle” to be the surname of a song that Bess had sung at Coney Island in the period when she met Houdini.

Houdini’s brother Theo to be at his side once Houdini speak his last words: “I’m worn down of fighting…I guess this thing is going to acquire me.” take care of Houdini died on the afternoon of Halloween, October 31, 1926.

Houdini’s funeral was hosted in brand-new York City, where thousands of mourners inside wall the roads as the funeral procession passed. A representative of the culture of American Magicians damaged a wand at the services, start a brand-new tradition that has actually been offered for society members ever before since. Houdini was buried at the Machpelah Cemetery in long Island, brand-new York, beside his parents. In ~ his head was placed a pillow include his mother’s letters.

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Houdini’s collection of over 5,000 publications was bequeathed to the Library the Congress. His brother Theo received many of his magic equipment and memorabilia. Theo continued to occupational as a magician under the surname Hardeen; he died in 1945. The mass of Houdini’s estate saw Bess, who, after payment Houdini’s extensive debts, had enough to live comfortably. For plenty of years Bess make the efforts to call Houdini v a séance top top the anniversary the his death, yet died in 1943 there is no succeeding.