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In the late 19th century, a young man by the name of Erich Weiss decided to pursue a career in magic and illusion.
To honor his favorite magician, he took the name The Great Houdini.
He became one of the most successful magicians in history and also found success in motion pictures and aviation.
It all ended with his untimely death at the age of 52, the cause of which is still debated to this day.
Learn more about the legend of the Harry Houdini on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
The man the world would know as Harry Houdini was born Erich Weisz in 1874 to a Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary.
As a child, his family immigrated to the United States in 1878, where his father took a position as a rabbi in the small town of Appleton, Wisconsin.
More on that in a bit.
Four years later, his father lost his job, and the family moved to Milwaukee, fell destitute, and five years later the family moved to New York City.
When Erich was nine years old in Milwaukee, he began his career in performing for the public when he appeared as a trapeze artist known as “Ehrich, the Prince of the Air.”
In 1890, he showed an interest in magic, and he gave himself the stage name “Harry Houdini.” The name was taken in honor of a French magician he respected by the name of Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, who was considered to be the father of modern magic and illusion.
He mistakenly thought that adding an “i” at the end of word, turning Houdin into Houdini, meant “belonging to” in French.
His first name “Harry” he said, was a nod to the American magician Harry Keller.
When he started performing magic, he wasn’t doing the type of act that would make him famous. He did some traveling with a circus, and performed vaudeville shows. His initial magic consisted of simple card tricks and sleight of hand.
He met his wife, Bess Rahner while performing magic in Coney Island.
As a sleight-of-hand magician, he was competent but wasn’t great, despite the fact that he would bill himself as the “king of cards.”
In the late 1890s, he began to shift his focus from sleight of hand and cards to escape acts at the behest of vaudeville promoter Martin Beck.
He became particularly adept at getting out of handcuffs.
In 1895 he and his wife debuted his “Metamorphosis” act. While other magicians did the metamorphosis act, the use of his wife in the act made it different and more attention-grabbing than other acts.
The “Metamorphosis” act involved Houdini being put into handcuffs with his hands behind his back, then put into a closed bag, and then in a locked and sealed box, which was put inside a cabinet.
Mrs. Houdini would draw a curtain, clap three times, and then the curtain would be opened by Harry Houdini, and Mrs. Houdini would be inside the box.
His big break came in 1899 when Beck booked him on a nationwide tour of the largest vaudeville theaters. One of the reasons why his tour was so successful was because he would stage escapes from local jails after being searched by the police. They were huge promotional events for his shows and were covered by local newspapers.
He would also allow members of the audience to tie him up or put him in handcuffs, from which he would escape.
He was such a hit on his American tour that in 1900, he was booked to tour England.
He performed another escape in London, this time at Scotland Yard and in front of the founder of the British Secret Service Bureau, William Melville. He escaped from handcuffs that were put on by Melville, which left him baffled as to how it did it.
His Scotland Yard stunt garnered so much attention that he sold out the Alhambra Theater in London for six months. On one occasion, the London Mirror newspaper tested him with a specially designed set of handcuffs, which he managed to free himself from in under an hour.
He became known as the “king of handcuffs” and the “Celebrated Police Baffler.”
From England, he then went to continental Europe, where he became just as big of a hit.
In Cologne, Germany, a police officer accused Houdini of being a fraud and bribing officials to get free. Houdini sued him for defamation and won the case when he demonstrated his skills by opening the judge’s safe.
In Moscow, he was stripped and placed inside a Siberian prison wagon, from which he managed to escape.
In 1904, Houdini returned to the United States a rich man and purchased an expensive brownstone in Harlem.
Back in the United States, he launched a magazine, wrote an article trashing his namesake Robert-Houdin, and continued to entertain crowds around the country.
In addition to his jailbreaks and handcuff escapes, he would also break free from straight jackets while suspended upside down in front of crowds.
In 1908, he introduced his most daring escape to date, the milk jug escape.
In the milk jug escape, Houdini had a large metal milk jug on stage filled with water. The jug would be displayed to the audience to show that there were no holes anywhere on the jug. Houdini would then be handcuffed in the front, submerged in the jug, and the cap of the jug was placed on top and locked.
A curtain would then be raised in front of the jug to hide it, and a few seconds later, the curtain would drop, and Houdini would be outside the jug with his hands freed.
In 1912, during a performance in Berlin, he introduced a new trick called the Chinese Water Torture Cell.
The Chinese Water Torture Cell was a tall box made out of glass and steel such that the audience could see inside. He would then be placed inside the box, which was filled with water, handcuffed, upside down, and then the box was locked at the top.
He actually did his first performance of the Chinese Water Torture Cell in 1911 in London as part of a One Man Show with an audience of one person. This was so he could get a copyright on the trick, unlike his milk jug escape, which soon had imitators doing the trick.
Some of his escapes were, in fact, tricks. If you are so inclined, you can find videos online that show the secret to the milk jug escape.
However, much of what he did was simply a matter of pure physicality and skill. He really could break out of many handcuffs and locks. He was a master of lock picking.
He really could get out of a straightjacket. It is a skill that you can master if you practice it.
He was a natural athlete and was incredibly strong and fit, and he had the ability to hold his breath for several minutes.
Houdini, in addition to being the highest-paid vaudeville act in the country, also had many other interests.
He was actually an aviation pioneer. In 1909 he purchased his own airplane and took it with him while on tour in Australia. He flew his plane in Australia on March 18, 1910, thinking he was the first person ever to take a powered flight in the country.
In reality, he was the third person, as someone had done it three months earlier.
He also had a career in motion pictures.
He began in 1906 by filming himself performing outdoor escapes and then showing the films during his vaudeville shows.
Over the years, he had several small roles and movies made about his escapes, but in 1919 he got his first role in a featured film called The Grim Game. In it, he plays a young man who is wrongfully jailed for murder and must escape to save his fiance.
In 1920 he starred in Terror Island, and after that, he started his own production company, the “Houdini Picture Corporation.”
The company made several pictures, but he gave up in 1923 due to a lack of success.
He also turned his attention towards debunking psychics and spiritualists.
Because he had a background in magic, he knew the tricks that spiritualists used to claim to talk to the dead and take advantage of people in mourning.
He joined with Scientific American magazine to offer a cash prize to anyone who could prove that they had supernatural abilities.
He exposed several notable spiritualists as frauds, most significantly, the popular Mina Crandon.
He was also the president of the Society of American Magicians and president of Martinka & Co., America’s oldest magic company, which still exists today.
Before he died, he created a pact with his wife that if he died, he would try to contact her after death with a special code that they agreed upon: “Rosabelle believe.”
Not all of his escapes went off flawlessly. He was once buried alive in a stunt that almost suffocated him. Likewise, in 1915, he allowed himself to be locked inside the carcass of a beached whale, where he also almost suffocated.
Harry Houdini’s death has been shrouded in mystery since the day it happened.
The events which led up to his demise started on his tour on October 11, 1926, in Albany, New York. While being shackled to the Chinese Water Torture Cell, a faulty piece of equipment, hit his leg and fractured his left ankle.
Then on October 22, he was in Montreal, where he gave a lecture at McGill University. Later that evening, he invited several students backstage at his performance.
Houdini had long been know for his ability to take a punch to the stomach. Backstage at the show, one of the students, J. Gordon Whitehead, asked Houdini about this.
He was lying down on a couch at the time, resting his ankle. When he told the student yes, he repeatedly punched him in the stomach several times in quick succession.
The trick for Houdini to take a punch to the stomach was that he had to prepare himself and tense up his abdominal muscles. However, this time he wasn’t prepared
Houdini performed that night in pain, and the pain only worsened the next several days. The stomach pains continued, and his temperature rose to 104 degrees Fahrenheit, or 40 degrees Celcius.
He saw a doctor who suggested he had appendicitis and that he should go to a hospital.
He arrived in Detroit on October 24 in pain and managed to struggle through a performance at the Garrick Theater. As soon as the final curtain fell, he collapsed. It was his last performance ever.
After the show, he was rushed to a hospital for an emergency appendectomy. However, when the doctors opened him up, they found that his appendix had burst several days before.
The damage had already been done, and he was suffering from a massive infection.
He managed to hold on for another week and passed away on Halloween at the age of 52.
The debate surrounding his death had to do with how much his getting punched in the stomach had to do with his appendix bursting.
After his death, for the next ten years, his widow held a seance where she tried to contact Houdini to receive their secret phrase.
Since his death, the legacy of Houdini has only grown. The collection of Houdini memorabilia has become a big business. Today the world’s largest collection of Houdini memorabilia is owned by the magician David Copperfield. He has an entire warehouse in Las Vegas for his collection.
At the start of the episode, I mentioned that Harry Houdini first lived in Appleton, Wisconsin, when his family first immigrated to the United States.
Today, Appleon has a Houdini museum, the town square is called Houdini Plaza, and there is a Houdini historical walking tour you can take, which visits several of the buildings which were relevant to his family when he was younger.
The reason why I bring this up is that the walking tour and the bronze plaques around town was developed by…..me.
I grew up in the same town that Harry Houdini did, and I was assigned to work on the Houdini walking tour when I was in college one summer, working for the city planning department.
So that is my little personal link to Houdini.
Almost a century after the death of Houdini, he is still probably the most famous magician in the world. His name has become a euphemism for someone disappearing or pulling off an escape.
His performance and his creativity in the area of magic have inspired generations of magicians and will continue to do so for generations to come.
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
I have some news for those of you who listen to the show on Spotify.
I’ve been reading reviews in this segment, mostly from Apple Podcasts, because you can leave reviews there.
If you are one of the many Spotify listeners, you’ve only been able to leave a rating on the app, and thank you to all of you who have done that.
However, Spotify has now created the ability to leave comments on individual episodes. For any episode you listen to, you’ll see a question that says, “What did you think about this episode?” if you are listening on a Spotify smartphone app.
You can leave a comment about any particular episode or about the show in general.
However, given the way it works on the back end, I’m probably only going to see comments left on recent episodes because otherwise, I’d have to go check almost 1000 episodes.
Just as an example, here are some of the Spotify comments left on the recent episode of the Knights of Malta.
I loved it! Fascinating! I’m also a little bit embarrassed about how long I spent trying to memorize the full name of the Knights of Malta.
André Siqueira Cazza de Madeira
As always on point, factual, objective and well delivered. Thanks a bunch (listener from Brazil)
Brief, concise, informative, well produced and (importantly) interesting. Another great episode, thank you for all the work.
So, if you listen to the show on Spotify, you can now have your reviews of the show or of an individual episode read on the show.