Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this blog post, Duncan searches old newspapers to learn about the remarkable life of the great magician and escape artist Harry Houdini.
As this 1915 newspaper article declared: “Everyone who reads the newspapers and magazines is familiar with the name and reputation of Houdini.” The statement was fitting then and is still fitting a hundred years later. Houdini’s power to captivate an audience lives on. Even my 13-year-old daughter, peering over my shoulder as I found images for this blog article, knew who Houdini was.
Harry Houdini was born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Austria-Hungary. His family immigrated to America and became a success story. Young Weisz was attracted to magic and performing. As early as age 9 he was performing tricks as a trapeze artist as “Erik, Prince of the Air.” He ran away from home to pursue his dreams, but was shortly after reconciled with his family. He continued to perform in seedy beer gardens with his brother Theodore (later known as Dash Houdeen).
Houdini’s Wife & Mother
He met Bess Rahner while performing. After their marriage, she replaced his brother Dash as Houdini’s stage assistant. Bess was never able to have children and spent her married life “starving and starring” with Houdini. She was no shrinking violet herself and the two had a lively relationship. Throughout all this, he adored his wife and remained faithful to her.
His two great loves were his wife and his mother. Houdini had been raised as a poor immigrant so it is not surprising that he wanted to shower his mother with the nice things in life once he had the means. He ostentatiously did this when he reportedly purchased a dress made for Queen Victoria for his mother to wear.
Erik Weisz took the name of Harry Houdini after his hero Robert-Houdin. Harry was obsessed with this master magician and he read everything he could get his hands on. Harry was an ardent student of magic and his collection of books on the subject are now a part of the Library of Congress. Robert-Houdin was considered the “Shakespeare of magicians” and was an obvious choice for a childhood hero. However, as Harry studied and learned more about Houdin and magic, he discovered that many of the claims made by Houdin were fraudulent. Many of the tricks that Houdin claimed were his own were actually created by others many years earlier. Harry felt that it was immoral for Houdin to make false claims. Eventually, Harry exposed Houdin as a fraud in a book titled The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin.
Because of his disillusionment over his hero Houdin, Harry spent significant time, energy, and money in uniting magicians. He felt that doing so would help regulate the industry, so to speak, and help prevent fraudulent activity and intellectual theft.
Spiritualists Are Frauds
Of particular concern to Harry were spiritualists. The spiritualists claimed they could talk to the dead. Harry felt this was a fraudulent claim, and he spent considerable energy trying to stamp it out. His efforts drew the wrath of many of his contemporaries including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Harry made a plan with his wife to prove that spiritualists were frauds. He announced that he would give a passcode (known only to his wife) to the medium after his death if there was any way for him to communicate it. For 10 years after he died, his wife held an exposition séance to show that the medium could not provide the passcode. Others continued this tradition for many years.
Harry Handcuff Houdini
Houdini got his start with a handcuff trick. His stage name at the time reflected this: “Harry Handcuff Houdini.” He would travel around challenging the local police to lock him up and let him try to escape. Involving the local officials was a success and he soon learned to include even more groups. To get the local people involved, he would stage challenges like the two advertised below.
Master Escape Artist
As the master of escape, he continued to stun audiences. He performed the milk can escape, where he was sealed into a large milk can filled with water. This trick was further enhanced by locking the can into a wooden crate, or having it padlocked shut. He also performed the Chinese water torture trick where he was lowered upside down into a tank of water. His feet were bound and sometimes a cage was inserted into the tank that restricted his movement. This led to the straitjacket escape where he was suspended above the crowd hanging from a crane by his feet.
He even tried being buried alive. This, he discovered, was more challenging than first thought. He was buried six feet under, but the weight of the earth was too heavy. Houdini had to be rescued after clawing out just far enough to expose his hand before passing out.
Houdini even learned to fly and was one of the first people to fly in Australia. He starred in several movies including one called The Grim Game. Two biplanes collided during filming, although no one was killed, and the script was rewritten to incorporate this dramatic crash scene.
Houdini’s Death by Blows?
The seemingly invincible Houdini was taken down by the smallest of acts. Controversy surrounds the circumstances, but it appears that J. Gordon Whitehead asked to test Houdini’s strength by punching him in the stomach. Houdini was reclining on a couch and may not have been prepared for the punches to the gut. The force may have caused his appendix to burst. Houdini rejected medical attention and continued with his performance. He persisted in feverish pain for two days before he finally relented to receive medical attention for his appendicitis. By then it was too late and he died in Detroit on Halloween, 31 October 1926, at the young age of 52.
Houdini’s funeral was held in New York City on 4 November 1926, and he was buried in the Machpelah Cemetery in Glendale, Queens. The crest of the Society of American Magicians is part of his gravesite memorial.
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