Perhaps the most famous escape artist and magician ever, Harry Houdini and his life, tricks, and amazing feats have been remembered and studied for years. He introduced a number of death-defying acts that made him famous all around the world.
Harry Houdini was born in 1874 as Ehrich Weiss, but changed his name to Harry Houdini after beginning his career as a magician. Although he was born in Budapest, Hungary and moved with his family to Appleton, Wisconsin when he was four, he actually claimed, in a variety of interviews, to have been born in Wisconsin, perhaps hoping it would further his magic career. He moved to New York City with his family at the age of thirteen.
Houdini was limber and athletic from a young age; as a child he was a star cross-country runner and at just ten years old, he became a trapeze artist known as Ehrich, the Prince of the Air.
Houdini’s Career as a Magician
At the age of twenty, he became a professional magician, and this is when he changed his name to Harry Houdini. This was based on the French magician Jean EugÃ¨ne Robert-Houdin, whom he admired. “Harry” most likely came from his nickname as a child, Ehrie.
Despite the fame he would go on to receive, his acts were not well-received at first. He mostly performed where he could, in places like museums and circus side shows until he found his niche with escape acts. His manager encouraged him to focus solely on escape artistry, which he did. Within a matter of months, he was very well-known and got his big break touring Europe.
In Europe, he was known as the Handcuff King for his ability to break out of handcuffs. During this routine, he would have local police restrain him with all manner of shackles and then escape. His other tricks and feats included escaping from a prison transport van and breaking into a judge’s safe. He was the highest paid entertainer in Europe, making approximately $2,000 per week.
Once back into the US, news of Harry’s success caught on and his act was widely popular. He would hang from a rope in the middle of the street and free himself from jails, handcuffs, chains, ropes, and straitjackets.
Eventually, his acts became death-defying when he began freeing himself of shackles and escaping from locked, water-filled tanks. His most famous act was the Chinese Water Torture act, in which he was hung upside down in a cabinet made from glass and steel that was filled with water, which required him to hold his breath for over three minutes. Some say he died while attempting to escape this act, but this has been refuted.
There have been a number of theories in regards to Houdini’s death, including poisoning and complications from blows to the stomach. Houdini died of acute appendicitis on Halloween in 1926, when he was fifty-two years old. He had been feeling ill for several days prior to his last performance, which took place a week before his death. During this last performance in Detroit, he performed despite a fever of 104 degrees. He was survived by his wife Bess, who was also his assistant for many years.
Harry Houdini was a great escape artist and magician who captivated audiences nearly 100 years ago and created a legacy that continues to live on today.