Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini (born Erik Weisz, later Ehrich Weiss, a.k.a. Harry Weiss; March 24, 1874Template:Ndash October 31, 1926) was a Hungarian-born American magician and escapologist, stunt performer, actor and film producer noted for his sensational escape acts. He was also a skeptic who set out to expose frauds purporting to be supernatural phenomena.[1]

Early lifeEdit


Harry Houdini was born as Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary, on March 24, 1874.[2] His parents were Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weisz (1829–1892) and his wife, Cecelia (née Steiner; 1841–1913). Houdini was one of seven children: Herman M. (1863–1885); Nathan J. (1870–1927); Gottfried William (1872–1925); Theodore "Theo" (1876–1945);[3] Leopold D. (1879–1962); and Carrie Gladys (born 1882 – unknown year of death).[4]

Weisz arrived in the United States on July 3, 1878, sailing on the SS Fresia with his mother (who was pregnant) and his four brothers.[5] The family changed the Hungarian spelling of their German surname into Weiss (the German spelling) and Erik's name was changed to Ehrich. Friends called him "Ehrie" or "Harry".

They first lived in Appleton, Wisconsin, where his father served as Rabbi of the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation. From 1907 on, Houdini would claim in interviews to have been born in Appleton which was not true and on April 6, 1874, on the Gregorian calendar or 13 days difference from the Julian calendar (March 24, 1874) in Hungary at that time.

According to the 1880 census, the family lived on Appleton Street.[6] On June 6, 1882, Rabbi Weiss became an American citizen. Losing his tenure at Zion in 1887, Rabbi Weiss moved with Ehrich to New York City. They lived in a boarding house on East 79th Street. They were joined by the rest of the family once Rabbi Weiss found permanent housing. As a child, Ehrich Weiss took several jobs, making his public début as a 9-year-old trapeze artist, calling himself "Ehrich, the Prince of the Air". He was also a champion cross country runner in his youth. Weiss became a professional magician and began calling himself "Harry Houdini" because he was heavily influenced by the French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, and his friend Jack Hayman told him, erroneously, that in French, adding an "i" to Houdin would mean "like Houdin", the great magician. In later life, Houdini would claim that the first part of his new name, Harry, was a homage to Harry Kellar, whom Houdini admired.

In 1918, he registered for selective service as Harry Handcuff Houdini.[7]

Magic careerEdit

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File:Houdini in Handcuffs, 1918.JPG

Houdini began his magic career in 1891.[8] At the outset, he had little success. He performed in dime museums and sideshows, and even doubled as "The Wild Man" at a circus. Houdini focused initially on traditional card tricks. At one point, he billed himself as the "King of Cards". But he soon began experimenting with escape acts.

In 1893, while performing with his brother "Dash" at Coney Island as "The Houdini Brothers", Harry met fellow performer Wilhelmina Beatrice (Bess) Rahner, whom he married. Bess replaced Dash in the act, which became known as "The Houdinis." For the rest of Houdini's performing career, Bess would work as his stage assistant.

Houdini's "big break" came in 1899 when he met manager Martin Beck in rural Woodstock, Illinois. Impressed by Houdini's handcuffs act, Beck advised him to concentrate on escape acts and booked him on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit. Within months, he was performing at the top vaudeville houses in the country. In 1900, Beck arranged for Houdini to tour Europe. After some days of unsuccessful interviews in London, Houdini managed to interest Dundas Slater, then manager of the Alhambra Theatre. He gave a demonstration of escape from handcuffs at Scotland Yard, and succeeded in baffling the police so effectively that he was booked at the Alhambra for six months.

Houdini became widely known as "The Handcuff King." He toured England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Russia. In each city, Houdini would challenge local police to restrain him with shackles and lock him in their jails. In many of these challenge escapes, Houdini would first be stripped nude and searched. In Moscow, Houdini escaped from a Siberian prison transport van. Houdini claimed that, had he been unable to free himself, he would have had to travel to Siberia, where the only key was kept. In Cologne, he sued a police officer, Werner Graff, who alleged that he made his escapes via bribery.[9] Houdini won the case when he opened the judge's safe (he would later say the judge had forgotten to lock it). With his new-found wealth and success, Houdini purchased a dress said to have been made for Queen Victoria. He then arranged a grand reception where he presented his mother in the dress to all their relatives. Houdini said it was the happiest day of his life. In 1904, Houdini returned to the U.S. and purchased a house for $25,000, a brownstone at 278 W. 113th Street in Harlem, New York City.[10]

From 1907 and throughout the 1910s, Houdini performed with great success in the United States. He would free himself from jails, handcuffs, chains, ropes, and straitjackets, often while hanging from a rope in plain sight of street audiences. Because of imitators, on January 25, 1908, Houdini put his "handcuff act" behind him and began escaping from a locked, water-filled milk can. The possibility of failure and death thrilled his audiences. Houdini also expanded repertoire with his escape challenge act, in which he invited the public to devise contraptions to hold him. These included nailed packing crates (sometimes lowered into water), riveted boilers, wet-sheets, mailbags, and even the belly of a whale that had washed ashore in Boston. Brewers challenged Houdini to escape from a barrel after they filled it with beer in Scranton, PA and other cities.[11]

Many of these challenges were pre-arranged with local merchants in what is certainly one of the first uses of mass tie-in marketing. Rather than promote the idea that he was assisted by spirits, as did the Davenport Brothers and others, Houdini's advertisements showed him making his escapes via dematerializing,[12] although Houdini himself never claimed to have supernatural powers.

File:Houdini challenge.jpg

In 1912, Houdini introduced perhaps his most famous act, the Chinese Water Torture Cell, in which he was suspended upside-down in a locked glass-and-steel cabinet full to overflowing with water. The act required that Houdini hold his breath for more than three minutes. Houdini performed the escape for the rest of his career. Despite two Hollywood movies depicting Houdini dying in the Torture Cell, the act had nothing to do with his death. Throughout his career, Houdini explained some of his tricks in books written for the magic brotherhood. In Handcuff Secrets (1909), he revealed how many locks and handcuffs could be opened with properly applied force, others with shoestring. Other times, he carried concealed lockpicks or keys, being able to regurgitate small keys at will. When tied down in ropes or straitjackets, he gained wiggle room by enlarging his shoulders and chest, moving his arms slightly away from his body, and then dislocating his shoulders.[13]

His straitjacket escape was originally performed behind curtains, with him popping out free at the end. However, Houdini's brother, (who was also an escape artist, billing himself as Theodore Hardeen), discovered that audiences were more impressed when the curtains were eliminated so they could watch him struggle to get out. On more than one occasion, they both performed straitjacket escapes whilst dangling upside-down from the roof of a building for publicity.[13]

For most of his career, Houdini was a headline act in vaudeville. For many years, he was the highest-paid performer in American vaudeville. One of Houdini's most notable non-escape stage illusions was performed at New York's Hippodrome Theater, when he vanished a full-grown elephant (with its trainer) from the stage, beneath which was a swimming pool. In 1923, Houdini became president of Martinka & Co., America's oldest magic company. The business is still in operation today.

He also served as President of the Society of American Magicians (aka S.A.M.) from 1917 until his death in 1926. Founded on May 10, 1902 in the back room of Martinka's magic shop in New York, the Society expanded under the leadership of Harry Houdini during his term as National President from 1917-1926. Houdini was magic's greatest visionary. He sought to create a large, unified national network of professional and amateur magicians. Wherever he traveled, Houdini would give a lengthy formal address to the local magic club, making speeches, and usually threw a banquet for the members at his own expense. He said "The Magicians Clubs as a rule are small: they are weak...but if we were amalgamated into one big body the society would be stronger, and it would mean making the small clubs powerful and worth while. "Members would find a welcome wherever they happened to be and, conversely, the safeguard of a city-to-city hotline to track exposers and other undesirables."

For most of 1916, while on his vaudeville tour, Houdini, at his own expense, had been recruiting local magic clubs to join the SAM in an effort to revitalize what he felt was a weak organization. Houdini persuaded groups in Buffalo, Detroit, Pittsburgh, ande Kansas City join. As had happened in London, Houdini persuaded magicians to join. The Buffalo club joined as the first branch, (later assembly) of the Society. Chicago Assembly No. 3 was, as the name implies, the third regional club to be established by the S.A.M., whose assemblies now number in the hundreds. In 1917, he signed Assembly Number Three's charter into existence, and that charter and this club continue to provide Chicago magicians with a connection to each other and to their past. Houdini dined with, addressed, and got pledges from similar clubs in Detroit, Rochester, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Cincinnati and elsewhere. This was the biggest movement ever in the history of magic. In places where no clubs existed, he rounded up individual magicians, introduced them to each other, and urged them into the fold.

By the end of 1916, magicians' clubs in San Francisco and other cities that Houdini had not visited were offering to become assemblies. He had created the richest and longest surviving organization of magicians in the world. It now embraces almost 6,000 dues paying members and almost 300 assemblies worldwide. In July, 1926, Houdini was elected for the ninth successive time President of the Society of American Magicians. Every other president has only served for one year. He also was President of the Magicians' Club of London.[14]

In the final years of his life (1925/26), Houdini launched his own full-evening show, which he billed as "3 Shows in One: Magic, Escapes, and Fraud Mediums Exposed".[15]

Notable escapesEdit

Mirror handcuff challengeEdit


In 1904, the London Daily Mirror newspaper challenged Houdini to escape from a special handcuff that it claimed had taken Nathaniel Hart, a locksmith from Birmingham, seven years to make. Houdini accepted the challenge for March 17 during a matinée performance at London's Hippodrome theater. It was reported that 4000 people and more than 100 journalists turned out for the much-hyped event. The escape attempt dragged on for over an hour, during which Houdini emerged from his "ghost house" (a small screen used to conceal the method of his escape) several times. On one occasion, he asked if the cuff could be removed so he could take off his coat. The Mirror representative, Frank Parker, refused, saying Houdini could gain an advantage if he saw how the cuff was unlocked. Houdini promptly took out a pen-knife and, holding the knife in his teeth, used it to cut his coat from his body. Some 56 minutes later, Houdini's wife appeared on stage and gave him a kiss. It is believed that in her mouth was the key to unlock the special handcuff. Houdini then went back behind the curtain. After an hour and ten minutes, Houdini emerged free. As he was paraded on the shoulders of the cheering crowd, he broke down and wept. Houdini later said it was the most difficult escape of his career.[16]

After Houdini's death, his friend, Martin Beck was quoted in Will Goldstone's book, Sensational Tales of Mystery Men, in which he said that Houdini was bested that day and had appealed to his wife, Bess, for help. Goldstone goes on to claim that Bess begged the key from the Mirror representative, then slipped it to Houdini in a glass of water. However, it was stated in the book "The Secret Life of Houdini" that the key required to open the specially designed Mirror handcuffs was 6" long, and thus could not have been smuggled to Houdini in a glass of water. Goldstone offered no proof of his account, and many modern biographers have found evidence (notably in the custom design of the handcuff itself) that the Mirror challenge was prearranged by Houdini, and that his long struggle to escape was pure showmanship.[17] In support of this, it has been reported that the sterling silver replica of the Mirror cuffs presented to Houdini in honor of his escape was actually made the year before the escape actually took place.[18]

This was recently covered in depth on the Travel Channel's "Mysteries At The Museum" in an interview with Houdini expert, magician and escape artist Dorothy Dietrich of Scranton's Houdini Museum.[19]

A full-sized replica of the Mirror Handcuffs, as well as a replica of the Bramah style key for it, is on display to the public at the Houdini Museum in Scranton, PA. This is the only public display of this style cuff anywhere.

Milk Can EscapeEdit

In 1901, Houdini introduced his own original act, the Milk Can Escape.[20] In this act, Houdini would be handcuffed and sealed inside an over-sized milk can filled with water and make his escape behind a curtain. As part of the effect, Houdini would invite members of the audience to hold their breath along with him while he was inside the can. Advertised with dramatic posters that proclaimed "Failure Means A Drowning Death", the escape proved to be a sensation.[21] Houdini soon modified the escape to include the milk can being locked inside a wooden chest, being chained or padlocked, and even inside another milk can. Houdini only performed the milk can escape as a regular part of his act for four years, but it remains one of the acts most associated with the escape artist. Houdini's brother, Theodore Hardeen, continued to perform the milk can (and the wooden chest variation)[22] into the 1940s.

The American Museum of Magic has the “Milk Can” and "Overboard Box" used by Harry Houdini.[23]

Chinese Water Torture CellEdit

Main article: Chinese Water Torture Cell
File:Houdini performing Water Torture Cell.jpg

In 1912, the vast number of imitators prompted Houdini to replace his Milk Can act with the Chinese Water Torture Cell. In this escape, Houdini's feet would be locked in stocks, and he would be lowered upside down into a tank filled with water. The mahogany and metal cell featured a glass front, through which audiences could clearly see Houdini. The stocks would be locked to the top of the cell, and a curtain would conceal his escape. In the earliest version of the Torture Cell, a metal cage was lowered into the cell, and Houdini was enclosed inside that. While making the escape more difficult (the cage prevented Houdini from turning), the cage bars also offered protection should the front glass break. The original cell was built in England, where Houdini first performed the escape for an audience of one person as part of a one-act play he called "Houdini Upside Down". This was so he could copyright the effect and have grounds to sue imitators (which he did). While the escape was advertised as "The Chinese Water Torture Cell" or "The Water Torture Cell", Houdini always referred to it as "the Upside Down" or "USD". The first public performance of the USD was at the Circus Busch in Berlin, on September 21, 1912. Houdini continued to perform the escape until his death in 1926.[13]

Suspended straitjacket escapeEdit

One of Houdini's most popular publicity stunts was to have himself strapped into a regulation straitjacket and suspended by his ankles from a tall building or crane. Houdini would then make his escape in full view of the assembled crowd. In many cases, Houdini would draw thousands of onlookers who would choke the street and bring city traffic to a halt. Houdini would sometimes ensure press coverage by performing the escape from the office building of a local newspaper. In New York City, Houdini performed the suspended straitjacket escape from a crane being used to build the New York subway. After flinging his body in the air, he escaped from the straitjacket. Starting from when he was hoisted up in the air by the crane, to when the straitjacket was completely off, it took him two minutes and thirty-seven seconds. There is film footage of Houdini performing the escape in The Library of Congress.[24] After being battered against a building in high winds during one escape, Houdini performed the escape with a visible safety wire on his ankle so that he could be pulled away from the building if necessary. The idea for the upside-down escape was given to Houdini by a young boy named Randolph Osborne Douglas (March 31, 1895 – Dec 5, 1956), when the two met at a performance at Sheffield's Empire Theatre.[12]

Overboard box escapeEdit


Another one of Houdini's most famous publicity stunts was to escape from a nailed and roped packing crate after it had been lowered into water. Houdini first performed the escape in New York's East River on July 7, 1912. Police forbade him from using one of the piers, so Houdini hired a tugboat and invited press on board. Houdini was locked in handcuffs and leg-irons, then nailed into the crate which was roped and weighed down with two hundred pounds of lead. The crate was then lowered into the water. Houdini escaped in fifty-seven seconds. The crate was pulled to the surface and found to still be intact with the manacles inside. Houdini would perform this escape many times, and even performed a version on stage, first at Hamerstein's Roof Garden (where a 5,500-gallon tank was specially built), and later at the New York Hippodrome.[25]

Buried Alive stuntEdit

Houdini performed at least three variations on a "Buried Alive" stunt/escape during his career. The first was near Santa Ana, California in 1915, and it almost cost Houdini his life. Houdini was buried, without a casket, in a pit of earth six feet deep. He became exhausted and panicky trying to dig his way to the surface and called for help. When his hand finally broke the surface, he fell unconscious and had to be pulled from the grave by his assistants. Houdini wrote in his diary that the escape was "very dangerous" and that "the weight of the earth is killing."[26][27]

Houdini's second variation on Buried Alive was an endurance test designed to expose mystical Egyptian performer Rahman Bey, who claimed to use supernatural powers to remain in a sealed casket for an hour. Houdini bettered Bey on August 5, 1926, by remaining in a sealed casket submerged in the swimming pool of New York's Hotel Shelton for one hour and a half. Houdini claimed he did not use any trickery or supernatural powers to accomplish this feat, just controlled breathing.[28] He repeated the feat at the YMCA in Worcester Massachusetts on September 28, 1926, this time remaining sealed for one hour and eleven minutes.[29]

Houdini's final Buried Alive was an elaborate stage escape that was to feature in his full evening show. The stunt would see Houdini escape after being strapped in a strait-jacket, sealed in a casket, and then buried in a large tank filled with sand. While there are posters advertising the escape (playing off the Bey challenge they boasted "Egyptian Fakirs Outdone!"), it is unclear whether Houdini ever performed Buried Alive on stage. The stunt was to be the feature escape of his 1927 season, but Houdini died on October 31, 1926. The bronze casket Houdini created for Buried Alive was used to transport Houdini's body from Detroit back to New York following his death on Halloween.[30]

Movie careerEdit

In 1906 Houdini started showing films of his outside escapes as part of his vaudeville act. In Boston he presented a short film called Houdini Defeats Hackenschmidt. Georg Hackenschmidt was a famous wrestler of the day, but the nature of their contest is unknown as the film is lost.[31] In 1909 Houdini made a film in Paris for Cinema Lux titled Merveilleux Exploits du Célébre Houdini à Paris (Marvellous Exploits of the Famous Houdini in Paris).[32] It featured a loose narrative designed to showcase several of Houdini's famous escapes, including his straitjacket and underwater handcuff escapes. That same year Houdini got an offer to star as Captain Nemo in a silent version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but the project never made it into production.[33]

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It is often erroneously reported that Houdini served as special-effects consultant on the Wharton/International cliffhanger serial, The Mysteries of Myra, shot in Ithaca, New York, because Harry Grossman, director of The Master Mystery also filmed a serial in Ithaca at about the same time. Houdini had nothing to do with "Myra", which treated spiritualism as real, something he never would have approved of. The actual consultants on the serial were pioneering psychic investigator Hereward Carrington and magician Aleister Crowley.[34]

In 1918 Houdini signed a contract with film producer B.A. Rolfe to star in a 15-part serial, The Master Mystery (released in January 1919). As was common at the time, the film serial was released simultaneously with a novel. Financial difficulties resulted in B.A. Rolfe Productions going out of business, but The Master Mystery led to Houdini being signed by Famous Players-Lasky Corporation/Paramount Pictures, for whom he made two pictures, The Grim Game (1919) and Terror Island (1920).[35]

File:Houdini swims river in scene from The man from beyond (cropped).JPG

While filming an aerial stunt for The Grim Game, two biplanes collided in mid-air with a stuntman doubling Houdini dangling by a rope from one of the planes. Publicity was geared heavily toward promoting this dramatic "caught on film" moment, claiming it was Houdini himself dangling from the plane. While filming these movies in Los Angeles, Houdini rented a home in Laurel Canyon. Following his two-picture stint in Hollywood, Houdini returned to New York and started his own film production company called the "Houdini Picture Corporation". He produced and starred in two films, The Man From Beyond (1921) and Haldane of the Secret Service (1923). He also founded his own film laboratory business called The Film Development Corporation (FDC), gambling on a new process for developing motion picture film. Houdini's brother, Theodore Hardeen, left his own career as a magician and escape artist to run the company. Magician Harry Kellar was a major investor.[36]

Neither Houdini's acting career nor FDC found success, and he gave up on the movie business in 1923, complaining that "the profits are too meager". But his celebrity was such that, years later, he would be given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (at 7001 Hollywood Blvd).

In April 2008 Kino International released a DVD box set of Houdini's surviving silent films, including The Master Mystery, Terror Island, The Man From Beyond, Haldane of the Secret Service, and five minutes from The Grim Game. The set also includes newsreel footage of Houdini's escapes from 1907 to 1923, and a section from Merveilleux Exploits du Célébre Houdini à Paris (although it is not identified as such).[37]

Pioneer aviatorEdit

In 1909, Houdini became fascinated with aviation. He purchased a French Voisin biplane for $5000 and hired a full-time mechanic, Antonio Brassac. Houdini painted his name in bold block letters on the Voisin's sidepanels and tail. After crashing once, he made his first successful flight on November 26 in Hamburg, Germany. The following year (1910), Houdini toured Australia. He brought along his Voisin biplane and was falsely reported to have made the first powered flight over Australia on March 18 at Diggers Rest, Victoria (near Melton), north of Melbourne.Template:Cn[38] Colin Defries preceded him, but he crashed the plane on landing.[39]

Following his Australia tour, Houdini put the Voisin into storage in England. He announced he would use it to fly from city to city during his next Music Hall tour, although Houdini never in fact flew again (for no documented reason).[40]

A celebration of the centenary of Houdini's first flight was held at Diggers Rest in 2010. The event included the dedication of a new monument, a Houdini-Centenary air-show, magic performances, and the display of a one-third scale model of Houdini's Voisin.[41]

Debunking spiritualistsEdit

File:Houdini and Lincoln.jpg

In the 1920s Houdini turned his energies toward debunking self-proclaimed psychics and mediums, a pursuit that would inspire and be followed by later-day conjurers.[1] Houdini's training in magic allowed him to expose frauds who had successfully fooled many scientists and academics. He was a member of a Scientific American committee that offered a cash prize to any medium who could successfully demonstrate supernatural abilities. None were able to do so, and the prize was never collected. The first to be tested was medium George Valentine of Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. As his fame as a "ghostbuster" grew, Houdini took to attending séances in disguise, accompanied by a reporter and police officer. Possibly the most famous medium whom he debunked was Mina Crandon, also known as "Margery".[43]

Houdini chronicled his debunking exploits in his book, A Magician Among the Spirits. These activities cost Houdini the friendship of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle, a firm believer in Spiritualism during his later years, refused to believe any of Houdini's exposés. Doyle came to believe that Houdini was a powerful spiritualist medium, and had performed many of his stunts by means of paranormal abilities and was using these abilities to block those of other mediums that he was 'debunking' (see Conan Doyle's The Edge of The Unknown, published in 1931). This disagreement led to the two men becoming public antagonists and led Sir Arthur to view Houdini as a dangerous enemy.[13]

Before Houdini died, he and his wife agreed that if Houdini found it possible to communicate after death, he would communicate the message "Rosabelle believe", a secret code which they agreed to use. This was a phrase from a play in which Bess performed, at the time the couple first met. Bess held yearly séances on Halloween for ten years after Houdini's death, but Houdini's spirit never appeared. Bess, grieving and in need of some attention, did stage a false contact which she later recanted.[13] In 1936, after a last unsuccessful séance on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel, she put out the candle that she had kept burning beside a photograph of Houdini since his death. In 1943, Bess said that "ten years is long enough to wait for any man."

The tradition of holding a séance for Houdini continues, held by magicians throughout the world. The Official Houdini Séance is currently organized by Sidney Hollis Radner, a Houdini aficionado from Holyoke, Massachusetts.[44] Yearly Houdini Séances are also conducted in Chicago at the Excaliber nightclub by "necromancer" Neil Tobin on behalf of the Chicago Assembly of the Society of American Magicians;[45] and at the Houdini Museum in Scranton by magician Dorothy Dietrich who previously held them at New York's famous Magic Towne House with such magical notables as Houdini biographers Walter B. Gibson and Milbourne Christopher. Gibson was asked by Bess Houdini to carry on the tradition. Before he died, Walter passed on the tradition to Dorothy Dietrich.

In 1926, Harry Houdini hired H. P. Lovecraft and his friend C. M. Eddy, Jr., to write an entire book about debunking superstition, which was to be called The Cancer of Superstition. Houdini had earlier asked Lovecraft to write an article about astrology, for which he paid $75. The article does not survive. Lovecraft's detailed synopsis for Cancer does survive, as do three chapters of the treatise written by Eddy. Houdini's untimely death derailed the plans, as his widow did not wish to pursue the project.[46]

Appearance and voice recordingsEdit

File:Jack Dempsey, Harry Houdini and Benny Leonard2.jpg
Unlike the image of the classic magician, Houdini was short and stocky and typically appeared on stage in a long frock coat and tie. Most biographers peg his height as Template:Nowrap, but descriptions vary. Houdini was also said to be slightly bow-legged, which aided in his ability to gain slack during his rope escapes. In the 1997 biography Houdini!!!: The Career of Ehrich Weiss, author Kenneth Silverman summarizes how reporters described Houdini's appearance during his early career:


Houdini made the only known recordings of his voice on Edison wax cylinders on October 29, 1914, in Flatbush, New York. On them, Houdini practices several different introductory speeches for his famous Chinese Water Torture Cell. He also invites his sister, Gladys, to recite a poem. Houdini then recites the same poem in German. The six wax cylinders were discovered in the collection of magician John Mulholland after his death in 1970. They are part of the David Copperfield collection.[47]


Houdini's brother, Theodore Hardeen, who returned to performing after Houdini's death, inherited his brother's effects and props. Houdini's will stipulated that all the effects should be "burned and destroyed" upon Hardeen's death. Hardeen sold much of the collection to magician and Houdini enthusiast Sidney Hollis Radner during the 1940s, including the Water Torture Cell.[48] Radner allowed choice pieces of the collection to be displayed at The Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls, Ontario. In 1995, a fire destroyed the museum. While the Water Torture Cell was reported to have been destroyed, its metal frame remained, and the cell was restored by illusion builder John Gaughan.[49] Many of the props contained in the museum such as the Mirror Handcuffs, Houdini's original packing crate, a Milk Can, and a straitjacket, survived the fire and were auctioned off in 1999 and 2008.

Radner loaned the bulk of his collection for archiving to the Outagamie Museum in Appleton, Wisconsin; but pulled it in 2003, and auctioned[50] it off a year later in Las Vegas, on October 30, 2004.

Houdini was a "formidable collector," and bequeathed many of his holdings and paper archives on magic and spiritualism to the Library of Congress, which became the basis for the Houdini collection in cyberspace.[51]

More than half of Houdini's archival estate holdings and memorabilia, however, were willed to his fellow magician and friend, John Mulholland (1897-1970). In 1991, well-known illusionist and television performer David Copperfield purchased the entirety of Mulholland's Houdini holdings from Mulholland's estate. These are now archived and preserved in Copperfield's museum in a warehouse at his headquarters in Las Vegas. His museum there contains the world's largest collection of Houdini memorabilia, and all told, preserves approximately 80,000 items of magic memorabilia of Houdini and many other famous practitioners of the arts of magic & illusion -- including, among others of Houdini's stage props and material, his famous "Water Torture Cabinet" and "Metamorphosis Trunk". The museum is not open to the public, but tours are available by invitation-only to fellow magicians, scholars, researchers, journalists, and serious collectors.[52]


File:Harry Houdini and his wife.jpg

Harry Houdini died of peritonitis, secondary to a ruptured appendix. Eyewitnesses to an incident at the Princess Theater in Montreal gave rise to speculation that Houdini's death was caused by a McGill University student, J. Gordon Whitehead, who delivered a surprise attack of multiple blows to Houdini's abdomen.

The eyewitnesses, students named Jacques Price and Sam Smilovitz (sometimes called Jack Price and Sam Smiley), proffered accounts of the incident that generally corroborated one another. The following is Price's description of events:Template:Bquote

Houdini reportedly stated that if he had had time to prepare himself properly, he would have been in a better position to take the blows.[53] He had apparently been suffering from appendicitis for several days prior and yet refused medical treatment. One source states that his appendix would likely have burst on its own without the trauma.[54] Although in serious pain, Houdini continued to travel without seeking medical attention.

When Houdini arrived at the Garrick Theater in Detroit, Michigan on October 24, 1926, for what would be his last performance, he had a fever of 104 °F (40 °C). Despite a diagnosis of acute appendicitis, Houdini took the stage. He was reported to have passed out during the show, but was revived and continued. Afterwards, he was hospitalized at Detroit's Grace Hospital.[55]

Houdini died of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix at 1:26 p.m. in Room 401 on October 31, aged 52. In his final weeks, he optimistically held to a strong belief that he would recover.[13]

After taking statements from Price and Smilovitz, Houdini's insurance company concluded that the death was due to the dressing-room incident and paid double indemnity.[53]

Houdini's funeral was held on November 4, 1926, in New York, with more than 2,000 mourners in attendance.[56] He was interred in the Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York, with the crest of the Society of American Magicians inscribed on his gravesite. A statuary bust was added to the excedra in 1927, believed to be the only graven image in a Jewish cemetery anywhere. In 1975 it was knocked over and destroyed. Temporary ones were placed there until in 2011 when a group who came to be called The Houdini Commandos from The Houdini Museum in Scranton, PA placed a permanent bust with the permission of Houdini's family and the cemetery.[57] To this day the Society holds a broken wand ceremony at the grave site in November. Houdini's widow, Bess, died on February 11, 1943, aged 67, in Needles, California. She had expressed a wish to be buried next to him but instead was interred at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Westchester, New York, as her Catholic family refused to allow her to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.[58]

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Proposed exhumationEdit

On March 22, 2007, Houdini's great-nephew (the grandson of his brother Theo), George Hardeen, announced that the courts would be asked to allow exhumation of Houdini's body. The purpose was to investigate the possibility of Houdini being murdered by Spiritualists, as suggested in the biography The Secret Life of Houdini.[59]

In a statement given to the Houdini Museum in Scranton, the family of Bess Houdini opposed the application and suggested it was a publicity ploy for the book.[60] The Washington Post stated that the press conference was not orchestrated by the family of Houdini. Instead, the Post reported, it was orchestrated by authors Kalush and Sloman, who hired the PR firm Dan Klores Communications to assist them, allegedly because of terribly sagging book sales.[61]

In 2008 it was revealed the parties involved never filed legal papers to perform an exhumation.[62]


  • 1936: On October 31, 1936, Houdini's widow held the "Final Houdini Séance" atop The Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood, California. A recording of the séance was made and issued as a record album. She then asked Houdini ghost writer and biographer Walter B. Gibson (writer of "The Shadow" series) to continue the seances. Before Gibson died he passed on the legacy to magician and Houdini expert Dorothy Dietrich of The Houdini Museum in Scranton.
  • 1938: Bess Houdini appeared as herself in the film, Religious Racketeer (a.k.a. Mystic Circle Murder), and expressed her belief that communication with those who have died is impossible. The film sparked controversy among spiritualists, but was praised by magicians.[63]
  • 1953: A film, Houdini, a fictionalized biopic of Houdini's life, was released. Starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, the film has partially contributed to several misconceptions about Houdini's life. For example, it portrays the cause of Houdini's death to be his failure to escape from the Chinese Water Torture Cell. (Curtis's Houdini agrees to seek medical attention "when the tour is over.") Houdini actually developed the Chinese Torture Cell trick fourteen years before he died and performed it numerous times.
  • 1968: The Houdini Magical Hall of Fame was opened on Clifton Hill in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada. At its opening, the museum contained the majority of Houdini's personal collection of magic paraphernalia. One of Houdini's death wishes was that his entire collection be given to his brother Theodore (also known as the magician Hardeen) and burned upon Theodore's death. Against his wishes, forty years after Houdini's death, the items were taken from storage and sold. Two entrepreneurs purchased the items and renovated a former meat-packing plant on Clifton Hill, Ontario, Canada, to house the museum. The Hall of Fame was moved in 1972 to its final location on the top of Clifton Hill. Séances were held every year at the museum on October 31, the anniversary of Houdini's death. A fire destroyed the museum on April 30, 1995.
  • 1968: Stuart Damon played Houdini in a lavishly staged London musical, Man of Magic.
  • 1970: Welsh singer-songwriter Meic Stevens song "Y Brawd Houdini" ("The Brother Houdini") was released in his album Outlander.
  • 1975: Canadian magician Doug Henning successfully duplicated Houdini's Chinese Water Torture trick for the first time since its original performance, on an ABC TV special.
  • 1976: Houdini was played by Paul Michael Glaser, of Starsky and Hutch fame, in a 1976 TV movie called The Great Houdinis! (a.k.a. The Great Houdini), which was also highly fictionalized. The film focused on Houdini's relationship with his wife and mother, who were portrayed as frequently bickering because his wife was a devout Christian, while his mother was portrayed almost fanatical in her Judaism (although, in reality, they had cordial relations). The film also treated with his fascination with life after death. The cast included Sally Struthers, Vivian Vance, Bill Bixby, and Ruth Gordon. Peter Cushing appeared as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Actor/Houdini authority Patrick Culliton played Houdini's assistant Franz Kukol.
  • 1985: The City of Appleton, Wisconsin, constructed the Houdini Plaza on the site of the magician's childhood home.
  • 1985: Wil Wheaton played Houdini in Young Harry Houdini, a made-for-TV movie that aired on ABC as a "Disney Sunday Movie." The film also featured Jeffrey DeMunn as the adult Houdini. DeMunn first played Houdini in the film version of Ragtime.[64]
  • 1989: Canadian synth pop act Kon Kan released "Harry Houdini," the third single from the Move to Move album. Also, Cutting Crew's sophomore album The Scattering contained track number 5 entitled "Handcuffs for Houdini".
  • 1997: Actor Harvey Keitel played Houdini and Peter O'Toole Conan Doyle in the film FairyTale: A True Story, set during World War I and portraying the alleged photographing of live fairies by two English schoolgirls. Houdini and Doyle are portrayed as collegial, even though they disagree as to the validity of spiritualism. In reality, Conan Doyle's fervent belief and Houdini's avowed skepticism sparked a bitter feud between the two that was never resolved. Keitel hired Patrick Culliton and Stanley Palm as "Houdini advisors."
  • 1998: Ragtime, the Broadway musical version of the movie, premiered on January 18, 1998. It featured Houdini as a character and has a song called "Harry Houdini, Master Escapist." The book was written by Terrence McNally, with music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. The play ran on Broadway until January 16, 2000, and won four Tony Awards. Both the movie and the play are based on E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel of the same title.
  • 1999: Six Flags Great Adventure opened a Mad House ride named "Houdini's Great Escape", with the ride and pre-show based on bringing Houdini's spirit back into the world.
  • 2009: Ragtime (music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and book by Terrence McNally, based on the novel by E. L. Doctorow) was revived on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre. Houdini, played by Jonathan Hammond, wore costumes designed by the legendary Santo Loquasto (Woody Allen's designer of choice). Houdini made a grand entrance hanging upside down on a wire, suspended high above the stage.
  • 2009: Summit Entertainment purchased the film rights to The Secret Life of Houdini and announced plans to produce a series of films featuring Houdini as an action hero in the vein of Indiana Jones and Sherlock Holmes.[68]
  • 2009: The Perth Mint released a limited supply of dollar coins commemorating Houdini's first flight[69] in Australia on March 18, 1910.[70] A commemorative stamp was also issued.[71]
  • 2010: A celebration commemorating the centenary of Houdini's first flight in Australia was held at Diggers Rest near Melbourne. The weekend-long event included the dedication of a new monument, a Houdini-Centenary air-show, magic performances, and the display of a one-third scale model of Houdini's Voisin biplane.[72]
  • 2010: The World Premier of Houdini—The Man From Beyond musical opened in Toowoomba, Australia, at the University of Southern Queensland.
  • 2010: A major traveling exhibition of Houdini memorabilia, paraphernalia, and art (inspired by him) —titled Houdini: Art and Magic[73]—opened at the Jewish Museum in New York on October 29, 2010.[74] The show will close on March 27, 2011, and then will be displayed in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Madison, Wisconsin. Art & Antiques Magazine Winter 2010–11 issue reported on this exhibition.
  • 2010: Airing November 28, Paris Green (an episode of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire) makes several references to and features an appearance of Houdini's brother Hardeen as performed by actor Remy Auberjonois as an Atlantic City Boardwalk attraction circa 1920/1921.[75]
  • 2011: Google featured a special Houdini "Doodle" logo to commemorate his 137th birthday on March 24.[76][77] The Harry Houdini "Google doodle" was the first of its kind to appear.
  • 2011: Dorothy Young, who assisted Houdini in his full evening roadshow and was the last living person to have worked with Houdini, died on March 20 at the age of 103.[78]
  • 2011: Houdini and his Milk Can escape are featured in an episode of The Simpsons (“The Great Simpsina” Season 22 Episode 18).[79]
  • 2011: On September 27, Houdini's bust, missing for 36 years from his grave site, was replaced at a cost of $10,000 by Scranton's Houdini Museum. The museum is tending to the grave site with the sanction of Houdini's family and the administrators of the cemetery.[57]


Houdini published numerous books during his career (some of which were written by his good friend Walter Brown Gibson, the creator of The Shadow):[81]

  • Handcuff Secrets (1907)


Films starring Houdini:

  • Terror Island—Famous Players Lasky/Paramount (1920)—playing Harry Harper

Biographical films:

See alsoEdit


  1. 1.0 1.1 Template:Cite book
  2. Template:Cite web
  3. Template:Cite news
  4. Template:Cite web
  5. US National Archives Microfilm serial: M237; Microfilm roll: 413; Line: 38; List number: 684.
  6. 1880 US Census with Samuel M. Weiss, Cecelia (wife), Armin M., Nathan J., Ehrich, Theodore, and Leopold.
  7. Template:Cite web
  8. Template:Cite web
  9. Silverman, p. 81.
  10. Silverman, p. 109
  11. Template:Cite web
  12. 12.0 12.1 Template:Cite book
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 13.5 Template:Cite book
  14. Template:Cite book
  15. Template:Cite web
  16. Houdini's Mirror Handcuff Challenge, Getting Closer to the Truth by Mick Hanzlik, 2007, reproduction in full of Daily Mirror article "Houdini's Great Victory" March 18, 1904
  17. Silverman, pp. 59–62.
  18. Kalush, Sloman, p. 160.
  19. Template:Cite web
  20. Houdini: His Life and Art by James Randi and Bert Sugar, 1976, pp. 175–178.
  21. Houdini: His Life and Art by James Randi and Bert Sugar, 1976, Milk Can poster on page 177
  22. Christopher, Milbourne Houdini A Pictorial Life, 1976, ISBN 0690011520 p. 54
  23. Template:Cite web
  24. "Thousands see Harry Houdini escape from a straitjacket while hanging in mid-air, Chicago, Ill.", International news [1923 or 1924?]
  25. Houdini His Legend and His Magic by Doug Henning, 1977, p. 160.
  26. Christopher, Milbourne. Houdini: The Untold Story (Thomas Y. Crowell Co, 1969). ISBN 0-89190-981-8, p. 140.
  27. Template:Cite web
  28. Silverman, pp. 397–403.
  29. Template:Cite web
  30. Silverman, p. 406.
  31. Template:Cite web
  32. Disappearing Tricks by Matthew Solomon, 2010, p. 95
  33. Silverman, p. 205.
  34. The Mysteries of Myra by Eric Stedman, 2010, p. 8
  35. Template:Cite web
  36. Silverman, pp. 226–249
  37. Template:Cite web
  38. Template:Cite web
  39. Template:Cite web
  40. Silverman, pp. 137–154
  41. Template:Cite web
  42. Notes to Houdini and the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, Library of Congress. Retrieved October 3, 2007.
  43. Template:Cite web
  44. Houdini Facts from the History Museum at the CastleTemplate:Dead link
  45. Houdini's HalloweenTemplate:Dead link from WGN-TV and Red Eye, October 28, 2005
  46. Joshi, Collected Essays, 3, New York, 2005, pp. 11-12.
  47. Template:Cite web
  48. Template:Cite news
  49. Template:Cite web
  50. [1]Template:Dead link
  51. Template:Cite web
  52. Gingles, John, "My Secret Hobby -- & Favorite Escapes (Pun Intended)", from: John Gingles, A Personal Memoir, Washington, D.C., 2007.
  53. 53.0 53.1 The Man Who Killed Houdini by Don Bell, Vehicule Press, 2004
  54. Template:Cite book
  55. Houdini laid on his death bed for eight days after being given just seven hours to live with a ruptured appendix and a 105 degree fever. Template:Cite web
  56. Final Escape for the Master of Illusion? Houdini's Family Press for Exhumation.
  57. 57.0 57.1 Template:Cite web
  58. Template:Cite web
  59. Template:Cite news
  60. Template:Cite web
  61. Template:Cite news
  62. Template:Cite web
  63. Template:Cite web
  64. The Great Escape: Hollywood's Struggle to Bring Houdini Back to Life by John Cox, MAGIC Magazine, October 2006.
  65. [2]Template:Dead link.
  66. USPS Press Release (October 31, 2001) Harry Houdini Returns To World Stage,
  67. Template:Cite web
  68. Template:Cite web
  70. Template:Cite web
  71. Template:Cite web
  72. Template:Cite web
  74. Template:Cite web
  75. Template:Cite web
  76. Template:Cite web
  77. Template:Cite news
  78. Template:Cite web
  79. Template:Cite web
  80. Template:Cite book
  81. Template:Cite web


  • Kellock, Harold. Houdini: His Life-Story from the recollections and documents of Beatrice Houdini, (Harcourt, Brace Co., June 1928).
  • Kendall, Lance. Houdini: Master of Escape (Macrae Smith & Co., NY, 1960). ISBN 0-06-092862-X.
  • Meyer, M.D., Bernard C.Houdini: A Mind in Chains (E.P. Dutton & Co. NY, 1976). ISBN 0-8415-0448-2.
  • Williams, Beryl & Samuel Epstein. The Great Houdini: Magician Extraordinary (Julian Messner, Inc., NY, 1950).

Further readingEdit

  • Houdini's Escapes and Magic by Walter B. Gibson, Prepared from Houdini's private notebooks Blue Ribbon Books, Inc., 1930. Reveals some of Houdini's magic and escape methods (also released in two separate volumes: Houdini's Magic and Houdini's Escapes).
  • The Secrets of Houdini by J.C. Cannell, Hutchinson & Co., London, 1931. Reveals some of Houdini's escape methods.
  • Houdini and Conan Doyle: The Story of a Strange Friendship by Bernard M. L. Ernst, Albert & Charles Boni, Inc., NY, 1932.
  • Sixty Years of Psychical Research by Joseph F. Rinn, Truth Seeker Co., 1950, Rinn was a long time close friend of Houdini. Contains detailed information about the last Houdini message (there are 3) and its disclosure.
  • Houdini's Fabulous Magic by Walter B. Gibson and Morris N. Young Chilton, NY, 1960. Excellent reference for Houdini's escapes and some methods (includes the Water Torture Cell).
  • The Houdini Birth Research Committee's Report, Magico Magazine (reprint of report by The Society of American Magicians), 1972. Concludes Houdini was born March 24, 1874, in Budapest.
  • Mediums, Mystics and the Occult by Milbourne Christopher, Thomas T. Crowell Co., 1975, pp. 122–145, Arthur Ford-Messages from the Dead, contains detailed information about the Houdini messages and their disclosure.
  • Arthur Ford: The Man Who Talked with the Dead by Allen Spraggett with William V. Rauscher, 1973, pp. 152–165, Chapter 7, The Houdini Affair contains detailed information about the Houdini messages and their disclosure.
  • Houdini: Escape into Legend, The Early Years: 1862–1900 by Manny Weltman, Finders/Seekers Enterprises, Los Angeles, 1993. Examination of Houdini's childhood and early career.
  • Houdini Comes To America by Ronald J. Hilgert, The Houdini Historical Center, 1996. Documents the Weiss family's immigration to the United States on July 3, 1878 (when Ehrich was 4).
  • Houdini Unlocked by Patrick Culliton, Two volume box set: The Tao of Houdini and The Secret Confessions of Houdini, Kieran Press, 1997.
  • The Houdini Code Mystery: A Spirit Secret Solved by William V. Rauscher, Magic Words, 2000.
  • Final Séance. The Strange Friendship Between Houdini and Conan Doyle by Massimo Polidoro, Prometheus Books, 2001.
  • The Man Who Killed Houdini by Don Bell, Vehicle Press, 2004. Investigates J. Gordon Whitehead and the events surrounding Houdini's death.
  • Disappearing Tricks: Silent Film, Houdini, and the New Magic of the Twentieth Century by Matthew Solomon, University of Illinois Press, 2010. Contains new information about Houdini's early movie career.
  • Houdini Art and Magic by Brooke Kamin Rapaport, Jewish Museum, 2010. Essays on Houdini's life and work are accompanied by interviews with novelist E.L. Doctorow, Teller, Kenneth Silverman, and more.
  • Houdini The Key by Patrick Culliton, Kieran Press, 2010. Reveals the authentic working methods of many of Houdini effects, including the Milk Can and Water Torture Cell. Limited to 278 copies.

External linksEdit

Template:External links


  • Houdini Tribute 400+ Photos, videos, multimedia, and hear Houdini's voice.
  • Wild About Harry—Website devoted to what's new in the world of Houdini; books, DVDs, auctions, movies, events, and pop culture references.

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