About Houdini

Harry Houdini’s actual name was Ehrich Weiss. Magician Harry Houdini born March 24, 1874 in Budapest, Hungary (not Appleton WI ) of Jewish parents. Died in Detroit -1926. After Harry Houdini’s death his wife held seances as a test, to no avail. Biography: Harry Houdini was often quoted to be born in Appleton, Wisconsin, Harry Houdini came to the United States to Appleton with family at the age of four. To this day many connected with the small town of Appleton still claim in their biography that Harry Houdini was born in Appleton, to attract tourists. Copies of Harry Houdini’s birth records and early family records at the Harry Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pa, show Harry Houdini was born in Budapest (not Appleton ), on March 24, 1874. Historians are finally agreed on this fact. In later years, in a magazine interview, a Harry Houdini quote said of Appleton, “the greatest escape I ever made was when I left Appleton, Wisconsin.”

Harry Houdini’s father was Mayer Samuel Weiss. Harry Houdini’s father was a Jewish Rabbi. Harry Houdini’s father for a short time was Jewish Rabbi for the German Zoin Jewish Congregation in Appleton. Harry Houdini’s mother’s name was Cecilia Steiner Weiss.Being Jewish Harry Houdini’s parents spoke only Yiddish, Hungarian, and German. The family of Harry Houdini was poor so the children began to work at an early age. From the age of eight young Ehrich Weiss (Erik Weisz) sold newspapers and worked as a shoe shine boy. When coming to the United States there were often many spellings of names as families adjusted to English. At the age of 12, young Ehrich left home – Appleton to make his way in the world & to help support his family. A great sign of independance. Many biography links wrongly claim Harry Houdini was overly obsessed with his mother. However Harry Houdini did love her very much.

After leaving Appleton young Ehrich traveled for about a year, sending money home to his family when he could. The family moved from Appleton to New York in the the hope of finding a better life there. Harry  joined up with his family in New York City.  The move from Appleton to New York would change Magician Harry Houdini’s life and introduce him to the world of big time magic.  In New York, Harry Houdini worked as a messenger and as a cutter in a garment center sweat shop, Richter & Sons, a tie factory to help support his family. Harry Houdini ‘s father found some little work in the Jewish community there, but also worked with Houdini for a time at the factory. His father  would die about five years later on October 5, 1892.

Magician Harry Houdini was very athletic and won awards in swimming and track. As a child, Ehrich Weiss took several jobs, next becoming a champion cross country runner. Later in life, Harry has been quoted as saying his athletic and swimming talents were of great help for Harry Houdini’s success as an escape artist. He made his public début as a 9-year-old trapeze artist, calling himself “Ehrich, the prince of the air”.

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.

At the outset, Houdini’s magic career resulted in 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 publicly stated 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 claimed he made his escapes via bribery.[6] 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.

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 and a dwindling audience, 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 his challenge escape act — in which he invited the public to devise contraptions to hold him — to include nailed packing crates (sometimes lowered into the water), riveted boilers, wet-sheets, mailbags, and even the belly of a Whale that washed ashore in Boston. Brewers challenged Houdini to escape from his milk can after they filled it with beer. In 1918 he registered for selective service as Harry Handcuff Houdini.

Many of these challenges were prearranged 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, although Houdini himself never claimed to have supernatural powers.

A poster promoting Houdini taking up the challenge of escaping an “extra strong and large traveling basket”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 escape had nothing to do with his demise. Houdini explained some of his tricks in books written for the magic brotherhood throughout his career. In Handcuff Secrets (1909), he revealed how many locks and handcuffs could be opened with properly applied force, others with shoestrings. 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.

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, after being accused of having someone sneak in and let him out and being challenged to escape without the curtain, discovered that audiences were more impressed and entertained when the curtains were eliminated so they could watch him struggle to get out. They both performed straitjacket escapes dangling upside-down from the roof of a building for publicity on more than one occasion.

For most of his career, Houdini performed his act as a headliner 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 a 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. 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”.

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