Profile: Houdini

Ships crossing the ocean crowded with immigrants traveling in steerage, brought 12 million brave souls to the shores of the United States between 1870 to 1900. They left behind all they knew, family, lifestyle, culture.

They arrived with dreams of free land, jobs, and opportunities for a better life. Some changed their names to assimilate better into their new environment. Some gave up old cultures and became more like Americans. Some even assumed total new identities. Though the United States has been a nation of immigrants since the crossing over the Bering Strait during the last ice age, many immigrants met prejudice when they tried to establish a new life within the nation’s borders.

Harry Houdini is known as one of the world’s most famous magicians and escape artist. His art began almost from childhood, with his “escape” from his past. On March 14, 1876, an infant son was born to Mayer Samuel Weisz and his second wife, Cecilia Steiner Weisz. They named their new son, Ehrich.

Mr. Weisz was a religious teacher. Upon emigrating to the United States before 1876, the spelling of the family name changed to Weiss. With the assistance of a friend, Mr. Weiss had obtained a job as a rabbi to a small congregation of Jews in Appleton, Wisconsin. It is believed that Weiss sent for his family in 1876 when their son Ehrich was no more than a toddler. The father and provider of the household was paid $750 a year. However, Rabbi Weiss ran into difficulty with many in his congregation who considered him to be much too old fashioned. He was finally dismissed from his position, and moved his family to Milwaukee, Wisconsin when his young son was about eight years old.

Even by this age, much of the young son’s story had been written. The little boy born Ehrich Weisz had already had his named changed to Ehrich Weiss. Though he claimed throughout his life that he was born on April 6, 1874, in Appleton, Wisconsin, he was actually born in Hungary in the city of Budapest. Why would changing these be of such importance to the young boy. First, many immigrants wanted to claim that they were natural-born citizens, lessening the prejudice against them for being immigrants.

Economic times were difficult, Ehrich began selling newspapers to help with the family income. He also performed acrobatic stunts and engaged himself in athletic activities. On October 28, 1883, Ehrich gave his first public performance as “Ehrich, the Prince of the Air”, when he was only nine years old. He claimed that he performed a trapeze act.  In actuality, he hung from a tree while wearing red socks which had been knitted by his mother.

Hopping a railroad freight car at age twelve, Ehrich ran away from home. It is no telling where all he traveled as the train made its way to Kansas City. A year later, Ehrich returned to his family, which had fallen on even harder times and moved to New York City. Erich tried his hand at a number of odd jobs. He worked for a period of time as a necktie cutter. He spent time as an assistant to a photographer. He even worked as a messenger in the city.

Ehrich and his brother were both fascinated with magic. They began to study the art and the work of past performers. One performer captivated Ehrich’s attention, a French magician named Robert Houdin. He was so mesmerized by Houdin that when he began performing magic for himself, he added an “i” to the end of Houdin’s name and called himself “Houdini.”  So, what made him change his first name? Probably nothing. Harry is most likely a nickname for persons named Ehrich.

At the age of 17, he and his brother, Theo, were already putting on magic shows in music halls for some extra cash. They billed themselves as the Houdini Brothers. They performed as a sideshow. They entertained civic groups and even performed at Coney Island amusement park. They did not shy away from work and were known to put on as many as 20 shows daily.

The brothers continued to work together until Harry met the love of his life, Beatrice Raymond. Miss Raymond was but a teenager, however, with the hard times, she was already working developing a career in show business as a singer and a dancer. “Bess” as she was called, and Harry eloped in 1894 and combined their acts to create one. Theo, on the other hand, left the act and started his own solo career as Hardeen. The story of Harry and Bess is one of great love, devotion, and a true partnership. Harry depended on Bess to care for him. She took care of the daily needs in life. Harry never failed to give Bess the credit she deserved. He said she was the secret behind his success. As evidence of his love for her, he wrote her letters, one love note every day.

Harry and Bess joined a circus run by the Welsh Brothers. They stayed with the circus for about half a year where Harry performed magic tricks and Bess performed as a dancer and a singer. The couple developed a magic trick together which they called “Metamorphosis.” In this trick, they switched places in a locked trunk. As typical of the perfectionist Harry was, he was not satisfied with what he considered the small scale of his act. He continued to work on and develop new, more amazing tricks.

He also worked to improve his speaking voice and to improve his showmanship. Harry became an expert in escaping from handcuffs. He caught the attention of crowds by arriving in a town and making a claim that he could escape from any handcuffs provided by the local law enforcement. Town after town, the people poured in to see his act after

witnessing his escape from their police department’s cuffs. He also knew that money always drew a crowd, so Houdini offered $100 to anyone who provided handcuffs from which he could not escape. The master of escape never had to pay. Houdini continued to increase the complexity of his escapes. He also became somewhat of an artist skilled in publicity. As his publicity grew, Houdini became a headliner on the vaudeville circuit. He performed in cities all across the nation. He even took his show abroad.

With no bookings and only enough money to take care of their needs for a week, Houdini and Bess sailed to England. Even though he secured an engagement at a London theater, Harry’s big break came when he took on Scotland Yard. Houdini allowed himself to be wrapped around a pillar and handcuffed in Scotland Yard. Much to the amazement of the British police, Houdini broke free. The stunt received such publicity that the theater where he performed experienced sold out performances. They decided to extend Houdini’s stay for six more months. After that he moved on to Germany and across the rest of Europe where his fame spread like wildfire. He continued to challenge the local police and further increased his publicity by jumping into rivers handcuffed and chained.  Of course, he escaped and made his way above water. But Houdini was clever. He always remained underwater long enough to make many of the onlookers believe he could not possibly still be alive. They were all greatly surprised when he sprang up, waving the chains over his head in triumph.

By 1905, Harry Houdini had gained international celebrity status before returning to the United States. With his heightened status, he also needed heightened stunts for publicity. He moved from escaping from handcuffs to jail and prison breaks. In Washington, D.C. In 1906, Houdini was invited to visit “murderers row” which held nine inmates sentenced to death. He was placed, naked, in a cell with Walter Hamilton who had been convicted of the murder of his wife. The cell was no ordinary cell. Twenty-five years before, the cell had been specially refurbished to hold a presidential assassin, Charles J. Guiteau, who fatally shot President James Garfield. There was such fear that Guiteau would be killed by persons angry at the killing of the President, that the cell was equipped with a bulletproof door made of oak hardwood.  Houdini escaped the cell in less ten minutes, and if that wasn’t enough to create publicity, what he did next, created quite a buzz.  Houdini unlocked the cells of all nine of the convicted on “murderers row” and had them to switch cells. About a half an hour later, when Harry walked to the warden’s office, it was reported that he said, “I let all your prisoners out.” What panic must have set in on the warden and guards before Houdini uttered another phrase, “…but I locked them all back up.” What excitement it must have created as the newspapers reported this stunt!

In Boston, he had himself stripped naked, handcuffed, and locked in a cell. His clothes were locked in a different cell. Guards were posted beside the three exits of the jail. Houdini escaped from his cell, broke into the cell where his clothing was stashed, slipped past the guards and scaled the prison walls after running across the prison yard. To make it even more interesting, he hopped into a waiting car which carried him to the Keith Theater. Before appearing on stage, he phoned the police at the jail to let them know where he was. This escape had taken only 23 minutes.

He performed other amazing feets. He squirmed free from a straitjacket while hanging upside down. He gained his freedom from a packing crate immersed underwater that had been nailed shut. One of his acts became a regular part of his performance. He allowed himself to be shackled and then lowered into an oversize milk can filled with water. He was then hidden away by a curtain. Houdini was expected to free himself in three minutes, which often did not happen. But as time dragged by, sometimes up to a half hour, Houdini’s reappearance to the crowd was made even more thrilling. This stunt did not go so well for Houdini on one occasion in England. Instead of filling the can with milk, the can was filled with beer. The magician was not accustomed to beer and its effects. He had to be pulled to safety by his assistants.

Houdini was driven to perfect his craft. He worked to keep his body in excellent physical condition. He had an oversized bath tub installed in his home in order to practice holding his breath. He exercised his hands, left and right, to become ambidextrous. His hands were seldom idol. Just sitting around, he practiced card tricks, tying and untying knots. The master even exercised his feet for special tricks.

As his reputation grew, Houdini assumed a leadership role among other magicians. He served as president of the Society of American Magicians and founded the Magician’s Club in London. Houdini was generous with other magicians, but jealous of anyone who attempted to duplicate his escapes. He wrote books and magazine articles that revealed some of magic’s simpler tricks, but carefully guarded his own secrets. Though known to be friendly and warm, Houdini had a large ego, could be touchy and petty at times, and frequently displayed a volatile tempter to his assistants.

In 1909, just six years after the Wright brothers proved that human flight was possible, Houdini became fascinated with airplanes. He bought his own plane, and learned to drive a car solely in order to get to the airport faster. In 1910, he became the first to successfully fly a plane in Australia. After that flight, however, his interest ended and he never piloted a plane or drove a car again. Houdini was also a great collector, with extensive collections of locks, magic memorabilia, autographs, historical items and, especially, books. Houdini collected so many books that he hired a full-time librarian to care for them, and traveled with hundreds at a time.

By the time he died, his collection had grown to more than 5,000. All of them were bequeathed to the Library of Congress.

When America entered the First World War in 1917, Houdini tried to enlist in the army, but was rejected, being too old at age 43. Unable to fight, Houdini preformed free shows for service men, during which he would produce five dollar gold pieces from the air and toss them to the audience. He claimed to have distributed $7,000 in that manner. Houdini also organized shows in support of Liberty Bonds to help finance the war.

After the war, Houdini became an actor, appearing in a thirteen-part silent film serial called The Master of Mystery. The series was sufficiently successful that Houdini was hired to make two feature films. When those films performed poorly at the box office, Houdini blamed the movie company and opted to make his own movies. He formed a production company with his brother Theo, and controlled every aspect of his next two films, The Man from Beyond and Haldane of the Secret Service. Like his earlier movies, they featured daring stunts and escapes, but also like the earlier movies, they were not successful. Though some of the action sequences were thrilling, critics panned Houdini’s wooden acting and ineffective love scenes. He was so embarrassed at having to kiss another woman onscreen that he gave his wife five dollars every time he did so. Accepting defeat, Houdini gave up on the film business.

Though Harry and Bess never had any children, his mother lived with them in a large home they purchased in New York. Upon his mother’s death, Harry was distraught. Her death was the reason behind the revival of his interest in “speaking with the dead” or spiritualism. As hard as he tried and as much as he wanted to believe that he would be able to make contact with his deceased mother through a spiritual medium, he came to realize that claims made by others were nothing more than a hoax. He dedicated a great deal of time exposing fraudulent spiritualists.  Houdini even offer a reward of $10,000 to anyone who could produce psychic effects that could not be reproduced through natural means. No one ever collected the reward. He even made exposing the spiritualists’ deceptions a part of his act. He also wrote A Magician Among the Spirits, which gave details of the phony practices of spiritualists.  The book became a best-seller.

It was through his interest in spiritualism that Houdini became friends with the author of the Sherlock Holmes series, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  However, the friends became estranged and often made verbal attacks on each other publicly, as a result of Conan’s refusal to believe that Houdini’s escapes were not due to spiritualism.

At the age of fifty, Houdini developed a a new show and took it on the road. The performance required the middle aged magician to remain on stage throughout most of the show which was over two hours. It was quite an elaborate show. Of course, it was filled with magic tricks which amazed and wowed audiences. He used part of his time to continue his attacks on spiritualism. Houdini escaped from a coffin. But it was his Chines water torture that everyone came to see. This amazing fete required the binding of Houdini’s hands and fee. He would then be lowed, upside down, into a glass tank which was filled with water.  After the lid to the tank was securely closed, Houdini would make his escape. This require great skill, concentration, and physical strength. While touring in Providence, Rhode Island, Bess became quite ill from food poisoning. A nurse stayed with her but it did not calm the fears of Houdini. He stayed awake and kept vigil with his ailing love. Their next show was in Albany, New York. Harry was exhausted from lack of sleep for three nights in a row. But as most people who make their living on a stage, Houdini knew the show must go on. In the midst of the Chinese water torture act, the frame which held Houdini’s leg in place made a sudden jerking motion. His ankle broke. Houdini, however, insisted on completing the show. He had other small injuries and continued on, and thus refused medical care. Already exhausted, Houdini slept very little that night and could not rest for the pain. The show kept rolling.

Their next stop was in Montreal, Canada. Houdini would not stay off his foot, despite doctor’s orders. He stuck to his regimented schedule and gave a lecture at McGill University where he met an art student who gave him a sketch he had made of Houdini. As a gesture of thanks, Houdini issued an invitation to the student to visit with him backstage before his afternoon performance the next day. Accepting the invitation, the student and two of his friends spent time before the show visiting with the master in his dressing room. One of the young men inquired if it was true that Houdini could withstand any blow delivered to his body above his waist. Houdini told the students that it was true and allowed the young man to test him out. As Houdini rose from his sitting position, the students belted the magician before he had an opportunity to tighten the muscles in his abdomen. Falling back on the couch in pain, Houdini’s face faded pale. Still, he went on with his matinee performance. He refused to see a doctor and insisted on going on with the evening performance.

On the following day, he developed fever and trembled with chills and perspired greatly. He performed two more shows before moving on to the next city, Detroit, Michigan where he finally saw a doctor. He had a temperature of 102 but refused to go to the hospital even though the doctor encourage it. He decided to go on with his performance that night. After the show, he agreed to go to the hospital. An operation revealed that he was in worse shape than he realized. His appendix had ruptured. This caused peritonitis which without antibiotics usually led to death. Houdini underwent a second surgery. Bess was checked in to the same facility. With little to no hope of survival, Houdini gave his beloved Bess a message which she was to use as proof if he ever communicated with her from beyond the grave. She would know that it was really him if the spirit uttered the words “Rosabelle, believe,” words from a song she had long ago sung in her performances when they first met at Coney Island.

On All Hallows Eve, Halloween, October 31, 1926, Houdini breathed his last words with his brother Theo at his side, “I’m tired of fighting…I guess this thing is going to get me.” Thousands turned out to mourn as his funeral processioned passed them on the streets of New York City. At the funeral, a magician’s wand was broken by a representative of the Society of American Magicians. This event became a tradition that continues to be used for Society members. In the coffin, his head rested on a pillow filled with letters from his mother. The master magician was laid to rest beside his parents in Machpelah Cemetery in Long Island, New York.

Houdini’s equipment and memorabilia was given to his brother, Theo, who continued to practice magic until his death in 1945. Bess inherited her husband’s estate which benefited her a comfortable living even after paying all of his debts. On the anniversary of his death, Bess tried for years through seances to make contact in the spirit world with Houdini. She waited to hear those words, “Rosabelle, believe.” She died in 1943, without ever hearing them.  Even Harry could not escape death.

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