Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, come one come all to witness the amazing death defying acts of the amazing Harry Houdini! Taking his audience on a heart stopping ride, Harry Houdini was the greatest magician and escape artist of all time. No locks would keep him, no tomb could hold him, and no audience could resist him. Houdini was more than just a vaudeville magician with a bag of tricks. Even today, some of his escape methods still remain unsolved. Long before he was legendary magician Harry Houdini, he was Erik Weisz.
Erik Weisz was born on March 24, 1874 in Budapest, Hungary. He was one of seven children belonging to a Jewish Rabbi and his wife, Mayer and Cecilia Weisz. The Weisz family moved to the United States on July 3, 1878. The family changed the Hungarian spelling of their German surname to Weiss, and Erik’s name was changed to Erich. Friends referred to him as Ehrie, which later turned into Harry. They first lived in Appleton, Wisconsin, where his father was a Rabbi for a Zion Reform Jewish congregation. At one point, Harry would later claim that Appleton was his birth town.
In 1887, Rabbi Weiss and his son relocated to a New York City boarding house. The rest of the family joined once Rabbi Weiss was able to find permanent housing. As a child, Erich took several jobs, one of them being a messenger man. He first debuted an act as a trapeze artist when he was just 9 years old. He called himself, “Erich, the Prince of Air. ” Eric was first introduced to magic by the traveling circuses that passed through New York City. He became obsessed with how illusions were performed. In his spare time he lifted weights to build his physique.
He also practiced acrobatic skills. In 1891, Erich officially began his magic career. In the early years he had little success. He traveled from town to town in sideshows, dime museums, and as The Wild Man at several freak shows. Initially, he focused on traditional card tricks, and, at one point, self proclaimed himself as the King of Cards. Shortly after mastering cards, he began practicing tricks of illusion. It was during this time that Erich coined the name Harry Houdini after his idol, the French magician Jean Eugene-Robert Houdin.
A good friend, Jack Hayman, told Erich that adding an “I” to Houdin would mean “like Houdin” in French. It was from this point forward the great Harry Houdini became known. In 1893, while performing magic at Coney Island with his brother Dash, Houdini met a fellow performer named Wilhelmina Beatrice “Bess” Rahner. Though originally courted by Dash, Bess and Houdini were married in the year 1894. Later, Dash was replaced by Bess in all of Houdini’s magic acts and eventually became Houdini’s stage assistant for the rest of his performing career.
Though his magic drew only small success, Houdini soon drew attention for his feats of escape using handcuffs. Harry Houdini had his first big break in 1899 when he met manager and producer Martin Beck in St. Paul, Minnesota. Beck felt Houdini was a rotten showman, but was impressed by Houdini’s escape acts and booked him a spot on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit. It only took a few months before Harry Houdini was performing at the top vaudeville houses in the country, such as Kansas City, Denver, Chicago, and San Francisco.
Vaudeville was a wonderful platform for magic. Houdini’s act fit in perfectly. After two years he became the host highly paid actor in vaudeville, receiving around $1,500 a week. Some of his performances housed 6,000 people. He would challenge the audience to bring their own handcuffs and he would always escape. The show became a massive hit within the United States. Every performance was different, and each time Houdini seemed to raise the ante from, handcuffs and straitjackets, to locked, water-filled tanks and nailed packing crates.
In 1912, his act reached its pinnacle, the Chinese Water Torture Cell, which would be the hallmark of his career. In it, Houdini was suspended by his feet and lowered upside-down in a locked glass cabinet filled with water, requiring him to hold his breath for more than three minutes to escape. The performance was so daring and such a crowd-pleaser that it remained in his act until his death. In 1900, Beck arranged for Houdini to tour Europe. After many unsuccessful shows in London, Houdini finally caught the interest of Dundas Slater. At that time, Slater was the manager of Alhambra Theater.
It was at this theater that Houdini gave a demonstration of escape from handcuffs in which he baffled the police force so effectively he was instantly booked for a week. After one week, his show grew so popular it was extended for six months. Throughout the next five years, Houdini toured Brittan and the continent. He would escape jail cells in the day and play to packed houses at night. Through his tour of Brittan, one great escapes stands out among others. This great escape involved a very intricate pair of handcuffs known as mirror cuffs.
This particular set was shaped like the letter “B” and had 13 tumblers. Houdini instructed an audience member to lock him up with the handcuffs while stating, “I have been locked in a pair of handcuffs, which it has taken a British mechanic five years to make. I do not know whether I can escape or not, but I assure you I am going to try. ” Then, Houdini slipped behind a curtain and began working on setting himself free. While the audience anticipated and stared mesmerizingly at the curtain, Houdini never reappeared until 20 minutes later. He was still bound by the cuffs.
He asked for the cuffs to be removed so that he may take off his jacket. He was denied this request. His response was to pull out a pen knife from his waist coat pocket, place it in his mouth, and cut the coat off his body. Slowly, an hour ticks by. His wife Bess reportedly entered the stage at this point to give Houdini a kiss. Then the orchestra suddenly strikes up a stirring march. A few moments later, Houdini appears from behind the curtains proudly displaying the cuffs above his head. According to the paper, men stood on the chairs, women waived their handkerchiefs, and strangers hugged each other.