Welcome to Bob King's Houdini Tribute
Hello, I'm Harry Houdini, one of the most famous magicians, illusionists, and the most famous escape artist in the world. I was born as Ehrich Weisz (American immigration officials changed Weisz to Weiss) in Budapest, Hungary on March 24, 1874. Just call me Houdini. I was the third of five children.
When I was about four years old, my father, Rabbi Dr. Mayer Samuel Weiss, who was a religious scholar and teacher, moved our family to Appleton, Wisconsin where he became the first rabbi of a new congregation. I told everyone for my entire life that I was born in Appleton, so they would accept me as an American.
Times were difficult for our family, and we were required to move many times. I loved my mother, Cecilia Steiner Weiss, very much, and to help our financial situation, I began to work at an early age. When I was eight years old, I sold newspapers and worked as a bootblack. However after my father took me to see Dr. Lynn, a traveling magician, my interest in performing soon took over. October 28, 1883, was the date of my first appearance before an audience. I appeared as a contortionist and trapeze performer, as "Ehrich, The Prince of the Air."
When I was 12, I began performing magic as "Eric the Great." I ran away from home and tried to make some money following circuses and side shows. I was gone for about a year, but then rejoined my family in their new home in New York City at age 13.
My father died about five years later on October 5, 1892. I worked in New York City as a cutter in a necktie factory, Richter & Sons, a messenger, an electrical driller, a photographer and as an apprentice to a locksmith. One of the first locks that I learned how to open was when I stole an apple pie from my mother's locked cupboard!
I was always concerned about physical fitness and staying in shape. I won awards in track and swimming. I later used these talents as an escape artist.
When I was 15, I read an autobiography by the French Magician named Jean Robert-Houdin. This changed my life forever. I wanted to be just like Robert-Houdin, so I added the letter "i" which means "like" to his name, and I became Houdini. I did 20 shows a day at a salary of $12 per week.
In 1892, I formed a "double act" with my brother Theo (nicknamed Dash - who later performed under the name Hardeen) where we performed the spectacular Substitution Trunk or Metamorphosis Illusion as the Houdini Brothers. We performed this act at Coney Island, dime-museums and the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. I performed the astounding Metamorphosis Illusion over 11,000 times during my career.
While I was working at Coney Island, in June 1894, I met another performer who was singing and dancing as part of the Floral Sisters - the 18-year-old woman who became my wife. Her name was Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, but everyone called her Bess. We were married two weeks later on June 22, 1894. She immediately replaced my brother Theo in the act, which then became known as the Houdinis. We worked at fairs, Indian reservations, the Welch Brothers Circus, and P.T. Barnum's museum. I also did card tricks and was known as the "King of Cards". I taught myself how to escape out of a strait jacket. We traveled the Northeast and Midwest extensively, and times were tough.
In 1898, I developed the "Challenge" Handcuff Act. I would pay $100 to anyone in the audience if they could produce a pair of handcuffs that I couldn't escape from. I never paid out once! I was now the "Handcuff King". But, for many years my career went nowhere.
A man named Martin Beck, the top vaudeville booking agent, told me I should concentrate on my illusions and escapes instead of little magic tricks. He put me as a headline act on his vaudeville Orpheum Circuit. In many of the cities that I would perform in, I would ask the police to lock me in their jails, and I would escape. This was great for free publicity. My salary jumped from $60.00 to $90.00 to $125.00 weekly.
In May 1900, we sailed to London for our first show in Europe. I escaped from a pair of handcuffs at England's famous Scotland Yard -- more free publicity. In Paris I jumped into the Seine River with handcuffs on and escaped. I could escape from being tied up in a chair with 50' of rope. I became the highest paid entertainer in Europe making over $2,000 per week. In 1905, Bess and I came back to America as vaudeville headliners at $1,200 a week. We bought a home in New York City.
I have escaped from items such as sunken packing crates, an enormous paper bag (without tearing the paper), padded cells, coffins, a roll-top desk, burglar-proof safes, a preserved giant squid, a giant football, an iron boiler, a diving suit, a U.S. mail pouch and a plate glass box. On January 7, 1906, I also escaped from the death cell in a Washington jail that had held Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President Garfield. Got the picture? You can't contain me! I wrote the Conjurer's Monthly Magazine and a book exposing psychics and fakes.
I did a famous "Bridge Jump" by plunging into San Francisco Bay with a 75-pound ball and chain shackled to my ankles in addition to handcuffs on my wrists.
In St. Louis, MO, on January 27, 1908, I introduced my famous escape from a giant milk can filled with water and then padlocked. One of my copy-cat imitators drowned while attempting the same escape.
In Hamburg, Germany, I bought an airplane for $5,000. In 1910, I made the first plane flight at Digger's Rest in Australia. After that I never flew again.
Back in England, I escaped from the mouth of a cannon before the fuse burned out. In 1912 in New York I escaped from a weighted packing case dropped overboard from a barge in the East River. I repeated the stunt nightly in a huge tank in a New York theater, receiving $8,000 for eight weeks. Back in England again in 1914, I built my famous Chinese Water Torture Cell, in which I was locked hanging upside down by my feet in water before my escape. Stories and even a movie showing me dying in the Chinese Water Torture Cell are not true.
I returned to New York and presented my famous Chinese Water Torture Cell Escape and Walking Through A Brick Wall Illusion for a brief run. During the daytime before the show in each new city, I would do a suspended strait jacket escape while dangling from a rope attached to high buildings above huge crowds - more free publicity.
In 1918, I presented Jenny the "Vanishing Elephant", the world's largest illusion on a giant stage at the Hippodrome in New York City. Once I nearly suffocated while escaping from a buried coffin in a "Living Burial" escape.
In 1919, I played the hero in a series of movie thrillers. Later, I produced two films with myself as the star. That same year, I became president of Martinka & Co., a magic company. In 1925, after becoming very popular, I again started out my full evening magic and illusion show. The show was an immediate hit.
I introduced the "Needle Trick" of swallowing many needles and thread and then drawing the needles from my mouth -- all threaded. Don't try this at home!
In 1926, I testified before a congressional committee investigating spiritualists, people pretending to be able to contact the dead. I was known as a debunker of fake mediums and spiritualists. My interest began during my bereavement after the death of my mother. Because of my background as an illusionist, I recognized the techniques of mediums who claimed to have contacted the spirit world. I became a crusader against these charlatans who bilked grieving families of their money. I frequently attended seances in disguise in order to expose the mediums. That year I lay underwater over 90 minutes in a sealed casket to beat the world record.
On October 22, 1926, while in my dressing room at the Princess Theater in Montreal with several students from McGill University, I was asked if I could actually withstand a punch to the stomach thrown by any man. This is something I would routinely do, but before I could prepare myself by tightening my stomach muscles, a fellow named Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead hit me three times. Well, I didn't know it at the time, but my appendix had burst. I did several shows at the Garrick Theatre in Detroit after that, but I soon became ill. Nine days later in room 401 of Detroit's old Grace Hospital, I died from peritonitis, which is inflammation of the lining of the torso. I died at the age of 52, on October 31, -- Halloween.
For ten years after my death, Bess held a yearly seance on Halloween in order to try and contact me in the after-life. We had actually worked out a secret code before my death to see if I could indeed make contact when the time actually came. Bess never heard from me. To this day people still hold seances in an attempt to contact me.
I was known as a master showman with a knack for publicity. I knew how to interest my audiences. I was extremely self-confident and had a flair for exaggeration - often making things bigger than life. I always kept myself in the spotlight. Although I have been dead for over 75 years, my name is still instantly recognized throughout the world.
Copyright 1998-2013 by Robert R. King