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Harry Houdini biography

Biography of Harry Houdini (1874-1926)

Houdini  means “escape artist or other ingenious person,” according to the dictionary.   Harry Houdini epitomizes that, of course, as the man who created the field of escape artistry, as well as becoming the most famous magician of his day, and equally well known for his debunking of fake “psychics.” His story, in one sense, ended on the stage after dying of a ruptured appendix, but in another sense continued for many years afterward.   Houdini personally stated that his story began in Appleton, Wisconsin … but it likely actually began in Budapest, Austria-Hungary.

Early life of Harry Houdini

Houdini, Portrait at Age 32Harry Houdini was born as Erik Weisz (he later spelled his birth name as Ehrich Weiss) in Budapest, Hungary, on March 24, 1874. From 1907 on, however, Houdini would claim in interviews to have been born in Appleton, Wisconsin, on April 6, 1874.

His parents were Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weiss (1829-1892) and his wife, Cecelia (nee 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); Leopold D. (1879-1962); and Gladys Carrie (born 1882 -€“unknown year of death).

Weiss came to the United States on July 3, 1878, sailing on the SS Fresia with his mother (who was pregnant) and his four brothers. The family changed the Hungarian spelling of their German surname into Weiss (the German spelling) and the spelling of their son’s name into 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. According to the 1880 census, the family lived on Appleton Street. 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 debut 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 Eugene Robert-Houdin, and his friend Jack Hayman told him, erroneously, that in French, adding an ‘€œi’€ to Houdin would mean “€œlike Houdin” the great magician. In later life, Houdini would claim that the first part of his new name, Harry, was an homage to  Harry Kellar, whom Houdini admired.

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

Magic career of Harry Houdini

Houdini began his magic career in 1891. 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 “€œbig 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.

Harry Houdini

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. 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.

Houdini's Death-Defying Mystery

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 his milk can after they filled it with beer.

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, although Houdini himself never claimed to have supernatural powers.

Harry Houdini

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 lock picks or keys, being able to regurgitate small keys at will.

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.

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. 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”.

Notable escapes of Harry Houdini

Mirror handcuff challenge

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 matinee 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.

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 entire Mirror challenge was prearranged by Houdini and the newspaper, and that his long struggle to escape was pure showmanship. 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 (again from The Secret Life of Houdini).

Milk Can Escape

In 1901, Houdini introduced his own original act, the Milk Can Escape. 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. 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) into the 1940s.

Chinese Water Torture Cell

HoudiniIn 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 “€œUSD”. 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.

Suspended straitjacket escape

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. 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.

Overboard box escape

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.

Buried Alive stunt

Houdini

Throughout his career, Houdini performed three variations on a “Buried Alive” stunt/escape. The first was near Santa Ana, California in 1917, 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 “€œthe weight of the earth is killing.”€

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. He repeated the feat at the YMCA in Worcester Massachusetts on September 28, 1926, this time remaining sealed for one hour and eleven minutes.

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.

Attempts to explain Houdini’s abilities

It was never entirely clear how Houdini managed to escape from his bonds. Arthur Conan Doyle counted him a medium who only performed as a prestidigitator. It is assumed that Houdini swallowed the key to the handcuffs and got it back through vomiting, unseen by the audience, as he always escaped from his bonds in a hidden place (under water or in closed boxes).

Movie career of Harry Houdini

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. In 1909 Houdini made a film in Paris for Cinema Lux titled Merveilleux Exploits du Celebre Houdini a Paris (Marvellous Exploits of the Famous Houdini in Paris). 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.

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 Alistair Crowley.

The Master of Mystery - Houdini

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).

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 “€œHoudini 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.
Neither Houdini’€™s acting career nor FDC found success, and he gave up on the movie business in 1923, complaining that “€œthe 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).

As of 2007 only The Man From Beyond had been commercially released on DVD. Incomplete versions of The Master Mystery and Terror Island were released by private collectors on VHS. Complete 35 mm prints of Haldane of the Secret Service and The Grim Game exist only in private collections. Haldane of the Secret Service was screened in Los Angeles in 2007.

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 Celebre Houdini à Paris (although it is not identified as such).

Harry Houdini, aviation pioneer

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 made the first powered flight over Australia on March 18 at Diggers Rest, Victoria (near Melton), north of Melbourne. Colin Defries preceded him, but he crashed the plane on landing.

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).

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.

Harry Houdini debunking spiritualists

Do Spirits Return? Houdini Says No

In the 1920s, after the death of his mother, Cecelia, he turned his energies toward debunking self-proclaimed psychics and mediums, a pursuit that would inspire and be followed by later-day conjurers. 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 seances in disguise, accompanied by a reporter and police officer. Possibly the most famous medium whom he debunked was Mina Crandon, also known as “€œMargery”.

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 exposes. 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.

Before Houdini died, he and his wife, Bess, agreed that if Houdini’s spirit came back to earth, he would utter “Rosabelle believe” as a secret codeword to prove that it was actually him. This was a phrase from a play that Bess performed in when the couple first met. Bess held yearly seances on Halloween for ten years after Houdini’s death, but Houdini’s spirit never appeared. In 1936, after a last unsuccessful seance 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, later saying in 1943 that “€œten years is long enough to wait for any man.”€ The tradition of holding a seance for Houdini continues by magicians throughout the world to this day; the Official Houdini Seance was by Sidney Hollis Radner, a Houdini aficionado from upstate New York. Yearly Houdini Seances 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; 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.

Houdini Demonstrates How Slates May be Changed at a Seance

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

Appearance and voice of Harry Houdini

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 5 ft 5 in, 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:

“œThey stressed his smallness –“somewhat undersized” — and angular, vivid features: “He is smooth-shaven with a keen, sharp-chinned, sharp-cheekboned face, bright blue eyes and thick, curly, black hair.” Some sensed how much his complexly expressive smile was the outlet of his charismatic stage presence. It communicated to audiences at once warm amiability, pleasure in performing, and, more subtly, imperious self-assurance. Several reporters tried to capture the charming effect, describing him as “happy-looking”, “€œpleasant-faced”, “€œgood natured at all times”, “€œthe young Hungarian magician with the pleasant smile and easy confidence”.

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.

Artifacts of Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini's Will

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. Radner allowed choice pieces of the collection to be displayed at The Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls, Canada. 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. 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 archived the bulk of his collection at the Houdini Museum in Appleton, Wisconsin, but pulled it in 2003 and auctioned it off in Las Vegas on October 30, 2004.

Houdini was a formidable collector, He bequeathed his holdings on magic and spiritualism to the Library of Congress, which became the basis for a collection in cyberspace.

Death of Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini died of peritonitis, secondary to a ruptured appendix. Eyewitnesses to an incident in Montreal gave rise to speculation that Houdini’s death was caused by a McGill University student, J. Gordon Whitehead, who delivered multiple blows to Houdini’s abdomen to test Houdini’s claim that he was able to take any blow to the body above the waist without injury.

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:

Houdini was reclining on his couch after his performance, having an art student sketch him. When Whitehead came in and asked if it was true that Houdini could take any blow to the stomach, Houdini replied groggily in the affirmative. In this instance, he was hit three times before Houdini could tighten up his stomach muscles to avoid serious injury. Whitehead reportedly continued hitting Houdini several more times and Houdini acted as though he were in some pain.

Houdini reportedly stated that if he had time to prepare himself properly he would have been in a better position to take the blows. He had apparently been suffering from appendicitis for several days prior and yet refused medical treatment. His appendix would likely have burst on its own without the trauma. 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.

Houdini died of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix at 1:26 p.m. in Room 401 on October 31, aged 52.

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.

Houdini’s funeral was held on November 4, 1926, in New York, with more than 2,000 mourners in attendance. He was interred in the Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York, with the crest of the Society of American Magicians inscribed on his gravesite. 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.

Proposed exhumation of Harry Houdini

On March 22, 2007, his great-nephew (the grandson of Houdini’€™s brother Theo) George Hardeen announced that the courts would be asked to allow exhumation of Houdini’s body. The purpose was to look for evidence that Houdini was poisoned by Spiritualists, as suggested in The Secret Life of Houdini. 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. The Washington Post added to the furor by “revealing” that the press conference was not orchestrated by the family of Houdini, but by Secret Life authors William Kulash and Larry Sloman, who hired the PR firm Dan Klores Communications to promote the book. In 2008 it was revealed the parties involved never filed legal papers to perform an exhumation.

Legacy of Harry Houdini

  • 1936: On October 31, 1936, Houdini’s widow held the “Final Houdini Seance” atop The Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood, California. A recording of the séance was made and issued as a record album.
  • 1953: Houdini, a mostly fictionalized biopic of Houdini’€™s life, was made. This movie, starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, has contributed, in part, to several misconceptions about Houdini’s life. For example, it portrays the cause of Houdini’s death to be the magician’s failure to escape from the Chinese Water Torture Cell. (Curtis’s Houdini agrees to seek medical attention”€œwhen 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, this 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. Seances 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.
  • 1975: Houdini received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The star is located on the northwest corner of Hollywood Blvd. and Orange Drive, just across from the Grauman’s Chinese Theater and down the street from The Magic Castle.
  • 1975: Houdini repeatedly appears in E. L. Doctorow’s historical novel Ragtime.
  • 1976: Houdini was played by Paul Michael Glaser, of Starsky and Hutch fame, in a 1976 TV movie called The Great Houdinis! (aka 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 and his mother almost fanatical in her Judaism to the point of being anti-Christian (although, in reality, they had cordial relations) and on his fascination with life after death. The cast also included Sally Struthers, Vivian Vance, Bill Bixby, and Ruth Gordon. Peter Cushing appeared as Arthur Conan Doyle; Cushing had previously played Doyle’s creation, Sherlock Holmes. Actor/Houdini authority Patrick Culliton played Houdini’s assistant Franz Kukol.
  • 1982: English singer/songwriter Kate Bush included a song about Houdini on her album The Dreaming.
  • 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.
  • 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”.
  • 1993: The film Last Action Hero was released, in which a magical movie ticket, which grants the bearer entry to a film’s world, allegedly belonged to Houdini, prior to being passed off to the character by the name of Nick.
  • 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. The two are shown 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.
  • 1998: Johnathon Schaech played Houdini in the TNT original movie Houdini. The film co-starred Stacy Edwards as Bess and Mark Ruffalo as his brother, Dash (aka Theo. Hardeen). The TV movie first aired on December 6, 1998.
  • 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.
  • 2000: In Michael Chabon’s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay the character Josef “Joe” Kavalier is inspired by Houdini and learns magic and escapology. In 1939 he escapes from Europe to America, where as a cartoonist he draws the adventures of The Escapist, a superhero inspired in part by Houdini.
  • 2001: The Houdini Seance was mounted as a theatrical piece in Chicago by Neil Tobin and becomes an annual Halloween event at Excalibur (nightclub).
  • 2002: The United States Postal Service issued a postage stamp with a replica of Houdini’s favorite publicity poster on July 3, 2002.
  • There is a Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania. It is the only building in the world entirely dedicated to Houdini and is run by magicians Dick Brooks and Dorothy Dietrich. The museum also holds an annual Houdini séance.
  • While touring in the United States, Houdini met Joe Keaton and his family vaudeville act. It’s said that after Joe’s young son fell down a flight of stairs unscathed, Houdini remarked, “Your kid is quite the buster” (buster being a stage name for a fall) and gave a name to comedy legend Buster Keaton (the kid).
  • 2003: Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, a show inspired by Houdini’s skepticism and hosted by magicians Penn & Teller, premiered.
  • 2007: The movie, Death Defying Acts, starring Guy Pearce and Catherine Zeta-Jones, was based on Houdini’s life. August 2007: the Independent Investigative Group (IIG) awarded Houdini posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award. This honor has also been awarded to Carl Sagan and James Randi.
  • 2008: Escape artist Curtis Lovell II dedicated his buried alive stunt to Harry Houdini. It took Lovell 16 minutes to escape and over 2000 people came to witness this Houdini-style stunt in the city of Grand Terrace, California. CBS, KCAL9 and local newspapers covered the event.
  • 2008: Australian rock band Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds released their album Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! based on Houdini’s attempt to discredit spiritualists.
  • 2008: Houdini’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was restored and rededicated in a ceremony attended by Neil Patrick Harris, Penn & Teller, Aron Houdini, Tippi Hedren, Milt Larsen, and other notables from the world of magic and movies.
  • 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.
  • 2009: The Perth Mint released a limited supply of dollar coins commemorating Houdini’s first flight in Australia on March 18, 1910. A commemorative stamp was also issued.
  • 2009: Assassin’s Creed II used “Houdini’s Chinese Water Torture Cell” picture in a puzzle where you had to find the Apple, a piece of Eden.
  • 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 bi-plane.
  • 2010: The Blue Stars Drum and Bugle Corps toured with their show titled “Houdini”.
  • 2010: The World Premier of Houdini—The Man From Beyond musical opened in Toowoomba, Australia, at the University of Southern Queensland.
  • 2010: Houdini’s death appeared on the Spike TV show 1000 Ways to Die.
  • 2010: A major traveling exhibition of Houdini memorabilia, paraphernalia, and art (inspired by him)—titled Houdini: Art and Magic—opened at the Jewish Museum in New York on October 29, 2010. 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.
  • 2011: Google featured a special Houdini Doodle logo to commemorate his 137th birthday on March 24. The Harry Houdini “Google doodle” was the first to appear after Google received “a curious new patent up its sleeve” The “Google doodle” is the “‘System and Method For Enticing Users To A Web Site’” as approved by the US patent office.

Publications by Harry Houdini

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

  • The Right Way to Do Wrong: An Expose of Successful Criminals. Boston: Harry Houdini. 1906. Audio book at Librivox
  • Handcuff Secrets (1907)
  • The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin. New York: The Publisher’s Printing Company. 1908. Retrieved March 26, 2011. at Internet Archive, a debunking study of Robert-Houdin’s abilities.
  • Conjuring (13th ed.). Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1926. Retrieved March 26, 2011.
  • Magical Rope Ties and Escapes (1920)
  • Miracle Mongers and their Methods: an Expose by Harry Houdini. New York: E.P. Dutton. 1920. Retrieved March 28, 2011.
  • Houdini’€™s Paper Magic (1921)
  • A Magician Among the Spirits (1924) Arno Press, A New York Times Company, New York, 1972. Original printing, 1924. ISBN 0-405-02801-6
  • Under the Pyramids (1924) with H. P. Lovecraft.
  • Works by Harry Houdini at Project Gutenberg

Filmography of Harry Houdini

Films starring Houdini:

  • Merveilleux Exploits du Celebre Houdini à Paris – Cinema Lux (1909)—playing himself
  • The Master Mystery – Octagon Films (1918)—playing Quentin Locke
  • The Grim Game €”Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount Pictures (1919)—playing Harvey Handford
  • Terror Island – Famous Players Lasky/Paramount (1920) €”playing Harry Harper
  • The Man From Beyond €”Houdini Picture Corporation (1922) playing Howard Hillary
  • Haldane of the Secret Service Houdini Picture Corporation/FBO (1922) playing Heath Haldane

Biographical films about Harry Houdini:

  • Houdini (1953) played by Tony Curtis
  • The Great Houdini aka The Great Houdinis (1976) €”played by Paul Michael Glaser (TV movie)
  • Ragtime (1981) played by Jeffrey DeMunn
  • Young Harry Houdini (1987) €”played by Wil Wheaton & Jeffrey DeMunn (TV movie)
  • A Night at the Magic Castle (1988) played by Arte Johnson
  • FairyTale: A True Story (1997) played by Harvey Keitel
  • Houdini (1998) €”played by Johnathon Schaech (TV movie)
  • Cremaster 2 (1999) €”played by Norman Mailer
  • Death Defying Acts (2007) played by Guy Pearce

 

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