Harry Houdini life and biography

Harry Houdini picture, image, poster

Harry Houdini biography

Date of birth : 1874-03-24
Date of death : 1926-10-31
Birthplace : Budapest, Hungary
Nationality : Hungarian
Category : Historian personalities
Last modified : 2010-05-12
Credited as : Stunt performer and magician/escapologist, Actor and historian figure, The milk can

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Harry Houdini (March 24, 1874 - October 31, 1926) was an American magician and escapologist, stunt performer, actor and film producer. He was also a skeptic who set out to expose frauds purporting to be supernatural phenomena.

Known to the world as “The Great Houdini,” Harry Houdini has gone down in history as one of the best magicians in the world. Not only because of his amazing escape stunts, but also because of his audacity and showmanship. Houdini helped structure and define an art that is still adhered to by many practicing performers. Whether it would be holding his breath while escaping an underwater cell, or freeing himself from a straight jacket, Houdini baffled, surprised, and amazed countless audiences with his magic.

Although the autobiography of Harry Houdini might claim that he was born in Wisconsin, it is known that his real name was Erich Weiss and that he was born in Hungary to a Rabbi named Samuel Weiss. It is also known that he had two brothers and a sister. In his biography, entitled The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini, Ruth Brandon admits that evidence suggests the family first moved to Wisconsin and later to New York.

Young Harry was always fascinated by magic. Even though the family was quite poor, he would perform magic tricks he made up for the family. Later in his adolescence, he joined a circus and was known as Eric, Prince of the Air. At the young age of 17, in despair by poverty and limits set by society for Jews at the time, Harry told his family that he was going to be a performer named Houdini, christened after the famous French magician Houdin. By the age of 20, Houdini had been performing small acts and shows throughout New York. Houdini soon married and the couple joined a circus. Houdini would swallow needles, pick locks, and perform mind-reading tricks.

Houdini was on the venue of the Hopkins Theatre in Chicago for gaining public attention after he repeatedly escaped from local police handcuffs and even from jail. After touring America, he began touring Europe with great success. Houdini, knowing the public always demanded more and wanting to keep ahead of his rivals, would escape from coffins, straightjackets and anything else he could think of.

In his later years, Houdini made a natural transition into film and worked as the Master Detective named Locke. In the films, Houdini would also make great escapes. In his private life, Houdini became obsessed with other forms of magic, namely in attempting to contact those beyond the grave. But, finding nothing that seemed to be real, he soon abandoned the idea and even publicly declared certain mystics frauds. Houdini died on Halloween Day in 1926 after a bout of peritonitis that was made worse due to the fact that a college student punched him in his stomach – something Houdini wanted him to do, as he always bragged he had one of the strongest abdomens. Tragically, however, the punch came before Houdini had prepared himself for the blow.

Notable escapes
The 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 matinée 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 , published in his book, Sensational Tales of Mystery Men, that Houdini was bested that day and 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 so could not be smuggled to Houdini via a glass or his wife's mouth.

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 pre-arranged 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").

The Milk Can

In 1901, Houdini introduced his own original invention, the Milk Can escape. In this effect, 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 effects 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.

The Chinese Water Torture Cell

In 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 "USD". 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. Despite two Hollywood movies depicting Houdini dying in the Torture Cell, the escape had nothing to do with his demise.

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, Houdini 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 Houdini 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.

Overboard Box Escape

Another one of Houdini's most famous publicity stunts(Dalton) was to escape from a nailed and roped packing crate after it had been lowered into the 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 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

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 "the 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. Houdini repeated the feat at the YMCA in Worcester MA 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 in October 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.

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