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Who is Harry Houdini?

Harry Houdini was a master illusionist and escape artist whose death-defying stunts captivated the world in the early 20th century. His legendary acts, from escaping handcuffs to vanishing elephants, not only challenged the boundaries of human capability but also redefined entertainment. But was there more to Houdini's magic than met the eye? Dive deeper to uncover the secrets behind his mystique.
Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

Harry Houdini was a Hungarian magician and escapologist popular in the early 20th century. His extraordinary abilities led to a lasting reputation as one of the greatest magicians of all time. Houdini died at age 52, suffering an acute inflammation caused by a ruptured appendix. His life and talents have been subjects of many books and movies since his death.

Houdini was born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary, in 1874. His father was a rabbi who moved their large family to America in 1878. The young Harry began his magic career performing at circuses and sideshows, first with his brother and later with his wife, Bess. In 1899, Houdini met with manager Martin Beck, who arranged for him to tour vaudeville circuits and Europe.

A ruptured appendix caused Harry Houdini's death.
A ruptured appendix caused Harry Houdini's death.

The young magician met with unprecedented success in Europe, gaining an international reputation as an escape artist. He performed many high profile public stunts, including escaping from prison vans. At one point, he successfully sued a French policeman who claimed he used bribery to achieve his escapes. By 1904, Houdini was an international celebrity, and returned to America a wealthy man.

Harry Houdini delighted in debunking psychics.
Harry Houdini delighted in debunking psychics.

Upon returning to the American performance scene, Harry created ever-more elaborate acts. He escaped from jails and straitjackets in plain view of the audience. The magician did not guard his secrets as closely as the profession usually dictate, revealing some of his escape techniques in a 1909 book, Handcuff Secrets. He is also credited with some of the first uses of product placement marketing, as his escapes were often sponsored by local companies and merchants.

By the middle of the 1910s, Houdini was the highest-paid vaudeville performer in America. He became president of Marinka & Co, a magic supply company that still exists today. He also ran the Marinka associated Society of American Magicians for several years, which still pays tribute to him on the anniversary of his death each year.

His most famous escape is often considered to be the Chinese Water Torture Escape. In this stunt, he would be lowered, upside down and with feet locked in stocks, into a filled water tank. Several films have used this stunt as the means of his death, but in truth the water torture cell was not involved in any way.

The magician had several other passions throughout his career, including fascinations with early aviation and publicly debunking psychics. He often appeared in films and at one point ran his own production company, which quickly failed. His film contributions, though not popular during his life, were later honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

After Houdini’s sudden death in 1926, his grieving wife held a séance to contact him every year for ten years. Being unsuccessful, she eventually gave up the practice. Modern séances are still held each year by some magicians, in hopes of raising his spirit. Since his death, several films, TV movies and books have explored his life and character. Today, Houdini’s legacy lives on, with many of the modern great magicians citing his life as an inspiration to their own careers.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who was Harry Houdini and why is he famous?

Harry Houdini, born Erik Weisz in Hungary on March 24, 1874, was a world-renowned illusionist and escape artist. He gained fame for his sensational escape acts, where he would free himself from handcuffs, straitjackets, and various locked containers, often while submerged underwater or suspended from great heights. His ability to captivate audiences with his daring stunts and showmanship made him one of the most famous magicians of all time. According to the American Society of Magicians, Houdini was also a key figure in debunking fraudulent spiritualists.

What were some of Harry Houdini's most notable escape acts?

Harry Houdini's most notable escape acts included the "Mirror Handcuff Challenge," where he escaped from a specially designed handcuff in 1904, and the "Chinese Water Torture Cell," an act introduced in 1912 where he was suspended upside-down in a locked glass and steel tank filled with water, managing to escape even while holding his breath. The "Milk Can Escape" and the "Suspended Straitjacket Escape" were also among his famous acts, showcasing his extraordinary skill and physical endurance.

How did Harry Houdini contribute to the field of magic and entertainment?

Harry Houdini revolutionized the field of magic and entertainment by elevating the art of escape to new heights. He transformed magic from mere sleight of hand tricks to dramatic, high-stakes performances that challenged the boundaries of human capability. Houdini's legacy includes his influence on modern magicians, his role in establishing the magician's code of ethics, and his efforts to expose fraudulent mediums, which he did out of respect for the truth and the craft of magic.

Did Harry Houdini have any involvement in movies or other forms of media?

Yes, Harry Houdini ventured into the film industry, both as an actor and a producer. He starred in several silent films such as "The Master Mystery" (1919), "Terror Island" (1920), and "The Man From Beyond" (1922). Houdini also established his own film production company, the Houdini Picture Corporation. Additionally, he was an avid aviator and aimed to become the first person to fly a plane in Australia, further demonstrating his love for pushing limits.

How did Harry Houdini die, and what is his legacy today?

Harry Houdini died on October 31, 1926, from peritonitis secondary to a ruptured appendix. His death is often mistakenly attributed to an on-stage injury, but it was actually the result of a series of blows to his abdomen by a university student, which Houdini had agreed to, not realizing his appendix was already in a vulnerable state. Houdini's legacy lives on through the annual Houdini Séances held by enthusiasts, the numerous biographies detailing his life, and the continued reverence by magicians who aspire to his level of skill and showmanship.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a PublicPeople writer.

Learn more...
Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a PublicPeople writer.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

googie98

@dega2010: From articles that I have read, his real name was Erik Weisz, as the article stated. When his family moved to the United States, his immigration papers read Ehrich Weiss.

When Houdini was very young, he had an admiration for a French magician named Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin. Robert-Houdin was very popular and a forerunner of the modern magician. Weiss adopted the name “Houdini” by taking the name “Houdin” and adding an “I” to it to represent that he was “like Houdin”.

Little did Harry Houdini know, the French magician’s name was actually Jean Eugene Robert. Houdin was his wife’s last name which he added to his own name instead of the customary way of the wife taking the husband’s name. So, actually, Houdini got his name from the magician’s wife.

dega2010

Why did Erik Weisz change his name to Harry Houdini?

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    • A ruptured appendix caused Harry Houdini's death.
      By: dr_ox
      A ruptured appendix caused Harry Houdini's death.
    • Harry Houdini delighted in debunking psychics.
      By: tomas del amo
      Harry Houdini delighted in debunking psychics.