11 Facts that you probably didn’t know about Houdini

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Harry Houdini is without doubt the most famous magician of all time.

Houdini was born under the name of Erik Weisz on 24 March 1874 and sadly passed away on 31 October 1926, at age 52.

Houdini was a Hungarian-American illusionist and stunt performer, noted for his amazing escapism acts.

He first made a name for himself in the United States as “Harry Handcuff Houdini”, and later on a tour of Europe, where he challenged the police force to keep him locked up.

Soon he expanded his repertoire to include chains, ropes slung from high-rise buildings, straitjackets used underwater, and having to escape from and hold his breath inside a sealed milk can.

In 1904, thousands of people watched Houdini attempt to escape from the special handcuffs ordered by the Daily Mirror in London, holding them in suspense for an hour. Another stunt saw him buried alive and only just able to claw himself to the surface, emerging in a state of near-breakdown.

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Whereas many suspected that these escapes were pre-arranged, as President of the Society of American Magicians, Houdini was keen to uphold professional standards and expose deceitful artists. He was also quick to take legal action against anyone who plagiarized his escape stunts.

11 Facts that you probably didn’t know about Houdini

FACT 1. HOUDINI DIDN’T LIKE SO-CALLED SPIRITUALISTS (MEDIUMS) AND WENT OUT OF HIS WAY TO DEFRAUD THEM

When spiritualism (the belief that the dead could communicate with the living) became popular, many scammers took advantage of people’s grief over the loss of loved-ones. Houdini’s mother recently passed away, and he also felt the vulnerability brought by the death of a loved one. He took charge of exposing all mediums as scammers (he attended disguised sessions, wearing a false beard and a hat, and turned out at key moments). During his stage shows, he called out the local spiritualists by name, listed their crimes, and exposed their methods of scamming the bereaved. The Spiritualist community responded with death threats. Houdini answered by petitioning congress for stronger anti-fraud laws.

FACT 2. HOUDINI WAS A KEEN PILOT

In 1909, six years after the Wright brothers confirmed the likelihood of flight, Houdini became extremely curious about airplanes and purchased his first plane. Houdini was a keen pilot, and even claimed to be the first person (he was 3rd) to fly a plane in Australia, taking his own bi-plane with him for his Australian tour in 1910. He learned to fly in Germany, under the condition that he train German pilots after he was qualified. After realizing he had trained enemy pilots for World War I, he regretted his decision, and never flew again, following his record attempt in Australia.

FACT 3. HOUDINI HAD HIS OWN FILM STUDIO

Houdini made his first movie for Pathé (film and production company) in 1901. Titled “Merveilleux Exploits du Célébre Houdini à Paris”, it featured a loose chronicle meant to showcase several of Houdini’s famous escapes, including his straitjacket escape. Houdini returned to film in 1916 when he served as special-effects consultant on the Pathé thriller, “The Mysteries of Myra”. In 1918, Houdini signed a contract with film maker, B.A. Rolfe, to star in a 15-part serial, “The Master Mystery” (released in January 1919). “The Master Mystery” was a box-office triumph and 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).

Following his two-picture period in Hollywood, Houdini returned to New York and started his own film production company, called the Houdini Picture Corporation. He produced and starred in two films, “The Man from Beyond” (1921) and “Haldane of the Secret Service” (1923).

He also started up his own film laboratory business called The Film Development Corporation (FDC), gambling on a new process for developing motion picture film. Neither Houdini’s acting career nor FDC found success, and he gave up on the movie business in 1923, complaining that “the profits are too meagre.”

His celebrity was such that, years later, he would be given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (at 7001 Hollywood Blvd) (source: Houdini, his life and his art).

Collections of his films have also recently been released on DVD.

FACT 4. THROUGHOUT HIS LIFE, HOUDINI HAD 10 NAMES

Houdini was born (1) Erik Weisz in 1874 in Budapest, Hungary, to Jewish parents. Herewith a list of his names:

One of six children, the Weisz family moved to America in 1878. He changed his name to (2) Ehrich and his friends called him (3) Ehrie which inspired his Americanized first name (4) ‘Harry.’

He performed as a trapeze artist with the name (5) ‘Ehrich, the Prince of the Air’. He was 9 years old when he made his trapeze debut.

He later changed his surname to (6) Houdini because his partner, Jake Hyman, said it would mean ‘like Houdin’ in honour of the magician Robert-Houdin.

His other stage names include, (8) ‘Eric the Great’, (9) ‘The King of Cards,’ and (10) ‘Eric, Prince of the Air.’ 

FACT 5. HOUDINI DID NOT DIE OF A SUCKER PUNCH

Throughout his career, Houdini had long bragged about his physical abilities and said that he could endure any punch. In 1926, after a performance in Montreal, a student from McGill University asked him if this was true. When Harry said it was, the student instantly punched him three times in the abdomen, not giving Harry the chance to tighten his abdominal muscles, which was part of his secret. What many people didn’t know was that Houdini suffered from appendicitis before this performance. Shortly thereafter, he was admitted to Detroit’s Grace Hospital and surgically treated for a burst appendix. He died from peritonitis (ruptured appendix) on Halloween in 1926 after suffering from acute appendicitis. Over 2000 people attended his funeral and a fellow magician ceremoniously broke a wand, starting a tradition that still exists today.

FACT 6. HOUDINI WAS A ROMANTIC

Houdini was a romantic as he married his wife Wilhelmina Beatrice ‘Bess’ Rahner  just two weeks after meeting her. She would also become his stage partner. He was known for writing her love letters regularly over the course of their 35-year Houdini was a romantic as he married his wife Wilhelmina Beatrice ‘Bess’ Rahner just two weeks after meeting her. She would also become his stage partner. He was known for writing her love letters frequently over their 35-year marriage – a lot of them while she was in the room. After he passed away, his wife tried to contact him from beyond the grave. They even agreed on a code word before death to rule out any false play by con-artist spiritual advisers.

FACT 7. THERE WAS ACTUALLY HARRY HOUDINI’S SCHOOL OF MAGIC  

Fed up with the grueling life of touring, Houdini almost quit his act as an entertainer to take up education; he wanted to Fed up with the strenuous life of touring, Houdini almost quit his act as an entertainer to take up education; he wanted to open “Harry Houdini’s School of Magic”, for which he even mailed out a 16-page catalogue to get business. It’s unclear if anybody ever enrolled or if classes were ever in session.

FACT 8. HOUDINI AND ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE WERE GREAT FRIENDS, UNTIL THEY WEREN’T.

Houdini met the famous Sherlock Holmes writer, Arthur Conan Doyle, at one of his performances. They initially bonded over their interest in spiritualism.

Houdini was interested in the craft from a defrauding point of view and Doyle was, ironically, a staunch believer. While Doyle supported Houdini at first, he felt his friend was going too far. In his book, “The Edge of the Unknown”, Doyle writes:

“I am quite prepared to think that Houdini’s campaign against mediums did temporary good so far as false mediums goes, but it was so indiscriminate and accompanied by so much which was intolerant and offensive that it turned away the sympathy and help which Spiritualists, who are anxious for the cleanliness of their own movement, would gladly have given him”.

After a couple of failed attempts at resolution, the differences between the two escalated to where they were criticizing each other in letters published in the New York Times. Finally, the two stopped talking all together.

FACT 9. HOUDINI’S SIGNATURE TRICK WAS THE CHINESE WATER TORTURE CELL.

The Chinese Water Torture Cell debuted in 1912. Suspended by his feet, Houdini was lowered into a glass case filled with water, a case that was, of course, locked. In order to escape, he had to hold his breath for over three minutes. This trick has been mimicked by many magicians over the years.

FACT 10. HOUDINI WAS THE 10TH PRESIDENT OF THE SOCIETY OF AMERICAN MAGICIANS.

Houdini served in this position from 1917 until his death in 1926. He was the only president to serve for over a year.

FACT 11. HOUDINI’S U.S. POSTAGE STAMP CONTAINS A HIDDEN IMAGE.

Magic is the art of deception – everyone knows that a magician does not actually make someone disappear; they just seem to do it. To honour Houdini’s deceptive expertise, the U.S. Postal Service put a hidden image on their 2002 commemorative stamp. With a special viewing lens that could be obtained from the post office (no longer available), one could see the image of Houdini wrapped in chains.

Houdini’s famous straight jacket escape

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