When I was growing up we were exposed to loads of magic shows and magicians. My absolute favorite was David Copperfield and off course the ever famous Harry Houdini.
I didn’t know a lot about Houdini, except that he was the world’s greatest escape artist, until I had the opportunity to see the 2014 TV miniseries, starring Adrien Brody. All I can say is – wow – what a remarkable man. I did some research after this and found some amazing facts which I will share below.
Harry Houdini was born as Erik Weisz on 24 March 1874. He passed away on 31 October 1926 at age 52. Houdini was a Hungarian-American illusionist and stunt performer, noted for his amazing escape acts. He first attracted notice in vaudeville in the US and then as “Harry Handcuff Houdini” on a tour of Europe, where he challenged police forces to keep him locked up. Soon he extended his repertoire to include chains, ropes slung from skyscrapers, straitjackets under water, and having to escape from and hold his breath inside a sealed milk can.
In 1904, thousands watched as he tried to escape from special handcuffs commissioned by London’s Daily Mirror, keeping 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. While many suspected that these escapes were faked, Houdini presented himself as the scourge of fake spiritualists. As President of the Society of American Magicians, he was keen to uphold professional standards and expose fraudulent artists. He was also quick to sue anyone who pirated his escape stunts (source: wikipedia).
11 Facts that you probably didn’t know about Houdini
#1. Houdini didn’t like so-called Spiritualists and went out of his way to defraud them
When spiritualism (the belief that the dead could communicate with the living) became popular, a lot of fraudsters came to light who took advantage of the bereaved. Houdini’s own mother had recently died and he also felt the vulnerability that death brings. He took it upon himself to expose all mediums as conmen (he attended séances in disguise, wearing a false beard and hat and revealed himself at key moments).During his stage shows he called out the local spiritualists by name, listed their crimes, and exposed their methods. The Spiritualist community responded with death threats. Houdini answered by lobbying Congress for stronger anti-fraud laws.
#2. Houdini was a keen Aviator
In 1909, six years after the Wright brothers proved human aviation possible, Houdini became extremely interested in airplanes and bought his first plane. Houdini was a keen aviator, and even claimed to be the first person (he was third) 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 the decision, and never flew again following his record attempt in Australia.
#3. Houdini had his own film studio
Houdini made his first movie for Pathé in 1901. Titled Merveilleux Exploits du Célébre Houdini à Paris, it featured a loose narrative 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 producer B.A. Rolfe to star in a 15-part serial, The Master Mystery (released in January 1919). Financial difficulties resulted in B.A. Rolfe Productions going out of business, but The Master Mystery was a box-office success 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). 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 “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. Houdini’s brother, Hardeen, left his own career as a magician and escape artist to run the company. 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.” But his celebrity was such that, years later, he would be given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (at 7001 Hollywood Blvd) (source: http://www.thegreatharryhoudini.com).
Collections of his films have recently been released on DVD.
#4. Throughout his life, Houdini had 10 names
Houdini was born Erik Weisz (1) 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 Ehrich (2) and his friends called him Ehrie (3), which inspired his Americanized first name ‘Harry (4).’
He performed as a trapeze artist with the name “Ehrich, the Prince of the Air.” (5) He was nine years old when he made his trapeze debut.
He later changed his surname to Houdini (6) because his partner, Jake Hyman, said it would mean ‘like Houdin’ in honour of the magician Robert-Houdin.
His other stage names include, ‘Eric the Great (8),’ ‘The King of Cards (9),’ and ‘Eric, Prince of the Air (10).’
#5. Houdini did not die of a sucker punch
Throughout his career, Houdini had long boasted of his physical capabilities and said that he could withstand 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 immediately punched him three times in the gut, not giving Harry the chance to tighten his abs, which was part of his secret. What a lot of 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 ruptured appendix. He died from peritonitis (ruptured appendix) on Halloween in 1926 after suffering from acute appendicitis. Over two thousand people attended his funeral and a fellow magician ceremoniously broke a wand, starting a tradition that still exists today.
#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 marriage – a lot of them whilst 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.
#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 open “Harry Houdini’s School of Magic” for which he even mailed out a sixteen-page catalogue to get business. It’s unclear if anybody ever enrolled or if classes were ever in session.
#8. Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle were great friends until they weren’t.
Houdini met the famous Sherlock Holmes scribe, Arthur Conan Doyle at one of his shows. They initially bonded over their interest in Spiritualism; Houdini–the magician–was interested in the craft from a defrauding point of view and Doyle–creator of the detective who, above all, stood for logical reasoning–was, ironically a true 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 failed attempts at recompense, the differences between the two escalated to the point where they were critiquing each other in letters published in the New York Times. Finally, the two stopped talking all together.
#9. Houdini’s signature trick was the Chinese Water Torture Cell.
This performance 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.
#10. He 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 more than one year.
#11. Houdini’s U.S. postage stamp contains a hidden image.
Magic is the art of deception – everyone knows that a magician doesn’t actually make anyone disappear; they just seem to. To honor Houdini’s deceptive prowess, 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.
Films starring Houdini
- Merveilleux Exploits du Célébre 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
- 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 directed by Matthew Barney. Visit his page here: https://www.artsy.net/artist/matthew-barney
- Death Defying Acts (2007)—played by Guy Pearce
- Houdini (2014) —played by Adrien Brody (TV miniseries)
Houdini’s famous straight jacket escape