Today is the birthday (1874) of Harry Houdini (born Erik Weisz in Budapest, later Ehrich Weiss, Harry Weiss, or Harry Weiß), Hungarian-American illusionist and stunt performer, noted for his sensational escape acts. He first attracted notice 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 hold his breath inside a sealed milk can.
Harry Houdini was born as Erik Weisz in Budapest in what was then Austria-Hungary. His parents were Rabbi Mayer Sámuel Weisz (1829–1892), and Cecília Weisz (née Steiner; 1841–1913). Houdini was one of seven children. Weisz arrived in the United States on July 3, 1878, on the SS Fresia with his mother (who was pregnant) and his four brothers. The family changed the Hungarian spelling of their German surname to Weiss (the German spelling) and Erik’s name was changed to 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, where they lived in a boarding house on East 79th Street. He was joined by the rest of the family once Rabbi Weiss found permanent housing.
As a child, Ehrich Weiss took several jobs, making his public début 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. When Weiss became a professional magician in 1891 he began calling himself “Harry Houdini,” but was not very successful. He performed in dime museums and sideshows, and even doubled as “The Wild Man” at a circus. He focused initially on traditional card tricks. At one point, he billed himself as the “King of Cards” but soon began experimenting with escape acts. In 1893, while performing with his brother “Dash” (Theodore) at Coney Island as “The Brothers Houdini,” Harry met a fellow performer, Wilhelmina Beatrice “Bess” Rahner. Bess was initially courted by Dash, but she and Houdini married in 1894, with Bess replacing Dash in the act, which became known as “The Houdinis.” For the rest of Houdini’s performing career, Bess worked as his stage assistant.
Houdini’s big 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.
Houdini became widely known as “The Handcuff King.” He toured England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Russia. In each city, Houdini challenged local police to restrain him with shackles and lock him in their jails. In many of these challenge escapes, Houdini was first 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 later said the judge had forgotten to lock it). With his new-found wealth, 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.
From 1907 and throughout the 1910’s, Houdini performed with great success in the United States. He freed himself from jails, handcuffs, chains, ropes, and straitjackets, often while hanging from a rope in 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 his 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 in Scranton, Pennsylvania and other cities challenged Houdini to escape from a barrel after they filled it with beer. Many of these challenges were pre-arranged with local merchants in one of the first uses of mass tie-in marketing.
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. During 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 shoestrings. Other times, he carried concealed lockpicks or keys, being able to regurgitate small keys at will. When tied down in ropes or straitjackets, he gained wiggle room by enlarging his shoulders and chest, moving his arms slightly away from his body, and then dislocating his shoulders.
His straitjacket escape was originally performed behind curtains, with him popping out free at the end. 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. For publicity, on more than one occasion, they both performed straitjacket escapes while dangling upside-down from the roof of a building.
In 1904, the London Daily Mirror newspaper challenged Houdini to escape from special handcuffs that it claimed had taken Nathaniel Hart, a locksmith from Birmingham, five 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 cuffs 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 cuffs were 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 handcuffs. 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 Goldston’s book, Sensational Tales of Mystery Men, as admitting that Houdini was defeated that day and had appealed to his wife, Bess, for help. Goldston goes on to claim that Bess begged the key from the Mirror representative, then slipped it to Houdini in a glass of water. 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 could not have been smuggled to Houdini in a glass of water. Goldston offered no proof of his account, and many modern biographers have found evidence (notably in the custom design of the handcuffs) that the Mirror challenge was arranged by Houdini and that his long struggle to escape was pure showmanship. In support of this contention it has been reported that the sterling silver replica of the Mirror cuffs presented to Houdini in honor of his escape was made the year before the escape took place.
Milk Can Escape
In 1901, Houdini introduced his own original act, the Milk Can Escape. In this act, Houdini was handcuffed and sealed inside an over-sized milk can filled with water and made his escape behind a curtain. As part of the effect, Houdini invited 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 performed the milk can escape as a regular part of his act for only four years, but it has remained one of the acts most associated with him. Houdini’s brother, Theodore Hardeen, continued to perform the milk can (and the wooden chest variation) into the 1940s.
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 were locked in stocks, and he was 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 were locked to the top of the cell, and a curtain concealed 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.
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 drew thousands of onlookers who brought 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 in the Library of Congress of Houdini performing the escape 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.
Here is a video of Houdini jumping off a bridge in handcuffs, freeing himself, and swimming for shore. Apologies, but YouTube will not allow me to embed it.
Overboard box escape
Another 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 still to be intact, with the manacles inside. Houdini performed 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 performed at least three variations on a “Buried Alive” stunt during his career. The first was near Santa Ana, California in 1915, 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 panicked while 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 had 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, or coffin, 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 featured in his full evening show. Houdini escaped after being strapped in a straitjacket, sealed in a casket, and then buried in a large tank filled with sand. While posters advertising the escape exist (playing off the Bey challenge by boasting “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.
In the 1920s Houdini turned his energies toward debunking psychics and mediums, a pursuit that inspired and was followed by latter-day stage magicians. 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 was 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 séances in disguise, accompanied by a reporter and police officer. Possibly the most famous medium whom he debunked was Mina Crandon, also known as “Margery.”
Houdini chronicled his debunking exploits in his book, A Magician Among the Spirits, co-authored with C. M. Eddy, Jr. (uncredited). These activities cost Houdini the friendship of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle, a firm believer in Spiritualism during his later years who refused to believe any of Houdini’s exposés. 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.” This disagreement led to the two men becoming public antagonists and led Sir Arthur to view Houdini as a dangerous enemy.
Before Houdini died, he and his wife agreed that if Houdini found it possible to communicate after death, he would communicate the message “Rosabelle believe,” a secret code which they agreed to use. This was a phrase from a play in which Bess performed, at the time the couple first met. Bess held yearly séances on Halloween for ten years after Houdini’s death. She did claim to have contact through Arthur Ford in 1929 when Ford conveyed the secret code, but Bess later said the incident had been faked. In 1936, after a last unsuccessful séance 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. In 1943, Bess said that “ten years is long enough to wait for any man.”
Houdini made several wax cylinder recordings of his voice in later life, and these are still available. Here is one of them playing on an Edison machine. The sound quality is poor, but you do have the sense that Houdini is speaking from beyond the grave.
The tradition of holding a séance for Houdini continues, held by magicians throughout the world. The Official Houdini Séance is currently organized by Sidney Hollis Radner, a Houdini aficionado from Holyoke, Massachusetts. Yearly Houdini Séances 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 Magic Towne House with such magician 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.
Harry Houdini died of peritonitis, secondary to a ruptured appendix at 1:26 p.m. on October 31 in Room 401 at Detroit’s Grace Hospital, aged 52. In his final days, he optimistically held to a strong belief that he would recover, but his last words before dying were reportedly, “I’m tired of fighting.” Eyewitnesses to an incident at Houdini’s dressing room in the Princess Theatre in Montreal gave rise to speculation that Houdini’s death was caused by a McGill University student, J. Gordon Whitehead, who delivered a surprise attack of multiple blows to Houdini’s abdomen.
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. Price describes Whitehead asking Houdini “whether it was true that punches in the stomach did not hurt him”, and after securing Houdini’s permission to strike him, delivering “some very hammer-like blows below the belt”. Houdini was reclining on a couch at the time, having broken his ankle while performing several days earlier. Price states that Houdini winced at each blow and stopped Whitehead suddenly in the midst of a punch, gesturing that he had had enough, and adding that he had had no opportunity to prepare himself against the blows, as he did not expect Whitehead to strike him so suddenly and forcefully. Had his ankle not been broken, he would have risen from the couch into a better position to brace himself.
Throughout the evening, Houdini performed in great pain. He was unable to sleep and remained in constant pain for the next two days, but did not seek medical help. When he finally saw a doctor, he was found to have a fever of 102 °F (38.9 °C) and acute appendicitis, and advised to have immediate surgery. He ignored the advice and decided to go on with the show. 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 the diagnosis, 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 where he died. By sheer force of will, he lasted almost a week. He died at 1:26 on Sunday afternoon, October 31, 1926 — Halloween.
Houdini’s funeral was held on November 4, 1926 in New York City, with more than 2,000 mourners in attendance. He was interred in the Machpelah Cemetery in Glendale, Queens, with the crest of the Society of American Magicians inscribed on his gravesite.
During Houdini’s last week, Houdini told Dr. Cohn that he had a “yen for Farmer’s Chop Suey,” a dish popular with Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. This craving was no doubt one of nostalgia rather than hunger, as Houdini was gravely ill with peritonitis and virtually unable to eat. It may also have been a response to his very high fever, as the chilled, creamy salad was traditionally eaten on hot summer days. Eager to do anything that might make Houdini’s final days more pleasant, the young doctor hurried over to a nearby deli and returned with some Farmer’s Chop Suey, which he shared with his famous patient. It is apparently the last meal Houdini ever ate.
In honor of Houdini, here is a recipe for his “last meal.” You can vary the vegetables although the dressing is more of less invariant. “Chop suey” really signifies “mish-mash” rather than implying some kind of Chinese origin.
Farmer’s Chop Suey
1 cup sour cream
1 cup cottage cheese
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp white pepper
1 cup lettuce, shredded, or 1 cup chopped celery, or 1 cup shredded cabbage
½ cup radishes, washed and diced
½ cup cucumbers, chopped roughly
½ cup carrots, thinly sliced
½ cup cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
¼ up sweet onions or green onions
Mix together the sour cream and cottage cheese, salt, and white pepper.
Gently fold in the prepared vegetables, until all are well-coated with the cream.
Chill mixture well before serving.
There is also this recipe which was published as Houdini’s in his lifetime, but it is not clear if it is his or not. There are several recipes in newspapers of the time that are claimed as his. This is a verbatim transcription of one of them.
Bread and Butter Custard Pudding Á La Houdini
4 thin slices home style bread
1 quart milk
6 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
Nutmeg, ground or freshly grated
Trim crusts from bread; lightly butter one side of each. Place buttered side up in single layer in 8 by 8 by 2 inch square glass baking dish.
Scald milk by heating until bubbles appear around edge. In large bowl, slightly beat eggs; add sugar and vanilla and beat just until blended. Gradually and gently beat in scalding milk; strain over bread.
Custard mixture will look foamy. Sprinkle generously with nutmeg. Place in center of 17 by 11 by 2 aluminum roasting pan. Pour enough hot tap water into pan to come up as high as pudding mixture in dish.
Bake in preheated 325 degree oven until silver or stainless steel knife inserted in center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Chill.