"No performer should attempt to bite off red-hot iron unless he has a good set of teeth."

Happy Birthday, Harry Houdini!

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Harry Houdini (March 24, 1874 – October 31, 1926) was an American magician and performer famous for his amazing escape stunts. Originally born in Budapest as Erik Weisz, he was taken to America by his parents and grew up in Wisconsin and New York City. Houdini changed his name as an homage to two performers he respected; Harry Kellar and Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. Houdini made his public debut at the young age of nine, when he performed as a trapeze artist in New York. Over the course of his career he performed many successful, but often close, escape acts. His most famous included the Daily Mirror handcuff challenge in London, the Milk Can escape, the Chinese Water Torture Cell, the Overboard box escape and the Buried Alive stunt. Houdini was also the creator and star of several movies and was awarded a Hollywood Star. Houdini served as the President of Martinka & Co. and the Society of American Magicians and was highly respected in the world of illusion.

Erik Weisz in Budapest, Austria-Hungary. His father was a Rabbi and he was one of seven children. In 1878 his mother sailed to America on the SS Fresia. They changed Erik's name to Ehrich Weiss and settled in Appleton, Wisconsin. When his father became an American citizen, the family moved to New York. The young Houdini would perform as a trapeze artist, calling himself "the Prince of the Air". Houdini also loved running and became a champion cross country runner. He began his magic career in 1891 and would act on stage with his brother Dash.

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Houdini met his future wife Wilhelmina Beatrice (Bess) Rahner and they got married in 1894. She replaced his brother as the on stage assistant and the duo called themselves "The Houdinis." After trying some card tricks but failing to achieve much success, Houdini started toying with escape stunts. His big break came when he met manager Martin Beck, a man who was impressed by Houdini's handcuff escapes. Within that year, Houdini was signed to perform at the largest Vaudeville clubs in America. He toured briefly in Europe where Scotland Yard were so impressed by his handcuff escapes that they booked him for the Alhambra Theatre for six months.

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Footage of the Straightjacket Escape

Houdini continued to travel through Europe, performing acts in England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Russia and usually starting by contacting local police forces. Houdini escaped from a Siberian prison van in Moscow as well as from handcuffs in many cities and made enough money to buy himself a brownstone in New York. Houdini also purchased a dress said to have been designed for Queen Victoria. He gave this dress to his mother and presented her at a large gathering to their relatives and friends, later claiming that to be the happiest night of his life.

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In 1901, Houdini created his own unique act which was to escape from a large milk can full of with water while he was handcuffed and sealed inside. Houdini invited viewers to hold his breath with him and the turn out was a sensational success. Houdini would continue to perform the act every few years.

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A tour of the exhibition "Houdini: Art and Magic" with Joshua Jay

In 1904, Houdini performed one of his most famous stunts for the Daily Mirror newspaper in London. His challenge was to escape from a set of handcuffs that had taken a local locksmith five years to make. Houdini would begin the challenge at the Hippodrome Theatre where over 4000 people came to watch. It took Houdini over an hour to complete the task, which he claimed was the most difficult escape of his life. At the end, Houdini cried, overwhelmed as his fans carried him over their shoulders in celebration.

"My professional life has been a constant record of disillusion, and many things that seem wonderful to most men are the every-day commonplaces of my business."

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"So far as I know, I am the only performer who ever pledged his assistants to secrecy, honor and allegiance under a notarial oath."

Houdini developed his old milk can routine into a far more intricate and dangerous act called the Chinese Water Torture Cell in 1912. The stunt involved being hung upside down inside a chamber of water while his feet were locked to the top. The clear windows into the chamber meant audiences could see the whole thing. The cage would prevent him from being able to turn and the metal bars on the outside ensured that the glass would not break. The performance, while far harder, was a success and became one of Houdini's regular routines. The act became so entwined with his persona that Houdini would sue anybody who tried to imitate it. Later that year, Houdini performed a similar stunt in New York's East River called the Overboard Box Escape. The magician was handcuffed and nailed into a crate that was lowered into the river and weighed down with two hundred pounds of lead. Houdini escaped in 57 seconds.

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Perhaps the most stressful and life threatening act in Houdini's career was Buried Alive. His first performance of this stunt was held in California in 1915. Houdini was buried under six feet of earth and would claw his way out of the ground. By the time he made it out, Houdini was barely conscious and had to be helped off the ground by his assistants. Despite the near death experience, Houdini evolved this act into a second variation. This one involved being sealed in a coffin under a Hotel swimming pool for an hour and a half. Houdini claimed he achieved this just by controlling his breathing.

"I make the most money, I think, in Russia and Paris, for the people of those countries are so willing to be amused, so eager to see something new and out of the ordinary."

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Houdini's foray into Hollywood did not meet his desired expectations. He began in 1906, showing filmed escapes as part of his Vaudeville acts. He continued to work on a film in Paris named Merveilleux Exploits du Célébre Houdini à Paris (Marvellous Exploits of the Famous Houdini in Paris), a loose showcase of his escape attempts. Houdini starred in The Master Mystery (1919) produced by B.A. Rolfe then in The Grim Game (1919) and Terror Island (1920). Although The Grim Game featured a shot of Houdini dangling out of a plane, it was actually a stunt double. Houdini continued to produce The Man From Beyond (1921) and Haldane of the Secret Service (1923) and acquired investments from his hero and fellow magician Harry Kellar. While Houdini was disappointed with the outcome and financial rewards of his films, his achievements gained him a star on Hollywood Boulevard.

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For many years, Houdini was the most well-paid Vaudeville star. He became President of America's oldest magic organization Martinka & Co. in 1923. Houdini extremely dedicated to the appeared legitimacy of his routines and despised self-proclaimed "spiritualist" magicians who claimed to be psychic or supernatural. Houdini even published a book called A Magician Among the Spirits where he debunked these so-called illusionists. The man was also enamored with aviation and made successful trips to Germany and Australia on the Voisin Biplane he purchased.

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Houdini died in 1926 from appendicitis. His brother continued to work in magic after Houdini's death and inherited much of his equipment. Certain pieces are now kept at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls, Ontario while others reside at David Copperfield's private museum in Las Vegas. His life was celebrated in nine biographical films and many books, including some he wrote himself. His achievements and presence in popular culture remains to be present today.

Tony Curtis as Houdini in Houdini (1953)

Additional Info

  • Birthday Date: Monday, 24 March 2014
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