Houdini was born Erik Weisz, but his name was altered to Ehrich Weiss after his family emigrated from Hungary to Wisconsin when he was 4 years old. Young Ehrich—nicknamed “Ehrie” or “Harry”—had a fascination with magic, particularly the work of the famed French conjurer Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin. When he began his own magic career in the 1890s, he paid homage to his hero by adding an “i” to the name “Houdin” to create the stage moniker “Harry Houdini.” In a strange twist, Houdini later courted controversy by accusing his former idol of stealing other magicians’ tricks. He even wrote a 1908 book called “The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin” in which he branded his namesake a fraud “who waxed great on the brainwork of others.”
Houdini first found fame as the “King of Handcuffs.”
Houdini struggled during his early years in show business and considered calling it quits and opening a magic school. He finally caught a break in 1899, when vaudeville impresario Martin Beck booked him on a tour of the United States and Europe. On Beck’s advice, Houdini made escapes a central part of his act. He began challenging audiences to tie him up or lock him in handcuffs, and he promoted his shows by staging escapes from local jails, usually after being strip-searched and put in shackles by police. The routine was a huge success. The newly christened “King of Handcuffs” played to sold-out crowds across Europe, and he later cemented his fame by staging several high-profile escapes in the United States. One stunt saw him jump into a Rochester, New York, river with his hands manacled behind his back; in another, he broke out of the jail cell that had once held Charles Guiteau, the man who assassinated President James A. Garfield.
His brother was also a successful magician.
After establishing himself in Europe in the early 1900s, Houdini brought over his younger brother Theo, a magician who had worked as his partner during his early career. Theo soon began performing his brother’s tricks under the stage name “Hardeen.” The pair even created a phony rivalry to help boost their profiles. “We made no secret of the fact that we were brothers,” Hardeen later remembered, “but we did keep secret not only the fact that we were good friends but that Harry had set me up in business!” Though largely overshadowed by his more famous sibling, Hardeen is now credited with having pioneered the act of escaping from a straitjacket in full view of the audience—a trick that became a staple of Houdini’s routine. He later inherited Houdini’s stage equipment after his death, and continued using it in performances into the 1940s.
Houdini once staged an escape from inside a sea monster.
In September 1911, a group of Boston businessmen challenged Houdini to attempt the most bizarre stunt of his career—an escape from the belly of a 1,500-pound “sea monster” that had washed up in the city’s harbor. Historians still aren’t sure what the creature actually was—it’s been described as everything from a whale to a leatherback turtle—but Houdini was up to the task. As thousands of spectators looked on, he allowed himself to be handcuffed, shackled in leg irons and wedged inside the stinking carcass, which was then covered in chains and placed behind a curtain. Houdini emerged in triumph after just 15 minutes, but later admitted that he was nearly suffocated by the fumes from the chemicals used to embalm the beast.
He was an aviation pioneer.
After developing a passion for aviation while in Europe in 1909, Houdini bought a French-made Voisin biplane and became one of the world’s first private pilots. The magician crashed during his maiden flight in Germany, but he continued practicing and eventually set his sights on becoming the first man to pilot an airplane in Australia. During a tour Down Under in March 1910, Houdini hopped behind the controls of his Voisin and made three successful flights near Melbourne, each only a couple of minutes long. The Aerial League of Australia certified Houdini’s display as the country’s first powered and controlled flight, but some historians have since argued that the record actually belongs to Colin Defries, an Englishman who had made a brief flight a few months earlier. In 2010, Houdini and Defries were both honored in a series of stamps commemorating the centennial of powered flight in Australia.
Houdini assisted with the American war effort during WWI.
Although he was born in Hungary, Houdini was an American patriot and staunch supporter of U.S. involvement in World War I. He persuaded the Society of American Magicians to sign loyalty oaths to President Woodrow Wilson, and later canceled his touring season to devote himself to entertaining soldiers and raising money for the war effort. Houdini also drew on his arsenal of magician’s tricks to provide special instruction to American troops. In a series of classes held at New York’s Hippodrome, he counseled doughboys on how to escape sinking ships and extricate themselves from ropes, handcuffs and other restraints in the event of capture by the Germans.
He owned his own movie studio.
Houdini’s brief career as a silent film star began with 1919’s “The Master Mystery,” an adventure serial in which he played an undercover agent who uses his escape skills to thwart criminal plots. The series was a blockbuster hit—it’s now remembered as the first film to feature a robot—and the magician went on to star in two more features before launching his own studio called the “Houdini Picture Corporation.” He made two films for the company, “The Man From Beyond” and “Haldane of the Secret Service,” but neither fared particularly well at the box office, and critics poked fun at his stilted performances. Having lost a large chunk of his personal fortune, Houdini quit the movie business for good in 1923.
Houdini debunked psychics and the supernatural.
As the world’s greatest trickster and illusionist, Houdini had little patience for anyone who claimed to be in possession of supernatural powers. Beginning in the 1920s, he embarked on a second career as a professional skeptic and debunker of psychics, mind readers, mediums and other “Spiritualists” who purported to be able to contact the deceased. Houdini campaigned tirelessly, often visiting séances in disguise to expose their ringleader as frauds. He also offered a $10,000 reward to any psychic who could present “physical phenomena” that could not be explained rationally (no one ever collected), and in 1926 he testified before Congress in support of a bill to outlaw the practice of “pretending to tell fortunes for reward or compensation.”
The cause of his death is still debated.
Houdini died on Halloween 1926 at the age of 52, just days after struggling through a final performance in Detroit. The official cause of his death was peritonitis brought on by a ruptured appendix, but several legends continue to swirl around his last days. The most famous concerns an incident that had occurred after a performance in Montreal on October 22. While holding court in his dressing room, Houdini was approached by a university student who inquired about a rumor that he could withstand heavy punches to his abdominal muscles. When Houdini boasted about his physical strength, the young man walloped him in the stomach without warning, leaving him doubled over in agony. Houdini complained of stomach pains for the rest of the day, leading many to conclude that the unexpected blows somehow triggered his appendicitis. Others, meanwhile, allege that the great magician was poisoned by the Spiritualists, who had previously issued several death threats against him in response to his attacks.
“Houdini séances” are still held every Halloween.
Despite his skepticism about the spirit world, Houdini swore to his wife Bess that he would try to contact her from beyond the grave. He told her to listen for a specific message—a series of codes that spelled out the words “Rosabelle, believe.” Bess Houdini eventually spent a decade trying to contact her husband before giving up, supposedly saying, “ten years is long enough to wait for any man.” Others continued the search, however, and since the 1930s, fans have held Houdini séances every Halloween to attempt to communicate with the magician’s ghost. There is even an “Official Houdini Séance” that takes place in a different city each year.