This is a story of success. Amongst the hundreds of thousands of Central Europeans who left Europe to go to America in search of a better life, many are those who found out that America’s promises were vacuous, many managed to establish a decent living and some achieved spectacular successes, demonstrating that this was the right country to welcome a young immigrant with the right work ethic, unique talents and a sharp business acumen.
This is the story of the success of a Hungarian boy who went to America and became one of the most successful entertainers of all times, known as the Master of the Escape. He was, of course, Harry Houdini – acrobat, contortionist, magician, escape artist, entrepreneur, film tycoon, debunker of occultists, maybe even a secret agent …???
Above all, Harry Houdini was a master marketer and manager of his own public image, using a variety of media to promote his shows and his famous stunts that would defy Death and leave it empty handed every time. Please welcome Harry Houdini, the closest America ever got to having a real life superhero.
Our hero was born on the 24th of March 1874 in Budapest, Austro-Hungarian Empire, with the name of Erik Weisz. [Pronounced as ‘Vice’]
He was one of seven children born to Samuel and Cecilia, who had married in 1863. Samuel had started in life as a soapmaker and he certainly had intellectual ambitions: he graduated as a Doctor in Law and had also studied to become a Rabbi and Bible scholar, eventually becoming a civil servant in Budapest.
His career must have hit a hard stop, though, as the Weisz family was forced to emigrate to the USA in 1887, in search of fortune and a better life.
This ‘hard stop’ according to some sources, was an event worthy of a novel by Alexandre Dumas, father of the Three Musketeers. It seems that Samuel had challenged – and killed – in a duel an Austro-Hungarian nobleman, known only as ‘Erich’. To prevent prosecution, he had to organise an escape to America with the help of a good friend called Carl Herman, whom you may find amusing to know, was at that time one of the most famous stage magicians in Europe.
It is foreshadowing, to say the least, that the early life of he who would become Harry Houdini were to be influenced by an escape aided by a stage magician.
This version of the events may be corroborated by the fact that according to other sources, Samuel first left alone for the States, followed by the rest of the family at a later stage.
Whatever the reasons for this escape, or emigration, the Weisz had their surname changed to ‘Weiss’ in Ellis Island. The ever-creative immigration officers also re-christened young Erik as ‘Ehrich’.
Young Ehrich and his family initially lived between Appleton and Milwaukee, in Wisconsin. Ehrich demonstrated from a very early age a talent for athleticism, becoming very early a proficient runner, swimmer and amateur boxer.
A History Channel mini-series, aired in 2014 portrayed Ehrich’s relationship with his father as fractured and dysfunctional. In reality, Ehrich was very closed to Samuel, who encouraged Ehrich’s early interest in acrobatics and stage magic by taking him to Circus and Carnival shows.
In 1883 in fact Ehrich started his career as a performer, becoming a contortionist. He was able to perform feats such as bending over backwards in a ‘bridge’ position to pick up a pin from the floor with his teeth. He also learned very early how to dislocate shoulders, or other joints, from their sockets in order to increase his flexibility.
These early displays of stagecraft were absolutely not opposed by Samuel and Cecilia. The Weisses found it difficult to make a living: Samuel’s career as a Rabbi had not fully picked up since the move to America, and any job that Ehrich and his siblings could pick up were very welcome to the family finances.
This was demonstrated by a sad event. On Christmas Eve 1885, the oldest of the Weiss siblings, Herman, died of tuberculosis at the age of 22. And it was Ehrich who paid for the funeral expenses, thanks to his earnings as a performer.
When Ehrich turned 13 he and Samuel moved to New York. It was here that the pre-teen added acrobatics to his talents, performing as a trapeze artist with stage names such as ‘Prince Erik’ or ‘The Prince of the Air’
During the same period young Ehrich would pick up another talent that would become key to his later career. He became the apprentice of a locksmith, a line of work which made him become fascinated with locks of any kind – and also how to pick them open. It is reported that he developed such skills that he stunned his employer in at least two occasions: like that time when he managed to open a pair of handcuffs using only a piece of piano wire; or when he unlocked all the doors to all the shops in his street … just for the hell of it!
With the combination of these talents – acrobatics, contortionism, lock-picking – Ehrich could have easily gone into becoming a burglar. And who knows, I may have been here anyways talking about how he had pulled the most successful heist in History. But luckily, he soon found another career to channel his talents, surely more honest but by any means no less risky.
At the age of seventeen Ehrich and his brother Theo worked on developing a magical act , which they would perform at so called ‘Penny Circuses’, music halls, sideshows and at New York’s Coney Island amusement park. As they grew in popularity Ehrich thought it wise they chose a stage name. Ehrich and Theo used to call each other ‘Harry’ and ‘Dash’. So, first names sorted. As per the last name, Harry went for ‘Houdini’, after one of his idols, French illusionist Robert Houdin. [Who-dan]
The Houdini Brothers would perform up to 20 shows every single day. Their partnership continued until in 1894 they met another entertainer, teenage singer and dancer Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, better known as Bess. At that time, Bess was part of an act called “The Floral Sisters” and had initially started dating ‘Dash’, but after she and Harry met they were smitten with each other. It was a real coup de foudre. Harry and Bess courted, got engaged and married in the span of one week!
In addition to be life partners they also became partners on stage, as Bess replaced Dash as Harry’s sidekick. So, at this point of the story we should really feel sorry for Dash Houdini aka Theo Weiss. The poor guy has been basically pushed to the side twice by his brother, romantically and professionally. No wonder then, that the two would develop a bitter rivalry, right?
Well, wrong again. But I am not going to leap ahead like a trapeze artist now, so I am going to stick to Bess and Harry’s love story.
Bess and Harry remained deeply in love for the rest of their lives – and maybe even after. Harry gave her credit for many of his achievements and developed the habit of writing her a love letter every single day. Sometimes, when they were on tour, Harry would write her a letter even when sitting in the same hotel room. It is widely reported that the couple was largely faithful to each other, despite the temptations that a famous magician may incur when meeting his fans. Well actually Harry did not stick 100% to his marital vows: he had at least one confirmed and documented affair with a lady called Charmian London, wife of famous novelist Jack London.
Bess, on the other hand, was much more serious. Only on one occasion, to make Harry jealous, she sat on a lap of a young Colonel at a party. The ruse worked: Houdini, the man who would defy death thousands of times on and off stage, was terrified at the sight of his wife sitting on some other guy’s lap. For months afterwards, the mere mention of the word ‘Colonel’ would get him into a funk.
In 1895, the Houdinis joined the Welsh Brothers Circus for six months. Harry performed his magic tricks while Bess sang and danced. Together they devised an illusion called “Metamorphosis”, in which they switched places in a locked trunk, as fast as the bat of an eyelid.
Over the same period Harry and Bess wowed audiences by performing as spiritualists on stage – in other words acting as mediums to summon the spirits of the dead. It was all an act, of course, but performed very convincingly: Harry apparently got Bess into a trance and then the spirits would use her as a mouthpiece to communicate with the living. Harry’s favourite approach was to ask the spirits about recent unsolved murders in the town they were performing.
It is said that on one occasion one of such spirits revealed the identity of a murderer. The man, who was sitting among the audience, jumped from his seat and fled the scene.
Was the story true, or just one of the many publicity stunts that Harry would pull over the years? PR became one of the many skills Harry mastered, alongside his most visible and memorable endeavour: the art of escape.
The King of Handcuffs
When arriving in a new town, Houdini issued a challenge to the local police department: he would be able to escape from any handcuffs provided by the local officers. If he failed, he would offer a reward of $ 100. As you may have guessed, he never had to pay. This type of stunts would bring him increasing attention from the press and free promotion for his shows, to the point that he became a headliner on the vaudeville circuit.
In 1899 Harry got his first big break. A vaudeville impresario called Martin Beck encouraged Houdini to focus his shows on escapes – any type of escape from handcuffs, chains, locks, trunks and shackles. Beck also booked him on a tour of Europe, which would be a turning point in the magician’s career.
The following year Mr and Mrs Houdini sailed to England for their first engagement in a London theatre. As ever, he insured his success with a clever PR stunt: Houdini wowed audiences and ‘bobbies’ alike when he successfully broke free from handcuffs placed on him by arguably the best police department in the world, Scotland Yard.
According to authors William Kalush and Larry Sloman, this stunt impressed the head of Scotland Yard, William Melville who initiated Houdini to his parallel, secret career: that of a spy in His Majesty’s Service.
Was Houdini a spy?
The idea is so enticing that I want a mini-series, right here, right now, about Houdini spying on the French, the Russians, the Germans in the years leading to WWI. The claim is, after all, credible: as a famous performer Harry would have been able to tour all of Europe undisturbed and have access to high ranking officials. And if he ever got caught … good luck in restraining him!
No, he wasn’t
However, the theory has been debunked by several other authors. First of all, the British Intelligence Service was not established until 1909. Then, by 1900 Houdini was not yet famous enough to presume that he would be able to, say, perform for the Kaiser or anything similar. But the best counter argument comes from fellow magician and professional debunker, the Great James Randi.
“If Houdini had been a spy, that would have gotten out. He never would have been able to sit on it!”
Let’s go on with the tour
In November of 1900 Harry invited his brother Dash [TA10] to join him in the rest of his European tour. Was this a reconciliation for the two brothers? Actually, there was never a rift between them and the two had always been and always remained close friends and collaborators.
Harry had a plan: he had helped Dash in launching his career as a magician and escape artist with the stage name of Hardeen, which sounded close enough to Houdini. As Harry and Bess toured the European theatres, Hardeen would follow suit and book performances in venues that Harry didn’t play. This was a scheme to shut out of the market the many cheap imitators of Harry’s escape art, at the same time raking in additional revenue that would stay in the family.
The supposed rivalry was also part of the ruse: the two brothers simply fed this fake piece of news to the press, knowing very well that this created even more free advertising for their shows.
In at least one occasion Dash, Theo, Hardeen, whatever you like to call him, even pioneered an act that would become one of Harry’s best-known routines: the strait jacket escape.
Meanwhile, the publicity from the Scotland Yard escape had caused Houdini’s fame to spread across the Channel. Sold-out engagements followed in Germany and then across other European countries. In addition to leaving police forces baffled, Harry came up with another way to attract attention: jumping into rivers, fully chained and handcuffed.
With sadistic glee, Houdini would remain underwater long after having removed his shackles, allowing the suspense to build among the audience. With his last remaining breath, he would then emerge from under water waving triumphantly. This was performance art, guerrilla marketing and viral promotion all rolled into one.
In 1905 Harry and Bess returned to the United States. He had become an international celebrity by now and the public were expecting increasingly daring exploits from him. And he satisfied them. I already mentioned the strait-jacket act. Harry was able to set himself free from such a contraption thanks to his ability to self-dislocate his shoulders from their sockets, in pure Martin Riggs style
But that was too easy, so Houdini would perform the act while hanging upside down from a skyscraper (!) in the cities he was touring in. And not just any skyscraper. As we have already established that the man was a marketing and PR pioneer: so, he picked buildings that housed major newspapers. This ensured that photographers got the best shots of him and The Great Houdini would make the headlines. Unsurprisingly, his shows were sold out.
His triumphant return to America was the setting for the creation of increasingly outrageous death-defying acts. You have probably heard about, or seen images, of the most famous ones.
For example, the milk can escape. Houdini was shackled and lowered into an industrial size milk can filled with water, and then hidden behind a curtain.
Though he was usually able to escape in three minutes, Harry frequently stayed behind the curtain for up to a half hour, making his re-appearance even more dramatic. The milk can was the setting for one of his rare failures: in one performance the can was filled with beer, rather than water.
That sounds like great fun to you and me, but Houdini was a tee-totaller and the effects of alcohol knocked him out. For once, he had to be pulled to safety by his stage hands.
Another famous example was the act he called ‘Upside Down’, but which the press rebranded as ‘Chinese Water Torture Chamber’. Houdini would have his feet shackled, his hands handcuffed and then would be placed upside down inside a transparent tank filled with water. To increase the suspense, he sometimes invited the audience to hold their breath for as long as it took for him to emerge from the Chamber.
One less known, but much more bizarre stunt was a one-off event that took place in September 1911 in Boston. Some businessmen challenged Houdini to attempt an escape from inside the carcass of a 1,500-pound “sea monster” that had washed up in Boston’s harbour.
It is not clear what the monster was, maybe a whale or a giant leatherback turtle. In any case, Houdini accepted the challenge. In front of thousands of spectators Harry was handcuffed, shackled and wedged inside the stinking carcass. Houdini emerged after 15 minutes – normally he would have done with the irons much more quickly, but he was nearly poisoned by the chemicals used to embalm the monster.
He was by now one of the top celebrities in America and for sure the most famous stage magician slash master lock picker.
But there is more to life than just stage magic and picking locks
But there is more to life than just stage magic and picking locks and Harry’s vivid curiosity did not allow him to stagnate on just one talent. In the 1910s and early 1920s he sought to diversify his activities, driven by patriotism, love of adventure, love of justice or simply to make a few extra bucks – which are all perfectly fine motivations.
During a 2nd tour of Europe in 1909 Harry had developed a love for aviation and had bought a Voisin biplane, Made in France. Interesting to note – he was one of the first private pilots. In March 1910 Houdini was touring Australia and took three short flights with his Voisin, near Melbourne. This was certified at the time as the first powered flight to take place Down Under, making Harry Houdini a pioneer of aviation – plus I am sure it got him some extra headlines and ticket sales along the way.
A few years later and back in the States, Harry volunteered to serve the Government in a time of need. In April 1917 the US entered the War against the Central Empires and although Houdini was theoretically Austro-Hungarian, he was staunchly loyal to his country of adoption. In 1917 and 1918 he cancelled his tours to entertain soldiers instead, and to raise money for the war effort. He even organised some lessons for the troops, where he taught them how to free themselves if they were made captive by the Germans.
Not all his extra-magician activities were successful, though. Between 1919 and 1923 Houdini tried his hand at movie stardom. He was the lead in “The Master Mystery”, before deciding to create his own production company with the help of Dash. The Houdini Picture Corporation released “The Man from Beyond” and “Haldane of the Secret Service”. The latter two films tanked at the box office. It seems like Harry, after all, could fail, too.
Anyways, by the beginning of the 1920s Houdini had other preoccupations on his mind. This is when he started a parallel career as debunker of occultist, spiritualists and mediums. In general, he would expose as fakes anybody who claimed to communicate with the dead – which is ironic given his early performances.
What Houdini could not tolerate was the exploitation of well-meaning individuals, willing to communicate with their deceased loved ones. He campaigned with fervour, often visiting séances in disguise to expose their ringleader as frauds.
When he could not go in person, he sent one of his team of detectives who would go to seances on his behalf and bring back information … information which allowed him to set up shows entirely dedicated to exposing the tricks used by the fake mediums.
Houdini offered a $10,000 reward to any psychic who could present “physical phenomena” that could not be explained rationally. The psychics were to be investigated by a committee from the Scientific American publication. One of the mediums under the lens was well-known spiritualist Mina Crandon, known as ‘Margery’.
Margery attempted to seduce several members of the Committee to secure the prize, and she even made a pass at Harry. Houdini was not easily charmed, as he said of her
‘Her applesauce means nothing to me’
Houdini’s crusade culminated in 1926, when he testified before the US Congress in support of a bill to outlaw the practice of “pretending to tell fortunes for reward or compensation”. The bill was made into law, albeit only in the District of Columbia.
I should clarify now that Houdini’s debunking efforts were not entirely based on pure scepticism. In fact, Harry did believe in a spiritual world, he simply did not trust charlatans who could claim access to it.
His belief in a Thereafter was put to the test by an experience which involved one of his dearest friends, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Sir Arthur’s main creation Sherlock Holmes was a paladin for rational thinking, and yet the author firmly believed that the dead could talk to the living. Lady Doyle shared this belief and had a reputation for being an accomplished medium.
In 1922 Sir Arthur and Lady Conan Doyle organised for Houdini an automatic writing seance that supposedly contacted his beloved mother Cecilia, who had died nine years earlier.
Cecilia’s spirit convincingly took control of Lady Doyle’s body – but Houdini was not easily fooled. Why did the wife of a Rabbi do the sign of the cross? Why a Hungarian immigrant who never learned English, suddenly was writing in that language? This seance was the beginning of the end of Houdini’s friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – and may have fuelled his animosity towards mediums.
While touring in Montreal, Canada, Houdini was visited by two students of McGill University in his dressing room. It was the 22nd of October 1926.
One of them, J. Gordon Whitehead, asked Harry if he could really absorb any punch to the stomach. Harry replied that yes, he could, and the student suddenly punched him four times, probably having misunderstood the reply as an invitation to do so.
Houdini had terrible stomach pain for two days, before finally seeing a doctor. Harry was found to have a high fever and acute appendicitis. He was advised to go to the hospital for surgery, but he preferred to go on stage and complete his show.
But by the middle of the third act, Houdini lowered the curtain and collapsed. Bess and Dash had him taken to the hospital where his appendix was removed. But it was too late: it had already ruptured.
On October 31 – Halloween – 1926, Harry Houdini died, Bess and Dash at his bedside. The official cause of death: acute peritonitis, caused by the appendix being ruptured by an ill-timed punch. You may have heard the theory that Houdini was actually the victim of a spiritualist conspiracy, but of course there is no evidence of that.
Houdini’s funeral was held on November 4, 1926 in New York with more than 2,000 mourners in attendance.
In the years that followed Bess held annual séances every Halloween to contact Harry. The last séance took place exactly 10 years after Harry’s death, and it was broadcast over the radio.
After over an hour of silence Mrs. Houdini decided to end the experiment, as Harry’s spirit would just remain silent. As the séance came to an end, a violent thunderstorm broke out. The participants, sitting on a hotel roof top terrace were drenched by the violent rainfall, while lighting set the sky ablaze. They would later learn that the storm did not occur anywhere else in the area – only above the séance location. I would not be surprised to learn if this was Harry’s final stunt to wow yet another audience and say goodbye – with a bang! – to his beloved Bess.