Harry Houdini – the legend. Ask anyone about famous escape artists or magicians, and the name ‘Houdini’ will invariably come up. He was indeed a true pioneering legend in the field. A name that still resonates today in 2017, and he will be forever linked to this genre in history. Take a virtual tour through his groundbreaking and exciting life right here at Artographico. Feel free to leave your comments. Note: All external websites open in a new Tab/Window.
Table of Contents
ARTOGRAPHIC – ‘Houdini Life and Times’
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Harry Houdini – Life TIMELINE
Here is just a brief timeline of Houdini’s life. He packed so much into his relatively short time here, and yet achieved so much. A more complete look at his life is laid out in detail below.
He was born Erik Weisz, (later Ehrich Weiss) on March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary. The family emigrated to the US, and arrived in the United States on July 3, 1878 on the SS Fresia.
As was often the case in those early days, he was to claim that Appleton, Wisconsin. was his birthplace. This was a common occurrence for immigrants in those days – claiming that you were ‘American’, as there was a lot of anti-immigrant/antisemitism going on back then.
As the family were extremely poor, they ’embraced the States’ and the chance of a ‘new life’. Here’s a few old photographs of Harry (or ‘Ehrie’ as he was called at the time).
Ehrich, the Prince of the Air
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 a fitness fanatic, and he was also a champion cross country runner in his youth. Check out this amazing photo of him during his early Circus days, can you spot him?
I think that’s a fantastic capture of a long-lost moment in time. That clown is just awesome!
Sitting right of Houdini is Bess his future wife. Love stories begin at the circus. And yes I had a brief ‘let’s run away to the circus’ phase once when I was a teenager, doesn’t everybody? ;).
Enter ‘Harry Houdini’
When Weiss became a professional magician he began calling himself “Harry Houdini”, a name taken after the French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. The name ‘Harry’ may just have been an an Americanized version of his nickname, ‘Ehrie’.
In later life, Houdini claimed that the first part of his new name, Harry, was an homage to a famous magician Harry Kellar, whom he also greatly admired. In true Houdini ‘mystery style’ we can’t be sure which is the actual true fact here. The mists of time eh.
Houdini initially started his magical life mainly as a ‘Card Magician’ and was billed as ‘The King of Cards’. But he soon moved on from that and became an ‘Escape Artiste’. Perhaps the most famous of all times, certainly an innovator of his day. There was nothing like him before.
Marriage and Escapology
In 1893, while performing with his brother “Dash” (Theodore) at Coney Island as “The Brothers Houdini,” Houdini met a fellow performer, Wilhelmina Beatrice “Bess” Rahner. They got married in 1904. They started a double-act together and called themselves ‘The Houdinis’.
p.s. Every time I look at this photo, he always reminds me of Freddie Mercury in it.
They performed an act called ‘Metamorphisis’ (The Trunk Trick), which is still very popular and performed today by many magical acts.
The Big Break
The story goes that Houdini’s big break came in 1899 when he met manager Martin Beck in St. Paul, Minnesota. 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.
But Houdini found it difficult to earn a substantial income from the US Vaudeville circuit, including the dime museums, carnivals, beer halls and whatever else he could scrape up. He could envision more than he was currently getting, he had big dreams and visions. The act was struggling to even make a living, times were still tough, a change was needed in order to move forward. He needed a ‘great escape’.
Houdini Suspended Straitjacket Escape
‘Live’ GIF image – one of Harry’s most popular escape performances. The amazing ‘Penn and Teller‘ reliably inform us that being suspended like this actually makes this Straitjacket escape easier! Be that as it may, I’m not trying it lol, I’ll leave that to you guys.
The European Challenge
In 1900 at the age of 26 he took off to Europe, with 50 dollars in his pocket and not a booking to his name. Once there, he went on to confound Scotland Yard by challenging them to constrain him in manacles, locks and chains, he escaped them all.
He did the same in France, Germany and Russia. He was suddenly a HIT overnight! Saying that, he had worked hard over the previous years to get there.
Astounding people with his skills and performances, news got back to the US and around the world. There was nothing that could hold this magical man.
He even managed to become a verb/metaphor and get listed in dictionaries! You could ‘do a Houdini’ and get yourself out of a tricky situation
Fancy a snack? How about a couple of tasty needles or razor blades? Mmm delicious. You can read all about how he did this show-stopping trick at the seriously excellent thegreatharryhoudini.com/needletrick.html – I love this website its a beauty. Wonderful ‘retro-style’ design and full of Houdini info.
Once Houdini had the ball rolling, he was an absolute Master Publicist. His posters were everywhere and everyone was talking about him, his bookings never stopped coming in.
He was the highest paid performer of his day earning thousands and deservedly so, he was a maverick. I love the artwork style that was used in these posters. Notice the ‘£100. WILL BE PAID TO ANYONE FINDING TRAPS, PANELS OR FALSE DOORS IN THE CELL’, at the footer. He was always using publicity ‘gimmicks’ like this. A precursor to the modern age, well ahead of his time.
The World Famous Self-Liberator
Another cool title for the man of the day. Houdini represented liberation to a lot of people of those times. He was a ‘beacon of hope’ to many.
The Houdini Challenge
Another way Houdini drummed up great interest was by issuing a ‘Challenge’ to anyone who could lock him up successfully. He had the police tearing their hair out when it came to this one. He left them totally baffled and confused.
Back in the USA
After four years of successful touring and promotions, Houdini returned in triumph to the United States in 1904. He then went to purchase a house for $25,000 at 278 W. 113th Street in Harlem, New York City. That works out at over half-a-millions worth in 2017 (approximate).
He had achieved what he had set out to do. But he didn’t stop at that, he continued performing his ‘death-defying’ stunts. These included the ‘Milk Can Escape’, a dangerous underwater breakout. I love this particular piece of excitement he added to it:
‘As part of the effect, Houdini invited members of the audience to hold their breath along with him while he was inside the can’.
You can imagine how much this increased the spectator’s participation in this performance, that’s a great idea.
Another wonderful stunt he came up with was the ‘Chinese Water Torture Cell’. This escape is still performed today by many modern escape-artists.
Now, while the subject of using animals in entertainment acts is a controversial issue nowadays, back in the early 1900s it was not. Performers had been making animals disappear in magic acts for a long time (mostly Rabbits).
So, typical of Houdini, he must have thought to himself ‘what’s the most impressive thing I can make disappear?, and what would be more impressive than a disappearing Bunny’.
His answer? ‘An Elephant’. Enter Jennie, the Vanishing Elephant, January 7, 1918. He didn’t do things in half-measures.
Houdini in the Movies
From around 1919 to 1923, he became involved in the newfangled at the time ‘moving pictures’ industry. His most popular at the time movies were ‘The Grim Game’ and ‘Terror Island’. Although his movie career never really took off, he certainly gave it a go. He was always keen to try out the popular mediums of his day.
Wikipedia Sourced Houdini Film Related Info
Houdini 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 founded his own film laboratory business called The Film Development Corporation (FDC), gambling on a new process for developing motion picture film. Houdini’s brother, Theodore Hardeen, left his own career as a magician and escape artist to run the company. Magician Harry Kellar was a major investor.
These enterprises didn’t take off for Houdini though and he left his movie related aspirations behind him.
An Aviator Rises
Inspired no doubt by the legendary ‘Wright Brothers’ success, Houdini got into aviation. At the time it was claimed that he was the first man to fly over Australia, but this is a conflicted story. Nevertheless, he did go ‘up in the clouds’ and this often featured in his films.
Harry Houdini Ghostbuster
Houdini was particularly close to two women, his mother and his wife. In this photo below its hand written on ‘my two sweethearts’. When his mother Cecelia died in 1917 he was distraught by the event. Its reported that he fainted on hearing the news, truly devastated.
The death of his mother got him into the so called world of ‘spiritualism’. He desperately tried to ‘get in touch’ with his deceased mother. Needless to say he never did, but it put him on a vendetta to expose all the false Mediums who were around at the time (of course this practice still exists today).
When he went to séances he realized that all the Mediums were using ‘magic’ tricks and props to create the desired effects, something he was well aware of. The ‘Mediums’ he had visited in hope were all frauds. He was troubled that he, and many other bereaved people, were so often exploited by con-artists.
So he began a new ‘career’ fully devoted to becoming an anti-fraud crusader. In true Houdini style he put all of his energy into this exposing them left right and center. He also produced several books condemning the practices of ‘Medium Charlatans’.
Video Courtesy: biography .com
Mystery Mongers and Fraud Mediums
Houdini dedicated the latter part of his life exposing these. To the point of disguising himself and turning up at ‘séances‘ where he would reveal the trickery that went on. Being such an experienced stage magician, he was to totally aware of what was going on at them.
Handcuff Secrets (1907)
Ever the worker, Houdini also wrote and released books. Here’s one he did called ‘Handcuff Secrets’. Was there no end to this man’s talent?
The Umasking of Robert-Houdin
He also released a book called ‘The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin’. Of all the things that Houdini has under his wing, this one does not sit well with me and many others. Seemingly he was snubbed upon visiting Houdin’s family and he held a grudge about it and came up with this in answer to that. I, and many other Houdini fans find this to be a very distasteful work. What on earth were you up to here Harry?
Hmm let’s not dwell on that blemish in this mighty man’s career, it is a bit of a mystery why he did that. Speaking of mysteries, I love this poster from one of his movies ‘The Master Mystery’ …
Its got a real Science Fiction look about it that one, very reminiscent of 1950s Sci-Fi artwork.
Harry Houdini – Youtube Fan Video
Escape Artist – Youtube Fan Video #2
In 1923, Houdini became president of Martinka & Co., which is America’s oldest magic company. The business is still in operation today. It was founded in 1877, by two brothers: Francis and Antonio Martinka. You can visit them online at: https://www.martinka.com/martinka/auction/XcAuctionPro.asp
From their website: ‘PURVEYORS OF WONDER ~ FORMERLY OWNED BY HOUDINI’
He also served as President of the Society of American Magicians (a.k.a. S.A.M.) from 1917 until his death in 1926.
Newspaper Cuttings & Final Resting Place
Harry Houdini died of peritonitis, October 31, 1926, he was 52 years old. Like a lot of things associated with Houdini, his death too is shrouded in mystery. Newspapers in the day reported that Houdini was struck without warning by a student and this brought on the Peritonitis / ruptured appendix.
Whatever the truth here, the great Harry Houdini certainly lived a life full of adventure, excitement, and mystery. He was and indeed still is, a legend. Rest in Peace.
Houdini Online 2017
Houdini is as popular today as ever. There are some fantastic websites online dedicated to the man himself. Note: All external websites open in a new Tab/Window.
The Great Harry Houdini
Includes some fascinating facts and information, Houdini Silent Movies section , a detailed listing of related Merchandise and Magic Books, Houdini quotes, Museums and Exhibits, and a listing of Houdini Sites of Interest. I love this website’s beautiful design its very retro.
Great site covers many eras during his life. Including:
1910–1924 | 1925–1926 | 1927–1930 | 1931–1943 | MORE RECENT / Articles, Snippets, images and more. I like this dedicated fan site, run by ‘Tom Interval, Magician and Houdini Enthusiast’.
Houdini Museum / New York
This looks absolutely amazing. Includes an ‘animatronic Houdini escape from a straight jacket’.
From the website itself:
‘The Houdini Museum of New York has several hundred of the rarest and most important pieces that was used and personally belonged to Harry Houdini on display. In the museums archives are over 1500 pieces of Houdiniana that will allow for an ever changing display’.
Also worthy of note is their motivating statement:
Our goal is to inspire all age groups to realize once you focus and set your mind on something, you can accomplish anything you desire. This was exactly the way Houdini lived his life.
Really incredible this complete website and what they stand for, deserves a big WOW!
Leading female escape artist, a ‘Female Houdini’ ™.
She is the founder of The Houdini Museum, the only building in the world totally devoted to Houdini. Dietrich is the first and only woman to accomplish the ‘Catching of a Bullet’ in her mouth, often called “The Jinxed Bullet Catch” and the trick that scared Houdini. At least 12 men have died attempting this feat. 999
Impressive lady. That bullet catching stunt is crazy stuff altogether. Please revamp your website though Dorothy ;).
The Voice of Houdini
An Edison rehearsal voice recording made by Harry Houdini in 1914, where he introduces his ‘original invention’ which he named ‘The Water Torture Cell’ – (which became ‘The Chinese Water Torture Cell’). Its great to hear the actual voice of the man himself speaking to us from the ‘other side’.
Houdini Pinball Game
When I was researching and building this page, a thought occurred to me that there must be a Houdini Pinball Game. He’s such a perfect subject to build a game on. I’m a big Pinball fan (got into it many Moons ago), and I started wondering if I had ever seen one. It was in mind that I’d seen one somewhere before.
Well lo and behold, I did a bit of searching on the mighty Google and came up with an answer and here it is, courtesy of http://www.pinballnews.com/games/houdini/index2.html – it looks awesome and very much like I had imagined more or less. I’d love to have a go on this!
Houdini on eBay
There’s plenty of Houdini related material available for sale on eBay, take your ‘pick’: Hidden Object PC Game CD-ROMs, vintage film posters, Postcards, Novelty Toy Games, Houdini Golf Shots (great name), Cigarette Money Case ID Holder or Wallet, Collector Cards, the ‘Houdini Brainteaser Game ‘, Strategy Games, Escape Room/Houdini Locks, Metal Signs, Vintage Magic Kits, Brainteaser Puzzles, to a RARE Houdini Puzzle Game Lock. You name it and you’ll probably find it, although the plane is not available I believe. > Visit: Houdini on eBay
Thanks for visiting and reading, hope you enjoyed the Houdini story as much as I did when doing the research, and putting it all together. Inspired by the great man himself!
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