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Young Erich Weisz had an eye for the unusual. Born in 1874 to Rabbi Mayer and Cecilia Weisz, the Hungarian-born immigrant was always looking for new ways to bring an income to his family. At the age of nine, he worked as a trapeze artist, calling himself ‘Erich, Prince of Air’. He sold newspapers on the streets of New York and taught himself contortionism (which is the art of bending your limbs and body in incredibly unnatural-looking ways).
Supposedly, Erich became a master at picking locks, using only a hairpin to unlock a cupboard containing a pie that his mother baked.
Erich was fascinated by vaudeville acts and traveling circuses, especially by the traveling dime magicians. One of his idols was the French magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, master illusionist and a man now considered to be the father of modern conjuration.
At the age of 17, Erich taught himself magic and moved away from home to be a traveling entertainer. To hide his immigrant status, he changed his name to Harry (a childhood nickname from the shortened version of Erich) and his last name to that of his idol-- Houdini.
Houdini traveled throughout New York, doing small magic acts at dime museums and carnivals. He met and married his wife, Wilhelmina (who took the stage name of Bess Houdini) and the two toured together.
His most famous trick at the time was ‘Metamorphosis’.
Houdini would be tied up, stuffed in a knotted sack and locked in steamer trunk. His assistant (initially his brother, Theo and, later on, Bess) would draw a curtain around the trunk and themselves and clap three times. At the third clap, Houdini would draw open the curtain and reveal himself freed from the trunk; when opened, the trunk would reveal his assistant tied and stuffed in the trunk.
The trick? The trunk itself had a false panel on the side for an easy exit. The knotted bag was fastened in such a way that the knots could be untied from the inside.
This trick formed the basis of many of Houdini’s escape tricks later in his career. During his time on the road, he perfected the art of wiggling out of restraints and picking locks.
In 1899, Houdini caught his big break when entertainment manager Martin Beck recognized his talent. Beck booked Houdini in some of the world’s most famous vaudeville theatres in the United States and Europe, touring the country with his acts. At that point, Houdini focused entirely on escapes, refining his ‘Metamorphosis’ act and bringing in new ideas.
One of his main attractions were his handcuff tricks. Often when touring a city, Houdini would walk into the local police station and challenge them to lock him in a cell with ropes, chains and other fastenings. When the officers turned their backs, he would escape, creating a media circus and garnering free advertisement for his shows.
Houdini would encourage spectators to bring in handcuffs of their own to the show, locking them over his wrists and disappearing behind a cabinet. Houdini would emerge, triumphant, mere moments later, the still-locked handcuffs dangling from his freed hands. His exploits earned him the name of ‘Handcuff King’.
Houdini had a wide variety of ways to escape his confinements. His cabinet had a hidden compartment of lockpicks and keys. Sometimes he would tape a key to his foot or swallow a lockpick before an escape and retrieve it later (a trick he practiced using bits of potato on a string). He used his contortionist skills to wiggle out of ropes and chains.
As Houdini grew in fame, his tricks grew in danger. One trick involved Houdini struggling out of a straightjacket-- suspended from a crane over a crowd. Another was ‘The Chinese Water Torture Cell’-- a booth filled with water and fitted with stocks. Houdini would be lowered, head-first, into the water and would have to escape from a pair of handcuffs and the stocks before he drowned (He could hold his breath for up to five minutes, making the trick seem even more miraculous).
His stunts were varied and the magician even appeared in silent films based on his tricks. It seemed that there were no tricks Houdini wouldn’t try-- he performed a disappearing act on an elephant and escaped handcuffs while jumping off a bridge into a frozen river.
In addition to his death-defying escapes, Houdini was a staunch disbeliever in so-called ‘spiritual mediums’ and others who claimed they could speak to the dead. Spiritualism was at its height in the early 1900s, especially after the Crimean War, as relatives tried to seek contact with their lost loved ones.
Houdini despised the practice of mediums, who he believed played on people’s emotions and vulnerability in their grief to make a quick buck.
He would often disguise himself and sneak into seances, debunking mediums and their deceptions through his knowledge of stage tricks and magic.
He was even a part of committee of experts from the magazine ‘Scientific American’ when they ran a contest, seeking a legitimate medium who could prove evidence of the paranormal in a controlled setting (For the record, nobody won.)
Houdini did magic for the majority of his life. Though he would ‘retire’ every few years, he would always return to the realm of entertainment for more.
In the end, it was an ill-fated accident that ended his life and career. In 1926, a Canadian student punched Houdini in the stomach on a bet.
The blow were painful at the time, but unbeknownst to Houdini, it ruptured his appendix. Ignoring advice from doctors, the magician performed what would be his final show at the Garrick Theater in Michigan. He passed out while performing and was rushed to the hospital.
A week later, the Handcuff King died, on October 31st, 1926. He was 52.
Houdini’s funeral was attended by over 2,000 people and the magician was buried in Queens, New York.
Despite his claims against spiritualism, Houdini had, prior to his death, confided to his wife a secret phrase that he would say if he ever contacted her from beyond the grave. Bess held seances for ten years after his death, with the tradition continued by the Society of American Magicians.
Houdini, for his part, isn’t saying anything.
Then again, a good magician never reveals their secrets.
Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. She tweets @marlese_lessing.