Researcher: Rachel Sahlman Artist: Dick Strandberg
The world's most famous magician, Harry Houdini was born as Ehrich Weisz in Budapest, Hungary on March 24, 1874. His father, Mayer Samuel Weisz, was a religious scholar and teacher, who moved his family to Appleton, Wisconsin when Houdini was two years old. Times were difficult for the Weisz family, and they were required to move many times to avoid the bill collectors. Because of the family's financial situation, all of the children began to work at an early age.
When Houdini was eight years old, he sold newspapers and worked as a bootblack. However after his father took him to see Dr. Lynn, a traveling magician, Houdini's interest in performing soon consumed him. At the age of 12, Houdini ran away from home and ended up in Kansas City. He was gone for approximately one year, but then rejoined his family in their new home in New York City.
In New York, Houdini held various jobs to support his family. He spent his free time studying magic and competing in various athletic events, including swimming and track. During this time, Houdini happened upon a book entitled "The Memoirs of Robert-Houdin, Ambassador, Author, and Conjuror, Written by Himself." The book changed his life. Houdini added an "i" to his idol's name and assumed the name that would go down in history.
When Houdini was 16 years old, his father died, giving him the freedom to become a full-time entertainer. His first performances included shows at amusement parks, "dime museums," and several appearances at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. Together with his brother Theo, Houdini attempted to make a name for himself
In 1894, Houdini met Beatrice "Bess" Raymond, a struggling singer and dancer. The two fell in love immediately and were married in July. Bess joined Houdini's act and Theo struck out on his own. Houdini was constantly improving his act and incorporating new tricks. He soon perfected a handcuff escape and made it a featured part of his show. Although Houdini offered one hundred dollars to anyone who could successfully handcuff him, he never had to pay. Houdini cleverly used the media to promote himself and his show.
Houdini was soon escaping from numerous devices, including leg irons, coffins, straitjackets, and prison cells. Unliked other magicians, Houdini began to make his escapes in full view of the audience, increasing the drama. Houdini's act generated the interest of Martin Beck who ran the Orpheum circuit, the largest chain of vaudeville theaters in the country. He signed the Houdini act, resulting in great success for the theaters and Houdini himself. After proving to his critics that he could escape from any restraint, Houdini became a headliner.
Although he was gaining in popularity, Houdini was not happy with his success in the United States. As a result, he and Bess began a tour of Europe and Russia at the turn of the century. His first booking in London was quite successful, as were his shows in Germany and across the continent. Houdini remained in Europe for five years and became the premier vaudeville attraction.
In 1905, Houdini returned to the United States, determined to become an even bigger star. He increased the difficulty and originality of his stunts. One of Houdini's most famous stunts was to be handcuffed, nailed inside a packing crate, and then thrown underwater. Although Houdini had specially rigged the crate, he stayed underwater as long as possible to increase the suspense. Houdini had incredible strength and agility that aided him in his stunts. He also spent hours practicing and conditioning. For the underwater stunt, Houdini would practice holding his breath in the bathtub.
For more than two decades, Houdini remained in the limelight. From 1916 to 1923, Houdini demonstrated his skills in motion pictures. In later years, he spent much of his time debunking spiritualism and exposing psychic frauds.
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Houdini's final days proved a tragic ending to such a spectacular life. On October 22, 1926, Houdini was in Montreal giving a lecture on spiritualism. While sitting in his dressing room with several students from McGill University, Houdini was asked if he could actually withstand a blow to the stomach thrown by any man. Before Houdini could prepare himself by tightening his stomach muscles, one of the students hit him three times. Although, Houdini seemed to recover, even performing shortly after, he soon fell ill. He would not see a doctor for several days. By the time he was diagnosed, it was too late. Houdini died from peritonitis on October 31.
A master showman with a knack for publicity, Houdini knew how to interest his audiences. With his extreme self-confidence and flair for exaggeration, Houdini kept himself in the spotlight. Although Harry Houdini has been dead for 70 years, his name is still instantly recognized throughout the world.
Bibliographic Citation Format:
Author's last name, first name, middle initial. "Title of biography." SPECTRUM Home & School Magazine. [http://www.incwell.com/Spectrum.html] (date accessed). © K. B. Shaw
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