Harry Houdini (1874-1926) was a Hungarian-American stage magician, escape artist, stunt performer, actor and film producer. He was also a noted skeptic, noted for his efforts in proving that several supposed instances of supernatural phenomena were actually hoaxes.
He was born Erik Weisz/Ehrich Weiss (spelling variations) in Budapest. Austria-Hungary. His parents were Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weiss and his wife Cecelia Steiner. Cecelia sailed for the United States with five of her children, Ehrich included, in 1878. They arrived on July 3, 1878. Mayer soon joined them. The combined family settled in Appleton, Wisconsin for a few years. Houdini would later misremember Appleton as his birthplace. They gained American citizenship in 1882.
In 1883, Ehrich made his first stage performance as a 9-year-old trapeze artist. It proved to be a false start. The Weiss family moved from Appleton to New York City c. 1887. Ehrich started his stage magician career in 1891. He chose the stage name "Harry Houdini". The last name was directly inspired by Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin (1805-1871), a highly influential French stage magician. Ehrich had used the first name Harry as a nick-name for a while. He decided to add to his stage name as a homage to Harry Kellar (1849-1922), arguably the most famous American stage magician of the time.
The early phase of Houdini's career was largely undistinguished. He focused his efforts in "traditional card tricks", material which wasn't visually impressive. Or at least not on the level of, for example, the levitating girl of Harry Kellar or the bullet catch of Alexander Herrmann (1844-1896). His early partnership with his brother Theodore Weiss (stage name Theodore Hardeen, 1876-1945) was not particularly successful either. Though it was probably Theodore who had the idea of incorporating escape acts into their performances.
Houdini changed his act substantially c. 1893. He first parted ways with Theodore. His replacement was lovely assistant Wilhelmina Beatrice "Bess" Rahner (1876-1943). Harry and Bess married in 1894, remaining partners for the rest of their careers. Together they were able to perfect a variation of the Metamporphosis illusion, where the magician and his assistant seemingly exchange places. One is placed in a large box or trunk. When the box opens, it is the other one who emerges out of it. Harry also begun experimenting with various escape acts. Notably escaping from handcuffs. These tricks were visually impressively.
In 1899, Houdini got his big break when managing to impress Martin Beck (1867-1940). Beck and a partner were in the process of forming the Orpheum vaudeville circuit, a chain of vaudeville theaters and were looking for suitable acts to perform. Beck booked Houdini for months. Within months, the formerly obscure Houdini was performing at vaudeville houses across the United States. Making a name for himself. In 1900, Houdini started his first European tour. A successful performance at the Alhambra Theatre resulted in continued bookings for months. By 1904, Houdini has successfully performed in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France, Germany and Russia. He became known as "the Handcuff King" . He was famous.
Besides fame, Houdini had gained plenty of money. In 1904, Houdini and Bess returned to the United States. They bought a house for themselves in Harlem, New York City at the price of 25,000 dollars. Unsurprisingly, Houdini inspired a small army of imitators. He reacted by revising his act. Handcuffs were eventually abandoned in favor of ropes, chains, and straitjackets. He also started working on more risky traps. The increasingly present threat of death in case of failure excited his audience.
In 1906, Houdini started filming escapes in outdoor locations. The theater audiences could then see the film. In 1909, Houdini starred at a film showcasing his escapes: " Marvellous Exploits of the Famous Houdini in Paris". It was his first real cinematic appearance. He would later star in others film, some produced by his own company: "The Master Mystery" (1919), "The Grim Game" (1919), "Terror Island" (1920), "The Man From Beyond" (1921), and "Haldane of the Secret Service" (1923).
In 1909, Houdini bought himself a Voisin biplane and learned to fly. In 1910, he made the first powered flight over Australia. He gave up flying afterwards, but the publicity stunt once again helped his fame. 1912 had a more lasting effect on his career. He first performed his Chinese Water Torture Cell act. It involved himself being lowered into a tank filled with water while upside down (so his head would be at the bottom) and his legs restrained by stocks. It became his signature act for the rest of his career.
The last element of his fame was added in the 1920s. "Scientific American", a popular science magazine, offered a cash prize to any medium which would successfully demonstrate supernatural powers. Each candidate was to be examined by Houdini. Time and again, Houdini managed to both expose fake supernatural phenomena and expose the way they were produced. Houdini continued his campaign away from the magazine. He would visit seances and other locations of mystery and expose frauds. His activities brought him increased fame but an ongoing rivalry with Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), a public advocate for Spiritualism and the existence of the paranormal. Doyle believed that many of these mediums were genuine and that Houdini was somehow disrupting their powers. Doyle was also convinced that Houdini himself had supernatural powers, only pretending to use illusions. Doyle would go on to publish his theory in "The Edge of the Unknown".
Houdini suffered a ruptured appendix in 1926. He was suffering from peritonitis for a few days without seeking medical attention. Then in Montreal, J. Gordon Whitehead, a fan wishing to test Houdini's endurance to physical blows, delivered several punches to his stomach. Helping the appendix to burst sooner than it otherwise would. Houdini still didn't visit a doctor and continued his tour. On October 24, 1926 Houdini gave his last performance in Detroit, Michigan. Following a fainting spell during the show, the magician finally agreed to enter a hospital. Too late apparently. He died of peritonitis in the hospital on October 31, 1926.