Everyone has heard of Harry Houdini, that sensationalist turn-of-the-century stunt performer, yet most don’t know much about him—let alone that the magician was Jewish and the son of a rabbi.
So who exactly was the mysterious man?
Houdini, né Erik Weisz, was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1874, one of seven children to Rabbi Mayer Samuel and Cecilia Weisz. The family sailed to America four years later, settling in Appleton, Wisconsin, where his father served as the rabbi for a reform congregation. The family is said to have spoken a smattering of German, Hungarian, and Yiddish. Newfound American friends didn’t hesitate to Americanize Erik’s name, calling him “Ehrie” or “Harry” soon thereafter.
Harry, proud to be American or perhaps wishing to hide his family’s immigrant origins, would later claim in interviews that he was born in Appleton.
The family was largely unsuccessful financially, and Harry had to help make ends meet by selling newspapers and shining shoes. After his father lost tenure at the synagogue in 1887, Samuel decided to move the family to Manhattan, settling in a boarding house. But he died soon thereafter, in 1892.
Perhaps as a way to escape the death of his father at a young age, Harry began performing, and seems to have been naturally talented: He performed his first public stunt as a trapeze artist at age nine. When he became a professional magician as a teenager, he decided to take on the name “Houdini” after the French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, who had heavily influenced him. Harry’s friend convinced him, erroneously, that adding an “i” to Houdin would mean “like Houdin” in French.
Houdini was rather short and stocky (some peg his height at 5’5”) and is said to have been bowlegged and double-jointed, which helped him gain slack during rope and straitjacket escapes.
As a young man, Houdini performed magic tricks with his brother Dash at Coney Island as “The Brothers Houdini.” At the ripe age of 19, Houdini even performed at the 1893 Columbian World’s fair in Chicago, a wonderland that could be considered the Disney World of its time.
It was at Coney Island that Houdini met 18-year-old Wilhelmina Beatrice (Bess) Rahner, who was raised Roman Catholic in Brooklyn. The two married in 1894, with Bess replacing Houdini’s brother in the stage act. She would work as his stage assistant for the rest of Houdini’s career.
But the life of a performer was not an easy one for Houdini. At age 25, tired of touring and making too little money, Houdini seriously considered quitting magic, even taking an extended sabbatical to live at his mother’s in New York.
Then, a year later, he caught his big break in St. Paul, Minnesota, when a rising tycoon in the new world of vaudeville theater, Martin Beck, saw the Houdinis perform in a beer garden. The next day, Beck challenged Houdini to escape his own handcuffs; when Houdini escaped easily, Beck offered him a spot in his vaudeville theater tour.
PBS sums up the next few years:
By the end of the year, Beck had the Houdinis playing in leading vaudeville houses from the Midwest to California; by early 1900, they were also a hit on Keith’s East Coast circuit. Displaying a talent for publicity to match his abilities as an escape artist, Houdini performed jail escapes and other public stunts to lure people into theaters.
Houdini, known variously as ‘The Celebrated Police Baffler,’ ‘The King of Handcuffs,’ and a host of other names, developed the basic routines which would make him a legend. After nearly a decade playing dime museums and circuses, vaudeville must have seemed like a different world. The Houdinis performed fewer shows—before upscale audiences in lavishly appointed theaters—and made far more money. At the turn of the century, vaudeville was the top of the entertainment pyramid, and Harry Houdini became one of its stars.
And a star he became. With the emerging Hollywood film industry, Houdini, true to his performing spirit, tried to break into yet another medium, although unsuccessfully. None of the films he produced were profitable.
But Houdini was still widely popular for his time. In the biography “Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss,” author Kenneth Silverman summarized how reporters described Houdini’s appearance during his early career:
They stressed his smallness—‘somewhat undersized’—and angular, vivid features: ‘He is smooth-shaven with a keen, sharp-chinned, sharp-cheekboned face, bright blue eyes and thick, curly, black hair.’ Some sensed how much his complexly expressive smile was the outlet of his charismatic stage presence. It communicated to audiences at once warm amiability, pleasure in performing, and, more subtly, imperious self-assurance. Several reporters tried to capture the charming effect, describing him as ‘happy-looking,’ ‘pleasant-faced,’ ‘good natured at all times,’ ‘the young Hungarian magician with the pleasant smile and easy confidence.’
Houdini was popular at the same time as the emergence of Spiritualism, or the belief that people could communicate with the dead. In the wake of World War I, the movement swept Europe and America, feeding on the hope of those struck by tragedy desperately seeking to contact lost loved ones. After the death of his mother, Houdini tried to contact her through Spiritualist methods, but quickly realized that the psychics he encountered were frauds. In retaliation, Houdini dedicated himself to debunking the Spiritualists, seeing them as highly skilled performers.
Houdini was so passionate about exposing the Spiritualists that he even wrote a book, “A Magician Among the Spirits,” that attempted to unmask the movement. Some hypothesize that this project of “debunking” was Houdini’s way to compensate for his lack of formal education.
At the time, Houdini also engaged in a very public battle with the most famous medium of the day, Mina Crandon. Working with Scientific American magazine, Houdini helped expose Margery as a fraud after a series of combative séances, according to PBS. He even spent his own money publishing a 40-page illustrated pamphlet exposing the fraudulent psychic.
These anti-Spiritualist activities eventually cost him the friendship of “Sherlock Holmes” author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a dear friend but also devoted believer of the movement that Houdini sought to debunk.
Houdini’s final days remain as mysterious as the methods he employed to conduct his tricks. Houdini is said to have been suffering from appendicitis for several days before his death, but refused to get medical treatment. When a student at McGill University challenged Houdini to prove a rumor that he could take any blow to the stomach, Houdini took on the challenge. The student struck him three times. Reports hold that Houdini appeared to be in serious pain; still, he refused medical treatment.
Houdini collapsed on stage later at Garrick Theater in Detroit on October 24, 1927. He was revived; and true to his performing spirit, continued the show. Afterward, he was hospitalized and died of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix seven days later, on October 31. He was 52.
Before his death, Houdini made a pact with his wife, Bess, that were he to die, he would communicate to her from the afterlife, with the code “Rosabelle believe.” Bess reportedly tried to communicate with him for 10 years, but gave up after hearing no response. To this day, dedicated Houdini fans and magicians alike still try to contact him on Halloween. Houdini is buried at Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York.
Bess died of a heart attack in 1943 while traveling from Los Angeles to New York City by train. She had wanted to be buried next to Houdini, but was instead interred at another cemetery in Westchester, as her Catholic family refused to bury her in a Jewish plot, according to Houdini.net.
Like his signature shows, the story of Houdini leaves more questions than answers. The Library of Congress, in a report on the renowned magician, explained this feeling best: “Reports of his death showed that the man of mystery could never be reduced to fact or captured forever by linear text… Houdini would now perform through the imagination and technologies of the future. He left us a legacy, a legend, and a challenge to continue great escapes.”
Rachael Levy is a freelance writer who recently graduated from The American University of Paris with a degree in international and comparative politics. You can follow her on Twitter at @rachael_levy.