When you hear people talking about this particular man, the question you hear most often is, "How did Houdini die, anyway?"
To be honest:
The circumstances surrounding his death are debated to this day.
It turns out: The man's life was as fascinating and mysterious as his death.
Harry Houdini changed the face of magic.
But, he was also an inventor, entrepreneur, aviator, adventurer, rebel, and businessman -- and now and then, a controversial figure.
If you don't look at the things leading up to Harry Houdini's death, you're missing out on the best parts of the story.
Harry Houdini Was Not Always Harry Houdini
So, let's start at the beginning:
Harry Houdini was Born in Budapest, Hungary on March 24, 1874. At that time, his name was Erik Weisz.
In search of a better life, the Weisz family emigrated to the United States in 1878 and settled in Appleton, Wisconsin.
Then came the moment for the magician's first name change -- the family chose to use the German spelling, and he became Ehrich Weiss.
Ehrich was one of seven children.
Ehrich's father lost his job as a rabbi in 1882.
As a result, Weiss moved the family to Milwaukee while he and Ehrich went in search of work in New York City.
During this time, at age 9, Ehrich performed in front of an audience for the very first time on the trapeze.
He called himself, "Ehrich, Prince of the Air."
Ehrich First Used Magic to Ease the Pain of Poverty
Like many immigrant families, the Weiss family struggled financially.
Ehrich took many odd jobs to help his parents pay the bills including cutting ties, selling newspapers, and shining shoes.
That's not all:
At one point, the budding magician even begged for coins in the street.
Then, in what was perhaps his first magic trick ever, little Ehrich would hide the coins in his hair and his clothes.
After he arrived back home, Ehrich would present himself to his mother and say:
"Shake me; I'm magic."
The resulting flood of coins never failed to bring a smile to his mother's face -- which was Ehrich's plan all along.
At age 11, Houdini worked for a locksmith, which is where he started to learn how to pick locks.
Becoming Harry Houdini
In 1891, Ehrich had his second and final name change and finally became Harry Houdini.
Reportedly, the inspiration for his last name came from his idol:a French illusionist named Robert Houdin.
Check out this portrait of Houdin:
Now, concerning "Harry," the jury appears to be out on this one. Houdini claimed the inspritation was from magician Harry Kellar.
However, the most popular theory is that it's merely the Americanized version of "Ehrich."
That same year, at age 17, Houdini left home to pursue a career in magic.
The Struggle Is Real
For several years, Houdini floundered.
Here's what we found out:
Doing mostly card tricks, he performed in dime museums, sideshows, and even as a strongman at the circus.
This is not Houdini, but you get the idea:
For a while, Houdini even hooked up with his brother "Dash" under the moniker, "The Brothers Houdini."
Then, everything changed for Harry Houdini.
Love, Marriage, and Magic
At Coney Island, in 1893, Houdini was performing with his brother when he met Wilhelmina Beatrice "Bess" Rahner.
At the time, Bess was a singer and performer with the Floral Sisters, a vaudeville act on Coney Island.
Did Bess lie?
Yes, in 1911, Bess told a reporter in Ohio that her daughter had a child. Except, she doesn't have any kids.
In 1894, Harry and Bess tied the knot.
At the time, the couple had no idea just how many more knots they would tie together.
Check out the happy couple in the video below:
Bess replaced Dash in the show, and the couple became known as, "The Houdinis."
From that moment, Bess stayed by Houdini's side until the very end.
Things Start to Look up for the Houdinis
The Houdinis finally began to gain some fame around 1895 with a trick where they would trade places in a locked trunk.
Check out this footage we found of Houdini's brother, Hardeen, performing the trick called Metamorphosis.
In addition to Metamorphosis, the Houdinis also had the following tricks up their sleeves at the time:
- If the crowd's reaction to the magic was poor, the couple would tell jokes they stole out of magazines
- Harry had the Hindoo Needle Trick -- it would appear as though he ate 40 needles before pulling them from his mouth in a string
- Bess would perform as a mind reader using a code she had developed with Harry
Then, Along Came Martin Beck
1899 was a critical year for Houdini, -- that's when a man Martin Beck happened to catch one of the magician's shows.
Martin Beck was an entertainment manager.
You know what that means, right?
A tour of Europe
The Houdinis did so well in America that Beck booked them on a tour of Europe.
Houdini gave a demonstration at Scotland Yard where he escaped from a pair of regulation handcuffs that the Superintendent placed there himself.
Harry Houdini so impressed the police that the Alhambra booked him for the next six months.
The show was an immediate hit.
Houdini Had Found His Niche
Concerning Houdini, Martin Beck had given him the best possible advice -- he had finally found his niche.
You know what that means:
Houdini's file quickly filled up with accounts from policeman all over the globe confirming that he indeed escaped from their most stringent locks.
After a while, a sort of pattern emerged. Houdini would escape from yet another seemingly impossible task.
Then, someone would think they solved how Houdini got out -- so, to prove his mettle, he would schedule yet another escape.
Each time, Houdini would up the ante.
He would choose a new prison and an even more difficult locking system.
On January 5, 1906, Houdini had just completed one of these types of exhibitions at 5th Precinct jailhouse in Washington DC.
While still in the jailhouse, the magician received a message from Warden J.H. Harris.
Harry Houdini helped name Buster Keaton. Born Joseph Frank Keaton, Houdini happened to be visiting his house when he was three and took a tumble down the stairs. When the stunned magician picked up the baby and dusted him off, he handed him back to his father and said, "Boy, was that a buster." The nickname stuck.
Harris challenged Houdini to "try his art," by escaping from "the most formidable cell at the United States Jail."
The 'Grand Finale'
Here's where it gets interesting:
Of course, Houdini took the Warden up on his offer.
So, on January 6, 1906, Houdini showed up at the "cathedral-like prison on the Potomac," and started the proceedings.
A large group of officials met Houdini in the south wing of the jail -- the home of 17 high-security cells.
The officials ordered Houdini to strip naked and submit to a full search before putting him into a cell with death row inmate Joe Hamilton.
Then, they left Houdini to his own devices and returned to the warden's office.
An article in the Washington Post described the locking system Houdini faced:
"All these cells are brick structures with their doors sunk into the walls fully three feet from the face of the outer corridor. When the heavily barred door is closed, and arm-like bar runs out to the corridor wall and then angles to the right and slips over a steel catch which sets a spring that fastens the lock. The latter is only opened by a key, and there are no less than five tumblers in the lock."
The Great Escape
Houdini escaped from Hamilton's cell, but that wasn't what made that escape legendary.
Check this out:
It only took Houdini two minutes to escape from the first cell.
Then, the magician, still walking around totally naked, switched every other prisoner on the cell block with other prisoners and locked them back in.
When Houdini returned to his jailers, every prisoner was in a new cell.
In addition to that, Houdini retrieved his clothes, and everything was locked back up the way it was when he started.
Did you know?
Harry Houdini was quite an athlete. He was a track star in high school as well as a boxer and a gymnast.
That's not even the best part:
The entire episode had taken Houdini 21 minutes.
By the magician's own account, Murderer Row was his 64th jailbreak.
Houdini's Sucess Had a Price
If you think for one second that Houdini just happened into his success as a magician, you would be profoundly mistaken.
Houdini worked so hard at home; it bordered on being an obsession.
Check out the video below:
Through obsessive training and exercise, Houdini accomplished the following:
- Could use his feet like his fingers
- Trained himself in a tub full of ice for later underwater escapes
- Became ambidextrous
- Spent so much time in front of the mirror practicing he would forget to eat and bathe
“My chief task has been to conquer fear. The public sees only the thrill of the accomplished trick; they have no conception of the tortuous preliminary self-training that was necessary to conquer fear.”
Houdini: The Magical Rebel
You see, up until Houdini's time in the spotlight, escape artists of those times all claimed to have a connection to the spirit world.
As you may have guessed, Houdini wasn't like everyone else:
Houdini claimed the exact opposite.
Magician Raymond Joseph Teller, part of the duo "Penn and Teller," explained,
“[The spiritualist performer] would escape to do their manifestations and get locked up again,” says Teller. “Houdini said, 'I'm just a clever guy getting out of stuff.' It was a major transformation.”
However, for Houdini, it wasn't only about not sharing the credit with anyone else for his daring escapes.
Around this time, he started working to debunk mystics and spiritualists, much to the dismay of the spiritualists the world over.
The Unmasking of Robert Houdin
As it turns out:
Houdini even wrote a book debunking his hero and namesake: Harry Houdin.
"I have spent a goodly part of my life in study and research. During the last thirty years I have read every single piece of literature on the subject of Spiritualism that I could. I have accumulated one of the largest libraries in the world on psychic phenomena, Spiritualism, magic, witchcraft, demonology, evil spirits, etc., some of the material going back as far as 1489, and I doubt if anyone in the world has so complete a library on modern Spiritualism, but nothing I ever read concerning the so-called Spiritualistic phenomena has impressed me as being genuine."
One of Houdini's main missions in life was to separate the art of magic from the realm of mysticism.
More Magical Milestones
It would be a disservice to Houdini's memory not to talk about his other magical milestones before we get into his other amazing extracurriculars.
Breaking out of prison was only the beginning:
The Overboard Box Escape
For many years, one of Houdini's signature moves was the Overboard Box Escape.
Here's what he did:
For this trick, Houdini would shackle his hands and legs and have handlers nail him into a heavy packing crate.
Then, after tying the crate with heavy ropes, someone would lower the whole thing into the water.
Each time, Houdini would pop up out of the water in just a few minutes, totally free.
One of the most notable things about this trick?
When someone retrieved the empty crates later, they found that they were still sealed.
Check it out in the video below:
Houdini would eventually begin to do this trick and others in water tanks indoors on a stage.
Milk Can Escape
Check out a description of the trick in the video below:
Houdini used to invite the crowd to hold their breath with him while he completed the trick.
Water Torture Cell
Another one of Houdini's main attractions was the Water Torture Cell.
This one was really cool:
Houdini used a specialized tank that locked him inside of it upside down.
Of course, the tank was full of water.
Check it out in the video below:
This trick so mystified his followers; they insisted Houdini must be dematerializing and appearing back outside the box.
No matter how hard the man himself worked to prove them wrong.
Straight Jacket Escape
This trick seems pretty self-explanatory. Naturally, Houdini escapes from a straight jacket.
However, since we are talking about Harry Houdini, of course, merely escaping from the contraption wasn't enough.
Instead, the incredible magician started lifting himself into the air by the ankles and escaping from up there.
Check it out in the video below:
As it turned out:
Hanging upside down turned out to be helpful to Houdini because it gave him more leeway to work his way out of the jacket.
The elephant in the room
It didn't matter to Houdini that he wasn't born in America -- he was a true patriot.
But that's just part of the story:
He was such a patriot that he performed for the troops. During WWI, he put on a special show to bring cheer to soldiers at the Hippodrome in New York where he made an elephant disappear.
To this day, no one can figure out how Houdini accomplished this feat.
Magic and so Much More
We know by now that Houdini was obsessed with growing his craft -- but he didn't stop with magic.
Here's what I found:
In the early years, he started as a businessman selling magic kits and instructions under the moniker, "Houdini's School of Magic."
However, in later years, Houdini flew planes, starred in movies, created new inventions, and even worked as a spy.
Check this out:
Harry Houdini was a pilot
On March 18, 1910, Houdini piloted the very first controlled, powered flight in Australia.
The famous magician accomplished the flight in a Voison Biplane he bought in Germany for $5,000.
Watch the video below:
Not only was Houdini first in Australia, but he was also just the 25th person in the world to fly a plane at all.
He was also a film star
In Paris, in 1901, Houdini starred in his very first film.
For a while, Houdini even started a film processing company using groundbreaking technology at the time called The Film Development Corporation.
Check out the video below:
In 1923, Houdini gave up on his film career stating that "the profits are too meager."
He was an exceptional American
Now, we told you that Houdini was a true patriot.
However, what we didn't mention was that Houdini also worked as a spy during WWI.
Houdini's ability to speak German; get close to heads of state, and make things disappear before their very eyes made him perfect for the job.
Recruited by the British Secret Service, Houdini passed them vital information he picked up while performing for people like Kaiser Wilhelm and Czar Nicholas of Russia.
Harry Houdini's connection to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
In our research, we found:
Even though he did all that amazing stuff, the most critical thing to Houdini was always debunking spiritualists.
After his mother died, Houdini met Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes.
The two men grew close over a shared obsession with spiritualism -- if for very different reasons.
Watch the video below:
The two men eventually ended the friendship because they couldn't find any middle ground.
Bess helped her husband prove that connections to the spirit world didn't exist by performing seances every Halloween after Houdini's death in an attempt to contact him. The two of them even worked out a code for him to use before his death. After ten years with no contact, Bess called it quits.
How Did Houdini Die?
Finally, now that we covered everything else about the man let's get to the question of the day: how did Houdini die?
For a long time, the popular rumor about how Houdini died said he drowned doing one of his water tricks.
Here's what really happened:
On October 22, 1926, while resting in his dressing room, a college student asked Houdini if it was true that he could take any blow to his stomach.
Houdini confirmed that this was true and told J. Gordon Whitehead to see for himself.
With no warning whatsoever, Whitehead delivered four extremely hard blows to Houdini's midsection.
You see though, the secret to enduring the trauma of a blow to the gut is to harden the stomach muscles.
Sadly, Houdini didn't have time.
Houdini's final show took place on October 24, 1926
Before the show, Houdini had a fever of 102 to 104.
The doctors that examined him told the magician at that point that he had acute appendicitis and needed immediate surgery.
Even though he had a broken ankle and a perforated appendix, Houdini insisted that the show must go on.
He only made it halfway through the show before his assistant took over and Houdini collapsed backstage.
Bess finally talked him into seeing a doctor the next morning, and the doctors removed Houdini's appendix.
It was too little too late.
Houdini died on Halloween day in 1926.
The jury is out on whether the blows caused the rupture or whether Houdini was already in trouble when the student punched him.
The popular theory is that he was already in trouble.
We will never really know.
View the video below:
At that time, Houdini's insurance company concluded that the incident in the dressing room caused his death.
Bess laid Houdini to rest at Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York on November 4, 1926.
The Man, the Myth, the Legend
As you can see, even the answer to the question "how did Houdini die?" is not a simple one.
Simply put, Houdini's death, like his life, is the stuff of legend.
To this day, the Society of American Magicians holds a "Wand Ceremony," at Houdini's grave.
One thing is certain about Houdini, everyone's fascination with the man doesn't seem to go away, no matter how long ago he died -- and you just learned only a few of the reasons why.