Born Erich Weisz on March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary, young Harry Houdini moved with his family to Appleton, Wisconsin, where he later claimed he was born. Fascinated with magic, he began performing and drew attention for his daring feats of escape. In 1893, he married Wilhelmina Rahner, who became his onstage partner as well. Houdini continued performing escape acts until his death, on October 31, 1926, in Detroit, Michigan.
In 1899, Houdini’s act caught the attention of Martin Beck, an entertainment manager who soon got him booked at some of the best vaudeville venues in the country, followed by a tour of Europe. Houdini’s feats would involve the local police, who would strip search him, place him in shackles and lock him in their jails. The show was a huge sensation, and he soon became the highest-paid performer in American vaudeville.
Steve and Patricia Hanson related in a Los Angeles magazine article that Houdini became interested in “making contact with those who had gone beyond” after his mother’s death in 1913. His attempts in this area brought him into contact with writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930), the creator of the Sherlock Holmes character. In 1908, as a publicity stunt, Houdini had written a letter to “Holmes,” asking for help in catching crooks who were stealing his tricks. By 1920 the two men had formed a friendship based on their talent and their grief—just as Houdini had lost his beloved mother, Doyle had lost his son, Kingsley, who had been killed in World
War I (1914–18; a war in which Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Japan fought against Great Britain, France, Russia, and the United States). Each man sought ways to make contact with the spirit world.
After a while the friendship began to weaken. Houdini was not as strong a believer as Doyle. Part of Houdini’s career was devoted to exposing fakes who pretended to be able to contact spirits. As the Hansons noted in Los Angeles, Houdini felt that Doyle was too blinded by grief to see clearly, and Doyle thought that Houdini was not open-minded enough and was too anxious to expose fraud. The two men’s friendship ended.
Houdini continued his act in the United States in the early 1900s, constantly upping the ante from handcuffs and straightjackets to locked, water-filled tanks and nailed packing crates. He was able to escape because of both his uncanny strength and his equally uncanny ability to pick locks. In 1912, his act reached its pinnacle, the Chinese Water Torture Cell, which would be the hallmark of his career. In it, Houdini was suspended by his feet and lowered upside-down in a locked glass cabinet filled with water, requiring him to hold his breath for more than three minutes to escape. The performance was so daring and such a crowd-pleaser that it remained in his act until his death in 1926.
Though there are mixed reports as to the cause of Henry Houdini’s death, it is certain that he suffered from acute appendicitis. Whether his demise was caused by a McGill University student who was testing his will by punching him in the stomach (with permission) or by poison from a band of angry Spiritualists is unknown. What is known is that he died of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix on October 31, 1926, at the age of 52, in Detroit, Michigan.
After his death, Houdini’s props and effects were used by his brother Theodore Hardeen, who eventually sold them to magician and collector Sidney H. Radner. Much of the collection could be see at the Houdini Museum in Appleton, Wisconsin, until Radner auctioned it off in 2004. Most of the prized pieces, including the Water Torture Cell, went to magician David Copperfield.
World Biography. (n.d.). Retrieved January 7, 2015, from http://www.notablebiographies.com/Ho-Jo/Houdini-Harry.html
(n.d.). Retrieved January 7, 2015, from http://www.biography.com/people/harry-houdini-40056