The Greatest Escape Artist – Harry Houdini

Written by Maqsood A. Rahim. Posted in People

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Published on June 19, 2011 with No Comments

Greatest Escape Artist

Harry Houdini
Harry Houdini – The Escape Artist, 1874 – 1926

Herman Mayer Weiss belonged to Budapest Hungary. He migrated to America along with his family. He was not well-off and had to put in long struggle for family up keep. His eldest son, Ehrich Weiss (Later Harry Houdini) had to join him at work at an early age of 9 years. The boy possessed natural talents for performing arts. Soon he joined a circus as trapeze artist. In 1887 Herman Mayer shifted to New York but work conditions did not change. However, the boy took to swimming, boxing and running in his free hours. His physic developed accordingly that was to help him in his later career. He also had original instincts for magic from childhood.
Houdini made his debut performance in 1891 with his friend Hymen. They started from card games and magic tricks in museums and small theaters in New York. World’s Columbia Exposition in Chicago in 1893 gave them a good chance to get set. In 1894 Harry met a fellow performer, 18 year old Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner or Bess. They got married and their act was renamed “The Houdini’s” from “Brothers Houdini”. Soon Harry Houdini became fed-up of his tough routine and planned to start ‘Harry Houdini’s School of Magic’ in New York, but dropped.

Harry Houdini finally met lucky opportunity in 1899. Martin Beck, a very strong figure in Vaudeville theatre was deeply impressed by his handcuff tricks. He challenged Houdini to escape from Beck’s handcuffs, which he did easily. Being extremely convinced invited Houdini to open Omaha March in partnership for the next season. This changed Houdini’s life pattern. Houdini remained quite busy for the next five years. His magical acts and escape performances were appreciated throughout the leading Vaudvilli houses and across California. They also hit Keith East Coast Circuit. To break the monotony he introduced new “jail” escape stunts, which were very successful. He was admired by the crowds where ever he went. The public called him the “King of Handcuffs”. This “Celebrated Police Baffler” (nicknamed) often performed escape stunts by jumping in rivers particularly Charles River, fully chained, and emerging on surface in minutes with big crowds applauding decade passes.

The later years saw him in high society lavish theaters. His selective approach paid-off well. Soon his fame crossed the Atlantic Ocean and Europe’s advanced culture tempted him. This inclination disturbed his relations with Beck. So he planned to go on his own.

Harry Houdini was welcome in Europe and public acceptance of his escape acts took off easily. For five years he combed the continent delighting the crowds. The most remarkable part was that of taking public challenges. One such demand proved really tough. The Newspaper “Mirror” of London arranged special set of handcuffs, known as “Mirror Cuffs”. Houdini took the longest time, over an hour with many disturbing expressions and failing gestures for the audience. As soon as he got free the music hall heard the tallest roar setting off a chain of appreciation slogans and praise comments.

The next big bang of his fame occurred when Kaiser’s difficult police accused him of fraud. He had to satisfy the court by revealing some tricks, partially. However, his publicity soared thereafter claiming for him Germany’s title “Konig der Handschellen”. He simply conquered Europe alone, with Bess.
He finally decided to settle down in 1905. He bought a small farm in Connecticut and a Brownstone home in Manhattan. After his father’s death in 1892 he became very dedicated to his mother. The Brownstone became his family base. Here he also maintained enormous rare book collection. His profession required lots of travelling but he often took a break and returned home to attend to his mother. He was in Sweden and fainted when he heard of mother’s death in 1913, and then wept to full exhaustion.

Harry Houdini never retired. He remained active and kept on inventing new tricks to hold on to his audience. In 1908 the famous milk can escape reinforced his publicity. He also often performed awesome jumps from lugh bridges that were witnessed by large crowds.

The “Chinese Water Torture Cell” escape was his latest and greatest trick. This exhibited his great physical strength combined by his brilliant technical abilities and dramatic touches. This risky performance was repeated many times. For sometime people suspects that he died in a failed cell escape performance. In fact he died of peritonitis from burst appendicitis in Detroit, Michigan at Grace Hospital on October 31, 1926 (Halloween Day).

The Superman Entertainer’s Life had more aspects that the public needs to know.

•    The real name of Harry Houdini was Erik Weisz. His Ideal was a French magician Jean Eugene Robert Houdin. He added Houdini (meaning like Houdin). Later it was revealed that Robert too had taken ‘Houdin from his wife’s name. However, it proved lucky for Harry.

•    The USA Government recognized the super class magician by a commemorative stamp (Scott # 3651) depicting Houdini. The stamp carries a hidden magical image showing him in chains ready to escape. This image can only be viewed by a special lens.
•    Houdini’s death on Halloween’s Day (Magic Day) is simply a coincidence. Others opine that he was poisoned by competitors for stealing their craft and disturbing their livelihood.
•    Houdini was born in Budapest, Hungary but he often claimed to be American by birth. Probably World War 1 inspired him.
•    Houdini has starred in Silent Movies and also produced two. This venture did not pay well. Houdini flew the earliest air planes and visited Australia in 1910 by a Voisin bi plane. This was the first powered flight in Australia.
•    Houdini was against spiritualists who claimed to contact the dead relatives of people for big amounts. He often commented that they were preying upon the emotions of the bereaved families. Since he knew their tricks, so he exposed them rightly.
•    Houdini was a Jew and was buried at Machpelah Cementery Queens, New York. His wife died 17 years later and wished to be buried near him, but she was refused for being a Catholic. Some say her relatives thought she may be denied heaven if buried with a Jew. Hence buried in a different County in New York State.

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