Harry Houdini: Should We Celebrate His Birthday on March 24?
When we think of Harry Houdini, we may remember his daring escapes captured on black-and-white film, his theatricality, and his ultimate inability to contact his wife from beyond the grave.
But when (and where) was the great and mysterious Houdini born?
According to his birth certificate, Houdini was born as Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary, on March 24, 1874. However, in his later years, Houdini told interviewers that he was born in Appleton, Wisconsin, U.S., on April 6 or 8, 1874. The reason for this false claim remains a mystery: Perhaps he simply wanted to be thought of as an American.
The Weisz family moved to America when Erik was still a boy, and his name was altered to Ehrich Weiss. Ehrich took whatever odd jobs he could find to help support his family. He even joined a circus and learned to swing from a trapeze.
As a young man, he took to the vaudeville stage in New York City. He found greater success after he changed his focus to staging escapes — sometimes from police handcuffs or local jails, sometimes from beer kegs or milk cans, sometimes from shackles or coffins.
Ehrich Weiss changed his first name to Harry, an Americanized version of his nickname, Ehrie. His new last name, Houdini, was inspired by a French magician he admired, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin. (Unfortunately, Houdini later learned that his idol had stolen tricks from other magicians. He wrote a scathing book, The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, in 1908.)
In 1894, Houdini married Wilhelmina Rahner. She chose the stage name Beatrice Houdini and performed as her husband’s assistant. The couple toured as the Mysterious Harry and La Petit Bessie, first in America and later in Europe.
Houdini helped his brother Theo follow in his career path, using the stage name Hardeen. Always eager for publicity, Houdini and Hardeen pretended to be rivals. Hardeen created the straitjacket escape that Houdini eventually made famous.
Houdini appeared in a number of motion pictures to share his performances with new and larger audiences. His first was Merveilleux Exploits du Célébre Houdini Paris, released in 1901, a documentary which featured some of his famous escapes. Later he performed as an actor and formed a production company, Houdini Picture Corporation, but that venture was unsuccessful.
Houdini is remembered mostly for his daring escapes, but he was also a clever inventor. He created many elaborate devices for use onstage. Unfortunately, patenting his inventions would have required revealing his secrets. To circumvent this issue in one case, he billed his so-called Chinese water torture cell as a play, performed for an audience of one, so that he could copyright the trick instead. Collectors of Houdini’s devices admire the complex mechanisms that allowed him to secretly cut ropes or open latches in order to amaze his audiences. Some of his tricks remain mysteries even now, nearly a century after his death.
In his later years, Houdini sought to debunk mind readers and other spiritualists who took money from gullible believers. He wrote two books, Miracle Mongers and Their Methods (1920) and A Magician Among the Spirits (1924), to expose their secrets. He also testified before Congress in early 1926, encouraging the passage of a bill that would have outlawed fortune-telling for profit. He performed stunts for the politicians, such as pretending to produce a message from Benjamin Franklin, to illustrate the fraud inherent in some spiritualist activities. Despite Houdini’s efforts, the bill did not pass.
Houdini and his wife announced a sensational plan to prove or disprove spiritualism: Whoever died first would try to communicate with their surviving spouse.
Houdini died in 1926 in Detroit, Michigan — on Halloween, fittingly — at the age of 52. He succumbed to peritonitis following a stomach injury. Many people believed that his injury was caused by a McGill University student who punched Houdini in the stomach days before his death. Houdini had been known to invite such assaults to prove his strength, but in this case the student punched him before he was ready. Others dismissed the assault theory and insisted that angry spiritualists must have poisoned Houdini.
True to her vow, Beatrice Houdini held a séance on the anniversary of her husband’s death every year for a decade, but he never made contact. She declared their spiritualist experiment a failure before she passed away in 1943. Some of Houdini’s admirers are not so willing to give up hope, however, and they continue to hold a Houdini séance every Halloween.
In honor of Houdini’s actual birth date, March 24, take a look at some of our favorite Harry Houdini quotes.
Andrews, Evan. “10 Things You May Not Know About Harry Houdini.” History, A&E Television Networks, LLC, 22 August 2018, https://www.history.com/news/10-things-you-may-not-know-about-harry-houdini
Biography.com Editors. “Harry Houdini Biography.” The Biography.com website, A&E Television Networks, 22 October 2019, https://www.biography.com/performer/harry-houdini
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Harry Houdini.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 27 October 2020, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Harry-Houdini
Encyclopedia of World Biography. “Harry Houdini Biography.” Encyclopedia of World Biography, Advameg, https://www.notablebiographies.com/Ho-Jo/Houdini-Harry.html
Landers, Jackson Landers. “Escape Artist Harry Houdini Was an Ingenious Inventor, He Just Didn’t Want Anybody to Know.” Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, 9 January 2017, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/harry-houdini-ingenious-innovator-didnt-want-anybody-know-180961078/
Thomas, Heather. “Harry Houdini Goes to Washington.” Library of Congress, Library of Congress, 21 August 2018, https://blogs.loc.gov/headlinesandheroes/2018/08/harry-houdini-goes-to-washington/