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Created: February 2017
| Updated: February 2017
Harry Houdini (born Erik Weisz, later Ehrich Weiss or Harry Weiss; March 24, 1874 – October 31, 1926) was a Hungarian-American illusionist and stunt performer, noted for his sensational escape acts. He first attracted notice in vaudeville in the US and then as "Harry Handcuff Houdini" on a tour of Europe, where he challenged police forces to keep him locked up. Soon he extended his repertoire to include chains, ropes slung from skyscrapers, straitjackets under water, and having to escape from and hold his breath inside a sealed milk can.
Harry Houdini was born as Erik Weisz in Budapest, Austria-Hungary, on March 24, 1874. His parents were Rabbi Mayer Sámuel Weisz (1829–1892), and Cecília Weisz (née Steiner; 1841–1913). Houdini was one of seven children: Herman M. (1863–1885) who was Houdini's half-brother, by Rabbi Weisz's first marriage; Nathan J. (1870–1927); Gottfried William (1872–1925); Theodore "Theo" (1876–1945); Leopold D. (1879–1962); and Carrie Gladys (born 1882–1959) who was left almost blind after an accident that occurred during her childhood.
Weisz arrived in the United States on July 3, 1878, on the SS Fresia with his mother (who was pregnant) and his four brothers. The family changed the Hungarian spelling of their German surname to Weiss (the German spelling) and Erik's name was changed to Ehrich. Friends called him "Ehrie" or "Harry".
They first lived in Appleton, Wisconsin, where his father served as Rabbi of the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation.
According to the 1880 census, the family lived on Appleton Street. On June 6, 1882, Rabbi Weiss became an American citizen. Losing his tenure at Zion in 1887, Rabbi Weiss moved with Ehrich to New York City, where they lived in a boarding house on East 79th Street. He was joined by the rest of the family once Rabbi Weiss found permanent housing. As a child, Ehrich Weiss took several jobs, making his public début as a 9-year-old trapeze artist, calling himself "Ehrich, the Prince of the Air". He was also a champion cross country runner in his youth. When Weiss became a professional magician he began calling himself "Harry Houdini", after the French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, after reading Robert-Houdin's autobiography in 1890. Weiss incorrectly believed that an i at the end of a name meant "like" in French. In later life, Houdini claimed that the first part of his new name, Harry, was an homage to Harry Kellar, whom he also admired.
After much research, in 1908 Houdini published The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, in which he called his former idol a liar and a fraud for having claimed the invention of automata and effects such as aerial suspension, which had been in existence for many years.
Houdini was an active Freemason and was a member of St. Cecile Lodge #568 in New York City
In 1918, he registered for selective service as Harry Handcuff Houdini.
In 1906 Houdini started showing films of his outside escapes as part of his vaudeville act. In Boston he presented a short film called Houdini Defeats Hackenschmidt. Georg Hackenschmidt was a famous wrestler of the day, but the nature of their contest is unknown as the film is lost. In 1909 Houdini made a film in Paris for Cinema Lux titled Merveilleux Exploits du Célébre Houdini à Paris (Marvellous Exploits of the Famous Houdini in Paris). It featured a loose narrative designed to showcase several of Houdini's famous escapes, including his straitjacket and underwater handcuff escapes. That same year Houdini got an offer to star as Captain Nemo in a silent version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but the project never made it into production. It is often erroneously reported that Houdini served as special-effects consultant on the Wharton/International cliffhanger serial, The Mysteries of Myra, shot in Ithaca, New York, because Harry Grossman, director of The Master Mystery also filmed a serial in Ithaca at about the same time. The consultants on the serial were pioneering Hereward Carrington and Aleister Crowley.
In 1918 Houdini signed a contract with film producer B.A. Rolfe to star in a 15-part serial, The Master Mystery (released in January 1919). As was common at the time, the film serial was released simultaneously with a novel. Financial difficulties resulted in B.A. Rolfe Productions going out of business, but The Master Mystery led to Houdini being signed by Famous Players-Lasky Corporation/Paramount Pictures, for whom he made two pictures, The Grim Game (1919) and Terror Island (1920).
The Grim Game was Houdini's first full-length movie and is reputed to be his best. Because of the inflammable nature of nitrate film only 10 percent of old silent movies exist. Film historians considered the film lost. One copy did exist hidden in the collection of a private collector only known to a tiny group of magicians that saw it. Dick Brookz and Dorothy Dietrich of The Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania had seen it twice on the invitation of the collector. After many years of trying, they finally got him to agree to sell the film to Turner Classic Movies who have restored the complete 71-minute film. The film, not seen by the general public for 96 years was shown by TCM on March 29, 2015 as a highlight of their yearly 4-day festival in Hollywood. Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz were brought out to Hollywood to introduce the film. The collector died in October 2014, soon after the sale. The film was then shown at The Houdini Museum in Scranton, and a few other venues. Turner Classic Movies will show it twice on their network on October 18, 2015.
While filming an aerial stunt for The Grim Game, two biplanes collided in mid-air with a stuntman doubling Houdini dangling by a rope from one of the planes. Publicity was geared heavily toward promoting this dramatic "caught on film" moment, claiming it was Houdini himself dangling from the plane. While filming these movies in Los Angeles, Houdini rented a home in Laurel Canyon. Following his two-picture stint in Hollywood, Houdini returned to New York and started his own film production company called the "Houdini Picture Corporation". He produced and starred in two films, The Man From Beyond (1921) and Haldane of the Secret Service (1923). He also founded his own film laboratory business called The Film Development Corporation (FDC), gambling on a new process for developing motion picture film. Houdini's brother, Theodore Hardeen, left his own career as a magician and escape artist to run the company. Magician Harry Kellar was a major investor.
Neither Houdini's acting career nor FDC found success, and he gave up on the movie business in 1923, complaining that "the profits are too meager".
In April 2008, Kino International released a DVD box set of Houdini's surviving silent films, including The Master Mystery, Terror Island, The Man From Beyond, Haldane of the Secret Service, and five minutes from The Grim Game. The set also includes newsreel footage of Houdini's escapes from 1907 to 1923, and a section from Merveilleux Exploits du Célébre Houdini à Paris, although it is not identified as such.
In 1909, Houdini became fascinated with aviation. He purchased a French Voisin biplane for $5000 and hired a full-time mechanic, Antonio Brassac. After crashing once, he made his first successful flight on November 26 in Hamburg, Germany. The following year, Houdini toured Australia. He brought along his Voisin biplane with the intention to be the first person in Australia to fly.
In the 1920s Houdini turned his energies toward debunking psychics and mediums, a pursuit that inspired and was followed by latter-day stage magicians. Houdini's training in magic allowed him to expose frauds who had successfully fooled many scientists and academics. He was a member of a Scientific American committee that offered a cash prize to any medium who could successfully demonstrate supernatural abilities. None was able to do so, and the prize was never collected. The first to be tested was medium George Valentine of Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. As his fame as a "ghostbuster" grew, Houdini took to attending séances in disguise, accompanied by a reporter and police officer. Possibly the most famous medium whom he debunked was Mina Crandon, also known as "Margery". "Houdini exposed numerous phony mediums and inspired other magicians to follow suit. The Amazing Randi, (Dorothy) Dietrich, Penn & Teller and Dick Brookz are magicians that have exposed these unscrupulous mediums."
Houdini chronicled his debunking exploits in his book, A Magician Among the Spirits, co-authored with C. M. Eddy, Jr., who was not credited. These activities cost Houdini the friendship of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle, a firm believer in spiritualism during his later years, refused to believe any of Houdini's exposés. Doyle came to believe that Houdini was a powerful spiritualist medium, and had performed many of his stunts by means of paranormal abilities and was using these abilities to block those of other mediums that he was "debunking". This disagreement led to the two men becoming public antagonists and led Sir Arthur to view Houdini as a dangerous enemy.
Before Houdini died, he and his wife agreed that if Houdini found it possible to communicate after death, he would communicate the message "Rosabelle believe", a secret code which they agreed to use. Rosabelle was their favorite song. Bess held yearly séances on Halloween for ten years after Houdini's death. She did claim to have contact through Arthur Ford in 1929 when Ford conveyed the secret code, but Bess later said the incident had been faked. The code seems to have been such that it could be broken by Ford or his associates using existing clues. Evidence to this effect was discovered by Ford's biographer after he died in 1971. In 1936, after a last unsuccessful séance on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel, she put out the candle that she had kept burning beside a photograph of Houdini since his death. In 1943, Bess said that "ten years is long enough to wait for any man."
The tradition of holding a séance for Houdini continues, held by magicians throughout the world. The Official Houdini Séance was organized in the 1940s by Sidney Hollis Radner, a Houdini aficionado from Holyoke, Massachusetts. Yearly Houdini séances are also conducted in Chicago at the Excalibur nightclub by "necromancer" Neil Tobin on behalf of the Chicago Assembly of the Society of American Magicians; and at the Houdini Museum in Scranton by magician Dorothy Dietrich who previously held them at New York's Magic Towne House with such magical notables as Houdini biographers Walter B. Gibson and Milbourne Christopher. Gibson was asked by Bess Houdini to carry on the original seance tradition. After doing them for many years at New York's Magic Towne House, before he died, Walter passed on the tradition of conducting of the Original Seances to Dorothy Dietrich.
In 1926, Harry Houdini hired H. P. Lovecraft and his friend C. M. Eddy, Jr., to write an entire book about debunking religious miracles, which was to be called The Cancer of Superstition. Houdini had earlier asked Lovecraft to write an article about astrology, for which he paid $75. The article does not survive. Lovecraft's detailed synopsis for Cancer does survive, as do three chapters of the treatise written by Eddy. Houdini's death derailed the plans, as his widow did not wish to pursue the project.
Houdini's funeral was held on November 4, 1926, in New York City, with more than 2,000 mourners in attendance. He was interred in the Machpelah Cemetery in Glendale, Queens, with the crest of the Society of American Magicians inscribed on his grave site. A statuary bust was added to the exedra in 1927, a rarity, because graven images are forbidden in Jewish cemeteries. In 1975 the bust was destroyed by vandals. Temporary busts were placed at the grave until 2011 when a group who came to be called The Houdini Commandos from the Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania placed a permanent bust with the permission of Houdini's family and of the cemetery. The Society of American Magicians took responsibility for the upkeep of the site, as Houdini had willed a large sum of money to the organization he had grown from one club to 5,000-6,000 dues-paying membership worldwide. The payment of upkeep was abandoned by the society's dean George Schindler, who said “Houdini paid for perpetual care, but there’s nobody at the cemetery to provide it,” adding that the operator of the cemetery, David Jacobson, “sends us a bill for upkeep every year but we never pay it because he never provides any care.” The Society tidies the grave themselves.
Machpelah Cemetery operator Jacobson said, they "never paid the cemetery for any restoration of the Houdini family plot in my tenure since 1988," claiming that the money came from the cemetery's dwindling funds. The granite monuments of Houdini's sister, Gladys, and brother, Leopold were also destroyed by vandals. For many years, until recently, The Houdini grave site has been only cared for by Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz of the Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
The Society of American Magicians, at their National Council Meeting in Boca Raton, Florida, in 2013, under the prompting of The Houdini Museum's Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz, voted to assume the financial responsibilities for the care and maintenance of the Houdini Gravesite. In MUM Magazine, the Society's official magazine, President Dal Sanders announced "Harry Houdini is an icon as revered as Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe. He is not only a magical icon; his gravesite bears the seal of The Society of American Magicians. That seal is our brand and we should be proud to protect it. This gravesite is clearly our responsibility and I’m proud to report that the National Council unanimously voted to maintain Houdini’s final resting place."
The Houdini Gravesite Restoration Committee under the Chairmanship of National President-Elect David Bowers, is working closely with National President Kenrick "Ice" McDonald to see this project to completion. Bowers said it is a foregone conclusion that the Society will approve the funding request, because “Houdini is responsible for the Society of American Magicians being what it is today. We owe a debt of gratitude to him.” Like Bowers, McDonald said the motivation behind the repairs is to properly honor the grave of the “Babe Ruth of magicians.” “This is hallowed ground,” he said. “When you ask people about magicians, the first thing they say is Harry Houdini.” While the actual plot will remain under the control of Machpelah Cemetery management, the Society of American Magicians, with the help of the Houdini Museum in Pennsylvania, will be in charge of the restoration.
Magicians Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz have been caring for the escape artist’s Queens grave over the years. “This is a monument where people go and visit on a daily basis,” said Dietrich who is spearheading restoration efforts. "The nearly 80-year-old popular plot at the Machpelah Cemetery has fallen into disrepair over the years." "The Houdini Museum has teamed with The Society of American Magicians, one of the oldest fraternal magic organizations in the world, to give the beloved site a facelift." The organization has a specific Houdini gravesite committee made up of nine members headed up by President elect David Bowers who brought this project to the Society’s attention. Kenrick “Ice” McDonald, the current president of the Society of American Magicians said “You have to know the history. Houdini served as President from 1917 until his death in 1926. Houdini’s burial site needs an infusion of cash to restore it to its former glory." Magician Dietrich said the repairs could cost “tens of thousands of dollars,” after consulting with glass experts and grave artisans. “It’s a wonderful project, but it’s taken a lifetime to get people interested,” she said. “It’s long overdue, and it’s great that it’s happening.” Houdini was a living superhero,” Dietrich said. “He wasn’t just a magician and escape artist, he was great humanitarian.”
To this day the Society holds a broken wand ceremony at the grave every November. Houdini's widow, Bess, died of a heart attack on February 11, 1943, aged 67, in Needles, California while on a train en route from Los Angeles to New York City. She had expressed a wish to be buried next to her husband, but instead was interred 35 miles due north at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Westchester County, New York, as her Catholic family refused to allow her to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
Houdini's brother, Theodore Hardeen, who returned to performing after Houdini's death, inherited his brother's effects and props. Houdini's will stipulated that all the effects should be "burned and destroyed" upon Hardeen's death. Hardeen sold much of the collection to magician and Houdini enthusiast Sidney Hollis Radner during the 1940s, including the water torture cell. Radner allowed choice pieces of the collection to be displayed at The Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls, Ontario. In 1995, a fire destroyed the museum. The water torture cell's metal frame remained, and it was restored by illusion builder John Gaughan. Many of the props contained in the museum such as the mirror handcuffs, Houdini's original packing crate, a milk can, and a straitjacket, survived the fire and were auctioned off in 1999 and 2008.
Radner loaned the bulk of his collection for archiving to the Outagamie Museum in Appleton, Wisconsin; but pulled it in 2003, and auctioned it off a year later in Las Vegas, on October 30, 2004.
Houdini was a "formidable collector," and bequeathed many of his holdings and paper archives on magic and spiritualism to the Library of Congress, which became the basis for the Houdini collection in cyberspace.
More than half of Houdini's archival estate holdings and memorabilia were willed to his fellow magician and friend, John Mulholland (1897–1970). In 1991, illusionist and television performer David Copperfield purchased all of Mulholland's Houdini holdings from Mulholland's estate. These are now archived and preserved in Copperfield's warehouse at his headquarters in Las Vegas. It contains the world's largest collection of Houdini memorabilia, and preserves approximately 80,000 items of memorabilia of Houdini and other magicians, including Houdini's stage props and material, his rebuilt water torture cabinet and his metamorphosis trunk. It is not open to the public, but tours are available by invitation to magicians, scholars, researchers, journalists and serious collectors.
In a posthumous ceremony on October 31, 1975, he was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7001 Hollywood Blvd.
There is a Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania, billed as "the only building in the world entirely dedicated to Houdini". It is open to the public year round by reservation. It includes Houdini films, a guided tour about Houdini's life and a stage magic show. It was opened in 1991 by magicians Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz.
The Magic Castle, a nightclub for magicians and magic enthusiasts, as well as the clubhouse for the Academy of Magical Arts, features Houdini séances performed by magician Misty Lee.
Houdini published numerous books during his career (some of which were written by his good friend Walter Brown Gibson, the creator of The Shadow):