On August 5, 1926, Houdini performed his greatest trick when he stayed in an underwater Coffin for 90 minutes. Known as one of the greatest magicians in all of history, Harry Houdini (born Erik Weisz) lived a life most could scarcely imagine, even by modern standards. From his humble beginnings as a Hungarian immigrant to his rise to stardom, the life and times of Houdini were nothing short of spectacular, and all who witnessed him in action came away feeling like they had seen something truly larger-than-life.
The Making of a Legend
From the very beginning, Houdini lived a life that could be considered unconventional by almost any standard. In early childhood, he and his family relocated from their homeland of Hungary to the United States, where he quickly became involved with the local circus as a trapeze performer. Upon settling in New York City in 1882, he performed locally throughout the region but didn’t enjoy much success or fame at first. While gymnastics were enjoyable for the young performer, he had set his sights on another, more mysterious aspect of performance; magic.
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After meeting and falling in love with his soon-to-be wife Wilhelmina Rahner, she had changed her name to Beatrice Houdini. The two would go on to wow audiences around the world on stage together for years to come.
The Early Days in Show Business
Houdini began performing magic under his new stage name in 1894. Initially, his tricks did not attract much attention, and he struggled to establish a name for himself in New York. However, this began to change when he pivoted to performing feats of escape using handcuffs.
8/5/1926-New York, NY: Photo shows Harry Houdini in Casket shortly before it was sealed for submersion. Photo Credit: Getty Images
These tricks were seen as a very novel for the time, and as the scenarios grew in complexity, so to did Houdini’s fame in the local area. He would continue to perform regionally for moderately-sized crowds during the remainder of the 1890’s, but it wasn’t before the turn of the century that the magician would see his first major commercial breakthrough.
Houdini’s First Time in the Limelight
Harry Houdini had a chance encounter in 1899 that would change the course of his life forever. That year, he met Martin Beck, a manager who was thoroughly impressed with his handcuff escape act. He encouraged Houdini to focus on this sort of performance instead of traditional magic, and shortly after, he began to book the magician at top vaudeville houses all around the US.
Harry Houdini stands by the coffin in which he was sealed for 90 minutes and immersed in the Hotel Sheridan’s swimming pool. Location: Hotel Shelton, New York, USA. (Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
A wild European tour followed shortly later, where he astonished Scotland Yard officers with his harrowing escapes. He soon became internationally known as “The Handcuff King,” showcasing his skills in increasingly bold ways. In each city, he would challenge local police to lock him in their cells, and every time, he would escape.
The Infamous Milk Can Escape
Shortly after the turn of the century in 1908, Houdini debuted his first all-original performance. Dubbed “The Milk Can Escape,” it involved the magician being handcuffed and sealed away into a large milk can that was filled with water.
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The success of his performance was immediate; crowds were larger than ever, and Houdini became a bona fide sensation. Advertisements that claimed, “Failure Means A Drowning Death” helped to spur on the trick’s popularity, as did the performer’s insistence that the audience attempt to hold their breath along with him while submerged. Although he only performed this trick for four years of his career, it stuck with him, remains one of his most famous acts for the rest of his life.
Throughout the 1920’s Houdini began to channel his energy into debunking spiritual performers such as psychics and mediums. He saw this particular brand of the performer as nothing more than common swindlers and sought to prove that they carried out their feats using nothing more than clever trickery, just as he and other magicians did.
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Houdini was so invested in this cause that he authored several books about the issue, including his seminal work, A Magician Among the Spirits. His actions during this time would go on to inspire a similar movement amongst magicians for years to come.
Houdini’s Other Interests
Throughout the course of his life, Houdini amassed a considerable fortune as a performer. This allowed him to pursue a variety of hobbies and interests outside of magic, including tenure in the motion picture industry. He would go on to create several original motion pictures, though few survive to this day (in fact, due to their volatile nature, less than 10% of all silent films still exist).
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Houdini even founded his own film production company and processing lab, though neither were ultimately successful. Outside of the arts, Houdini also took an interest in aviation, purchasing a plane in 1909 for $5,000. He would later tour Australia in it, claiming to complete the first aerial flight over the country, but this was proven incorrect in later years.
The Height of Houdini’s Fame
By 1912, Harry Houdini was a household name. His tricks had been seen and discussed far and wide, and yet, he continued to dazzle audiences with his spectacular displays of showmanship.
Harry Houdini coming out of the casket, after being underwater for an hour and a half in Hotel Shelton’s pool. Photo Credit: Getty Images
Houdini continued to up the ante as well, building bolder and more complicated tricks as his career went on. For instance, one of his most famous performances at the height of his fame involved being sealed inside a packing crate that had been nailed shut and lowered into New York’s East River. He escaped in less than a minute each time, with the box being recovered still fully intact. This was dangerous enough as it was, but soon, the master escape artist would attempt a trick that would push himself to the edge of his life.
The Nearly Fatal “Buried Alive” Stunt
Early in 1915, Houdini attempted a trick that nearly cost him his life. He had himself buried in the ground–without a casket–under six feet of dirt. As he attempted to free himself, he began to tire, and in a panic, he tried to call for help. When none came, he used the remainder of his energy to break the surface of the ground, where he fell unconscious and had to be revived by his assistants.
Poster of Circus Bush, advertising for the magician and escapologist Harry Houdini, around 1900 – Photographer: Paul Mai – 1936 Vintage property of ullstein bild (Photo by Paul Mai/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Undeterred by this, he would go on to perform multiple variations of this trick, leading up to what many consider the greatest feat of his career. On August 5th, 1926, in a trick designed to expose mystical Egyptian performer Rahman Bey, Houdini remained sealed in a coffin under water at New York’s Hotel Shelton for 90 minutes. The magician later recounted to the press and in letters to a doctor associate of his that he had used no magic or superstitious power to pull the stunt off, only controlled breathing techniques.
The Untimely Death of a Magician
Houdini had many plans ahead for his career in 1926, but they were tragically cut short in the fall when he passed away from acute appendicitis and peritonitis at age 52. The exact cause of these ailments is unknown, but many attribute the death to an incident that happened mere days before his death.
Harry Houdini, with his wife Beatrice and mother Cecilia Steiner Weiss, full-length portrait in circa 1907. (Photo courtesy Library of Congress/Getty Images)
McGill University student Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead has visited the famed magician while he was recovering from a broken ankle. During the visit, he delivered several surprise punches to the abdomen, which Houdini was not prepared to absorb. He died shortly after on Halloween, prompting many (including his insurance company) to believe that this incident played a significant role in the fatality.
Harry Houdini passed away at the height of his career, and his infamous performances were not soon forgotten. In fact, magicians all over the world were inspired by his many illusions, crafting their acts in the same vein as their storied predecessor.
A trunk used by Harry Houdini is seen during the ‘Houdini: Art And Magic’ exhibition press preview at The Jewish Museum on October 25, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)
Houdini’s brother, Theodore Hardeen, continued to perform his tricks after his death for several years, before retiring from performance altogether. Most of Houdini’s possessions were sold off to admirers in the years that followed, but some were retained, eventually ending up in the Houdini Museum of New York. Today, Harry Houdini lives on in legend, inspiring performances all over the world and continuing to enrich all of our lives with tales of incredible feats carried out with nothing but the undeniable wit and mental fortitude he was so widely known for throughout his lifetime.