Harry Houdini

When did he live?

Erik Weisz was born on March 24, 1874 in Budapest, Hungary. He died, named Harry Houdini, on October 31, 1926.

Why is he famous?

Harry Houdini was a famous magician, particularly gifted at escapology. Whether in handcuffs, buried underground, in a straight-jacket, or locked in jail, Houdini would escape.

Perhaps his most famous act – and one often copied today – is the ‘Chinese Water Torture Cell’, in which he would be lowered upside down into a container of water.

Houdini was also a showman: in many acts he would first be searched naked to show he wasn’t hiding any tools to help his escape, and his performances often had large audiences and a media presence.

Harry Houdini, Magician and Escapologist
What is his mark on history?

Houdini’s level of escapology was so famous at the time that his name became part of the English language: ‘doing a Houdini’ or ‘like Houdini’ is still used for people who can get out of something that looks impossible to escape.

Harry Houdini before an Escape
A Young Harry Houdini

Houdini originally tried to be a card magician.

He worked with his brother for a while, but then swapped his brother for ‘Bess’ Rahner. Bess – who his brother had been trying to date at the time – would be Houdini’s partner on the stage for the rest of his career. Houdini also married her.

Houdini revealed the secrets to many of his tricks. He explained how locks or handcuffs could be opened if forced in the right spot, or with shoelaces. One of his most famous reveals was how he could keep a key at the back of his mouth and regurgitate it when needed.

In 1904 the Daily Mirror (a British newspaper) challenged Houdini to escape a challenge they had made. They had hired a locksmith to make special handcuffs (which they said took 5 years to make), and Houdini took up the challenge in front of 4000 people, plus 100 journalists. After an hour he escaped. However, it is thought that Houdini might have cheated: Bess kissed him during the performance, and many people believe that is the moment in which a key was passed to him.

Another strange case/trick happened in Germany when a judge said Houdini escaped by bribing people (giving them money to let him out or not tie him down properly). Houdini sued, and won the case by breaking into the judge’s own safe. The case was dropped, although Houdini later said the judge had simply not locked the safe.