by Robert Chapin
U.S. History Three, Period Five
Wednesday, November 26, 1997
Ehrich Weiss was born in Budapest, Hungary on March 24, 1874. His family migrated to the United States of America when he was only four years old. At an early age he was transfixed by the magic shows that he attended. When he was seventeen he read the memoirs of Robert-Houdin, a French magician of the 1800s. Houdin became his idol, and later his life-long inspiration to become “First in my profession, in my speciality in my profession.” When a friend told him that if he were to add the letter ‘i’ to Houdin’s name that it would mean ‘like Houdin” in the French language, he adopted Houdini “with enthusiasm” as his stage name. His friends had already Americanized his first name to Harry.
“One day I was hired to give an exhibition at a children’s party in Brooklyn. At the close a little girl, about sixteen, said to me very bashfully, ‘I think you are awfully clever,’ and then, with a blush, ‘I like you.’ ‘How much do you like me?’ I said, ‘enough to marry me?’ We had never seen each other before. She nodded. And so, after talking the matter over, we were married.” Although Houdini’s marriage may not have been quite so sudden as this account in a magazine interview, this was how he felt emotionally at the time. At the age of 19 he married Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner (usually called Bess). The date was July 22, 1894.
Houdini’s career as an entertainer began slowly. He and his wife wandered from side show to dime museum, taking any engagement that they could get paid for. It was rare for them to get paid $60 a week between the two of them. During these times their magic shows did not draw crowds and they were left doing comedy shows or freak sideshow acts.
During these early years Harry’s talents as an escape artist were rarely appreciated. One day in a small town in Rhode Island while he was touring with the Welsh Brothers’ Circus, the entire troupe was arrested and locked in jail for breaking the Sunday law. That night after the sheriff had gone home, Houdini picked all of the locks and freed the entire Circus.
Still, audiences seemed uninterested in watching Ehrich free himself from handcuffs. In 1895, while traveling with the American Gaiety Girls, he thought of a way to make his act more interesting. His modified performances involved visiting police stations with the challenge that he could escape from any pair of handcuffs. After being chained and escorted into another room he would free himself in under a minute.
These acts gained attention in small cities, but that wasn’t enough to bring Ehrich and his wife a steady job. At the end of 1898, Ehrich arranged an escape act with the Chicago police. With many newspaper reporters present, Lieutenant of Detectives, Andy Rohan, handcuffed Houdini and locked him in a cell. A minute later Houdini walked into the warden’s office. However, the newspaper reporters, having heard that Houdini had visited the jail on previous days, were skeptical and unimpressed. Houdini then offered to be stripped naked, searched, handcuffed, and at his suggestion have his mouth sealed with plaster. They again left him in a cell, and in less than ten minutes he walked back into Rohan’s office, fully clothed.
This great act made him famous. He got his picture in the papers and within a week he had offers ranging from the best vaudeville house in Chicago, to a large western theater chain. One evening he was approached by Martin Beck, the booker for the Orpheum Circuit. Earlier that day during one of Houdini’s performances, he sent to the stage a few pair of handcuffs which he had purchased, thinking that Houdini’s were doctored. As Ruth Brandon wrote, “The challenge had been dealt with in short order.”
And so his career continued, he and his wife performing at every chance, their pay increasing with their popularity.
Possibly Houdini’s most famous feat was his jump from the Belle Isle Bridge into the Detroit River. The story of this event has been retold, even within my family, countless times. My Great Grandfather, Alex Kalish, who I met once before his death, was one of the thousands of people who watched this event in person. As the story accounts, on November 27, 1906 Harry Houdini, after being locked into two sets of handcuffs, jumped off the bridge and into a hole that had been cut in the ice. He did not resurface.
Panic spread through the crowd. Houdini’s assistants knew that he couldn’t hold his breath for more than three and a half minutes. After about three minutes, they realized that the current had carried him downstream. The emergency plan was to have a roped man dive in after him. No one was eager to do this, so a rope was thrown into the hole. His wife, who had stayed at the hotel, was quickly informed, “Houdini drowned! Houdini drowned!”
Meanwhile, having freed himself, Houdini found that he could breath from air pockets that were trapped between the water and the ice. When he saw the rope, he grabbed it and climbed out of the hole. Cheers rang out from the crowd, and he was met by his wife, who was in tears.
Houdini’s fame and success was, of course, purely the result of constant practice and careful preparation. And, most importantly, he learned from his mistakes. In one challenge, Sergeant Waldron of the Chicago police locked Houdini in his special handcuffs. Houdini struggled to free himself for over an hour. After his audience had all left, Waldron explained that he had jammed the lock of the handcuffs so that they could not be opened and that Houdini would have to be cut from the handcuffs. After that happened, he never accepted a challenge without making sure that the cuffs could be locked and unlocked.
One last mistake, from which he learned his lesson too late, was made on Friday, October 22, 1926. Boasting his muscle strength, he asked a few people to feel his muscles, which they did. Among the few was a young student. He asked if it was true that punches in the stomach did not hurt him. Jack Price, one of the few present, recalled, “Thereupon he gave Houdini some very hammer-like blows below the belt, first securing Houdini’s permission to strike him. Houdini was reclining at the time… Houdini immediately after stated that he had had no opportunity to prepare himself against the blows, as he did not think that [the student] would strike him as suddenly as he did and with such force, but that he would have been in a better position to prepare for the blows if he had risen from his couch for this purpose…”
He was able to conceal his suffering until the next day. When they reached Detroit, where he was scheduled to perform, Bess summoned a doctor immediately. As Houdini dressed for his performance, the doctor diagnosed him with acute appendicitis and said that an ambulance should be called at once. But Houdini suffered through two of his three acts on stage. Finally he said, “Drop the curtain, Collins, I can’t go any further.” He still refused to be taken to a hospital. Sometime after 3 in the morning of the next day, doctors were able to convince him that his condition was critical and that he needed to have his appendix removed.
After the surgery, the doctor said that Houdini might live 24 hours at the most. He did live through that Monday. And then through Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. A second operation had to be performed. He seemed to get stronger on Friday. But on Saturday afternoon, his doctor said it would only be a few more hours. Sunday at eleven o’clock, the doctor emerged from the sick-room with tears in his eyes. Houdini died in his wife’s arms at 1:26pm on October 31. It was Halloween, and he was 52 years old.
- Brandon, Ruth. (1993). Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini. New York: Random House.
- Harry Houdini Pictures and Pages. [World Wide Web Page]. http://www.slu.edu/classes/CS-150/CSTK160.Spring.97/Project.2/house/HOUDINI.HTM
- HOUDINI!. [World Wide Web Page]. http://www.holonet.net/uelectric/houdini/
- Harry Houdini: The Most Famous Magician of all Time. (1993). [World Wide Web Page]. http://www.microserve.net/~magicusa/houdibio.html The Houdini Museum.
- The Famous Houdini Museum. (1993). [World Wide Web Page]. http://www.microserve.net/~magicusa/houdini.html magicusa