Erik Weisz would grow up to be one of the most famous performers of all time, although he is more commonly known as Harry Houdini.
Some of the most eccentric, interesting people come from the most ordinary beginnings. And in 1874, in Budapest, Hungary, one of those people was born. Houdini is known for his flashy, grand escapes and performances, but before he became known for his amazing talent, he had first to live through a childhood that was anything but lavish.
Before he became an escape artist, Harry Houdini went by his birth name, Erik Weisz, and grew up in a family with six other children. When Houdini was four years old, he and his family moved to the United States, and he spent the remainder of his childhood in both Appleton, Wisconsin, and New York City. In New York City, Houdini, still under the name Erik Weisz, first performed a trapeze routine at just nine years old.
At twenty-four, Houdini officially created his stage name and set into motion his now-famous career. As he became older and more well-known, his acts became more elaborate, moving beyond card tricks and sleight-of-hand, and one involving handcuffs was what finally catapulted him to fame.
Rise to Fame
On a European tour involving countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, and France, Houdini began to perform a trick that became one of his most famous. He would be searched and handcuffed by the local police, and ask to be locked in their jails. He would then escape from the jail and the handcuffs, shocking and impressing his audience and the police.
These acts earned him the nicknames Harry “Handcuff” Houdini, and “The Handcuff King.” This European tour was orchestrated by Houdini’s entertainment manager, Martin Beck, who then encouraged him to focus on escape acts and to even increase the danger and shock value. Houdini took this to heart and began to set up tricks where he would escape from handcuffs, straitjackets, ropes, sealed packing crates, and even unique spaces such as a milk crate filled with water, the belly of a beached whale, and the Chinese Water Torture Cell.
Some of the acts involving water required Houdini to hold his breath, sometimes three minutes or more at a time. Each one of these acts could have killed Houdini, and that was one of the things his fans loved best. Houdini was willing to put it all on the line, and the best part was, he was successful every time.
Of course, Houdini didn’t have a perfectly flawless career as a performer and an escape artist. One of his closest calls, where he believed he might die, was a stunt in which he was buried under six feet of dirt. As he was trying to climb out from under the dirt, he began to struggle under the weight of it and called for help. He had to be pulled from under the dirt by his assistants after he fell unconscious.
Another trick Harry Houdini almost didn’t accomplish was one that was given to him as a challenge by a newspaper called Daily Mirror. The paper asked Houdini to escape from a set of handcuffs that had taken five years to create. Houdini accepted, but as he tried to escape from the cuffs, he realized it was going to be much more difficult than he thought. The attempt went on for over an hour before Houdini began to worry, asking to take his coat off and showing more of his trick to the audience. When his request to take his coat off was denied, Houdini struggled for another hour before his wife, Bess, came onto the stage to give him a kiss.
Some believe that Bess had the key to the cuffs in her mouth, and came onto the stage to slip the key to Houdini, but the key was supposedly six inches long and would have been impossible for Bess to hold in her mouth. An additional hour and ten minutes later, Houdini finally escaped from the handcuffs. It has been reported that Houdini broke down and cried after finally completing the challenge.
Death and Legacy
Houdini passed away at the age of 52, from causes, surprisingly, not related to any of his spectacularly dangerous, life-threatening tricks. He suffered from irritation in his abdomen, as well as appendicitis, and eventually died from these afflictions. Harry Houdini will forever be remembered for his elaborate, incredible escape acts that fascinated and captivated every audience for which he performed.