Born as Erik Weisz, later Ehrich Weiss or Harry Weiss, Harry Houdini was born in Budapest (Hungary) on 24 March 1874. He began his career in 1891, appearing in a tent act with strongman Emil Jarrow. He performed in dime museums and sideshows, and even doubled as “The Wild Man” at a circus. Houdini focused initially on traditional card tricks. At one point, he billed himself as the “King of Cards”. He soon began experimenting with escape acts.
In 1893, while performing with his brother “Dash” (Theodore) at Coney Island as “The Brothers Houdini,” Houdini met a fellow performer, Wilhelmina Beatrice “Bess” Rahner. Bess was initially courted by Dash, but she and Houdini married in 1894, with Bess replacing Dash in the act, which became known as “The Houdinis.” For the rest of Houdini’s performing career, Bess worked as his stage assistant.
Houdini’s big break came in 1899 when he met manager Martin Beck in St. Paul, Minnesota. Impressed by Houdini’s handcuffs act, Beck advised him to concentrate on escape acts and booked him on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit. Within months, he was performing at the top vaudeville houses in the country. In 1900, Beck arranged for Houdini to tour Europe. After some days of unsuccessful interviews in London, Houdini’s British agent Harry Day helped him to get an interview with C. Dundas Slater, then manager of the Alhambra Theatre. He was introduced to William Melville and gave a demonstration of escape from handcuffs at Scotland Yard. He succeeded in baffling the police so effectively that he was booked at the Alhambra for six months. His show was an immediate hit and his salary rose to $300 a week. He became widely known as “The Handcuff King.”
He toured England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Russia. In each city, Houdini challenged local police to restrain him with shackles and lock him in their jails. In many of these challenge escapes, he was first stripped nude and searched. In Moscow, he escaped from a Siberian prison transport van, claiming that, had he been unable to free himself, he would have had to travel to Siberia, where the only key was kept.
In 1904, thousands watched as he tried to escape from special handcuffs commissioned by London’s Daily Mirror, keeping them in suspense for an hour. Another stunt saw him buried alive and only just able to claw himself to the surface, emerging in a state of near-breakdown. While many suspected that these escapes were faked, Houdini presented himself as the scourge of fake spiritualists. As President of the Society of American Magicians, he was keen to uphold professional standards and expose fraudulent artists. He was also quick to sue anyone who imitated his escape stunts.
Like many professional stage magicians and illusionists, Houdini was an outspoken skeptic of any claims of psychic ability or supernatural phenomena. Prior to his death, Houdini and his wife agreed on a secret code phrase (“Rosabel, believe!”) he would use to contact her from beyond the grave, if there was in fact such a thing as an afterlife. After his death, Bess said she had been given the code by a psychic, but later discovered that the man had obtained it from a former servant of Houdini’s.
Some of his most spectacular escapes were accomplished with the covert aid of his wife Bess, as when she passed a key to the bound Houdini by mouth, seeming only to be kissing the apparently doomed performer farewell — as depicted in the song Houdini, and on the cover of the album The Dreaming.
Harry Houdini died of peritonitis, secondary to a ruptured appendix on 31 October 1926 in Detroit’s Grace Hospital, aged 52.