March 23, 2018:

March 24 marks the 144th anniversary of the birth of Ehrich Weisz in Budapest, Hungary. The boy’s family moved to Appleton, Wisconsin in 1878 where his father served as Rabbi of the Zion Reform Jewish CongregationUnfortunately, Rabbi Weisz never learned to speak English and therefore was asked to leave his post in 1882. The family moved to New York City where Ehrich, AKA Ehrie, AKA Harry, excelled at track, gymnastics and boxing.  He also loved magic particularly the work of the French conjurer Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin. When he began his own magic career, the teenager added a vowel to “Houdin” to create his stage name: Harry Houdini.

Houdini struggled as a teenage magician but started receiving recognition by challenging audience members to tie him up or lock him in handcuffs. Houdini ingeniously promoted his shows by staging escapes from local jails, usually after being strip-searched and put in shackles by local police. In one stunt he broke out of the jail cell that had once held Charles Guiteau, the anarchist who assassinated President James Garfield.

Houdini employed various methods of trickery to perform his escapes including hiding a lockpick in his bushy hair. However, some stunts involved just his ingenuity and athletic skill such as his escapes from medical straitjackets while he was suspended by his ankles from a crane or a tall building. Houdini was a master self-promoter as evidenced by his being the only person who could legally perform the “Chinese Water Torture Cell Escape”. Because magic tricks can’t be copyrighted, Houdini first performed this escape as part of a play called “Houdini Upside Down”. The illusionist copyrighted the play and threatened legal action against anyone who tried to imitate the stunt.

Forever restless and always striving for publicity, Houdini became one of the world’s first airplane pilots. He took his plane to Melbourne, Australia where in 1909 he was certified by The Aerial League of Australia as the first man to fly a plane on that continent. 

Houdini provided great support to the American cause during World War I. He canceled his touring schedule to entertain soldiers and raise money for the war effort. He also held classes to teach soldiers how to escape from ropes, handcuffs and other restraints in the event of capture.  

After the war, Houdini established himself as a silent film star with an adventure serial in which Houdini used his escape skills to thwart criminal plots. The series was such a hit that he launched his own film company. Unfortunately, his studio’s two films were bombs and drained Houdini of his personal assets.  He quit Hollywood in 1923 but was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, posthumously.

Houdini’s next obsession was his fanatical skepticism of spiritualists. The occult had become very popular during the 1920s and the illusionist became intrigued by the idea of communicating with his beloved mother after her death. However, he soon became convinced that mediums were merely preying on the public. He started attending seances in disguise in order to expose the mediums as frauds. He even testified before congress in support of a bill to outlaw the practice of “pretending to tell fortunes for compensation”. During his four- day testimony, Houdini asserted that many congressmen were under the spell of psychics, posing a danger to the country.

On October 22, 1926, after a performance in Montreal, the 52-year-old Houdini was approached in his dressing room by a McGill university student who asked if it was true that Houdini could withstand heavy punches to his stomach. Before the illusionist was able to tense his abdominal muscles, the student dealt him a terrific blow that left Houdini doubled over in agony. Houdini continued his tour for a few days until he was hospitalized with appendicitis. He succumbed to peritonitis on Halloween.

Despite his skepticism about the spirit world, Houdini promised his wife Bess that he would contact her after his death.  Bess spent a decade holding seances in order to contact Harry. After ten years, Bess abandoned her efforts however The Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania still holds a seance every year on Halloween.  

In 2007, members of the Houdini family, announced plans to exhume the illusionist’s body to prove their theory that Houdini had been poisoned by spiritualists. Despite much media excitement, the exhumation never took place. One can be sure that somewhere Harry was smiling at the renewed attention.

Have a great weekend.

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