Ehrich Weisz was born March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary. As a small boy he immigrated with his family to Appleton, Wisconsin, where he later claimed to have been born (on April 6, for some reason). By the age of 11 he was performing rope tricks, and could pick any lock presented to him. His dream was to become a stage magician.
When he reached the age of consent Weisz changed his name to Harry Houdini, taking the name from the famous French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin and throwing on an extra ‘i’. He performed magic tricks and escape acts initially with a friend and later with his own brother Theodore, billing their act ‘The Houdini Brothers’.
Houdini married Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner in 1894. He dumped his brother and began performing with his wife as ‘The Houdinis’.
Houdini’s early acts included the ‘Needle Trick’ (in which he would swallow dozens of needles and threads, then regurgitate them with the needles neatly threaded), and the ‘Challenge Act’ (where he would escape from any pair of handcuffs produced by the audience). He later perfected his famous ‘Chinese Water Torture Cell,’ ‘Straight Jacket,’ and ‘Buried Alive’ escapes – among others.
Following the death of his beloved mother in 1913, Houdini visited numerous spirit mediums and attended séances in hopes of communicating with her. Ultimately unsuccessful, he became convinced that mediums were scam artists taking advantage of the vulnerability of the bereaved. For the rest of his life he would campaign to expose and discredit them as frauds, famously debunking the well-known medium Mina Crandon, known to the public as Margery.
As his fame grew, Houdini ventured into an assortment of activities. In 1901, he made a 10-minute experimental film entitled, Wonderful Adventures of the Famous Houdini in Paris. He would later make five movies between 1918 and 1923, and even create his own film company, The Houdini Production Corporation.
In 1917, Houdini became president of the Society of American Magicians, a position he held until his death in 1926.
Houdini published numerous books on magic and related topics which are still read today. In 1920, he published Miracle Mongers and Their Methods, an exposé of the tricks and cheats used by mediums, fortune tellers and others with alleged paranormal abilities. On May 19, 1926, he testified before the U.S. Congress in support of a bill that would outlaw fortune-telling in Washington, D.C. (Alas, the bill didn’t pass.)
On Oct. 22, 1926, McGillUniversity student J. Gordon Whitehead tested the magician’s claim of extraordinarily firm muscles by punching him several times in the stomach while visiting him backstage in Montreal. The blows may have injured Houdini, or aggravated a previous condition. Either way, he performed his next two shows in severe pain before finally going to the hospital in Detroit. He died of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix on Oct. 31. Despite his
skepticism Houdini made a pact with his wife before his death, promising to communicate with her
from beyond the grave if it was possible.
Beatrice ‘Bess’ Houdini conducted séances every Halloween for the next 10 years in hopes of receiving a message from her husband, but to no avail. There are still numerous Houdini séances held on Halloween every year in various locations around the world. The official Houdini séance is held on Oct. 31 at the HoudiniMuseum in Scranton, Pennsylvania.