Tódor Varga

There is no question that Houdini is the most famous magician in history. His name is synonymous with escapes; his ability to get out of seemingly impossible situations – and his knack for publicizing these events – made him a legend in his own time. The Houdini myth is about to be examined, and truth really is stranger than fiction!

Harry Houdini was born Erich Weiss on March 24, 1874. Though he claimed throughout his life that Appleton, Wisconsin was his birthplace, he was really born in Budapest, Hungary. He was four years old when his family moved to America. He had four brothers and a sister.

Houdini’s family had its share of conflicts. Not only was Houdini’s childhood spent in poverty, but the individual family members seemed often to be at odds with each other. Houdini himself caused friction in his Jewish family when he married Bess {Wilhelmina Rahner}, who was Catholic. This choice would have consequences after Houdini’s death: though he stipulated in his will that he wanted Bess buried beside him, instead she is buried in the Gate of Heaven Cemetery, Hawthorne, New York, near Babe Ruth, Jimmy Cagney, Sal Mineo and Dutch Schultz.

Houdini was 5’5”, with dark, wavy hair, dark gray eyes and a high-pitched voice. Like many in his day, Houdini was poorly educated, however, extremely athletic and highly motivated to succeed. His brother Leopold, became New York’s first X-ray specialist.

Houdini became fascinated with magic after seeing Dr. Lynn, a traveling magician, as a young boy. He did not, as legend has it, run away with a circus, nor was he an apprentice to a locksmith. In reality, he turned to magic at age 17 as an alternative to factory work.

He teamed up with Jack Hayman, a fellow magic enthusiast, to form the Houdini Brothers. The team’s specialty was the Crate Escape. In time, Hayman and Houdini’s brother Theodore {Hardeen} were replaced by Bess Rahner, the woman who became Houdini’s partner both in the act and in his life.

Surprising as it may seem, Houdini was not an instant success. His one big success was the Needle Trick, a grisly effect involving the swallowing of dozens of needles and thread, then the regurgitation of the thread with all the needles neatly threaded on.

By 1898, Houdini had come up with the Challenge Act. As the Handcuff King, the development of the spectacular escapes would make Houdini a legend.

During a visit to a psychiatrist friend in Nova Scotia in 1896, Houdini saw his first straight jacket where he subsequently created his escape act – hanging upside down from his ankles, suspended yards above the ground.

In 1910, he purchased a Voisin biplane for US $5,000 in Hamburg. He had the plane dismantled and shipped to Australia – the first flown in Australia with Houdini being one of the first to pilot a plane there. He then taught himself to drive a car – so he could get out to the airfield. In 1919, he became a film producer/actor/ stunt man, creating the Houdini Pictures Corporation.

In the early 1900s while performing on the vaudeville circuit, Houdini worked with a couple named Keaton. Their young son Joseph was intrigued by Houdini’s amazing magic and Houdini was quite taken with the boy. Houdini nicknamed him ‘Buster’, and the name stuck, explaining how Buster Keaton, the famous film comedian, got his name.

The 1953 movie Houdini starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh did much to create the commonly-held belief that Houdini died onstage attempting to perform the Water Torture Cell illusion.

The sad truth is that Houdini was in the middle of a U.S. tour in the fall of 1926 when he and Bess began to experience severe stomach discomfort. Quite possibly Houdini was suffering from the onset of appendicitis. Bess was ill too.

On October 31, Houdini passed away.

Houdini left an estate of about $500,000 to his wife. To his brother Hardeen, he left his show, his equipment and his magic secrets. Houdini’s instructions were that Hardeen should use the equipment, but that it should be burned at Hardeen’s death. Luckily for magic historians and collectors, Hardeen sold the show and nothing was destroyed.

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