Harry Houdini was a Hungarian magician and escapologist popular in the early 20th century. His extraordinary abilities led to a lasting reputation as one of the greatest magicians of all time. Houdini died at age 52, suffering an acute inflammation caused by a ruptured appendix. His life and talents have been subjects of many books and movies since his death.
Houdini was born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary, in 1874. His father was a rabbi who moved their large family to America in 1878. The young Harry began his magic career performing at circuses and sideshows, first with his brother and later with his wife, Bess. In 1899, Houdini met with manager Martin Beck, who arranged for him to tour vaudeville circuits and Europe.
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The young magician met with unprecedented success in Europe, gaining an international reputation as an escape artist. He performed many high profile public stunts, including escaping from prison vans. At one point, he successfully sued a French policeman who claimed he used bribery to achieve his escapes. By 1904, Houdini was an international celebrity, and returned to America a wealthy man.
Upon returning to the American performance scene, Harry created ever-more elaborate acts. He escaped from jails and straitjackets in plain view of the audience. The magician did not guard his secrets as closely as the profession usually dictate, revealing some of his escape techniques in a 1909 book, Handcuff Secrets. He is also credited with some of the first uses of product placement marketing, as his escapes were often sponsored by local companies and merchants.
By the middle of the 1910s, Houdini was the highest-paid vaudeville performer in America. He became president of Marinka & Co, a magic supply company that still exists today. He also ran the Marinka associated Society of American Magicians for several years, which still pays tribute to him on the anniversary of his death each year.
His most famous escape is often considered to be the Chinese Water Torture Escape. In this stunt, he would be lowered, upside down and with feet locked in stocks, into a filled water tank. Several films have used this stunt as the means of his death, but in truth the water torture cell was not involved in any way.
The magician had several other passions throughout his career, including fascinations with early aviation and publicly debunking psychics. He often appeared in films and at one point ran his own production company, which quickly failed. His film contributions, though not popular during his life, were later honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
After Houdini’s sudden death in 1926, his grieving wife held a séance to contact him every year for ten years. Being unsuccessful, she eventually gave up the practice. Modern séances are still held each year by some magicians, in hopes of raising his spirit. Since his death, several films, TV movies and books have explored his life and character. Today, Houdini’s legacy lives on, with many of the modern great magicians citing his life as an inspiration to their own careers.