Harry Houdini

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Harry Houdini, 1920

Harry Houdini (born March 24, 1874 as Erik Weisz in Budapest , Austria-Hungary , † October 31, 1926 in Detroit , Michigan ) was an American escapologist and magician of Hungarian origin.

Live and act

Childhood and youth

Harry Houdini was born in 1874 as the son of the Jewish soap maker Mayer Samuel Weisz (1829-1892). When he was four years old, his family moved from Hungary to Appleton ( Wisconsin ) and later to New York , where they eventually finally settling. In the United States, the family changed the spelling of their name to “white”. Erik called himself from then on "Ehrich". At 17 he began to perform as a magician and for the first time gave himself the stage name Harry Houdini - the first name "Harry" based on the famous magician Harry Kellar , the surname "Houdini" in homage to his role model Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin , a French magician. Although he had two older brothers, his father told him on his deathbed to "always be there for the mother". This oath drove him from then on. In 1893 he married the German-born variety dancer Wilhelmine Beatrice "Bess" Rahner . For many years she acted as his stage assistant and was particularly known for her rapid swap of places with Houdini ("Substitution Metamorphosis"), who was locked in a box and still part of the standard repertoire of the grand illusionists.

Harry Houdini (about 1898)

Circus years

Houdini Disappears an Elephant (1918)

In their early years as artists, the Houdinis toured in traveling circuses, appeared in sideshow and dime museums as clairvoyants and sold miracle tinctures for a fake doctor. Houdini had his first breakthrough in 1895 with an unleashing trick with a handcuff, adapted by fraudulent spiritualists , which he showed in the police headquarters of a small town. He publicly offered a prize for those who gave him a bondage from which he could not escape. He increased this show in 1898 with a press appointment in a Chicago prison, which earned him a small tour of the west coast. He could not repeat his respectable success on the east coast.


Penniless and with no prospect of engagement, the Houdinis tried their luck on a tip from his magician colleague Thomas Nelson Downs in 1900 in London, where German variety theaters became aware of his unleashing performance. What was new about Houdini's show was that he was actually able to escape from any bondage made available to him and let himself be tied naked by experienced police officers under test conditions for advertising purposes. An engagement in Dresden was such a sensational success that his next engagement in the Berlin Wintergarten Varieté was sold out just because of the press releases . In the Dresden suburb of Kötzschenbroda , Houdini tried to meet the magician Wiljalba Frikell , but only met the man who had just died. For press events, Houdini had expanded the suspense of his unleashing number by performing it at risk of death, for example in rivers under water. Since then he has toured with the most famous German circus companies such as Circus Busch and Circus Corty & Althoff . Houdini quickly became one of the most famous show stars in Europe and also enjoyed great success in Russia. For years, however, his most important market remained Germany, which celebrated him enthusiastically in all kinds of publications.

United States

With clever advertising measures, Houdini succeeded from 1906 onwards to inspire an audience in North America as well. Because of the First World War , the German market failed completely for him. In the meantime he had discovered the straitjacket , which allowed for even more dramatic unleashes, for example hung upside down on skyscrapers. In addition to his unleashing numbers, Houdini tried again and again as a magician. Unlike most of his colleagues, he did not rely on humor and charm, but presented the effects in a screeching and uninspired way. Houdini's rustic demeanor worked for the role of the escape artist, but not for that of a magician. After several setbacks, he finally realized the lavish show "Cheers up" in the New York Hippodrome , which had a water basin in which he could unleash himself underwater. Houdini showed the underwater unleashing, which originally began in rivers, on stage, otherwise in a gigantic milk can and later in the legendary "Chinese water torture cell". Houdini became famous for the disappearance of an elephant in Times Square , which became "invisible" in a box constructed by Charles Morritt.


Houdini became friends with Arthur Conan Doyle , who was an avid supporter of the rising spiritism movement. Like many others, Doyle Houdini's seemingly inexplicable breakout skills were esoteric miracles and got into an argument with Houdini, who denied having real magical powers.

Houdini then made the fight against fraudulent spiritualists his life's work and advised the US Congress interested in the investigation and clarification of ghost phenomena . Houdini became a member of a committee of the science magazine Scientific American , which had announced a cash prize for those who could demonstrate supernatural abilities in front of this jury - a prize that, thanks to Houdini, was never awarded. The bitter controversy surrounding the ectoplasm- producing medium Mina "Margery" Crandon , which several committee members believed to be genuine, made headlines . Houdini infiltrated spiritualist societies with informants, had fraudulent spiritualists spied on by detectives, took part in séances in disguise and gave numerous lectures on them. He made the education about spiritualist tricks a regular part of his shows, which made him a lot of enemies in the flourishing spiritualist guild. In his book Miracle Mongers he revealed the common tricks of the fakirs , spiritualists, fire-eaters , sword-swallowers and power artists, which he knew from his early days as an artist. Houdini was an expert often consulted by journalists when reporting fraudulent spiritualistic methods used by impostors.

The Society of American Magicians announced under the presidency of Houdini that it would be able to demonstrate any effect demonstrated by a spiritualist in an analogue and convincing manner. Houdini worked his achievements in this regard in his reveal book A Magician Among the Spirits . In the following years he convicted well-known spiritistic necromancers of fraud, which the press regularly took up.

Other services

Harry Houdini in his Voisin Standard (1910)

Houdini patented several lock picks as well as a diving suit that was originally intended to escape from a box that was to be sunk in the water. He was also interested in aviation, which had just emerged, and in 1910 he undertook the first controlled powered flight on the Australian continent with a Voisin biplane , for which he was awarded a prize by the Australian Aeronautic League in 1910 . In addition to his career as a magician, Houdini produced some silent films in Hollywood in which he played himself, but without long-term success. Houdini now owned New York’s legendary Martinka’s magic shop and became president of the Society of American Magicians . Houdini developed a passion for collecting everything that was somehow related to sorcery and magic.

He was a Freemason and was apprenticed in New York City on July 17, 1923 at St. Cecilie Lodge No. 568 initiated , promoted to journeyman on July 31, 1923 and promoted to master craftsman on August 21, 1923. On October 30, 1923, he became a lifelong member. He later became a member of the Shriners' non-profit Mecca Shrine Temple in New York City.

Houdini's death

Houdini rivaled fakirs who showed extraordinary body control and withstood death threats. So Houdini broke the record of a fakir to survive in a locked coffin for as long as possible without air supply. Houdini copied the show from one of these fakirs, claiming that he could survive any blow to the abdomen by tensioning his abdominal muscles unscathed. These tests were not part of his show, but he hardly missed an opportunity to prove his skills.

The student Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead visited Houdini on October 22, 1926 in Montreal in his cloakroom. According to eyewitness reports by students Jacques Price and Sam Smilovitz, Whitehead is said to have given Houdini several powerful blows in the stomach. Allegedly, he didn't give Houdini enough time to prepare for the blows. Houdini had suffered from abdominal pain several days earlier, but did not see a doctor. The beating made his condition worse and prompted Houdini to see a doctor who was diagnosed with acute appendicitis . However, Houdini did not cancel his next and final performance at the Garrick Theater in Detroit on October 24, 1926. He was then taken to Grace Hospital. There he died after two operations on 31 October 1926. The doctors diagnosed the cause of death a perforation of the appendix into the abdominal cavity ( "appendicitis crack") and resulting peritonitis . However, the lawyers of Houdini's widow attributed his death to the beatings, which doubled the death toll on Houdini's life insurance. Houdini was buried in a bronze coffin that he had just had built for a fakir trick (crematory illusion) in the Jewish cemetery Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York .

In March 2007, Houdini's great-nephew George Hardeen announced at a press conference that there was a legal motion to exhume Houdini and have him examined for traces of poison because one of the attending physicians, who supported both alternative medicine and spiritualists, allegedly injected an unknown preparation should. Houdini's other descendants opposed the exhumation in a joint letter to the Houdini Museum in Pennsylvania . It then turned out that the press conference was a staged promotional event by authors William Kalush and Larry Sloman for their joint book, The Secret Life of Houdini , which speculates on the theory of poisoning. An application for exhumation had not been submitted to the designated court.

Houdini's legacy

Houdini continued his fight against spiritualists, so to speak, even in death. a. agreed a code (Rosabell, believe) with his wife Bess. The code word comes from Bess' song "Rosabelle". For ten years, Bess invited various spiritualists to the séance on Halloween . It was thought that Houdini's spirit would communicate this code to a “real” medium, and Bess would thus know that she had actually communicated with her deceased husband. The necromancer Arthur Ford managed this sensation until it turned out that he was having an affair with the financially and psychologically troubled Bess. The US wizards meet every year on the anniversary of Houdini's death to receive a message that Houdini originally intended for Doyle - so far in vain.

Over time, the name Houdini has become a synonym for "escape" ("to houdinize") in everyday American language. His myth as the invincible Superman qualified him as an idol for generations of Americans.

Houdini material is very popular with collectors. An auction of various Houdiniana at the American house Potter & Potter brought the record total of 310,000.00 US dollars.


Houdini was seen as an extremely contradictory choleric, was extremely obsessive and jealous of potential competitors, with whom he dealt uncompromisingly. He was also extremely fixated on his mother, whose death threw him off course. He countered the childlessness of his marriage with a large number of letters to his wife, who was often only in the next room, in which he “told” her about the development of a fictional son. Houdini was intrigued by the subject of death and extensively studied murderers. He himself was terrified of death, but always presented himself as daring to die. Houdini's bizarre quirks and show ideas have been the subject of numerous psychological publications.

Relationship with the Herrmann family

There is a by-marriage relationship with the successful magicians from the international Herrmann family . The first wife of Houdini's father was a first cousin of Compars Herrmann's first wife Rosa Herrmann-Csillag . Houdini's father and Compars Herrmann were friends, even if they didn't make this public for business reasons. Houdini himself was a second cousin of the opera singer Blanche Corelli , daughter of Compars and Rosa Herrmann, with whom he exchanged letters for many years.


  • Handcuff Secrets Exposed.
  • The right way to do wrong.
  • Dr. Wiljalba Frikell Still Alive. In: Mahatma. Ed. 6, No. 11, New York, May 1903, p. 126.
  • The unmasking of Robert-Houdin. In: The Publishers Printing Co. New York 1908 ( online version ).
  • Miracle Mongers.
  • A Magician Among the Spirits.
  • Houdini on magic. Dover Books, New York 1976, ISBN 0-486-20384-0 .

Acting career



  • 1919: The Master Mystery
  • 1919: The Grim Game
  • 1920: Terror Island
  • 1922: The Man from Beyond
  • 1923: Haldane of the Secret Service


  • 1921: The Soul of Bronze
  • 1923: Haldane of the Secret Service

Screenwriter / producer

  • 1922: The Man from Beyond

Music revue

  • August 22, 1918 to May 17, 1919: Everything to / from RH Burnside. Hippodrome Theater. 461 performances.


Houdini has a place in the Hall of Fame for the Society of American Magicians .

In addition, he has had a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (Film category) since 1975 (7001 Hollywood Boulevard).


  • Adam Begley: Houdini: the elusive American , New Haven: Yale University Press, [2020], ISBN 978-0-300-23079-6
  • Don Bell: The Man Who Killed Houdini . Véhicule Press, Montreal 2004, ISBN 1-55065-187-0 .
  • Ruth Brandon: The life and many deaths of Harry Houdini . Pan Books, London 2001, ISBN 0-330-48780-9 .
  • John C. Cannell: The Secrets of Houdini . Dover Books, New York 1973, ISBN 0-486-22913-0 .
  • David Jaher: The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World . Crown, Penguin Random House, New York 2015, ISBN 978-0-307-45106-4 .
  • William Kalush: The Secret Life of Houdini . Pocket, London 2006, ISBN 1-84739-082-X .
  • Jason Lutes: Houdini: King of the Handcuffs graphic novel . Carlsen, Hamburg 2008, ISBN 978-3-551-77963-2 .
  • James Randi : Conjuring. Being a definitee account of the venerable arts of sorcery, prestidigitation, wizardry, deception & chicanery and the mountebanks & scoundrels who have perpetrated these subterfuges on a bewildered public . St. Martin's Press, New York 1992, ISBN 0-312-09771-9 .
  • Robert Rau: Houdini, Moretti & Co. The best tricks of the great sensational actors. Knaur-TB 77429, Munich 1999, ISBN 3-426-77429-1 .
  • Maurice Sardina: Where Houdini was Wrong . Armstrong Edition, London 1950.
  • Kenneth Silverman : Houdini !!! The career of Erich Weiss, American self-liberator, Europe's eclipsing sensation, world's handcuff king & prison breaker . Harper Collins, New York 1996, ISBN 0-06-016978-8 .
  • Kenneth Silverman: Notes to Houdini !!! 1996.
  • Jim Steinmeyer: Hiding the Elephant. How magicians invented the impossible and learned to disappear . Carroll & Graf, New York 2003, ISBN 0-7867-1226-0 .

Fiction films and series about Houdini


In October 2014, a musical about the life of Houdini was premiered at Theater Hof , with Chris Murray in the lead role.

Web links

Commons : Harry Houdini  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ↑ Escape Artist Houdini The Man Who Walked Through Walls
  2. Houdini - Playing with Death. Documentation. Production: ZDF Terra X, 45 minutes
  3. a b William R. Denslow, Harry S. Truman : 10,000 Famous Freemasons from A to J, Part One . Kessinger Publishing, ISBN 1-4179-7578-4 .
  4. So when do we start digging? (Sunday March 16, 2008) Article on www.houdini-lives.com
  5. auction result
  6. ^ Houdini & The Herrmann Connection. Retrieved April 1, 2013.
  7. ^ Madame Corelli's Letters from Berlin. Retrieved April 1, 2013.
  8. theater-hof.de
  9. chris-murray.de