Legacy of Houdini

bound in chains

The man known as Harry Houdini is the most famous magician in history. Born as Erik Weisz on March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary, he emigrated to the United States at the age of four (an immigration officer changed the spelling to Ehrich Weiss). In the great tradition of show business, he reinvented everything about himself, renaming himself Houdini ("little Houdin") after Robert Houdin, the most famous magician of those days, and claiming to have been born in Appleton, Wisconsin.

Houdini struggled through his early years as a performer, trying many different kinds of magic before he turned his attention to escapes. Houdini's spectacular Challenge Escape act, in which he escaped from handcuffs offered by members of the audience, brought him worldwide fame. Houdini escaped from handcuffs, chains and shackles, strait jackets (while suspended upside down), jail cells, packing crates and coffins. With so much of the world in chains at the dawn of the twentieth century, Houdini's iconic appeal as a man who could not be confined thrilled millions, and he enjoyed a spectacular career in vaudeville and film before his untimely death on October 31, 1926.

Houdini is also well known for his involvement with spiritualism, a religious movement that swept America in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The central belief of spiritualism is that the spirits of the departed can communicate with the living through spirit mediums. In his early years, Houdini did some work as a spirit medium, using the deceptions of the performing magician to convey the illusion of contact with the spirit world. Later, following the death of his beloved mother, he embarked upon a career of exposing fraudulent mediums. Some say that he was motivated to do this by the bitter disappointment that he experienced when attempting to contact his departed mother through spirit mediums; the sophisticated Houdini easily saw through the cheap tricks used by fraudulent mediums. Others point out that Houdini was able to capitalize on the popular interest in spiritualism by performing spiritualistic material in his stage performances while taking a public stance against belief in mediumship.

Houdini seemed never to fully renounce belief in spiritualism, however. On his deathbed, he told a code word to his wife Bess. She was to regard any message from the spirit world as fraudulent unless it contained the code word. This started a tradition among magicians of attempting to contact the departed spirit of Harry Houdini in seances on or around Halloween, the anniversary of his death.

See photos of Dr. Wilson's straitjacket escape .

Houdini's headstone

You can read more about Houdini at:

Houdini Tribute: a huge site with everything you might ever want to know about Harry Houdini.
Houdiniana.com: The largest electronic archive in the World on Houdini!
Houdini: A Biographical Chronology: A summary by Joan F. Higbee, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress
Houdini Hisorical Center: A historical center in Appleton, Wisconsin, which Houdini claimed to be the town of his birth.
magictricks.com: a capsule biography with some photographs.

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