Posted by: Prospector PJ28 OCT 2009
Harry Houdini, the most celebrated magician and escape artist of the 20th century, died on this day, 31 October, in 1926. He was born Erik Weisz in Budapest in 1874, one of seven children of a rabbi. The family emigrated to the US when Erik was four years old.
He made his public debut on the trapeze at the age of nine and later became a professional magician, calling himself Harry Houdini after the French magician Jean Robert-Houdin.
Houdini’s early career was unremarkable until in 1899 he met manager Martin Beck, who persuaded him to concentrate on escape acts. In 1900 Beck arranged for Houdini to tour Europe. Here the escapologist made his name, escaping from handcuffs at Scotland Yard and surviving being dunked handcuffed into the River Seine in Paris. By the time he returned to America in 1905 he was the highest paid vaudeville entertainer in Europe.
Houdini escaped from devices including sunken packing crates, padded cells, coffins, a preserved giant squid and a plate glass box. He introduced his famous escape from a giant padlocked milk can filled with water in 1908.
His most famous act was the Chinese water torture cell, introduced in 1912. In this act Houdini was suspended upside down in a locked glass and steel cabinet full of water, requiring him to hold his breath for over three minutes before he could escape.
Houdini explained some of his tricks in books written for the magic brotherhood. He revealed how many locks and handcuffs could be opened with properly applied force or with shoestrings. Sometimes he carried concealed lock picks or keys that he could regurgitate at will. When restrained in ropes or straitjackets he gained wriggle room by enlarging his shoulders and chest, moving his arms slightly away from his body, and dislocating his shoulders.
Briefly fascinated with aviation, Houdini bought a plane in 1910 and made the first flight over Australia. But he never flew again.
He presented the world’s largest illusion in 1918, making an elephant disappear from a stage suspended above a swimming pool.
Houdini starred in two Hollywood films before starting his own film production company. Neither his acting career nor his production company were successful and he gave up on movies in 1923. But his celebrity was such that he was still given his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
After his mother died he turned his attention towards disproving psychics and mediums, using his magic training to expose frauds. In 1926 he testified before a US congressional committee investigating spiritualists.
On October 22, 1926 a university student asked to punch Houdini in the stomach, repeating a stunt often performed on stage. But Houdini did not have chance to tense his stomach muscle and his appendix was ruptured. He died just over a week later.