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Anniversary: Remembering the One and Only Harry Houdini

Dániel Deme 2023.03.24.

Handcuffs, prison cells, water-filled barrels, boxes driven out with nails, the greatest escape artist of all time had no problem breaking free from a Chinese water torture chamber either. The news portal hirado.hu is remembering Hungary’s famous son on the anniversary of his birth.

Harry Houdini, born Erik Weisz, was born on 24 March 1874 in Budapest, in the 7th district. Some say he tried to deny this, since after his rise to fame he himself spread the rumors that he was born in the United States of America. His family emigrated to the United States in 1878, when Erik Weisz was only four years old.

They settled in Appleton, Wisconsin. Houdini later called this town his birthplace, where he claims to have been born on 6 April 1874. His actual birth date was revealed in 1972 by The Houdini Birth Research Committee’s Report.

He started working as a young man to help his family in financial difficulties. He worked as a shoeshine boy, a newspaper delivery boy and in a tie factory. He spent his free time in libraries, reading books about magic tricks. He also ran, swam and cycled to strengthen his body.

Harry Houdini with his mother and wife circa 1907 (Photo: Wikipedia.org)

In 1891, he and his friend Jacob Hyman, whom he met in the tie factory, started doing magic as the Houdini brothers. The name Houdini was inspired by the French magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin. Jacob Hyman shared with him that by taking his mentor’s name and adding an “i”, as was the French custom, he was expressing his admiration for him. At home, Erik was often called Harry, and thus his stage name, Harry Houdini, was born.

They quickly caught people’s attention with their card tricks and mystical disappearances, but the Houdini brothers wanted more than just these magic tricks. From 1893 they were invited to more and more places, where Jacob was soon replaced by Harry’s real brother. Houdini increasingly tried his hand at freelance acts, performing mainly at police functions. His straitjacket stunt, from which he quickly freed himself thanks to his flexible body, was a particular success.

The Houdini brothers, Harry Houdini and Theodore Hardeen in 1901 (Photo: Wikimedia.org)

By the turn of the century, the 26-year-old Houdini was known as the “king of handcuffs”. By this time he had gained a national reputation, but it was not enough. He traveled to Europe in search of even greater recognition. His first stop was London, where he cleverly escaped from Scotland Yard’s handcuffs.

(Photo: Wikipedia.org)
In 1905, Houdini and his wife returned to the United States, where his sleight of hand was now specifically geared towards escape. He easily escaped from jail cells in Brooklyn, Detroit, Cleveland, Rochester and Buffalo, and even managed to free himself from the famous Washington, D.C. jail. He even jumped into the river with his hands in handcuffs, a stunt captured on film.

With interest growing and rivals emerging, he came up with an innovation in 1908. He handcuffed his hands behind his back and submerged himself in a sealed milk container filled with water, from which he also freed himself. One of his great feats was his escape from the Chinese water torture chamber, where he was tied upside down and hung in a giant metal glass tank filled with water and sealed from above. Houdini escaped in a matter of minutes, and it became one of his most famous tricks.

Houdini and the Chinese water torture chamber (Photo: Wikimedia.org)

The death of the great escape artist remains a mystery to this day. It is believed that he was giving a demonstration to McGill University students when he declared that his abdominal muscles were so strong that anyone could punch him in the stomach and he would be fine. After the performance, while in his changing room, one of the students took the opportunity to punch the artist in the stomach without warning him in advance. The blow caused his appendix to burst, and that is how he died. Others believe that he had a serious appendicitis, which he did not consult a doctor for.

Harry Houdini died on 31 October 1926 at the age of 52.

Via Hirado.hu. Featured Photo: Wikipedia

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