One of the biggest celebrities of the 20th century, Harry Houdini wowed Jazz Age audiences with his daredevil escapes and mystifying illusions. Though he died at the height of his career, Houdini left a lasting legacy and inspired every magician who came after him. But magic was just one rabbit in the Great Houdini’s hat. Here are 42 magical facts about Harry Houdini.
Harry Houdini Facts
42. The Great Hardeen
Houdini’s brother, Theodore Hardeen (né Ferenc Weisz) was also an escape artist. Though he was a talented showman in his own right–he was the first to come up with the idea of escaping a straightjacket while underwater and in full view of an audience–he was nowhere near as successful as Houdini, and was often billed as “The Brother of Houdini.”
41. Here’s the Upside
Houdini’s most impressive escape may have been his escape from the limitations of copyright law. Houdini’s most famous trick, in which he would escape, upside-down, from a tank of water, was such an integral part of his act that he wanted it copyrighted. However, he had it registered as a one-act play called “Houdini Upside Down” so he could copyright it, thereby prohibiting anyone else from using the trick. Wonder if he’d want to get in on Stranger Things today.
40. “Harry Houdini”
Though he was born Erik Weisz, Houdini claimed he adopted the stage name Harry Houdini in honor of two magicians, Harry Kellar and Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. Houdini was under the false impression that the suffix -i at the end of name meant “similar to” in French; hence, he would be “Harry, the Houdin-like.”
39. “‘Handcuff’ Is My Middle Name!”
When Houdini registered for military service in 1918, he listed his name as Harry Handcuff Houdini.
38. Track Star
Houdini was a star athlete in his youth. He practiced boxing, gymnastics, and was even a champion cross-country runner–maybe. After medalling in a citywide competition, Houdini was asked to be photographed for a newspaper; Houdini agreed, but first ran to a local store and bought a handful of old medals, claiming he’d won them.
37. Unmasking Robert-Houdin
In 1902, Houdini travelled to France to meet and interview the family of Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. They treated him indifferently and denied him permission to visit Houdin’s grave. Years later, Houdini wrote a book, The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, denouncing his former idol as a fraud.
36. Son of the Rabbi
Houdini’s father, Mayer Sámuel Weisz, was a rabbi. As leader of the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation, Weisz was the very first rabbi in Houdini’s hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin.
35. The Prince of Air
Houdini got his start at age nine as a trapeze performer; he was billed as “Ehrich, the Prince of Air.”
34. The Brothers Houdini
Early in his career, Houdini had a partner. He and Jacob Hyman billed themselves as “The Brothers Houdini.” Hyman was soon replaced by Houdini’s actual brother, Hardeen, who was then replaced by Houdini’s wife Bess under the name “The Houdinis.”
Houdini started out performing card tricks and simple illusions. Most other magicians found Houdini’s sleight of hand unimpressive; Houdini agreed and moved on to escaping handcuffs. Before long, however, other performers started copying his handcuff tricks, forcing Houdini to invent ever-more complicated and dangerous escapes.
32. The Assassin’s Den
Houdini frequently escaped prison cells. The most notable of these was his escape from the prison cell that held Charles Guiteau, the man who killed president James A. Garfield. Houdini escaped that cell in just 18 minutes.
31. Secret’s Out
When he was far along in the handcuffs game–and several imitators had sprung up in his wake–Houdini released a book called Handcuff Secrets that revealed how to perform many of the most common handcuff tricks. In many cases, he explained, it’s just a matter of applying force to specific parts of the handcuff.
30. An Un-beer-able Stunt
In 1911, a beer company hired Houdini to break out of a can of their beer as an advertising stunt. Houdini had to be rescued, however, when the combination of alcohol and carbon dioxide from the beer overcame him, making him disoriented and unable to finish the escape.
29. The Home of Houdini
Houdini would claim to have been born in Appleton, Wisconsin. He was, in fact, born in Budapest, Hungary. He and his family didn’t arrive in Appleton until Houdini was four years old, and they then moved to New York a decade later.
28. In the Belly of a Whale
Houdini even escaped a sea creature! When a marine animal (no one is quite sure if it was a whale or something else) washed ashore in Boston Harbor, Houdini was invited to try to escape. The always-game Houdini was shackled and sent in through the mouth, where, despite nearly passing out from the fumes, he emerged just 15 minutes later.
27. Till Death Do Us Part
Houdini is buried in Machpehla Cemetery in Queens, New York. When his wife Bess died, she was buried in Westchester, 10 miles away, because she wasn’t Jewish.
26. Hair’s the Thing
There was no great secret to Houdini’s escapes. In many cases, Houdini would have access to a key or a lock-pick. Sometimes, these were slipped to him by an onstage assistant or hidden somewhere on stage, but more often Houdini kept them himself. He could swallow and regurgitate keys, and grew his bushy hair out to hold keys better.
25. A Big Trick
While he was most famous for his escapes, Houdini was also a gifted illusionist. His biggest trick–literally–was making Jennie, a five-ton elephant, disappear. Houdini performed the feat at the New York Hippodrome in 1918. Houdini had got the trick from his friend, the English magician Charles Morritt. Morritt performed the trick on a significantly smaller scale however: he worked with a donkey.
24. King of Handcuffs
In one feat, Houdini was challenged to break out of a pair of custom-made, never-before-seen, state-of-the-art handcuffs. The handcuffs had taken locksmith Nathaniel Hart five years to design and construct. Houdini escaped in under an hour.
23. A Safe Bet
Houdini once sued a policeman in Cologne, Germany who claimed Houdini relied on bribes for his jailbreaks. To settle the matter, the judge ordered Houdini to break into a safe in the judge’s office, which Houdini did easily, thereby winning the lawsuit in astounding fashion. Later, Houdini admitted that the absent-minded judge simply forgot to lock the safe.
22. Movie Mogul
One would think Houdini’s magic skills would translate perfectly to the big screen. In 1919, Houdini decided to try his hand at pictures, releasing the movie The Master Mystery. The film was a massive success, prompting Houdini to start his own film production company.
21. The Robot
The Master Mystery was the first film to feature a robot.
20. Escape From Hollywood
Sadly, Houdini’s next two movies, The Man From Beyond and Haldane of the Secret Service did poorly at the box office. His production company collapsed, and Houdini nearly lost his shirt. Houdini decided the quit the movie industry and stick to magic.
19. Stop the Presses
In 1906, Houdini started his own magazine, Conjurer’s Monthly. While he hoped it would prove to be a competitor to the more established magic magazine The Sphinx, readers were put off by Houdini’s self-aggrandizing and constant attacks on his rivals. Conjurer’s Monthly ran for just two years before it ceased production.
18. Setting up Shop
For a time, Houdini ran Martinka and Co., the legendary magic shop where the Society of American Magicians was founded. First opened in 1877, Martinka and Co. is still in business today.
17. Fraudulent Fortune-tellers
While Houdini made his fortune fooling people, he took serious issue with “spiritualists” who claimed they could put people in contact with their dead loved ones or read fortunes. Houdini offered a reward of $10,000 to anyone who could prove they held such powers–debunking many frauds in the process–and even testified before US congress, advocating to have such schemes outlawed.
16. Blue in the Face
In 1926, Egyptian magician Rahman Bey set a world record by locking himself in a metal casket and remaining underwater for over an hour. Bey attributed the feat to his “supernatural powers.” Houdini didn’t buy it. Soon after, Houdini performed the same feat, besting Bey’s record by half an hour. When he returned to the surface, he calmly explained the principles of controlled breathing and went on his way.
15. Sorry, Sherlock
Houdini’s anti-spiritualism crusade made him a lot of enemies and even cost him a good friend. Houdini was pals with Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle. But Doyle was a firm believer in spiritualism and would often attend séances. He and Houdini could never get over their disagreement on the topic.
14. Putting His Stamp on History
In 2002, the US postal service honored Houdini with a commemorative stamp. Houdini appeared on the stamp in a regular suit. A hidden image of Houdini bound in chains could be revealed, however, with the help of a special decoder sold by USPS–a fitting tribute to the master of illusion.
13. Master of Horror
Houdini was an accomplished author, writing many books. He wasn’t afraid, however, to outsource this work to someone more qualified. On multiple occasions he hired horror legend H.P. Lovecraft to ghost-write suspenseful short stories, or articles debunking spiritualism, astrology, and the like. The two were even attempting to write a book together called The Cancer of Superstition, but Houdini passed away before the project could be completed.
12. Mr. President
Founded in 1902, the Society of American Magicians is the world’s oldest magicians’ club. Houdini joined and soon rose through the ranks to become their president, a role he filled from 1917 until his death in 1926.
11. Schoolmaster of Illusion
Late in his career, Houdini tried to open a magic school, going so far as to mail out a 16-page advertisement. The Harry Houdini School of Magic never really got off the ground and Houdini abandoned the project, apparently without teaching a single class.
10. Escaping Gravity
True to death-defying form, Houdini was an early aviation enthusiast, and he owned his own private Voisin plane.
9. Harry the Spy
Houdini’s daring escapes, sleight of hand, and charm would have made him a very successful spy. According to authors William Kalush and Larry Sloman, Scotland Yard thought so, too. Based on a journal left by British spymaster William Melville, the authors claim that Houdini’s career served as the perfect cover as he met with–and stole secrets from–adoring heads of state and wealthy elites.
8. Buster Booster
Houdini played a big hand in another big star of the early 20th century making a name for himself. In fact, Houdini gave him his name. While travelling with the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company, Houdini witnessed six-month-old baby Joseph Keaton take a nasty fall; the fall prompted Houdini to remark, “oh, that was a real buster.” And so, Buster Keaton was born.
7. A Real Punch in the Gut
Houdini often boasted that he could withstand any punch. After one show in Montreal, Canada, a local college student wanted to test the claim, and punched Houdini in the belly without giving the magician time to properly prepare.
6. Harry’s Final Act
Many people incorrectly believe that Houdini was killed by this sucker punch, which is said to have ruptured his appendix. While the story itself is true, the punch may not have been what killed him. Houdini continued to give performances for several days after, choosing to ignore a bout of appendicitis that had been ailing him even before his Montreal show, and it is still unclear if blunt trauma can cause or exacerbate appendicitis; instead, the punch may have merely masked the pain of his appendicitis. He eventually succumbed to peritonitis, a complication of his ruptured appendix, on October 31, 1926. Although he reportedly had hope for recovery, his last words were allegedly, “I’m tired of fighting.”
5. What’s the Password?
Despite Houdini’s efforts to debunk spiritualism and séances, he and his wife Bess did have an agreement just before he died that if there was any way he could cross over, he would try to contact her. They even had a code word, “Rosabelle.”
4. Anybody There?
After Houdini’s death, Bess held yearly séances, every Halloween, for a decade. She never received a message, and eventually gave up, saying “ten years is long enough to wait for any man.” Others have kept up the tradition, however, and take to their Ouija boards every Halloween, hoping to spell out “Rosabelle.”
3. Close Call
Of all Houdini’s death-defying escapes, the closest he ever came to actual death was during a trick performed in Santa Ana, California, in 1915. Houdini was buried alive, without a casket. Normally, a casket offered him a reserve of air and kept the crushing weight of the earth off him. In an uncharacteristic show of fear, Houdini began to panic, wasting energy and air, swallowing dirt as he tried to call for help. Houdini’s hand broke through the surface just as he lost consciousness.
2. Closely Guarded Secrets
While Houdini took great delight in debunking spiritualists and frauds, he went to desperate, even violent, measures to protect the secrets of his own magic act. Hired assistants would carry chloroform to “deal with” any audience members who tried to sneak backstage.
1. Remembering Houdini
Every year, members of the Society of American Magicians gather at Houdini’s grave in Machpehla Cemetery to hold a “Broken Wand” ceremony.