“I am a great admirer of mystery and magic. Look at this life – all mystery and magic.” – Harry Houdini, Magician, Escape Artist, & Actor, 1874-1926
Harry Houdini's Humble Beginnings
The year is 1906. A young escape artist known as Harry Houdini — or simply Houdini — slides along with the Detroit river current, beneath a sheet of ice. Having jumped from the Bell Isle Bridge, through a freshly hewn hole in the ice, bound and locked performer finds himself slipping towards death just as his name is gaining worldwide fame. However, a man such as Houdini, for which the world has produced very few, is trained to figure his way out of such precarious situations in the flick of an eye. He feels no fear. Finding ever so often a small air bubble rising to the surface, he carefully presses his lips to the ice and gulps in a mouth full of air, dives down and looks up to see if there is any evidence of a hole for his escape. Four minutes pass. Five. Six. Seven. Atop the bridge, Detroit newspaper reporters are already rushing to tell the story: Houdini is Dead.
After eight minutes Houdini spots something in the water. Feeling his way towards it, he finds the rope which was supposed to be ready for him minutes before. With his last ounce of strength he pulls himself free from the water and to the surface. The water was deathly cold, but now the frigid air shocks his body. Men rush to enfold the blued swimmer in towels.
In a hotel room downtown the escape king’s wife, Beatrice, hears the call of the newsboys on the streets: “Extra, extra! Read all about it! Houdini dies in river stunt!” She had feared this day would come. Nursing a bad cold, Beatrice (Bess) asks a friend to fetch the newspaper. When she returns, rather than the paper, she presents a man, blue-lipped, hair dripping, and smiling.
The story above is one of the most well-known and fascinating escapes Houdini ever recounted. Unfortunately, there is a very good chance it is not at all true! No newspaper accounts from November 27, 1906 record either a frozen river or the death of Houdini. However, it is reported that he jumped from a bridge into the water, bound and shackled, which was no doubt very cold, but later embellished the story as one might expect from a performer whose sole living is made through trickery. That areas of his life are still such a mystery is one of the many things that makes Houdini such an interesting man, and makes him our first #ManOfTheMonth.
- Each month we pick a man of history we find particularly interesting and write an article or two about him. See more Man of the Month articles here. -
Ehrich (Harry) Weiss
By the age of 9, Ehrich — sometimes called Ehrry or Harry — Weiss was enchanted with the circus and its performances. When Jack Hoefler’s Five Cent Circus played Appleton, Wisconsin, young Weiss talked his way into becoming part of the act. He hung upside down on a trapeze, picked up pins with his eyelids, and walked a tight wire with a balancing pole, a trick he had taught himself along the fence at home. Along with his brother, Theodore (Dash) — who would later become a magician in his own right known as Hardeen — the boys were too prone to physical action to sit still in a classroom. Both brothers became obsessed with performance and magic, but it was Harry who led the charge.
Locks and Handcuffs
Harry took small jobs as a self-made locksmith around the age of 10. Working for a luggage company he would study the locks and pick them for customers who had lost their key. He followed so closely on the heels of the local locksmith that the man finally took him on as his apprentice.
One day, the local sheriff brought in a massive, sinister-looking brut. Having no official charge against the man they intended to set him free, but had lost the key to the old, heavy iron cuffs. Harry went to work with an iron file for some time, but as soon as the men’s backs were turned, he pulled out a wire and started picking the lock. Within a few moments the cuffs fell off and the man ran out.
Weiss quickly realized that handcuffs were made for temporary detainment and were no more complicated than the luggage locks he had picked many times before.
I’ll be Back in a Year
“Dear Ma, I am going to Galveston, Texas, will be home in about a year. Your truant son, Ehrich Weiss” – Harry Houdini, age 11
At the age of only 11, Harry stole away to meet his destiny. For a period of time he performed magic tricks on street corners and saloons that had free lunch counters. Before too long he joined up with a traveling circus which is where he really became an expert in escaping from handcuffs.
Still known as “Eric the Great, Handcuff King“, Houdini found that most handcuffs could be open with a standard set of keys. If that didn’t work, a sharp rap on the cuffs would usually work. Harry’s wrists had become strong, stronger than most men’s, so when officers or audience members tested the strength of the cuffs they could only discover impossibly strong steel. To the soon to be Houdini, they were defeated with a strong twist.
As Houdini’s fame began to spread, people from all around came to test out the “Handcuff King” with cuffs of their own invention, and sometimes those from his rivals which were gaffed to prevent unlocking. The custom cuffs were dispensed with easily enough. Harry would simply put on a few sets of known-escapable cuffs around his wrist leaving the custom-made devices around the upper and wider part of the wrist or forearm. Once his cuffs were off, the ones on the forearms could be slid down and over the hands with only a little loss of skin.
To deal with the unlockable cuffs which began to appear more frequently by his opponents, Houdini would simply ask for a demonstration of the cuffs being locked and unlocked to show they were in working order.
After a good while traveling and perfecting his act, Ehrich began to make enough money to help support his family. Rather than moving back to Appleton, he decided to make New York his home and wrote his family to ask them to join him. They did, and soon the Weiss family was reunited.
Becoming the Great Houdini
Though he had some popularity forming, “Eric the Great, Handcuff King” was only a stepping stone to something greater. Having settled in New York, Harry soon discovered the free books at the public library and of course took particular interest in everything related to magic and performing. He soon came across the Davenport brothers, masters of tricks involving ropes and ties, which had become an almost lost art; one which he hoped to revive.
He found that the secret to escaping from ropes was to create a small amount of slack in the rope. Initially, Harry tried this out the hard way, by being tied up time and again with everything from ropes to bed sheets. He soon discovered that he could hold a bight (a bend) of rope in his hand as it was being wound around him. So strong were his arms and his grip that no pulling or tightening by the audience members could free it. Once the curtain was dropped — or likely a sheet — he would release the bight and the rope would slacken.
At the age of 16 Harry not only had a unique act of card tricks and rope escapes, but he also found his name. He came upon a book on the memoirs of Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, the French “father of modern magic.” The story was everything Harry wanted to be. After being told by a friend that adding an “i” at the end of a French word meant “like”, he became The Great Houdini. Keeping the alliteration of his first name, “Harry”, he began performing as Harry Handcuff Houdini. The legend was born.
Houdini had a truly remarkable life. Living during the time of Manifest Destiny, Tesla, Theodore Roosevelt, and WWI, he captured the spirit of amazement in a world full of great change.
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