The Unmasking of Harry Houdini
Entertainment is a major part of our lives today. Most everything we do has some
sort of entertaining value to it. One of the most enjoyable activities that has been around
for nearly one-hundred years is the art of magic. Magic has been performed all over the
world and won't be declining any time soon. One of the greatest magicians of all time is
Harry Houdini born Erich (Ehrich) Weiss.
According to the The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Weiss was born in
Budapest, Hungary on March 24, 1874. However it also states that Weiss claims to have
been born in Appleton, Wisconsin, on April 6, 1874. Weiss grew up in Appleton, Wis.,
with his five brothers and parents. His father was a Rabbi born in Budapest. Weiss had
been born a natural entertainer. At the young age of nine he began going to the circus and
watching the different acts. Most people think of Houdini as an escape artist, but in his
early years he excelled at many talents. Lace Kendall tells that he began as a tightrope
walker. "Erich walked out onto the tightrope. Nimbly, he went through his performance.
As he bowed and then went from the tent he felt his heart would burst with joy as he heard
the applause. He was a real professional" (20).
Weiss learned his talent of unlocking doors, safes, and cabinets early also. Kendall
says that Weiss's mother would lock sweets up in a cupboard. This didn't do any good,
because he could unlock them all at the age of nine. If Weiss didn't succeed at magic he
could always go in to bank robbery.
When Erich was twelve years old, he ran away to New York so he could make a
living. This is where he acquired the name of Houdini. He often bought books and props
to further his knowledge of magic. He read of the famous French magician Robert-
Houdin. Kendall tells the story of how he gets his name. "He was a Frenchman, you said.
When you add an 'i' to a word in French it means 'like.' If you added an 'i' to the name
'Houdin' it would mean like Houdin. Houdini" (60).
Houdini's family moved to New York shortly after Houdini had. Once in New
York Houdini's brother Theo began to help in the acts. They were called the Houdini
Brothers. This however didn't last long. It was then he met a lady during one of his acts.
He spilled acid on her dress during an illusion. He replaced the dress and found his wife-
to-be too (Kendall 71). He married Wilhelmina Rahner who later changed her name to
Beatrice Houdini. She became Houdini's assistant.
The most frequent question asked about Houdini is how he died, even I was
misinformed. Before I read the book I often asked people who had seen him, how
Houdini died, and was told that it was during an act that he couldn't escape and he
drowned. This is couldn't be further from the truth. He was injured in an act. He
sprained an ankle. This brought on a chain of events. He developed appendicitis and died
of peritonitis a week later.
Near his death, Houdini became interested in spiritualism. He tried to
communicate with the dead, and he even developed "a series of coded messages by which
the first to die [he or his wife] would --if possible-- communicate with the other" (Grolier
Encyclopedia). This was the only time he would admit to experimenting with supernatural
phenomena. The Dictionary of American Biography says:
He was a superb trickster, not above using any means for deceiving the
public, but he always emphasized the fact that he never resorted to
supernatural phenomena for the accomplishment of his acts. A large part
of his success was the result of mere showmanship. (248)
This assures us that he was indeed a very talented man, who admitted that he had
no help from "the other side." What we as an audience saw was either pure skill or some
sort of mechanical device to aid him.
Houdini is one of the world's greatest magicians or as they now prefer to be called,
illusionists. He developed his own acts of escape and illusion, but there is another side to
him. He worked in vaudeville after becoming a professional magician and touring the
United States and Europe. Some of his unheard of achievements are best summed up in
his listing in the Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, "[Houdini] became an aviator and won
a