(March 24 1874 - October 31 1926)
Houdini was born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest, Hungary. Houdini started out in his career as a card magician, being known as 'The King of Cards'. However he soon started to experiment with escape acts. In 1899 he met his manager Martin Beck who immediately advised him to concentrate on escapology. Houdini soon made it big on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit and in 1900 Houdini set off to tour Europe. His reputation rapidly grew and he soon became known as "The Handcuff King". However his escape acts gradually became more elaborate as competition from imitators grew and audiences for his original escapes dwindled.
I remember as a boy watching a documentary about the life of Houdini and his famous performances and being fascinated by it. It is one of the reasons my interest in magic and escapology developed. It is no surprise that Houdini features in Magic Trick Secrets Revealed. Here are some of his more famous escapes.
Houdini's 'Mirror' Handcuff Challenge
The British newspaper, 'The Daily Mirror', issued a challenge to Houdini in 1904. He had to escape from a specially crafted handcuff that had taken a locksmith, Nathaniel Hart, five years to make.
With thousands present in the audience the escape went on for over an hour. Houdini came out from behind the screen that had been set up several times. At one point his wife came on stage and gave him a kiss. It is thought she passed on the key to the handcuff by doing so. Houdini went behind the curtain again and after seventy minutes emerged free from the cuffs. Houdini later acknowledged that this was the most difficult escape of his career.
Houdini's Milk Can
Introduced by Houdini in 1908, this escape saw him cuffed and sealed in a large milk can filled with water.The escape took place behind a curtain. Houdini adapted the act so that the milk can itself was locked inside a wooden chest which was also chained and padlocked. On occasions the milk can was placed inside another milk can. Houdini only performed this escape for four years but it is one of his best remembered escapes.
Houdini's Chinese Water Torture Cell
Probably Houdini's most famous escape of all, he introduced the Chinese Water Torture Cell to his act in 1912. Houdini was lowered upside down into a tank of water whilst his feet were fastened with stocks. The stocks were locked to the top of the cell which also had a glass front so audiences could clearly see Houdini as he was lowered in. Once again the escape took place behind a curtain and to this day, just exactly how he escaped remains a mystery.
Houdini's Straitjacket Escapes
Houdini favoured an escape which saw him strapped in a straitjacket and suspended upside down from a crane or tall building. On these occasions he would perform the escape in full view of the audience. Film footage exists to this day of one of these escapes.
Houdini's Underwater Crate Escape
First performed in 1912 in New York's East River, Houdini was encased in a crate with handcuffs and leg-irons. The crate was nailed shut, roped tight and then lowered into the water where it duly sunk (hundreds of pounds of lead weighed it down). Houdini escaped after just fifty seven seconds and when raised, the crate was found to be still intact with the cuffs inside. Houdini went on to perform this escape many times and on occasions performed it as a stage act using a huge water tank.
Houdini's first performance of this escape nearly ended in disaster. In 1917 he was buried in a pit six feet deep. There was no casing or crate for protection. The weight of the soil was almost too much for Houdini and he passed out with exhaustion trying to dig his way out just as his hand broke the surface. He was pulled to safety by assistants.
The second version was an endurance test. In 1926 Houdini remained in a sealed casket at the bottom of a swimming pool for an hour and a half. He claimed later that there was no trickery involved, or supernatural powers, just controlled breathing. The whole performance was designed to expose a performer, Rahman Bey, who claimed to have mystical powers. Rahman Bey had remained in such a casket for an hour.
The third and final version was due to see Houdini being strapped in a straitjacket, sealed in a casket and buried in sand. It is unclear whether he actually performed the escape in public. Posters advertising the escape exist but in October 1926 Houdini died from a ruptured appendix, probably before he had chance to demonstrate the escape.