The Great Escape Artist Harry Houdini

2020.11.27.

Born Ehrich Weisz in Budapest in 1874, he was one of six children. His father was a Rabbi, Mayer, and his other's name was Cecilia Steiner. Two years later, the father was to emigrate to the US, following the dream of a better life. He quickly found work as a rabbi and to cement the new life, changed his surname to Weiss. In 1876, the rest of the family followed.

The Early Years

As a young boy living in Milwaukee, Ehrich polished shoes and sold newspapers to help support his family. At the age of nine, he made his first stage appearance performing a trapeze act. He called himself " Elrich; The Prince of the Air". This helped develop his life-long love of the stage and at the age of twelve, he ran away from home and disappeared for over a year. What he was up to during this time isn't recorded, but he did eventually return home and took work as a messenger, necktie cutter and photographic assistant. It was around this period of time, that the young Elrich and his brother Theo began to take an interest in stage magic.

On Becoming Houdini

Looking for a stage name, Weiss became "Houdini", as that was the name of his idol, the French magician, Jean-Eugène Robert Houdin. The "Harry" is more or less a direct translation of his own name, "Elrich". Now the seventeen year old Harry Houdini set off to find fame and fortune. A few years later he could be found performing small acts across New York. He later married and joined the circus, where he was able to polish and perfect his escape act.

Putting On The First Shows

As time passed, so did Houdini's fame grow. At first he specialized in escaping from police handcuffs and prisons. He even received various certificates for his prison escapes fro the wardens themselves. He worked alongside his younger brother, Ferenc Dezső Weisz, and the two were known as "Hardeen". Showing a keen eye for marketing, the brothers pretended to be arch enemies in order to drum up some drama and gain attention. After making it big in the US, it was time to conquer Europe. Here he expanded his act to include straight jackets and coffins. Within a relatively short period of time, Houdini realized his dream of having a whole show dedicated to his unique talents.

Tricks Become More Complex

Houdini invented all nearly all of his tricks. Though when he was starting out and seventeen years old, Houdini did purchase a trick called "Metamorphosis". This trick involved people changing places within a locked trunk. But of his own tricks, he trained himself with inventiveness and diligence. Only four of his assistants knew how the tricks worked, with one of those being his wife, Bess-Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner. None of them ever spoke with the press or anyone for that matter, and as a result, even today the mechanics of his tricks are still unknown. We do know that he could hold his breath for over four minutes and he regularly practiced in his private pool. Bess and Houdini called themselves Monsieur and Mademoiselle Houdini, Mysterious Harry and LaPetite Bessie, or The Great Houdinis.

A Man Of Many Talents

A the money came in, so did his business interest increase. Remembering his days as a photo assistant, he started a film processing lab called "The Film Development Corporation". He also acted in his own movies, a 15-episode serial titled The Master Mystery. He also starred in The Grim Game (1919), and Terror Island (1920) for which he was to receive a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. He is also credited to be the first man to fly over Australia. (Though this has since been debunked). An interest in the occult and a fascination with spiritualism, saw him debunking many mediums and psychics. He wrote a book about his time spent investigating the occult, called "A Magician Among The Spirits". Because he was trained in stage magic, he was able to expose many frauds which the layman or scientist had missed. Funnily enough this led to a breach with one of his best friends, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the famed creator of fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. Houdini had no time for so called spiritualist, where as Holmes was a true believer in Mina “Margery” Crandon, one of the best-known mediums of the day.  

The Element Of Danger

Having all these locks to undo, and all within a certain time period, meant that Houdini needed a clever place for hiding the lock-picks. Many of his escape acts allowed for him to be searched for any hidden objects. He most commonly stored essential items in his thick and wiry hair. Another favorite space was to hide a small pick in the thick skin under the soles of his feet. Though his act was built around handcuffs and Metamorphosis, in 1907 he expanded his repertoire with never before seen death defying stunts. The first took place in Rochester in New York, where, with his hands tied behind his back, he jumped into the Hudson River. A year later, he introduced an even more dramatic trick. Known as the "Milk Can Escape", he was locked inside a milk can which was then filled with water. 

Chinese Water Torture

Putting drama and theater together was to prove a massive hit for Houdini and his fame was now world wide. Four years later, he came out with the amazing, "Underwater Box Escape". In front of a huge audience, Houdini was handcuffed and chained, put inside a box, locked in and then ceremoniously thrown into the river Hudson. Emerging moments later, the magazine Scientific American called his feat  "one of the most remarkable tricks ever performed." Later that same year Houdini showed off yet another new trick, this time at the Circus Busch in Berlin. This one was called the "Chinese Water Torture Cell Escape." For this he was handcuffed, and shackled. Then lowered head first ie upside down into a tall glass container filled to the brim with water. A curtain was pulled in front, and but moments later a wet but happy Houdini would appear.

Accidental Death

At the age of 52, Harry Houdini died. He was asking people to hit him as hard as possible in the abdomen. Unfortunately, one member of the public who took him up on this offer, didn't wait for Houdini to tighten his abdominal muscles. As a result, the blow from university student J. Gordon Whitehead, ruptured his appendix. Houdini continued to travel, but eventually succumbed to peritonitis, and died on October 24, 1926.

At ExitTheRoom, we don't go in for tying up the customers and suspending them upside down in a tank of cold water. Of course, if you're a hardened escape room fanatic, then you can always ask. Maybe that'll be the next fashion in escape room games. The fact that you have to free yourself before you can start on the actual clues. Sounds like a winner!
 

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