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Today in History: Master Illusionist Harry Houdini is Born

On this day, more than 138 years ago, one of the most notable and famous illusionists in history was born. Let us look back at the fascinating and magical life of master magician and escape artist Harry Houdini.

Harry Houdini. Photo via Magic Library.

Born as Erik Weisz, the future magician was born on March 24, 1874 in Budapest, Hungary, and was one of the seven children of Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weisz and Cecelia Weisz (nee Steiner). When he arrived in the United States in July 1878 with his mother and four brothers, the family changed their surname into its German counterpart “Weiss” and his name into “Ehrich.” They first settled in Appleton, Wisconsin, then, in 1887, Ehrich moved with his father to New York City. The rest of the family moved in with them soon after Rabbi Weiss found a permanent housing.

Beginning his life of magic and entertainment at a young age, he debuted as a 9-year-old trapeze artist called “Ehrich, the Prince of Air.” In 1891, he pursued a career as a professional magician, heavily influenced by French magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin. Thus, “Harry Houdini” was born.

Houdini with his “Two Sweethearts,” his mother and his wife. Photo via Amerikai Nepszava

He began as a small-time performer in dime museum and did sideshows, and even became a double for “The Wild Man” in a circus. Among his earliest acts were traditional card tricks, and once, called himself the “King of Cards.” However, it did not take long for him to experiment with escape acts, which eventually he became known for.

Gaining increasing popularity from his escape art as the “Handcuff King,” Houdini accepted challenges to free himself from shackles, handcuffs, ropes, chains, jails, and straitjackets, often as he hanged from a rope for all his audience to see. His escape acts would often begin with a thorough strip search. Another notable act was his escape from a Siberian prison transport van in Moscow.

In the early 1900s, Houdini began entertaining audiences with acts even more daring than his handcuff escapes, due to rising number of imitators. He started escaping from all sorts of outrageous and even insane captive mediums: locked milk cans filled with water, barrel filled with beer, nailed packing crates, mail bags, riveted boilers, and even the belly of a whale that was washed ashore.

The Chinese Water Torture Cell. Photo via Wikipedia

In 1912, the master magician introduced what was perhaps his most notable act: the Chinese Water Torture Cell. This extreme escape act involved Houdini suspending upside-down then lowered into a glass tank full to overflowing with water. The restraint that holds his ankles is locked afterwards to the top of the cell.

Despite his life-threatening career, it was not any his daring acts that led to his demise. On October 24, 1926, he passed away due to peritonitis from a ruptured appendix. According to speculations, it was caused by surprise multiple blows to Houdini’s abdomen, which a university student delivered before the magician could prepare himself to avoid serious injury.

Now, in celebration of the master illusionist’s birthday, let’s take a look at some more of the photographs that detail his fascinating career:

written by plasticpopsicle

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