Harry Houdini was a Hungarian- American illusionist, iconic magician and escape artist whose most difficult stunt entailed escaping from handcuffs that took a locksmith 5 years to build. He first attracted notice as ‘Harry Handcuff Houdini’ on a tour of Europe, where he challenged police forces to keep him locked up.
Soon he extended his repertoire to include chains, ropes slung from skyscrapers, straitjackets under water, and having to hold his breath inside a sealed milk can. He was born Ehrich Weisz (American immigration officials changed Weisz to Weiss) in Budapest, Hungary on March 24, 1874.
As a child, Ehrich Weiss took several jobs, making his public début as a nine-year-old trapeze artist, calling himself ‘Ehrich, the Prince of the Air’. He began his magic career in 1891. He performed in dime museums and sideshows, and even doubled as ‘The Wild Man’ at a circus. Houdini focused initially on traditional card tricks, even billing himself as the ‘King of Cards’.
In 1904, thousands watched as he tried to escape from special handcuffs commissioned by London’s Daily Mirror, keeping them in suspense for an hour. Another stunt saw him buried alive and only just able to claw himself to the surface, emerging in a state of near-breakdown.
While many suspected that these escapes were faked, Houdini presented himself as the scourge of fake magicians and spiritualists. He was quick to sue anyone who pirated his escape stunts.
In 1912, Houdini introduced perhaps his most famous act, the Chinese Water Torture Cell, in which he was suspended upside-down in a locked glass-and-steel cabinet full to overflowing with water. Houdini made several movies, but quit acting when it failed to bring in money.
He was a keen aviator, and aimed to become the first man to fly a plane in Australia. He died at the age of 52 of peritonitis, secondary to a ruptured appendix, on October 31, 1926 with more than 2,000 mourners in attendance in New York C ity.