Harry Houdini began his career at 17, doing small magic shows with his brother in music halls and sideshows. By 1895, Harry and his new wife, Beatrice Raymond, had joined the Welsh Brothers Circus where they sang and danced and performed a trick called "metamorphosis", in which they switched places in a locked trunk. During this time, Houdini worked on his voice and showmanship and most important to his career, became an expert at handcuffs. This expertise in escape would allow Houdini to become an international superstar.
With each arrival in a new town, Houdini would offer $100 to anyone who provided handcuffs he could not escape, including the local police. He never had to pay the $100. His easy escapes provided excellent publicity for his shows and he quickly became a headliner, playing in large cities across the country. Observers across the country gathered to see Houdini when he came to town, mesmerized by his ability to seemingly escape any restraint.
Harry's popularity spread throughout the United States and in 1900, he and Beatrice took their show to England. Though they arrived with no bookings and only $100, Houdini garnered popularity in Europe after successfully breaking free from a pillar, while handcuffed in Scotland Yard. To further increase publicity, he began to jump into rivers while handcuffed and chained. Allowing the suspense to build, Houdini would often remain underwater long after observers believed he could survive, only to rise up, waving the chains above his head. These stunts worked and Houdini's fame spread quickly throughout Europe, leading to sold out engagements.
In 1905, after returning to the United States, Houdini's popularity continued to grow as he performed more and more daring feats. He escaped from a prison cell, freed himself from a straitjacket while hanging upside down and broke free from a packing crate that was nailed shut and immersed underwater.
Houdini was able to perform these feats by keeping in excellent physical and mental health. He installed an over-sized bathtub in his house to increase his lung capacity and to practice being underwater for long periods of time. He trained himself to use his right and left hands with equal skill and would continually perform card and coin tricks without looking at his hands, in order to refine his skill. Houdini would even practice tying and untying rope knots with his feet. Determined to remain a popular and relevant entertainer, Houdini continually worked on his techniques and created new and more daring escapes.
Houdini's early career began in New York beer halls and theaters. Performing for the most part in dime museums, on platforms next to snake charmers, fire-eaters and human oddities, Harry and his brother Theo traveled as far west as Chicago, where the "Brothers Houdini" performed during the 1893 World's Fair. Though word of their talent was spreading, the Houdini's were still struggling financially. As a result, Harry took a job with a traveling medicine show where he pretended to go into a trance and worked as a false medium where he would walk to the front of the stage, close his eyes and pass on messages from the dead. In his later years, Harry would feel so guilty about this that he dedicated his time to debunking these false mediums and psychics.
Harry began his career as a famous escape artist with a trick called "Metamorphosis." In this trick, an assistant, and then later his wife, was placed into a locked box and then switched places with the magician within seconds after a curtain was raised. Harry and his wife Bess played for 26 weeks in 1895 with the Welsh Brothers Circus. Harry also spent his free time pursuing his hobby: handcuffs. He discovered that almost all handcuffs could be opened with a single key or piece of bent metal. He read every piece of information that he could find on locking mechanisms and began collecting different kinds of cuffs and keys, taking them apart and studying their mechanisms. Eventually, Houdini would make go from town to town making a show of escaping not only standard police handcuffs, but also any "trick" handcuffs brought by spectators. At this point, Houdini became known as "The Handcuff King".
Houdini continued his career of escape by introducing the straitjacket escape into his routine. After obtaining a straitjacket and weeks of practice, Houdini was ready to try the trick on stage. He was buckled in, carried to a cabinet and then placed behind curtains. He had gained some slack by holding his crossed arms rigidly as the sleeve straps were fastened. Straining every muscle, a little at a time, he forced one sleeve and then other over his head. Then, he opened the straps with the pressure of his fingers through the canvas. He twisted, turned, and finally squirmed free. He threw off the restraint and burst through the curtains to take a bow.
As the Houdini's fame spread throughout the United State, Harry and Bess became eager to travel abroad. Houdini and Bess sailed for England where Harry had to convince a club manager that he could escape from handcuffs at Scotland Yard before the manager would give him his first British contract. Harry was successful in his escape and in July 1900, he opened at the Alhambra Theater in London and then traveled to the Continent, where he set new box-office records in Dresden and Berlin. Within a year, Houdini was the most popular attraction in Europe.
When Houdini returned to America he found that his fame in Europe had been widely told at home and he was soon selling out theaters all over the country. During this time, Houdini introduced his escape from a padlocked water can at the Columbia Theatre in St. Louis in January 1908, now known as the "Chinese Water Torture" trick. On January 7, 1918, Houdini introduced the biggest illusion ever staged at the New York Hippodrome, or anywhere else. He called it the "Vanishing Elephant". As a result of this new trick's popularity, Houdini's engagement was prolonged to 19 weeks, the longest that Houdini had ever played.
Houdini made his first movie for the French movie company, Pathé in 1901. Titled Merveilleux Exploits du Célébre Houdini à Paris, it was used to showcase Houdini's famous escapes, including his straitjacket escape. Houdini returned to film in 1916 when he served as a special-effects consultant on the Pathé thriller,The Mysteries of Myra. While his magic career soared, Houdini signed a contract with B.F. Rolfe of Octagon Films, in 1918, to star in a movie serial called The Master Mystery. Harry signed on to portray Quentin Locke, an undercover artist for the Justice Department, who uses his expertise as an escape artist to solve crimes. During this serial, Houdini's character would be buried alive, tied to the bottom of an elevator shaft, suspended over boiling acid and strapped to an electric chair. The film was a success and Harry made his first Hollywood feature film, The Grim Game, in 1919. While filming an aerial stunt for The Grim Game, two biplanes collided in mid-air with a stuntman doubling as Houdini dangling by a rope from one of the planes. Publicity promoted this "caught on film" moment, claiming it was Houdini himself dangling from the plane.
His second film, Terror Island, was made soon after the first. Harry became confident in his movie making abilities and he formed Houdini Picture Corporation where he wrote, produced and starred in movies such as The Man From Beyond and Haldane of the Secret Service. He also started up his own film laboratory business called The Film Development Corporation using a new process for developing motion picture film. Houdini's brother, Hardeen, left his own career as a magician and escape artist to run the company. Neither Houdini's acting career nor FDC found success, and he gave up on the movie business in 1923, noting "the profits are too meager." However, years later, Houdini did receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
By 2007, only The Man From Beyond had been commercially released on DVD with incomplete versions of The Master Mystery and Terror Island released by private collectors on VHS. Complete 35 mm prints of Haldane of the Secret Service and The Grim Game exist only in private collections. In April 2008, Kino International released a DVD box set of Houdini's surviving silent movies and five minutes of The Grim Game. The set also includes newsreel footage of Houdini's escapes from 1907 to 1923.
Scene From Haldane and the Secret Service
In the 1920s, after the death of his mother, Houdini began focusing his energy on debunking psychics and mediums. Although he eventually focused on proving these people to be fakes, his initial entry into the world of the supernatural began when he attempted to contact his dead mother. However, he found that the mediums he met were often frauds. He began investigating their methods and claims and later became a self-appointed crusader against them. He knew he could duplicate their methods on stage and it was not long before his efforts to reach his mother became secondary to his need to expose the frauds. Ashamed of having masqueraded as a medium during his medicine show days, Houdini began making notes for a book. However, to prove that he did have an open mind, the magician made a pact with his friends that when he died, he would make contact, if at all possible, from the other side. He devised a secret code with his wife Bess so that only she could divine the legitimacy of the message.
During personal appearances to promote his moves, Houdini would project slides of various mediums and denounce their supposed supernatural abilities. He would also answer questions about false mediums in various newspapers throughout the country. Though he continued to perform, Houdini spent most of his time focused on exposing what he called "vultures who prey on the bereaved." In fact, Harry would often attend séances in disguise in order to gather evidence, then leap up, tear off his disguise and reveal how the fraud was committed. Like so many of his illusions, these activities received extensive coverage from the press.
In 1923, he took time off from his magic act to travel across the country giving lectures against mediums. His book, A Magician Among the Spirits, would be published the following year. Later in 1923, Houdini joined a panel that was put together by Scientific American Magazine, which offered a reward for any medium that could prove their psychic gifts were genuine. Months after joining the committee, Houdini heard the committee had deadlocked over a medium named Mina Crandon. He immediately set out to debunk Crandon by attending one of her séances, at the end of which he is said to have remarked, "I've got her; all fraud." To prove it, Houdini created a special "fraud preventer" cabinet, a crate with a slanted top with openings for the medium's head and arms. The second séance, this time using the cabinet, was not successful and Crandon did not receive the cash prize.
In the fall of 1925, Houdini opened a new full-evening show that included his debunking of psychics and mediums. In every city along his route, Houdini offered $10,000 to anyone who could exhibit supernatural phenomena that he could not mirror. The shows sold out all over the country. In the spring of 1926, he returned to New York with the intention of spending the summer months relaxing and devising new mysteries for his fall season. It was during this tour that the show began to be plagued with problems and mishaps and ended with Houdini's death.
First, Bess became ill with ptomaine poisoning. Then, a chain slipped during Houdini's famous Chinese Water Torture Cell escape and Harry fractured his ankle. Finally, Houdini received an unexpected punch to the abdomen, which eventually led to his death at the age of 52. Not long after his death, the "Houdini Séances" began with Bess Houdini offering $10,000 to anyone who could help contact her husband. In 1928, a man named Arthur Ford announced that he had received a message from Houdini himself. After reviewing the message, Bess Houdini validated the message as one that indeed used the code shared between her and her husband.
Bess continued to hold séances to contact her husband, but the last official séance was held on October 31, 1936. This final séance was covered by radio and broadcast all over the world. The medium called out to Harry to make himself known. However, after over an hour, nothing had occurred and Mrs. Houdini decided to "turn out the light" on her attempts to contact Harry. As the séance came to an end, a violent storm broke out full of thunder and lightening and drenching everyone involved. The participants would later learn that the storm did not occur anywhere else in the area; only above the séance location.
On the afternoon of October 22, 1926, two McGill University students visited Houdini's dressing room. According to reports, Houdini was looking through his mail, when one of the students, J. Gordon Whitehead, asked Harry if he could indeed withstand any blow to the abdomen, as the magician had previously proclaimed. Harry responded that he could, if given time to brace himself, at which point Whitehead hit Houdini four times in the abdomen, under the impression that Houdini had indeed braced himself for the blows. Throughout the evening, Houdini performed in great pain. He was unable to sleep and remained in constant pain for the next two days, though he did not seek medical help. When he finally saw a doctor, Harry was found to have a fever of 102 degrees and acute appendicitis. He was advised to go to the hospital for immediate surgery. However, Harry decided to complete his show as planned that night.
By the time Harry arrived on stage, his fever had risen to 104 degrees. He was tired and in pain and his assistants often had to step in and offer help. Audience members reported that Harry missed his cues and seemed in a hurry. By the middle of the third act, Houdini asked his assistant to lower the curtain as he could not go on. When the curtain closed, Harry collapsed where he was standing and had to be carried back to his dressing room. He continued to refuse medical care until the next morning when Bess insisted he go to the hospital. Harry relented and had his appendix removed, however it had already ruptured and doctors did not have much hope for his survival. On October 31, 1926 surrounded by his wife and brother, Harry Houdini died.
Houdini's funeral was held on November 4, 1926 in New York with more than 2,000 mourners in attendance. He was buried in Queens New York at the Machpelah Cemetery with the crest of the Society of American Magicians inscribed on his grave. In fact, the Society continues to hold its "Broken Wand" ceremony every November at Houdini's gravesite. Bess Houdini died in 1943 but was not allowed to be buried alongside her husband as she had requested, because she was not of Jewish descent.