No Escape from Death
October 31, 1926: Erik Weisz dies. He was born on March 24, 1874 in Budapest and changed his name to Ehrich Weiss before becoming Harry Weiss and then eventually settled on his stage name, Harry Houdini. The Hungarian-American illusionist and stunt performer was best known for his sensational escape tricks. His father, a rabbi, moved the family to the US in 1878. They first lived in Appleton, Wisconsin and Rabbi Weiss (the family changed the spelling to the German convention on their move) obtained US citizenship in 1882. After losing his position in Wisconsin, the family moved to New York City. Locals, mispronounced Ehrich as Harry and the young boy adopted the name. He made his professional debut at the age of nine as a trapeze artist.
Harry became a professional magician and took the name Houdini from the French magician, Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin after reading the Frenchman’s autobiography. After more research, Houdini learned his idol was a liar and published The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin in 1908. Houdini’s career as a magician was not very successful and so he began experimenting with escape acts. While performing with a brother at Coney Island in 1893, he met his future wife and dumped his brother as his partner and put his wife on the stage with him, instead. They got their big break in 1899 when they met manager Martin Beck who was impressed with Houdini’s handcuff stunts. With a manager helping secure venues, the Houdinis were soon playing in the top vaudeville houses in the country.
His fame and fortune spread. In each city on tour, he would challenge the police to restrain him and would escape from whatever system of shackles they possessed. He traveled the world, escape after escape, stunning all those paying customers. He freed himself from jails, handcuffs, chains, ropes, and straitjackets. Others soon took up the craft and so Houdini moved on to escaping from a locked, water-filled milk can. Failure would mean death and this brought in more paying customers. Ever more elaborate contraptions were built to contain the great escape artist. Challenges were arranged with local merchants in one of the first uses of mass tie-in marketing and so he would, for example, escape from barrels of beer.
While it was true that he was challenged by J Gordon Whitehead to accept blows to the stomach, this does not seem to be the actual cause of death. Houdini was struck several times while reclining on a couch (he had broken his ankle days before) and then stopped the younger man. He performed that evening. Two days later, he was diagnosed with acute appendicitis, but refused surgery. The appendix ruptured and he developed peritonitis. He died from the infection on this day. His last words, “I’m tired of fighting.” He was 52 at the time of his death. He is buried in New York City and each year, a broken wand ceremony is held at the gravesite.
Flames from the lips may be produced by holding in the mouth a sponge saturated with the purest gasoline.
My professional life has been a constant record of disillusion, and many things that seem wonderful to most men are the every-day commonplaces of my business.
Only one man ever betrayed my confidence, and that only in a minor matter.
I think that in a year I may retire. I cannot take my money with me when I die and I wish to enjoy it, with my family, while I live. I should prefer living in Germany to any other country, though I am an American, and am loyal to my country. – all from Harry Houdini
Also on this day: “I’m just a patsy” – In 1959, Lee Harvey Oswald in Moscow, vows to never return to the US.
Shooting Shooters – In 1912, the first gangster film was released by DW Griffith.
Hot, Hot, Hot – In 1923, a heat wave began in Marble Bar, Australia.
95 Theses – In 1517 Martin Luther posted his Disputation on the church door.