The term ‘death defying” was undoubtedly epitomised by one man whose stunts and escapades are as thrilling today as they were 100 years ago. Harry Houdini still remains one of the most revered escapologists 85 years after is death, and today Google is celebrating his 137th birthday with a simple doodle.
Houdini was born in Budapest, Hungary on March 24th, 1874 and his real name was Erik Weisz. Despite his eastern European beginnings he chose America as his adopted home and from 1904 onwards assumed a new identity, claiming to have been born in Appleton, Wisconsin on April 6th, 1874.
Confusion was part of his life’s work and although best remembered for his incredible escape acts, Houdini was also an actor, and a debunker of scams and trickery in their many guises.
His career in magic began in 1891 and at first he was largely unsuccessful as he trawled his generic card trick act through dime museums, sideshows and circuses; audaciously lauding himself as “The King of Cards”.
After a few years he donned his new persona and with the aid of his brother ‘Dash’ he started experimenting with escapology. “The Houdini Brothers” had a regular spot at Coney Island which is where he met his sweetheart Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner who eventually replaced Dash as his stage assistant.
In 1899 Houdini got his breakthrough when he met Martin Beck who became his manager and promoter. After seeing Houdini’s impressive handcuff tricks he insisted he focus on those and drop the card tricks. Houdini explored more difficult escape acts and his most famous; the Chinese Water Torture Cell became a staple of his touring show.
After touring the UK he returned to America where he rose to prominence thanks to a six month residency at Alhambra Theatre where he never failed to wow audiences with his death-defying escapes.
After a few years of performing he wrote explanations of his tricks for the Magic Brotherhood which included references to dislocating his limbs, regurgitating keys and lockpicks, how to force locks by hand and controlled breathing exercises to stay underwater or buried for long periods.
[adsense]Houdini’s life ended in 1926 but it was not due to any of his stunts as was widely believed. He kept himself in top physical condition and as such believed that he could take a physical blow to any part of his upper body without injury; a theory that was put to the test by J. Gordon Whitehead, a McGill University student who quizzed Houdini about his claims before repeatedly hitting him in the abdomen.
Eye witnesses at the time said, “Houdini was reclining on his couch after his performance, having an art student sketch him. When Whitehead came in and asked if it was true that Houdini could take any blow to the stomach, Houdini replied groggily in the affirmative. In this instance, he was hit three times before Houdini could tighten up his stomach muscles to avoid serious injury. Whitehead reportedly continued hitting Houdini several more times and Houdini acted as though he were in some pain.”
Houdini died of Peritonitis from a ruptured appendix as a result of the damage caused by Whitehead’s blows.
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images: laist.com; vintageculture.net