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Happy Birthday, Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini, the world-famous illusionist and stunt performer, was born on this day in 1874 in Budapest, Hungary. His real name was Erik Weisz. His best-known acts involved escaping from impossible situations such as being chained upside-down in a tank of water.

Erik’s family emigrated to the US in 1878, where his father served as a rabbi in Appleton, Wisconsin (a place I know well, having attended college there.) When Erik got into the magic business he adopted the stage name “Harry Houdini” in honor of the French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin.

Houdini toured the world for over thirty years, becoming famous for escape stunts that were ever more difficult and dangerous, including being buried alive three times. Although critics accused him of faking his tricks, he maintained they were genuine, and suffered serious injuries doing some of these tricks. Ironically, he was a well-known debunker of mediums and spiritualists and their claims of communication with the dead. He was also fascinated with aviation and became an accomplished airplane pilot.

He published numerous books, starred in several movies and was the subject of many more. He even published his own magazine, called Conjuror’s Monthly. Recently there has been a spate of TV series and featuring him as a character, including NBC’s Timeless, Houdini & Doyle on ITV and Fox, and the History Channel’s Houdini miniseries.

Houdini was an amazing performer who showed how determination can propel a person of humble origins into worldwide stardom. Though I have not seen any of the recent Houdini shows, the series Timeless, which involves time travel and alternate history, sounds particularly intriguing.

Sources: wikimedia.org Photos: Photo from McManus-Young Collection, Library of Congress, 1899. Poster by B. A. Rolfe Productions, 1919

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