Myths hold to `Handcuff King' Houdini 75 years after death


Mystery: Tales of spiritualism, a popular movie, his own prevarications and feats he never explained created an allure that survives him.

November 03, 2001|By Chris Hutchins | Chris Hutchins,COX NEWS SERVICE

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - It seems morbid, celebrating a death day. Commemorating the anniversary of a person's death is such a downer. "Happy Death Day To You" just doesn't have the same ring, does it?

But it seems appropriate, somehow, to celebrate Harry Houdini's death day. The man who captivated audiences by taunting Death - who was buried alive several times, and escaped - died 75 years ago, on Oct. 31, 1926.

Halloween. Somehow, that seems appropriate, too.

Houdini was the best. Before David Copperfield, before David Blaine, there he was: climbing into a milk can filled with water, its lid riveted on after Houdini had squeezed inside; slipping out of a straitjacket while hanging from his ankles, upside-down, above city streets; escaping from his glass-walled Chinese Water Torture Cell.

He didn't die during an ill-fated final escape, as many people believe - the 1953 Tony Curtis flick Houdini perpetuated that rumor.

Houdini died at Grace Hospital in Detroit, from complications caused by a ruptured appendix. Nine days before his death, a college student had punched him in the stomach.

A blow to the stomach wouldn't normally hurt Houdini; he was known for challenging strong men to punch him in the abdomen, after he had tensed his muscles.

But, on Oct. 22, 1926, Houdini wasn't ready when the kid socked him. Houdini was lying on a couch in a dressing room at Montreal's McGill University, not prepared. Some reports say the student, J. Gordon Whitehead, punched Houdini three times. It ruptured his appendix.

Houdini died nine days later, from peritonitis (an inflammation of the lining of the abdominal cavity). He was buried in New York, in Machpelah Cemetery in Queens.

Many know about Houdini's great escapes. You might not know about his humble beginnings.

Houdini's real name was Erich Weiss. He was born March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary, not in Appleton, Wis., as he often claimed. (Houdini once told a magazine reporter, "The greatest escape I ever made was when I left Appleton, Wisconsin.")

His family came to America when Erich was 4. His father, Mayer Samuel Weiss, was a rabbi. The family soon moved to Appleton; it has been reported that Mayer Weiss established the city's first synagogue.

When Erich was 13, he and his family moved to New York City. Here, he discovered the art of sleight of hand. Eric the Great, as he called himself, did card tricks. A book, The Memoirs of Robert Houdin, by one of the era's most successful illusionists, further inspired him.

He changed his name to Houdini, an homage to the French illusionist. The first name, Harry, was an apparent adaptation of his own nickname, "Ehrie."

Houdini called himself "The King of Cards" at first, performing card tricks at carnivals. He and his brother Theo performed at amusement parks, schools and beer halls. He wowed audiences at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893.

He met and married Beatrice Rahner in 1894, and they performed together as "The Houdinis." One of their illusions was the "substitution trunk." Houdini would invite members of the audience onstage. He would borrow a jacket from a volunteer, and allow another to tie his hands behind his back and then tie him inside a cloth sack.

He'd climb into a trunk, which would be locked and bound with ropes. Beatrice would pull a curtain to obscure the trunk from the audience, then step behind the curtain. About three seconds later, Harry would step outside.

Beatrice would be found, in the bound-and-locked box, inside the large sack, hands tied. And, of course, she'd be wearing the jacket.

It was a remarkable illusion - but the Houdinis were still struggling. They made a bad investment in a burlesque show, "The American Gaiety Girls." He opened a school of magic in Chicago, but that folded, too. From 1897 to 1899, the Houdinis traveled throughout the South and Midwest. He drew publicity when he escaped from a prison cell in 1899, but after a few bookings in San Francisco, that good fortune began to dry up, too.

But things changed when he met Martin Beck, a vaudeville booking agent who signed him to perform with his Orpheum circuit vaudeville act. Beck's advice: Lose the card tricks, and concentrate on the illusions and escapes. Especially the escapes.

"The Card King" quickly became "The Handcuff King."

As their popularity was blossoming, the couple took a chance. They moved to England. It could have been career suicide: Here was a 26-year-old Yank (now specializing in escape artistry) and his wife - complete unknowns, no contacts, no friends.

In July 1900, Houdini performed a handcuff escape act for the manager of the Alhambra Theatre, one of London's largest music halls, and immediately received a contract.

A year later, he was topping bills all over Europe. Word spread back to the States. When Houdini came back to New York in 1905, he had no trouble finding work.

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