By: Mayuri Chowdhury, The North-Eastern Chronicle
Visual by: Kunal Kaustav Duwarah
Harry Houdini was a Hungarian escape artist, illusionist and stunt performer. He was born in Budapest, the capital of Hungary in 1874. He was born as Erik Weisz in a Jewish family. His family moved to the USA in 1878 and lived in Appleton, Wisconsin. His mother was a homemaker and his father served as a rabbi of the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation.
Childhood and struggle
After his father lost his job at Zion, the family fell into extreme poverty. As a child, Houdini took up several jobs to make ends meet along with his parents and siblings. He made his public debut as a nine year old Trapeze Artist and started calling himself ” Ehrich, the Prince of the Air”. He was also a champion cross country runner in his youth.
Beginning of his career
He changed his name to Harry Houdini, named after the French magician Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, after his career as a magician was rising.Houdini started his career as a magician in 1891 and was crammered by the magician Joseph Rinn at the Pastime Athletic Club while he was in his teenage.
He had little success in the initial days of his career. He appeared in a tent act with Emil Jarrow who was a sleight of hand magician. He performed in dime museums and side shows and even doubled as “The Wild Man” at the circus. After all these shows he started experimenting with escape acts which later gave him all the fame.
Houdini was married to Bess who played a big role in his whole career as an Escape Artist. Houdini met his wife Bess while performing at Coney Island. Bess and Harry fell for each other at first sight. Bess got married to Harry secretly without letting her parents know.
After she got married she went to her mother to tell about her marriage but her parents didn’t accept the marriage as Harry was a jew.
She was disowned by her family for marrying a Jew. Harry and Bess lived together and she worked as his stage assistant for the rest of her life. In all his great stage escape acts Bess was his only partner and knew all his tricks to unlock himself.
Breakthrough in his career
His breakthrough in his career came in 1899 when he met his manager Martin Beck in Minnesota. He was impressed by his escape acts and advised him to concentrate only on escape acts. Within months, he started performing in the Orpheum Vaudeville circuit.
Between 1900 and 1920 he performed in theatres all over Great Britain. He performed escape acts, card tricks, and illusions thus becoming the highest paid entertainer. He also toured the Netherlands, Germany, France , Russia and became widely known as “The Handcuff King”.
Some of his famous escape acts
In each city he performed, he would challenge the local city police to obstruct him with shackles and chains and lock him in jail. Before locking him up, he was stripped naked and searched.
In 1904, the London Daily Mirror newspaper challenged Houdini to escape from special handcuffs. It was said that it took five years for the locksmith to make the lock. Houdini accepted the challenge for March 17, during a matinee performance at London’s Hippodrome theatre.
It was reported that around 4000 people and more than 100 journalists showed up to see the act. After an hour of dragging himself, he finally freed himself. The crowd of more than a thousand people cheered for him. He later said that it was the most difficult escape in his career.
Adaptation of shows
Houdini’s life,struggle,fame and glimpse of personal life can be seen in the adaptation of TV series “Houdini”. It was aired on the History Channel in 2014. Actor Adrien Brody played the role of Harry Houdini followed by Kristen Connolly who played the role of his wife, Bess.