Harry Houdini is, far and away, the most famous magician and escape artist in world history. Like Shakespeare, Babe Ruth, Elvis and the Beatles, he is the undisputed number one in his field. But Houdini, beside being a gifted artist, was also a very fascinating person who lived an amazing life. Okay, let's take a look at a few things you may not have known about the one and only Harry Houdini.
He was a man of many names.
Houdini was born Erik Weisz to Jewish parents in Budapest, Hungary. He changed his name to Erich Weiss. His friends called him “Ehrie,” which inspired his Americanized first name “Harry.” He changed his surname to “Houdini" in honor of legendary magician Robert Houdin. Houdini's other stage names include “Eric the Great,” “The King of Cards,” and “Eric, Prince of the Air.”
Early performance and abilities.
One of Houdini's early performances was escaping from being sewed up inside the belly of a whale. In another early gig, he was billed as "the wild man.” Clothed in a loincloth, Houdini was locked in a cage and ate raw meat.
Houdini was ambidextrous and could manipulate cards easily with both hands. He would practice card tricks over and over without looking at the cards, while casually talking with friends. He also could calmly untie knots repeatedly with his feet.
Houdini’s first public performance.
Fascinated with magic at an early age, Houdini’s first performance was at the age of 9. He picked up pins with his eyelids while hanging upside-down. Admission was 35 cents.
He gave Buster Keaton his nickname.
When young vaudevillian Joseph Frank Keaton fell down a flight of stairs as a little boy, Houdini witnessed the event. “That was some buster your son took,” he told Keaton's parents. From that day on, the boy's nickname was “Buster" Keaton.
Houdini was fascinated by death.
Houdini bought the first electric chair, Edgar Allan Poe's desk, and performed many of his stunts on Death Row. He also developed a strange interest in murderers, especially John Wilkes Booth. He developed a huge interest in Spiritualism after his mother's death. He tried desperately to contact her from "the other side,” but was unsuccessful.
After he had tried many Spiritualists, he developed a passion for exposing their fakery. Although he himself thought Spiritualism was fakery, his friend, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle thought Houdini actually was contacting the dead without realizing it.
He married Bess Rahner two weeks after meeting her.
Harry and Bess always referred to each other as “Mr. Houdini" and “Mrs. Houdini". He wrote bess hundreds of love letters during their 30-year marriage, often when they were in the same room. Whenever they had a fight, Houdini would leave and go for a walk. When he returned home he'd toss his hat in the room, if bess threw it back, she was still angry.
He and Bess had an imaginary child.
The Houdinis never had any children. Why?
One speculation is that Houdini was x-rayed many times by his brother (New York's first X-ray specialist) and the radiation made him sterile. To make up for this, they invented an imaginary son. They called him “Mayer Samuel Houdini”; he was named after Houdini's father.
Over the years, Houdini wrote many letters to Bess on Mayer's progress. The letters stopped after mayer "became president of the United States".
Houdini was a great pilot.
In 1909, six years after the Wright Brothers’ legendary flight, Houdini became fascinated with airplanes and flight. He was taught to fly in Ggermany, on the condition that he would teach German pilots once he was qualified. He deeply regretted this, as many of his students became German fighter pilots in World War i.
Houdini made the first ever flight across the continent of Australia. He honestly believed that he would be remembered to history as a great pilot, not a great magician.
He was a very patriotic American.
Houdini emigrated to America and loved the country deeply. He actually "changed" his true birthplace from Hungary, telling people he was actually born in Appleton, Wisconsin. In 1917, he volunteered to fight for America in World War i, but was rejected because of his age (44).
He was a tough boss.
Houdini was a strict and demanding boss with a volatile temper.
One of his aides' main jobs was to chloroform any overly eager customers at his shows who showed up backstage. If they showed up, they would be chloroformed and left lying unconscious elsewhere. Houdini demanded an intense loyalty from his assistants and made them sign a loyalty oath. He is allegedly the only performer ever to go to such lengths.
Houdini could really hold his breath.
Houdini could reputedly hold his breath for a full three minutes. He had a extra large bathtub installed in his home and would practice holding his breath in it.
He was an avid book collector and reader.
Houdini loved books and had a personal collection of over 5,000 volumes. He hired a librarian to maintain his collection and took hundreds of books with him on tour.