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Summary Article: Houdini, Harry (1874–1926)
from Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained

US magician and escape artist.

Harry Houdini was born as Erich Weiss in Budapest, Hungary. His family emigrated to the USA and he became a trapeze artist and magician, taking his stage name in honour of the French conjuror Robert Houdin (1805–71), whom he greatly admired.

However, it is as the world’s greatest escapologist (see escapology) that Houdini is celebrated. It seemed that no form of confinement could restrain him, and he successfully escaped from an ever more complicated and daunting series of restraints, including handcuffs, chains and shackles, and straitjackets. He made his feats even more impressive by performing some of them while hanging upside down or submerged in a tank of water and usually in full view of his audience, unlike many of his competitors who often worked behind a curtain.

In January 1906 he astonished the USA by escaping from the condemned cell of the jail in Washington, DC. Six years later he escaped from a packing case dropped from a ship into the East River, New York City. His fame became international when he toured successfully in England, Germany, Russia and Australia. In later years he also appeared in a number of films, both as himself and playing fictional characters.

How was Houdini able to bring off these sensational stunts? In common with other escapologists, he was extremely fit and had a physique that was both lithe and powerful. He was adept at flexing his muscles to their greatest size and expanding his chest to its utmost extent before being tied up or shackled. This would allow him a measure of space in which to manoeuvre once he relaxed his body.

Houdini was also skilled in secreting various aids on his person, such as small keys (which he was able to swallow and regurgitate at will), picklocks and thin metal shims for manipulating locks or catches. He also had the ability to temporarily dislocate various joints of his body, especially the shoulders, in order to wriggle free, and trained himself to be able to open locks with his toes.

He became interested in spiritualism, especially after the death of his mother, but, incensed at the frauds being perpetrated on a public eager to believe, he spent much of his time exposing the tricks used by fake mediums. This made him enemies, including the Scottish writer sir arthur conan doyle, a convinced spiritualist with whom he had previously been on friendly terms. According to Houdini’s wife, he told her that when he was dead, if there was an afterlife, he would find a way to communicate with her. After ten years without receiving any message from the beyond she apparently gave up waiting.

One of Houdini’s stunts involved inviting people to punch him in the stomach. He would then betray no reaction to even the most powerful blow. When he died of peritonitis, it was popularly believed that this was caused by being struck in this way before he could properly tense his abdominal muscles. However, in the opinion of most doctors his appendix had ruptured without the need for outside trauma.

Houdini’s fame was such that his name became proverbial throughout the English-speaking world for anyone who performed a remarkable feat of escape (‘to do a Houdini’).

© Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd 2007

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