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Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini (March 24, 1874 - October 31, 1926) was the stage name of Ehrich Weiss, one of the most famous magicians, escapologists and stunt performers[?] of all time.

Houdini was born on March 24, 1874 in Budapest, Hungary. In 1878, his family emigrated to the United States. At first, they lived in Appleton, Wisconsin, where his father, Mayer Samuel Weiss, served as rabbi of the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation. After losing his tenure, Mayer moved to New York City with Ehrich in 1887, where they lived in a boarding-house on East Seventy-ninth Street.

In 1891, Ehrich became a professional magician, and began calling himself Harry Houdini as a tribute to the French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin (he would make Houdini his legal name in 1913.) Initially, his magical career met with little success, though he met fellow performer Wilhelmina Beatrice (Bess) Rahner in 1893, and married her after a three week-long courtship. For the rest of his performing career, Bess would work as his stage assistant.

Although he initially focussed on card tricks and other traditional magic acts, Houdini soon began experimenting with escape acts. Harry Houdini's "big break" came in 1899, when he met the showman Martin Beck. Impressed by Houdini's handcuffs act, Beck advised him to concentrate on escape acts and booked him on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit. Within months, he was performing at the top vaudeville houses in the country. In 1900, Houdini travelled to Europe to perform. By the time he returned in 1904, he had become a sensation.

Throughout the 1900s and 1910s, Houdini performed with great success in the United States. He would free himself from handcuffs, chains, ropes and straitjackets, often while hanging from a rope or suspended in water, sometimes in plain sight of the audience. In 1913, he introduced perhaps his most famous act, the Chinese Water Torture Cell[?], in which he was suspended upside-down in a locked tub of water.

He explained some of his tricks in books written in the 1920s. Many locks and handcuffs could be opened with properly applied force, others with shoestrings. Other times, he carried concealed knives or keys. He was able to escape from a milk can which had its top fastened to its collar because the collar could be separated from the rest of the can from the inside. When tied down in ropes or straitjackets, he gained wiggle room by enlarging his shoulders and chest, and moving his arms slightly away from his body, and then dislocating his shoulders. His straitjacket escape was originally performed behind curtains, with him popping out free at the end. However, Houdini discovered that audiences were more impressed and entertained when the curtains were eliminated, so that they could watch him struggle to get out.

Difficult though it was, Houdini's entire act, including escapes, was also performed on a coordinated but separate tour schedule by his brother, Theo Weiss, under the name Hardeen. The major difference between the two was in the straitjacket escape; Houdini dislocated both his shoulders to get out, but Hardeen could dislocate only one.

In the 1920s, he turned his energies toward debunking self-proclaimed psychics and mediums, a pursuit which would inspire and be followed by the latter-day magician/skeptic James Randi. Houdini's magical training allowed him to expose frauds who had successfully fooled many scientists and academics. He was a member of a Scientific American committee which offered a cash prize to any medium who could successfully demonstrate supernatural powers. Thanks to Houdini's contributions, the prize was never collected. As his fame as a "ghostbuster" grew, Houdini took to attending séances in disguise, accompanied by a reporter and police officer. Possibly the most famous fraud whom he debunked was the Boston medium Mina Crandon, a.k.a. Margery[?].

These activities cost Houdini the friendship of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle, a firm believer in spiritualism, refused to believe any of Houdini's exposés, and the two men became public antagonists.

Houdini died of peritonitis after appendicitis on Halloween, October 31, 1926, at the age of 52. It has been suggested that a blow to his stomach, sustained in Montreal two weeks earlier, contributed to his death, but that is unlikely. The funeral was held on November 4 in New York, with over two thousand mourners in attendance. He was interred in the Machpelah Cemetery, Queens, New York, with the crest of the Society of American Magicians[?] inscribed on his gravesite. Houdini left a final sting for his spiritualist opponents: shortly before his death, he had made a pact with his wife, Bess Houdini, to contact her from the other side if possible and deliver a pre-arranged coded message. Every Halloween for the next 10 years, Bess held a séance to test the pact. In 1936, she finally declared that she never heard from him.

The United States Postal Service issued a postage stamp with Houdini's portrait on July 3, 2002.

Harry Houdini has a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7001 Hollywood Blvd.

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