Harry Houdini

On this date in 1874, Erik Weisz was born in Budapest, Hungary. In 1878, his family emigrated to America. The family first settled in Appleton, Wis. before relocating to New York City in 1887. Harry Houdini chose his stage name because he admired the French magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin. Houdini began his magic career in 1891, initially performing traditional magic tricks but later focusing almost exclusively on escape acts. In 1894, Houdini married his wife Bess, a fellow performer. Houdini toured Europe beginning in 1900, and became well-known for an act where local police would restrain him in handcuffs which Houdini would then escape. Houdini toured America with variations of this act and other escape routines, including escaping from a straitjacket, and the famous Chinese Water Torture Cell, where Houdini would escape from a water-filled cell where he was hanging by his ankles. He served as the president of the Society of American Magicians from 1917 until his death

Although many magicians of the time claimed to have supernatural powers, or to be helped by spirits, Houdini never made any such claim. In the 1920s, Houdini began to focus on debunking psychics and mediums, using his training in magic to expose their so-called “supernatural” powers. He was able to replicate mediums’ effects, as well as observe tricks that had fooled scientists and academics. Houdini was part of a Scientific American committee that offered a cash prize for successful proof of supernatural abilities; this prize was never collected. Houdini died in 1926 of peritonitis and appendicitis, aggravated by punches to the stomach. (Houdini famously was asked by J. Gordon Whitehead if he could sustain punches to the stomach; after Houdini’s affirmative response, Whitehead immediately punched the magician, who was not prepared for the blows.) He was buried in a Jewish cemetery in Queens, but his gravesite pays homage to his career in magic rather than his Jewish heritage; in fact, a bust of Houdini was placed at the grave in 1927, although a “graven image” is not allowed according to Jewish law. D. 1926.

“How have so-called psychics been able to mystify representative scientists such as Sir William Crookes, Sir Oliver Lodge, William James, and the French physiologist, Charles Richet — men of supposedly straight-thinking, analytical minds? To say nothing of such eminent writers as the sincere, though deluded, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes.

“I believe the kernel of the matter is that scientists, philosophers, and psychologists live in circles where honesty is taken for granted. It is inconceivable to them that such gross deception could be practiced. They fail to realize that they're working hand in glove with members of one of the most unclean professions in the world.”

—-Harry Houdini

Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski

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