A child immigrant from Hungary, the man who would become known as Harry Houdini got his start in the entertainment world in 1891 traveling with a circus of strongmen. Known as the “King of Cards” for a short while, fellow magicians saw Houdini as a man with some skill, but nothing that truly impressed them.
Houdini may not have had the card skills to impress fellow tradesmen, but his talent for escape seemed unparalleled. Known to shrug off straitjackets, slip out of handcuffs, and wriggle out of ropes, Houdini began his journey of facing mortal danger head-on while wondering how he could make the task harder.
As Houdini’s name and prowess grew, so too did his arsenal of illusions. He became obsessed with tricks, performing them in both closed theaters and as open publicity stunts. In one trick, he swallowed needles and thread and then had himself buried alive on stage. When he burst from his coffin minutes later he would regurgitate the needles, threaded with the cotton!
No Handcuffs Could Hold Him
Houdini’s signature stunt was escaping handcuffs. Many times he would challenge the police to lock him up however they could on the street, then he’d jump in a nearby river and emerge totally free. He found the task so easy that he challenged anyone in the world to make a pair of handcuffs that could hold him. One firm spent five years designing a pair, certain they would claim the prize, but Houdini escaped in minutes, tarnishing their years of work.
Speed increasingly became a cornerstone of Houdini’s repertoire. To add danger to his performances, he began having himself submerged in water while he escaped. In 1912, he was secured by his feet upside down and dunked in a watertight chamber. He escaped the cell in minutes, though one time he broke his ankle.
A Houdini trademark, he asked that the water prison be burned upon his death. Though Houdini’s brother kept the cell intact, it was eventually burned in 1995 during a museum fire.
Another stunt involved Houdini being locked inside a water-filled milk can, escaping while behind a curtain. For public displays, Houdini would be hoisted high into the air wearing a straitjacket, and escape unharmed before crowds of onlookers.
The Final Act
Though Houdini defied death countless times, putting himself into all sorts of danger, the magician died of appendicitis. Known for having a high pain tolerance, a fan asked to punch Houdini as hard as he could in the stomach. Houdini obliged, but it would be his last stunt. He didn’t seek medical attention for days, leading to his death.