The future "Genius of Escape Who Will Startle and Amaze" ran away from home when he was twelve. A postcard from "Your truant son, Ehrich Weiss," to the mother he adored is the earliest example of Houdini's handwriting in the collections of the Library of Congress, relic of the early evasion by the young man who had been born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary, on March 24, 1874. When this postcard was written, Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weiss was father and husband to the impoverished immigrant family struggling to become established in America while communicating primarily in German, Hungarian, and Yiddish. Their name had been changed from Weisz to Weiss by immigration officials upon their arrival in the United States c. 1878. Mayer Weiss was to serve as rabbi of the German-speaking Zion Reform Jewish Congregation in Appleton, Wisconsin. His tenure proved short, however, and after a life of hardship he died on October 5, 1892. Having lost his father at an early age, Houdini sustained an exceptionally strong relationship with his mother, Cecilia Steiner Weiss, both as a child and as an adult.
Images from the early years show a determined young man adapting to a country radically different from his parents' homeland. They depict him working to develop the physical stamina, dexterity, showmanship and persona that would take him from the bottom of performance venues to the top of the vaudeville stage. At his side emerges a figure of intelligence, spirit and resolve: his wife, Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner Houdini. Among Houdini's siblings one brother would follow him into magic. This was Theodore Hardeen, born Ferencz Deszo Weisz on March 4, 1876. The lives of these three young people would be devoted to the illusion arts. Always engaged intellectually with ancestor figures, Ehrich Weiss looked to the past for inspiration. By taking the name "Houdini," he likened himself to Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, the father of modern magic. Techniques and deceptions of fraudulent spiritualism that would influence Houdini's entire life emerge also in the images of these early years.
1899-1907: Vaudeville and Fame
The year 1899 was a watershed in Houdini's life. The great impresario Martin Beck advised the struggling performer to shed traditional magic and to concentrate upon escapes. Beck then booked Houdini on vaudeville's Orpheum Circuit. The dime museum days were over; the King of Handcuffs came to the fore. The Houdinis were on the brink of prosperity. In 1900, Houdini left for Europe, emerging as a star and carefully promoting his persona through letterhead, photographs, and early film. His brother Theodore Hardeen joined him abroad. A vibrant poster from the Berlin Wintergarten documents the international context within which a triumphant Houdini now performed.
In 1904, Houdini bought a brownstone home in the German section of Harlem, New York. In 1905, he returned to America, flourishing his chains. His brother Hardeen continued to perform. When, on January 7, 1906, Houdini escaped from the Washington, D.C. jail cell of Charles Guiteau--the assassin of President Garfield--the magician's reputation as both a jail breaker and handcuff king was assured. Now an established performer, he could reflect in depth upon the history of magic and undertake his own publications. The happiness of this period is manifest in family photographs.
1908-1918: The World Stage
In 1908, Houdini published The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, a sweeping history of the art of magic. It included references to spiritualism that he subsequently developed in A Magician Among the Spirits. Houdini began the year in Indianapolis. On January 27, 1908, he introduced the milk can escape in St. Louis. Then, later in the year, he took it on tour in Europe, where he appeared, in Germany, as the star of Circus Busch. From March 30 to April 4 of 1908, Houdini performed at Hammerstein's Theatre in New York in the famous Weed Tire Grip Chain Escape. Later in April he made one of his stunning manacled jumps from Boston's Harvard Bridge.
In 1910, positioning himself as a pioneer aviator, Houdini was proclaimed the first person to sustain flight over Australia. In 1913, he introduced his celebrated Upside-Down Water Torture Cell, and soon undertook upside-down straitjacket escapes. Photographs now captured the image of a hero on the world stage who had also become a mature statesman of magic. In 1913, however, even the magician's letterhead reflected his intense grief at his mother's death. The Weiss gravesite gained new importance for him, as did the family that remained.
In 1914, the Houdinis met Theodore Roosevelt when they sailed aboard the Hamburg-American Line from Europe to New York. It was another year of great escapes. The year 1915 brought classic magic, reunions, and participation in the community of magic, preoccupations that shaped 1916 and 1917 also. In 1918, Houdini performed his largest stage illusion, vanishing Jenny the elephant at New York's Hippodrome . Always ready to enhance a sensation, he claimed that she weighed ten thousand pounds.
1919-1922: Silent Film
Beatrice and Harry Houdini celebrated their silver anniversary in 1919. One year later, Funk and Wagnall's dictionary turned their surname into a verb. The couple was as involved as ever in new adventures: Houdini began to star in silent films. First there was The Master Mystery. Then, The Grim Game. In 1921, the magician founded The Houdini Picture Corporation. Its first film was The Man From Beyond.
1920-1926: Mediums and Magic
Houdini's formal education was slight; his self education, immense. "My mind," he is often quoted as having said, "is the key that sets me free." The magician informed and developed that mind through intensive reading; as he did so, he built a formidable library. When, in the 1920s, Houdini strode into the public arena to confront fraudulent mediums, he proceeded from an inner fortress lined with books and manuscripts. His attacks emanated both from shameless self-promotion and sincere commitment to the public good. His exposures covered a rich panoply of psychic fraud, including slate writing, spirit photographs, "finger printing a spirit," and trumpet mediums. His greatest challenge was Mina Crandon, the medium known as Margery. Like Houdini, Margery was brilliant at what she did and what she did was seance magic. A woman who confounded and fooled one established academic mind after another, she found her greatest champion in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a staunch defender of spiritualism. The major battle was between two master tricksters, but it also set Houdini and Sir Arthur at each others' throats. Fallout in the press pumped extra energy into Houdini's career and he took his show to the Hippodrome. He also left a legacy of healthy skepticism to succeeding generations.
Houdini's love of children shines through in photographs. He was capable of combining great empathy with exposes and showmanship. This was apparent in his celebrated 1926 submersion in a sealed coffin. "The Genius of Escape" had become the icon of magic and, within his culture, a seminal creative force.
1926: Change of Venues
Houdini died on October 31, 1926. Reports of his death showed that the man of mystery could never be reduced to fact or captured forever by linear text. He left behind individuals committed to the perpetuation of his memory. Houdini would now perform through the imagination and technologies of the future. He left us a legacy, a legend, and a challenge to continue great escapes.
Joan F. Higbee
Rare Book and Special Collections Division
Library of Congress