Born in 1874, Harry Houdini would become one of the world's most renowned magicians. He began his magic career performing in sideshows at cheap attractions known as Dime Museums. He played the Wild Man in circus acts and taught himself all of the traditional card tricks.
He began the rudimentary versions of his escape acts in the 1890s. He met his wife while he and his brother Dash were performing at Coney Island under the billing of The Brothers Houdini. Bess Rahner replaced Dash and the program was renamed The Houdinis. Bess remained Harry's stage assistant for the rest of his career.
In 1899, Harry met another person who would become a vital part of his professional career- manager Martin Beck. It was Beck who encouraged the young magician to focus more on the escape acts and less on the more traditional magic. Beck booked The Houdinis on a vaudeville circuit. The act was so popular that the duo was on stage at the best vaudeville houses within months. They then toured Europe, where Harry became known as "The Handcuff King" due to his ability to escape from those restraints.
As part of his act, Houdini would encourage the local police to put him in handcuffs and lock him up in their jail- often after allowing them to conduct a strip search. These antics brought him a great deal of success and material wealth. He was able to purchase a gorgeous dress, originally made for Queen Victoria, as a present to his mother and a home stateside in Harlem, New York (where it remains standing to this day).
In the early 1900s, Houdini was back in the United States performing and escaping from entrapments such as handcuffs, jails, ropes, chains and straightjackets- often when hanging from rope in plain view of the audience. Imitators began to spring up, inspiring Houdini to move his escapes to water filled cans. The chance of his drowning brought the audiences back in. He encouraged others to come up with things from which he could escape. These entrapments ran a wide gamut from mailbags to nailed shut crates to the belly of a whale that had washed on shore.
Houdini never claimed that his escapes were due to any supernatural powers, but promotional materials from the time claimed he could "dematerialize". He did let out some of the "tricks" behind his stunts while he was alive to others in the magic community. Many types of locks and cuffs could be opened with the proper amount of applied force. Some others could be opened with shoe strings. He often carried picks or keys hidden on his body and could regurgitate a small key. When he was tied or straitjacketed, he allowed for space to move by puffing out his chest and shoulders, moving his arms away from the rest of his body and then dislocating his shoulders.
Houdini's death has become a sort of legend on its own. After one of his shows, Houdini was approached backstage by a college student named J. Gordon Whitehead. Whitehead asked if there were truth to the rumor that the magician could take any hit to the stomach. Whitehead hit Houdini three times before the magician said to stop. There were several more blows put in during which Houdini seemed to be in pain. That incident occurred on October 22, 1926 and Houdini did not die immediately. He made it to a show in Michigan on the 24th and performed with a high fever. He was diagnosed with acute appendicitis but refused treatment. He died of peritonitis caused by a ruptured appendix on Halloween night of 1926. He was 52 years old.
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