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Harry Houdini was one of the greatest illusionists, magicians, and stunt performers in history. He was also known for his debunking of fraudulent Spiritualist mediums in the 1920s. For some time, Harry Houdini was called the “Handcuff King” due to the ease with which he escaped any restraints. It was the skill that would make him famous.
See the fact file below for more information on Harry Houdini or alternatively, you can download our 25-page Harry Houdini worksheet pack to utilise within the classroom or home environment.
Key Facts & Information
Early Life and Career
- Harry Houdini was born on March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary.
- His real name was Ehrich Weiss. In 1894, he started using the name “Harry Houdini” as a stage name. The name “Harry” came from his childhood nickname “Ehrie.” While the name “Houdini” came from one of his favorite musicians, a Frenchman with the last name Houdin. He added the “i” to “Houdin” and he had the name Harry Houdini.
- When he was four years old, his family moved to the United States. They lived in Wisconsin for a while and then moved to New York City.
- Young Harry always had an interest in magic and performing. At the age of seventeen he began doing a magic show with his brother “Dash” called “The Brothers Houdini.” Harry would spend hours working on magic tricks and practicing quick hand movements.
- While Harry and his brother were working at Coney Island, Harry met a dancer named Wilhelmina Beatrice “Bess” Rahner . They fell in love and married a year later in 1894. Bess and Harry started their own magic act called “The Houdinis.” For the rest of his career, Bess would act as Harry’s assistant.
- During his teenage days, Houdini was coached by the magician Joseph Rinn at the Pastime Athletic Club.
- Houdini began his magic career in 1891, but had little success.
- Houdini focused initially on traditional card tricks and billed himself as the “King of Cards”.
- In 1900, Houdini had his European tour. Harry Houdini challenged the English police at Scotland Yard to an escape. The police searched Harry thoroughly and handcuffed him inside a cell. They were sure they had him secure. However, Houdini escaped in a matter of a few minutes. They couldn’t believe it! His show was an immediate hit and his salary rose to $300 a week.
- Houdini was widely known as “The Handcuff King.” He toured England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Russia.
- With his new-found wealth, Houdini purchased a dress said to have been made for Queen Victoria. Houdini arranged a grand reception where he presented his mother in the dress to all their relatives. Houdini said it was the happiest day of his life.
- Houdini returned to the U.S. in 1904 and purchased a house for $25,000, a brownstone at 278 W. 113th Street in Harlem, New York City.
- In 1906, Houdini created his own publication, named the Conjurers’ Monthly Magazine which was a competitor of The Sphinx. The publication only released two volumes before August 1908.
- Magic historian Jim Steinmeyer said that: “Houdini couldn’t resist using the journal for his own crusades, attacking his rivals, praising his own appearances, and subtly rewriting history to favor his view of magic.”
- From 1907 and throughout the 1910s, Houdini performed with great success in the United States. He freed himself from jails, handcuffs, chains, ropes, and straitjackets, often while hanging from a rope in sight of street audiences.
- Houdini also expanded his repertoire with his escape challenge act, in which he invited the public to devise contraptions to hold him.
- He also wrote an article on the history of magic which was published in 1908: “The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin”. In this book he attacked his former idol Robert-Houdin as a liar and a fraud for having claimed the invention of automata and effects such as aerial suspension, which had been in existence for many years before.
- In his book “Handcuff Secrets” (1909), he revealed how many locks and handcuffs could be opened with properly applied force, others with shoestrings. 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.
- Houdini also served as President of the Society of American Magicians (a.k.a. S.A.M.) from 1917 until his death in 1926.
- In July 1926, he was elected for the ninth successive time as President of the Society of American Magicians.
Harry’s Famous Illusions and Escapes
- Harry traveled around Europe and then returned to the United States performing all sorts of dangerous escapes and amazing illusions. These escapes made him the most famous magician in the world.
- The Chinese Water Torture Cell – Houdini always referred to it as “the Upside Down” or “USD”. In this trick, Harry was lowered head first into a glass tank filled with water. His feet were chained with locks to a lid that was then locked to the tank. A curtain would cover the front while Houdini worked his escape. Just in case he failed, an assistant stood by with an axe. He first did this act at Circus Busch in Berlin on September 21, 1912.
- Suspended straitjacket escape – Houdini took escaping from a straitjacket to a whole new level. He would be suspended in the air by his feet from a tall building while strapped into a straitjacket. He would then escape from the straitjacket with everyone watching. Some films of his escapes are also shown at The Houdini Museum in Scranton, PA.
- Overboard box escape – This trick is dangerous. Houdini would be locked up with handcuffs and leg-irons and placed into a crate. The crate would be nailed shut and tied with ropes. It would also be weighed down with around 200 pounds of lead. The crate would then be tossed into the water. After Houdini escaped (sometimes in under a minute), the crate would be pulled to the surface. It would still be nailed together with the handcuffs inside.
- Milk Can Escape – This was Houdini’s original act. In this act, Houdini was handcuffed and sealed inside an oversized milk can filled with water and made his escape behind a curtain. Advertised with dramatic posters that proclaimed “Failure Means A Drowning Death”, the escape proved to be a sensation. Houdini performed the milk can escape as a regular part of his act for only four years. The American Museum of Magic has the milk can and overboard box that Houdini used.
- The Vanishing Elephant – One of Houdini’s most notable non-escape stage illusions was performed at the New York Hippodrome, when he vanished a full-grown elephant from the stage. He had purchased this trick from the magician Charles Morritt. He then became the highest-paid performer in the American vaudeville.
Death of Houdini
- In October of 1926, Houdini performed in great pain. He was unable to sleep and remained in constant pain for the next two days, though he did not seek medical help. When he finally saw a doctor, Harry was found to have a fever of 102 degrees and acute appendicitis. He was advised to go to the hospital for immediate surgery. But, Harry decided to complete his show as planned that night.
- In the middle of the third act, Houdini asked his assistant to lower the curtain as he could not go on. Harry collapsed but still refused medical care until the next morning when Bess insisted and rushed him to the hospital.
- Harry relented and had his appendix removed, however it had already ruptured and doctors did not have much hope for his survival.
- Houdini died on Halloween 1926 at the age of 52, in Detroit, Michigan – October 31, 1926.
- Houdini’s funeral was held on November 4, 1926, in New York with more than 2,000 mourners in attendance and was buried in Queens, New York at the Machpelah Cemetery.
- “Houdini séances” are still held every Halloween. Despite Houdini’s skepticism about the spirit world, Houdini swore to his wife Bess that he would try to contact her from beyond the grave. There is even an “Official Houdini Séance” that takes place in a different city each year.
Harry Houdini Worksheets
This is a fantastic bundle which includes everything you need to know about Harry Houdini across 25 in-depth pages. These are ready-to-use Harry Houdini worksheets that are perfect for teaching students about Harry Houdini who was one of the greatest illusionists, magicians, and stunt performers in history. He was also known for his debunking of fraudulent Spiritualist mediums in the 1920s. For some time, Harry Houdini was called the “Handcuff King” due to the ease with which he escaped any restraints. It was the skill that would make him famous.
Complete List Of Included Worksheets
- Harry Houdini Facts
- Who was Harry Houdini?
- Houdini a Thumbs Up or Down?
- Strengths and Weaknesses
- Time for Word Hunt!
- Supernatural Magic
- The Great Houdini
- Lights Camera Action!
- Famous Escapes!
- Fill it out!
- “Houdini séances” on Halloween
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Link will appear as Harry Houdini Facts & Worksheets: https://kidskonnect.com - KidsKonnect, October 18, 2018
Use With Any Curriculum
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