About Houdini


Houdini’s Father – Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weiss, c. 1875

Born the son of Hungarian rabbi in Budapest, Erich Weiss rose to become the most famous name in all of magic’s history. He was first inspired by reading memoirs of the French magician Robert-Houdin and, by adding an “I” to his name, he became Houdini.

He was most famous for his spectacular escapes from handcuffs, pacing crates, straitjackets and more, but also worked hard exposing fake spirit mediums, acting and producing films, flying early airplanes, collecting rare magical books and much more.

Although only 5’4″ tall, Houdini was a giant in the entertainment industry as he took challenges from the police and audience to make good his freedom from a variety of constraints.

His most famous escape was the Chinese Water Torture Chamber where he would be suspended upside down in a glass-fronted tank full of water. Despite popular belief, he did not die in the Chamber however. His appendix was ruptured by a punch from a visiting college student backstage at a show. He developed peritonitis soon afterwards, and on October 31st, 1926 at 1:30pm, passed on to that great theater in the sky.

His name lives on, however, as a true symbol of magic and showmanship.

Houdini and the Movies

In 1919, Houdini decided to become a movie star. His first effort was a fifteen part serial called The Master Mystery, which played on Saturday afternoons at theaters countrywide.

Houdini’s first full-length feature film was The Grim Game followed by Terror Island. Both opened to mixed reviews and did less business than expected. During the filming of The Grim Game, two planes, due to a miscalculation by a pilot, collided and became interlocked. Houdini had been planning to jump from one to the other, but was now in a terrible situation. Luckily the skilled pilots untangled the planes and managed to land. The one carrying Harry had to semi-crash into a swamp covering him with mud. The script was hastily re-written to include this amazing ‘stunt’!

In 1921, he formed the Houdini Picture Corporation along with his brother Hardeen. His first independent picture was The Man From Beyond followed by Haldane of the Secret Service. Once again, they both got mixed reviews.

Despite his phenomenal success on stage, Houdini could never put across his full talents on camera and stopped making motion pictures soon afterwards, deciding to return to the stage where he was so much more at home.

The Master Escape Artist – Lock Picks and Cuffs

Here are just a few of Houdini’s collection of handcuffs and the tools he used to free himself.

One of the most interesting is the ‘Bean Giant’ pick (note key attached to long metal strip). Bean Giants were cuffs that defied being picked. It was said that a prisoner could be given the key to them and, because of their design, still be unable to unlock them. Using this unique pick, Houdini became the first man to beat them.

The long bar (black bar on display) is actually a ‘spreader’ that Harry used to escape from packing cases. Using this tool, he could force aside an area large enough to squeeze through without destroying the crate. Afterwards the crate could be examined and it seemed for all the world as if Harry had just melted through the walls.

Houdini was obsessed with asylums and their devices. Note the leather hand restraints displayed. He would accept challenges from all over the world to lock him up in a way that he could not escape.

A very interesting item on display is the square slab of putty. Houdini used these to gain secret impressions of keys. By pressing the key into the putty, he got a perfect impression of it and could have a duplicate key made later on! Banging them could open some cuffs such as the Scotland Yard ‘Derby’s’. The metal plate on display was worn on Harry’s leg so that he could escape the infamous London police cuffs.