Harry Houdini (March 24, 1874 - October 31, 1926) was the stage name of Ehrich Weiss (born Weisz Erik in the native Hungarian), one of the most famous magicians, escapologists, and stunt performers of all time.
Houdini was born on March 24 1874 in Budapest, Hungary, of Jewish background. In 1878, his family immigrated to the United States. At first, they lived in Appleton, Wisconsin, where his father, Mayer Samuel Weiss, served as rabbi of the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation. After losing his tenure, Mayer moved to New York City with Ehrich in 1887, where they lived in a boarding-house on East Seventy-ninth Street. Mr. Weiss later called for the rest of his family to join him once he found more permanent housing.
The name "Harry" came from a family pet name for Ehrich, Ehrie (rhymes with and sounds like 'Harry').
In 1891, Ehrich became a professional magician, and began calling himself Harry Houdini as a tribute to the French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin (he would make Houdini his legal name in 1913). Initially, his magical career met with little success, though he met fellow performer Wilhelmina Beatrice (Bess) Rahner in 1893, and married her after a three-week-long courtship. For the rest of his performing career, Bess would work as his stage assistant.
Houdini initially focused on card tricks and other traditional magic acts. At one point he billed himself as the King of Cards. One of his most notable non-escape stage illusions was performed in London's hippodrome: he vanished a full-grown elephant from a stage, beneath which was a swimming pool.
He soon began experimenting with escape acts, however. Harry Houdini's "big break" came in 1899, when he met the showman Martin Beck. Impressed by Houdini's handcuffs act, Beck advised him to concentrate on escape acts and booked him on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit. Within months, he was performing at the top vaudeville houses in the country. In 1900, Houdini travelled to Europe to perform. By the time he returned in 1904, he had become a sensation.
Throughout the 1900s and 1910s, Houdini usually performed with great success in the United States. He would free himself from handcuffs, chains, ropes and straitjackets, often while hanging from a rope or suspended in water, sometimes in plain sight of the audience. In 1913, he introduced perhaps his most famous act, the Chinese Water Torture Cell, in which he was suspended upside-down in a locked glass and steel cabinet full to overflowing with water.
He explained some of his tricks in books written in the 1920s. Many locks and handcuffs could be opened with properly applied force, others with shoestrings. Other times, he carried concealed lockpicks or keys, being able to regurgitate small keys at will. He was able to escape from a milk can which had its top fastened to its collar because the collar could be separated from the rest of the can from the inside. 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, and then dislocating his shoulders. His straitjacket escape was originally performed behind curtains, with him popping out free at the end. However, Houdini discovered that audiences were more impressed and entertained when the curtains were eliminated, so that they could watch him struggle to get out. He performed his strait jacket escape dangling upside-down from the roof of a building for increased dramatic effect on more than one occasion.
Difficult though it was, Houdini's entire act, including escapes, was also performed on a coordinated but separate tour schedule by his brother, Theo Weiss ("Dash" to the Weiss family), under the name "Hardeen". The major difference between the two was in the straitjacket escape; Houdini dislocated both his shoulders to get out, but Hardeen could dislocate only one.
In the 1920s, after the death of his beloved mother, he turned his energies toward debunking self-proclaimed psychics and mediums, a pursuit that would inspire and be followed by latter-day magicians James Randi and P.C. Sorcar. Houdini's magical training allowed him to expose frauds who had successfully fooled many scientists and academics. He was a member of a Scientific American committee which offered a cash prize to any medium who could successfully demonstrate supernatural abilities. Thanks to Houdini's contributions, the prize was never collected. As his fame as a "ghostbuster" grew, Houdini took to attending séances in disguise, accompanied by a reporter and police officer. Possibly the most famous medium whom he debunked was the Boston medium Mina Crandon, a.k.a. Margery .
These activities cost Houdini the friendship of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle, a firm believer in spiritualism, refused to believe any of Houdini's exposés, and the two men became public antagonists.
Houdini died of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix on Halloween, October 31, 1926, at the age of 52. Houdini had sustained a blow to his abdomen from McGill University boxing student J. Gordon Whitehead in Montreal two weeks earlier. A long-standing part of Houdini's act was to ask a member of the audience to punch him in the abdomen in order to demonstrate but Houdini was reclining on his couch after his performance, in this instance, and was struck several times, without the opportunity to prepare himself for the blows. Despite popular belief the appendicitis and not the blow was the cause of his death -- although the pain inflicted by the blows may have 'masked' the pain of the appendicitis, preventing the performer from seeking treatment. 
Houdini's funeral was held on November 4 in New York, with over two thousand mourners in attendance. He was interred in the Machpelah Cemetery, Queens, New York, with the crest of the Society of American Magicians inscribed on his gravesite. The Society holds their "Broken Wand" ceremony at the gravesite on the anniversary of his death to this day.
Houdini left a final sting for his spiritualist opponents: shortly before his death, he had made a pact with his wife, Bess Houdini, to contact her from the other side if possible and deliver a pre-arranged coded message. Every Halloween for the next 10 years, Bess held a séance to test the pact. In 1936, after a last unsuccessful seance on the roof of the Knickerbokker hotel, she put out the candle that she had kept burning beside a photograph of Houdini since his death.
Harry Houdini has a motion picture star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7001 Hollywood Blvd. He starred in 5 silent films and wrote some of them.
A mostly fictionalized version of Houdini's life was made in a film in 1953 starring Tony Curtis. Most of the misconceptions about Houdini's life are due in part to this film. For example, it portrayed him dying from the Chinese Water Torture Cell, instead of the less spectacular peritonitis.
Controversy surrounds the decision by the Outagamie Museum in Appleton, Wisconsin to reveal the details of how Houdini performed his Metamorphosis trick. On November 2nd, 2004, Houdini's only niece (Marie H. Blood) passed away.
- Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear by Jim Steinmeyer
- Houdini's Life
- PBS:The American Experience: Houdini
- The IMDb entry on the Tony Curtis film Houdini
- Houdini Animation Software by Side Effects Software