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" Final Resting Place of Harry Houdini"
March 24th, 1874 - October 31st, 1926
Machpelah Cemetery, Queens, New York.
Cause of death - Peritonitis caused by burst appendix.
Harry Houdini was one of the most famous magicians, escapologists, and stunt performers of all time, as well as an investigator of spiritualists.
Houdini was born Ehrich Weiss on March 24, 1874 in Budapest, Hungary. From 1900 onwards he claimed in interviews to have been born in Appleton, Wisconsin on 6 April that year, but his Hungarian birth certificate was uncovered by researchers after his death. Houdini was Jewish: his father was Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weiss (1829 - 1892) and his mother was Cecilia Steiner (1841 - 1913). In 1878, his family moved to the United States, where he spelled his name as Ehrich Weiss, but he was called "Erie" or "Harry" by friends. He made his public debut as a 9 year old trapeze artist, calling himself, "Ehrich, the prince of the air." He legally changed his name to "Harry Houdini" in 1913.
At first, they lived in Appleton, Wisconsin, where his father served as rabbi of the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation. On June 6, 1882, Rabbi Weiss became a United States citizen, then after losing his tenure, he moved to New York City with Ehrich in 1887, where they lived in a boarding-house on East 79th St. Rabbi Weiss later was joined by the rest of the family once he found a more permanent housing. As a child Ehrich took several jobs, one of which was as a locksmith's apprentice. This was apparently where he mastered the art of opening locks without the help of a key.
In 1891, Weiss became a professional magician, and began calling himself Harry Houdini because he was influenced by French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin and his friend Jack Hayman told him that in French adding an "i" to Houdin would mean "like Houdin". Initially, his magic career resulted in little success, though he met fellow performer Wilhelmina Beatrice (Bess) Rahner in 1893, and married her three weeks later. For the rest of his performing career, Bess would work as his stage assistant. Houdini initially focused on traditional card acts. At one point he billed himself as the "King of Cards" and "King of Handcuffs." One of his most notable non-escape stage illusions was performed in London's hippodrome: he vanished a full-grown elephant (with its trainer) 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 traveled to Europe to perform. By the time he returned in 1904, he had become a sensation.
From 1904 and throughout the 1910s, Houdini 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 held his breath for over 3 minutes.
He explained some of his tricks in books written throughout his career. In Handcuff Secrets (1909) he revealed how 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's brother who was also an escape artist billing himself as Theodore Hardeen, after being accused of having someone sneak in and let him out and being challenged to escape without the curtain, discovered that audiences were more impressed and entertained when the curtains were eliminated, so that they could watch him struggle to get out. They both performed straitjacket escapes dangling upside-down from the roof of a building for publicity on more than one occasion. It is said that Hardeen once handed out bills for his show while Houdini was doing his suspended straightjacket escape and Houdini became upset because people thought it was Hardeen up there escaping, not Houdini. In 1919 Houdini became president of Martinka & Co., America's oldest magic company. The business is still in operation today.
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, under the name "Hardeen". In 1910, while on a tour of Australia, Houdini brought with him a primitive bi-plane with which he made the first controlled powered aeroplane flight in Australia, at Diggers Rest, Victoria
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 later-day conjurers James Randi and P. C. Sorcar, and even Penn and Teller. 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 the contributions and skepticism of Houdini and three others (there were five in the committee), 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, also known as "Margery". Houdini chronicled his debunking exploits in his book A Magician Among the Spirits.
These activities cost Houdini the friendship of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle, a firm believer in spiritualism during his later years, refused to believe any of Houdini's exposés. Doyle actually came to believe that Houdini was a powerful spiritualist medium, had performed many of his stunts by means of paranormal abilities, and was using these abilities to block those of other mediums that he was 'debunking' . This disagreement led to the two men becoming public antagonists.
In Houdini's will, his vast library was offered to the American Society for Psychical Research on the condition that research officer and editor of the ASPR Journal, J. Malcolm Bird, resigned. Bird refused and the collection went instead to the Library of Congress. Harry Houdini gained fame by exposing the tricks of mediums, as well as by his own remarkable achievements as a magician.
Houdini's last performance was at the Garrick Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on October 24, 1926. The next day he was hospitalized at Detroit's Grace Hospital. Houdini died of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix at 1:26 p.m. on Halloween, October 31, 1926, at the age of 52.
A widespread urban legend is that Houdini's ruptured appendix was caused by multiple blows to his abdomen from a McGill University student, J. Gordon Whitehead, in Montreal on October 22. The eyewitnesses to this event were two McGill University students named Jacques Price and Sam Smilovitz (sometimes called Jack Price and Sam Smiley). Their accounts generally agreed. The following is according to Price's description of events. According to Price, Houdini was reclining on his couch after his performance, having an art student sketch him. When Whitehead came in and asked if it was true that Houdini could take any blow to the stomach, Houdini replied in the affirmative. In this instance, he was struck several times, before Price protested. Whitehead reportedly continued hitting Houdini several times afterwards, and Houdini acted as though he were in some pain. Price recounted that Houdini stated that if he had time to prepare himself properly, he would have been in better position to take the blows. After taking statements from Price and Smiley, Houdini's insurance company concluded that the death was due to the dressing room incident and paid double indemnity. Despite this, modern medical knowledge gives no reason to believe Houdini's acute appendicitis was caused by any physical trauma.
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.