On August 6, 1926, master illusionist Harry Houdini performed his greatest feat, spending 91 minutes underwater in a sealed tank before escaping.
His illusions could have been an allegory of his life: Harry Houdini apparently delighted in hiding his personal history and exploits.
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Harry Houdini grew up steeped in Jewish tradition. He was born Erik (later spelled Erich) Weisz in Budapest, on March 24, 1874, one of six or seven children – sources differ – to a religious family, though he reportedly liked to claim he’d been born in Wisconsin. His parents were Mayer Samuel and Cecília Weisz; they anglicized their surname to Weiss after moving from Hungary to the United States in 1878.
Houdini reportedly also waxed creative about his father Mayer, who apparently began his career as a soap-maker in the Hapsburg Empire and, after marrying, studied law. In Appleton, Wisconsin, Mayer served as rabbi of the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation for some years, after which the family moved to New York.
Five years after their arrival in the United States, Erich would make his stage debut – at age 9, as a trapeze artist billed as “Ehrich, the Prince of the Air.” Evidently a freewheeling spirit, at age 12 he vanished from home but returned a year later, and started working to help support the family.
Meanwhile, Erich morphed to Harry. Evidently unhampered by his lack of schoolin’, he developed a keenly skeptical mind – and also, ironically, an appreciation of “magic.”
The youngster began his magic career starting with card tricks in 1891. It did not go well. He adopted an Americanized version of his idol Robert Houdin’s name, though decades later he would write a scathing book that cast the Frenchman as a fraud.
Meanwhile, Houdini began to build his reputation as the greatest escape artist the world had known.
In 1894, he married singer, dancer and actress “Bess” Wilhelmina Rahner, who became his stage assistant. As a couple, they perfected an act called Metamorphosis – and the Handcuff Act that would bring him to vaudeville and propel him to international fame.
Cuffs were trivial to him, even multiple sets of them. Spoiler alert: Like all illusionists, the bottom line was keys cleverly hidden on his person. Houdini went on to burnish that name with his series of fantastical “jail breaks” – from real prisons, and with real panache.
There’s a question about which prisons, however. In keeping with the fog shrouding his personal life, there’s a famous story about how, when shackled to a pillar by a patronizing commander of Scotland Yard, Houdini had the cuffs off within seconds and then they all went off to a jolly lunch. There’s little evidence this actually happened, though reportedly he signed the Yard’s guest book on June 14, 1900.
The Vanishing Elephant trick, performed in 1918, was the illusionist at his finest. Houdini placed a cabinet that he told the audience was eight feet square and two feet high on the gargantuan stage at New York’s Hippodrome Theater. Then a presumably placid pachyderm was coaxed inside and the cabinet was closed. The trick lay in the enormous size of the cabinet, further dwarfed by the dimensions of the stage and by his suggestion; the view the audience had of the cabinet's interior; curtain arrangements; and the dozen muscle-men who rotated the cabinet with the elephant inside.
One of Houdini's favorites was the Chinese Water Torture Cell escape, which involved freeing himself after being dropped headfirst, dangling from chained, manacled ankles, into a sort of barred fish tank, to which more and more locks were added in performances over the years.
But his truly greatest feat was to be his last. On this day in 1926, performing in front of journalists at the swimming pool of the Shelton Hotel in New York, Houdini spent 91 minutes underwater in a 700-pound sealed tank (no, not a coffin), starting with his hands being cuffed in front and chained to his shackled ankles. His arms were also chained around his neck, forcing his torso to be bent over. “The important thing is to believe that you are safe,” he explained.
Houdini would die three months later of a ruptured appendix after being punched in the stomach by a student as a test of his muscles, on October 31, 1926, at the age of 52.
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