The Quick 10: 10 Facts About Harry Houdini

Image credit: 

Had Houdini not succumbed to the ill effects of well-placed sucker punch, he would have been 135 this month. OK, even Houdini couldn't have pulled that one off. Despite the fact that he passed away more than 80 years ago, he remains a fascinating and mysterious pop culture figure.

houdini1. Harry Houdini's real name was Ehrich Weiss. He likely took the first part of his stage name from his childhood nickname, "Ehrie," although some have speculated that his first name was a tribute to magician Harry Kellar. The last part, however, was definitely a tribute to French illusionist Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin.
2. He also named Buster Keaton, although inadvertently. Along with Houdini, Buster's dad, Joe, was the co-owner of a traveling show called the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company. The story Buster tells is that one day, when he was only about six months old, he took a tumble down a flight of stairs while he was under his dad's watch, but come out of it completely unscathed. Houdini remarked, "That was a real buster!" "“ in those days, according to Keaton, "buster" meant a spill or a fall that had the potential to really hurt someone. Joe started calling him Buster and the nickname stuck. His real name was Joseph Frank Keaton, if you're curious.

3. He introduced his famous milk can trick in 1908. If you're not familiar, Houdini invented an over-sized milk can that would be filled with water. Houdini would be handcuffed and sealed inside, then left behind a curtain to make his daring escape. When this became too commonplace, he further encased the milk can in a wooden crate. Perhaps building on this stunt, Tetley's, a British beer, invited him to escape from a cask of their fine product. Houdini accepted and gave the stunt a go, but the task proved too difficult and he had to be rescued.

4. OK, despite what I said a minute ago, Houdini didn't really die from a sucker punch. But that's part of the legend. Houdini had long boasted of his physical capabilities and said that he could withstand any punch. After a performance in Montreal, a student from McGill University asked him if this was true. When Harry said it was, the student immediately punched him three times in the gut, not giving Harry the chance to tighten his abs, which was part of his secret. He ultimately died of a ruptured appendix which many people said was brought on by the punches, but that's not actually true. Houdini had been suffering from appendicitis for a few days but hadn't done anything about it, and in fact continued to travel and do shows for a few days after the punching incident. Finally, on October 24, 1926, he gave one last show and was immediately hospitalized afterward, but he had let it go too long: on October 31, 1926, he died of peritonitis from his ruptured appendix.

poster5. He's buried at Machpelah Cemetary in Queens and has the symbol of the Society of American Magicians engraved on his tombstone (he was president of it when he died). Members of the Society gather every year to hold a ceremony there. Sadly, his beloved wife, Bess, is buried 10 miles away in Westchester; she wasn't allowed to be buried with him because she wasn't Jewish. Maybe he escaped his home six feet under and managed to be with her in Westchester.
6. Speaking of Bess, she held a séance every year for ten years on the anniversary of his death to see if he would get in touch. Before he died, they made a pact that if there was a way to do it, he would, and they agreed upon a phrase that he would tell her so she would know it was him and not one of the many fakes that he loved to debunk when he was still alive. When he failed to contact her on the 10th anniversary, she gave up the ghost. The Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pa. (how long before that shows up on an episode of The Office?) still holds the séances every year. So far, no one has gotten Harry to communicate. The secret code, by the way, was "Rosabelle- answer- tell- pray, answer- look- tell- answer, answer- tell." Rosabelle was the name of a song she sang in her vaudeville act when the two of them met, and the other words corresponded to letters of the alphabet. Combined, they spelled out "Believe."

7. Houdini was an avid aviator and even believed that one day, when all of his magic was exposed and he was no longer a big deal in that field, people would remember him for his contributions to the world of aviation.

8. Houdini would surely be upset that a movie about his life depicted him dying as a result of one of his stunts "“ the Chinese Water Torture Cell. Houdini's feet would be locked in stocks and then he was lowered upside-down into a water-filled tank. Tony Curtis played Houdini and Janet Leigh played his wife. In reality, Houdini repeatedly performed the stunt without a hitch "“ and he was the only one who could legally perform it because he copyrighted the Chinese Water Torture Cell in a pretty ingenious way. You couldn't copyright magic tricks, so he first performed this escape as part of a one-act play called "Houdini Upside Down," because then he could copyright the play and the effect. He actively sued anyone who tried to imitate the stunt.

9. Although the Chinese Water Torture Cell didn't do him in, one of his performances nearly did. In 1917, he was buried in a pit with no casket "“ just dirt shoveled right on top of him. While trying to dig his way out, he started to panic and use up his precious air. He tried to call for help, but have you ever tried to call for help with a mouthful of dirt? Me neither. But I bet it's pretty difficult. Finally, his hand broke the surface and he was pulled to safety, where he promptly passed out. He later wrote that "The weight of the earth is killing."

10. The suspended straitjacket escape was one of his most famous stunts. He would be strapped into a medical straitjacket "“ no tricks there "“ and then suspended by his ankles very high in the air. He usually used a crane or a tall building. Once hoisted in the air, he escaped. And you can see him do it:

March 18, 2009 - 1:01pm
submit to reddit