As one of the most well-known names in magic for his escape tricks, there is still much about Houdini’s life that some people may not know! Here are 6 things that you probably didn’t know about Harry Houdini.
1. He named himself after another magician
Originally from Budapest, Hungary, Houdini’s real name was Erik Weisz. As a teenager, he read the memoirs of French conjurer Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (often called “The Father of Modern Magic”). Young Erik named himself after his hero by adding an “i” to the name “Houdin” to create the stage name “Houdini” (there is debate about where “Harry” came from). Ironically, years later Houdini turned on his idol, and wrote a (mostly inaccurate) book called The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, accusing him of being an imposter.
2. He wasn’t a very good magician
Although he started his career as a magician, he struggled, and was on the verge of quitting when producer Martin Beck encouraged him to make escapes the focus of his act. He challenged audiences to tie him up or lock him in handcuffs, or nail him into boxes. He achieved fame by becoming an escape artist, “The King of Handcuffs”. After achieving world-wide fame, he put magic in his act, but contemporary descriptions confirm that he was lackluster as a magician.
3. He debunked psychics and the supernatural
Distraught over his mother’s death, Houdini tried to contact her via séances, however he quickly discovered that the mediums conducting the séances were frauds. In the 1920s, he became a professional skeptic and debunker of psychics, mind readers, mediums and others who claimed to be in contact with the deceased. He offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could present “physical phenomena” that could not be explained rationally—a reward he was never forced to pay.
4. He was a silent film star
Houdini had a brief career as a silent film star in the late teens and early 1920s. In the 1919’s serial, The Master Mystery, he played an undercover agent who uses his escape skills to thwart criminals. The serial was a smash hit (and in an interesting side note, it was the first film to feature a robot). Houdini went on to star in two more serials, but neither were nearly as successful, critically or commercially. Houdini gave up movies and returned to live performances for good.
5. He was one of the world’s first pilots
He developed a passion for aviation in 1909, and bought a French-made biplane and learned to fly. He crashed during his first flight, but he stuck with it, and during a tour of Australia in March of 1910, he became the first person to successfully pilot a plane in Australia, making three successful flights near Melbourne, each only a couple of minutes long. He never flew again.
6. Houdini séances are held every Halloween
Despite his skepticism about Spiritualism (see #3 above), Houdini vowed that if he died first, he would try to contact his wife from beyond the grave. Houdini died on October 31, 1926, and every year on Halloween, his widow, Bess, conducted a séance, hoping to receive a pre-arranged coded message from Houdini. After ten years, she concluded it would never happen and ended the séances. However, fans have continued to hold Houdini séances every Halloween since.