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Houdini | Timeline

Timeline of Houdini's Life

Ehrich Weiss (Harry Houdini) born to Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weiss and his wife Cecelia on March 24 in Budapest, Hungary.

Weiss family joins Rabbi Weiss in Appleton, Wisconsin, where he leads a small Reform congregation.

At age nine, Ehrich and some neighborhood friends establish a five-cent circus. Wearing red woolen stockings, he bills himself as "Ehrich, The Prince of the Air."

After a series of failures in the Midwest, Rabbi Weiss brings Ehrich with him to New York City, where they live in a boardinghouse on East Seventy-ninth Street. Ehrich works a variety of jobs to help support the family.


Ehrich teams up with Jacob Hyman, a friend from his job at a neckwear cutting firm, in a magic act they call "The Brothers Houdini." Ehrich, known as Ehrie, starts calling himself "Harry Houdini."

Rabbi Weiss dies on October 5 at the age of 63.

The Brothers Houdini perform on the Midway at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Jacob Hyman leaves The Brothers Houdini and is replaced briefly by Harry's brother Theodore, or Dash. That summer, Harry meets fellow performer Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, and after a three-week courtship Harry and eighteen-year-old "Bess" are married. Bess replaces Dash, and the act becomes known simply as "The Houdinis."

The Houdinis achieve some success with their signature number, "The Metamorphosis," in which they trade places in a locked trunk. Harry also begins experimenting with public handcuff escapes, including exhibitions for police and reporters.

Harry and Bess return to New York to live with his mother. By the end of the year, a frustrated Houdini is considering leaving show business, and mails out a sixteen-page catalogue for "Harry Houdini's School of Magic."

After struggling for six years, Houdini catches his big break. Theater manager Martin Beck sees his handcuff act in St. Paul, and wires several days later: "You can open Omaha March 26 sixty dollars, will see act probably make you proposition for all next season." Within months, Beck has Houdini in demand at top vaudeville houses across the country.

"The King of Handcuffs" sets sail for England, hoping to meet with as much success in Europe as he had enjoyed over the last year in America. He would spend the bulk of the next five years overseas, becoming a truly international star. In September, Houdini is stripped naked before three hundred German policemen in Berlin and escapes in six minutes. The consummate publicist, he was soon advertising himself as "the only artist in the history of Europe to whom the German police have given the Imperial certificates."

In Cologne, Germany, Houdini brings a slander suit against a local newspaper and a police officer who accused him of bribery and fraud. He won the case, but only by showing the court some of his escape methods. A body builder named Hodgson responds to Houdini’s open challenge in Blackburn, England. The hour and forty minute struggle to free himself from the irons completely exhausts Houdini, who is covered in bloody welts by the end of the evening.


Houdini performs his legendary "Mirror Cuff" escape at the London Hippodrome. It had taken a Birmingham blacksmith five years to build the cuffs, which featured an impossible-to-pick set of nesting Bramah locks. The challenge is big news in the press for weeks. After an hour-long struggle, Houdini emerges free from the cuffs and is carried away in triumph by the adoring crowd.

Houdini buys a seven acre farm in Stamford, Connecticut and an elegant brownstone in fashionable Harlem. His mother, sister, and two brothers move into the brownstone, which would serve as Houdini’s home base for years.

Houdini makes a splash with his widely publicized escape from the Washington, D.C. jail that once held Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President James A. Garfield.

The first of Houdini’s "manacled bridge jumps" is captured on film in Rochester, New York. After the jump, Houdini proudly writes in his diary, "Ma saw me jump!"

Houdini begins performing his celebrated milk can escape. Ever the master showman, he reminds the audience in his ads that "Failure Means a Drowning Death." Houdini publishes his controversial book, "The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin."

Houdini makes the first "real" flight on the continent of Australia, piloting his Voison on a sustained flight of three and a half minutes.

Houdini performs his underwater box escape in New York's East River before a huge crowd. "Scientific American" magazine pronounces it "one of the most remarkable tricks ever performed."
In September, Houdini debuts his famous Chinese Water Torture Cell escape at the Circus Busch in Berlin.

Houdini legally changes his name from Ehrich Weiss to Harry Houdini.
On July 17, Cecilia Weiss dies. Houdini faints upon receiving the news after a performance for the royal family in Sweden. Sailing back to America, Houdini amazes former President Theodore Roosevelt with a spiritualist trick on board ship.

During a performance at the Los Angeles Orpheum, Houdini argues with celebrated world heavyweight boxing champ Jess Willard, who had refused his invitation to join the committee on stage. After Willard insults him, Houdini wins the crowd with his retort, "I will be Harry Houdini when you are not the heavyweight champion of the world."

Houdini lures master magician Harry Kellar out of retirement to perform in a benefit at the New York Hippodrome for the families of the men killed when a German U-boat sank the transport "Antilles."

In the longest run of his career -- lasting nineteen weeks -- Houdini stars in the patriotic extravaganza "Cheer Up" at the New York Hippodrome. The highlights of his act are the vanishing elephant trick and an indoor version of his underwater box escape. Houdini is involved in a romantic affair with Charmian London, the widow of writer Jack London, who had died in 1916. Houdini makes his first motion picture -- the fifteen episode serial "The Master Mystery." Despite his wooden acting, audiences are thrilled by his stunts and he becomes an even bigger international star.


The 1920 edition of Funk & Wagnall's dictionary includes the verb "hou-di-nize," meaning "to release or extricate oneself from (confinement, bonds, or the like), as by wriggling out." Houdini forms his own production company, the Houdini Picture Corporation. Houdini starts writing "The Man from Beyond," which would premiere in 1922.

Vacationing with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his family in Atlantic City, Houdini attends a séance with Lady Doyle, who claims to channel automatic-writing from Houdini’s mother. Houdini is not convinced, and the incident marks the beginning of the end of his friendship with the world-famous author and leading proponent of Spiritualism.

In July, Houdini has his first sittings with the celebrated Boston medium Mina Crandon, aka "Margery." Houdini, convinced Margery is a fake, feuds with her and more sympathetic colleagues on the "Scientific American" panel charged with evaluating her gifts. The case receives wide coverage in the press.

In early January Houdini challenges Margery to appear with him at Boston’s Symphony Hall. When she declines, Houdini stages a séance to expose her methods. In February, the "Scientific American" panel votes to deny her the prize, tepidly saying, "We have observed no phenomena of which we can assert that they could not have been produced by normal means." In November, however, Houdini is vindicated by an article in "Atlantic Monthly." In it, a Harvard graduate student in psychology discredits Margery by catching her in a clear deception. Houdini’s career-long search for theatrical respectability ends with his own Broadway show at the end of the year. Running two and a half hours, "HOUDINI" is easily the longest show he has ever done. The second and third acts, featuring some of his most famous escapes and an exposé of Spiritualism, respectively, are vintage Houdini. But the hour-long first act, featuring fifteen tricks and illusions, is a real departure for him. As biographer Kenneth Silverman writes, "... after a lifetime in magic, it marked his professional debut as a magician."

In February and May, Houdini testifies before Senate and House subcommittees for a bill aimed at prosecuting anyone "pretending to tell fortunes for reward or compensation." On August 5th, Houdini outdoes Egyptian fakir Rahman Bey by staying submerged in an airtight bronze coffin for one hour and thirty minutes. Houdini responds to charges that the coffin was rigged by saying, "there is no invention to it, there is no trick, there is no fake; you simply lie down in a coffin and breathe quietly." Houdini dies in Detroit on Halloween, from complications of appendicitis. Several days earlier, he had been struck in the stomach by a student in his dressing room, then refused to cancel his shows until it was too late. His death triggers mourning and tributes around the world. Houdini's funeral is held on November 4th at the Elks Clubhouse on West Forty-third Street in New York. As many as two thousand mourners pack the ballroom, and the event is widely covered. According to his instructions, he is buried with his head resting on a packet of letters from his mother.

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