Wednesday, March 24, 2010

No Escaping It; Harry Turns 136

Could Harry Houdini have possibly died on any other day of the year than Halloween?

I always found delicious---or maybe it's salacious---irony in the fact that the famed magician and escape artist took his last breath on Halloween. I couldn't put my finger on it, but I was certain that it was, somehow, appropriate.

Today I'm not here to talk about Houdini's death, per se---he died in Detroit after some slugs to the gut in his dressing room in Montreal a week prior---but about his birth.

Harry Houdini, you see, was born on this day, in 1874.

He was born in Hungary, as Ehrich Weiss, to Jewish parents. Yet for whatever reason, Houdini would in his adult life, after stardom, claim to have been born on April 6 in Appleton, Wisconsin. Go figure.

Houdini, still using the Weiss name, gravitated toward carnivals and freak shows as a young man, even appearing as a "Wild Man" at a circus. Then he learned card tricks and became known as the "king of cards."

Growing tired of the card tricks, Houdini/Weiss looked for something else far more challenging and rich to add to his repertoire. Escape tricks filled that bill.

In 1893, while performing with his brother Dash as "The Houdini Brothers", Harry met fellow performer Wilhelmina Beatrice (Bess) Rahner, whom he married. Bess replaced Dash in the act, which became known as "The Houdinis." For the rest of Houdini's performing career, Bess would work as his stage assistant.

Houdini was no longer the "king of cards"; using his escape shtick, the new nickname was the "handcuff king."



There really wasn't anything Houdini wouldn't try to escape from: cuffs, shackles, chains, straitjackets, you name it. When even that grew stale for him, Houdini added "death defying" to his billing. Water-filled containers were a popular prop for him. The idea that audiences might actually see Houdini perish before their very eyes proved to be an oddly appealing attraction.

Still not satisfied, Houdini kept adding on to his act.

Being "buried alive" was among his most famous addenda.

The end came in 1926 when a McGill University student deciding to help Houdini perform, without warning slugged Houdini several times in his dressing room in Montreal, causing trauma to the magician's abdomen.

Houdini arrived by train in Detroit on October 24, 1926 with a 104-degree fever. Yet he performed anyway. Not long after, he landed in Grace Hospital. On Halloween afternoon, Houdini died in room 401 from peritonitis from a ruptured appendix.

Contrary to popular belief---we use that term a lot when it comes to celebrity deaths, don't we?---the blows to the stomach didn't cause his appendicitis; he was suffering from it for a few days prior to the mishap. And, his appendix might have burst anyway, though the trauma inflicted certainly didn't help.

In once describing his career, Houdini sounded unimpressed with himself.

"My professional life has been a constant record of disillusion, and many things that seem wonderful to most men are the every-day commonplaces of my business."

Happy 136th, Harry! Your spirit is floating around here somewhere, no doubt.

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