I think that in a year I may retire. I cannot take my money with me when I die and I wish to enjoy it, with my family, while I live. – Harry Houdini, Magician and Escapologist

When I was around 6 or 7 years old, I was unequivocally obsessed with Harry Houdini.  My brother and I used to have contests at the local pool to see which of us could hold our breath the longest. He always won, and I’d end the day a few nickels lighter.

Born Ehrich Weisz on this day in 1874, Harry Houdini emigrated with his family from Budapest to the United States in 1878. As a young man, Houdini’s initial attempts to establish a career in magic were relatively unsuccessful; he even had to double as ‘a Wild Man’ carnival act. Harry met his kindred soul in Beatrice (Bess) Raymond, a teenager trying to succeed in show business as a singer and dancer. They married in 1894. After meeting manager Martin Beck, Houdini found his niche in escape acts: handcuffs, ropes, straitjackets, and chains. His most memorable act was to escape “The Chinese Water Torture Cell” (pictured below). To develop his breath-holding capabilities, Houdini even had an oversized bathtub installed in his house so he could practice regularly.

 

In the fall of 1926, after having broken his ankle while performing the Chinese Water Torture stunt, and after several sleepless nights caring for Bess after she suffered a bout of food poisoning, Houdini was in his Montreal dressing room chatting with a college student who also happened to be an amateur boxer. The student asked Houdini if it was true that Houdini could withstand any blow to his body above the waist. A weakened Houdini replied yes, and began to rise to his feet, but before he had time to tighten his abdominal muscles, the boxer punched him three times. Houdini suffered a burst appendix, and later, peritonitis. He died on the afternoon of October 31, 1926 at age 52, and was later buried in his bronze ‘buried alive casket’, his head resting on a black sack of letters his mother had written him while alive. No autopsy was performed. In his 23-clause-long will, which had been prepared in 1924 with a codicil added in 1925, Houdini left his collection of over 5,000 books (valued at $30,000) to the Library of Congress. His brother Theo received most of his magic equipment and memorabilia; however, Houdini stipulated that the magic apparatus be ‘burnt and destroyed’ upon Theo’s death. Two assistants received $500 each, while The Society of American Magicians received $1,000. His ‘hat rabbits’ reportedly were given to the children of friends. The balance of Houdini’s estate went to Bess, and it was enough to cover his extensive debts and to allow Bess to live comfortably. Bess also received $50,000 in life insurance money, since Houdini had remarkably purchased a double indemnity life insurance policy in the event of his accidental death.

The Chinese Water Torture Cell secret remains a mystery to this day, and my breath-holding record stands at 1:03.

Jennifer Hartman, guest blogger