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Happy (belated) birthday, Harry Houdini!

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One hundred and fifty years ago yesterday, a baby boy named Erik Weisz was born in Budapest, Hungary. He would later grow up to become a legend, and his name would forever be linked to the field of stage magic. Oddly enough, it was his acts of escape artistry that he is known for.

I’ve had a long fascination with Harry Houdini, as well as stage magic. As much as my other role models, Houdini embodies qualities of problem solving, sheer brashness and showmanship. He didn’t let anything stop him from going after what he wanted. He even said that if it was possible to come back from the dead, or send a message from the other side, he’d find a way. To my knowledge, he hasn’t yet accomplished this last feat.

Side note: He took his stage name from another magician, quite famous at the time, Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin. Weisz heard that in French, adding an ‘i’ to the end of a name meant ‘like so and so’. Thus, adding an ‘i’ to the end of Houdin turned it into Houdini. And thus was born the stage name for the young man.

Harry started out as a stage magician, along with his brother Theo. He did card magic and was billed as King Of The Cards for a while. It was while doing stage performances that he desired to do something to really wow the audiences. He took to escaping from handcuffs and would challenge police departments wherever he traveled to keep him locked up. None, if any, ever succeeded in the task.

He kept pushing the envelope, adding more things like ropes and chains, and more locks. He escaped from milk cans, and later the Chinese Water Torture Cell, where he was put into a tank full of water, upside down, his ankles trapped inside the lid. He did wild stunts like hanging from the top of a tall building upside down, and escaping from a strait jacket. He was buried alive once and managed to claw his way out.

He would go on to create films, and write books.

After the death of his mother, he sincerely wanted to find a medium to be able to contact his mother on the other side, but was outraged by the all the scam artists preying upon the gullible. He went on a crusade against fake spiritualists and mediums, exposing all their tricks and scams.

Later, as part of his act, Houdini would invite men onstage and let them punch him in the gut. He was able to withstand any blow. Ultimately this would be his downfall. He was preparing for a show when two students from McGill University showed up for an interview. They asked him about his ability to receive blows to his stomach. He told them he could take any blow, and according to the story, one of the students punched him when he wasn’t ready. This resulted in appendicitis and then peritonitis. He died October 31, 1926. Somehow it seems fitting that he died on Hallowe’en.

The man had a big pair of cajones. He lived life and wrested ever bit of living from it he could. He deserves to be remembered.

Additional sidenote: Houdini didn’t think he’d be remembered as a magician or escape artist. He thought he’d be famous for being the first man to fly a plane in Australia.

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