Harry Houdini

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Houdini in 1899

Harry Houdini (born Erik Weisz in Budapest, later Ehrich Weiss or Harry Weiss; March 24, 1874 – October 31, 1926) was a Hungarian-American illusionist and stunt performer, noted for his sensational escape acts. He first attracted notice as "Harry Handcuff Houdini" on a tour of Europe, where he challenged police forces to keep him locked up. Soon he extended his repertoire to include chains, ropes slung from skyscrapers, straitjackets under water, and having to hold his breath inside a sealed milk can.

In 1904, thousands watched as he tried to escape from special handcuffs commissioned by London's Daily Mirror, keeping them in suspense for an hour. Another stunt saw him buried alive and only just able to claw himself to the surface, emerging in a state of near-breakdown. While many suspected that these escapes were faked, Houdini presented himself as the scourge of fake magicians and spiritualists. As President of the Society of American Magicians, he was keen to uphold professional standards and expose fraudulent artists. He was also quick to sue anyone who pirated his escape stunts.

Houdini made several movies, but quit acting when it failed to bring in money. He was also a keen aviator, and aimed to become the first man to fly a plane in Australia.

He died from a burst appendix in October 1926. (Not, as a certain film would have it, all but drowning in his infamous Water Torture Cell.)

Harry Houdini is the Trope Namer for:
Harry Houdini provides examples of the following tropes:
  • Arch Enemy: Houdini was this to many mediums and spiritualists in the early 20th century. He was subject to abuse, threats and more from them because of his campaign to expose them as frauds.
  • Biopic: Houdini has been the subject of movies, TV movies and miniseries. The most influential of these on the public imagination was the 1953 Tony Curtis vehicle Houdini, which unfortunately changed the cause of his death from appendicitis to a far more dramatic drowning.
  • Cardboard Prison: Just about any turn-of-the-century jail cell was this to Houdini, a fact amply demonstrated by the large number of police departments who challenged him to escape from their cells.
  • Charles Atlas Superpower: Houdini's physical conditioning verged upon this trope. Among the things he was capable of was effortlessly dislocating (and relocating) his shoulders, flexibility that would make a gymnast's eyes pop out, and a physical strength out of proportion to his apparent musculature.
  • Cool Key: Houdini had a large collection of keys, mostly Skeleton Keys, or simple generic keys like those for handcuffs. Given the era in which he lived -- the late 19th and early 20th century, before the invention of the modern tumbler lock -- they were almost all some variation on the classic medieval-looking key design.
  • Deceptively Simple Demonstration: Houdini frequently used this. Tricks seem more impressive if the audience only thinks they're difficult, for example in escaping from being locked in a safe. Ask yourself: are safes designed to keep people in, or out?
  • Dirty Cops: At least one police department who issued an escape challenge to Houdini took it as an insult when he succeeded, and then attempted to harass and embarrass him, to the point of arresting him for unspecified fraud.
  • Do Wrong Right: Houdini once wrote a book entitled The Right Way to Do Wrong: An Exposé of Successful Criminals.
  • Doing In the Wizard: Houdini's obsession later in life -- debunking and exposing fraudulent spiritualists and psychics. He wrote a book in 1924, A Magician Among the Spirits, detailing his efforts along these lines; after his death several more books were assembled from his private notes and papers and included more accounts.
    • Shortly before his death in 1926 Houdini asked H.P. Lovecraft to ghostwrite a new work on the subject, to be entitled The Cancer of Superstition, but Bess Houdini canceled the project after he died. The material that Lovecraft had written up to that point was thought lost, but was rediscovered in early 2016.
  • Escape Artist: While certainly not the first, Houdini is the Trope Codifier and Ur Example; his name is synonymous with "escape artist", even nearly a century after his death. He was so good that police departments and major metropolitan newspapers would issue challenges to him.
  • Fatal Method Acting: Houdini would often allow visitors and guests to punch him in the stomach to demonstrate the strength of his abdominal muscles; he was exceptionally strong and flexible, part of what made him so successful as a stage magician. When given a moment to brace himself, he could withstand an impressively powerful blow. However, in late October of 1926, a McGill University student named J. Gordon Whitehead approached Houdini as he was laying on a couch with a broken ankle, asked him if it was true that he could take punches to the stomach, and then without warning delivered several "very hammer-like blows below the belt" (to quote one witness to the event). Houdini had been suffering from appendicitis already and the blows to his stomach likely ruptured his inflamed appendix. He collapsed on stage several days later from the peritonitis that led to his death shortly after.
    • Science Marches On - it's now thought that the blow wouldn't have actually ruptured the appendix, but that the pain from the appendix would have been misattributed to injury from the blow, without which Houdini might have sought medical treatment.
  • Hairpin Lockpick: Houdini routinely carried several short, stiff lengths of wire on him, which he could bend when needed into custom lockpicks.
  • Magic From Technology: Naturally, the secret behind Houdini's tricks. The various books assembled from his papers and published after his death by Walter B. Gibson exhaustively detailed the secrets behind his magic and his escapes. While Houdini really was a master lockpicker and could escape from most if not all honest restraints, most of his stage props were rigged or faked both to make it easier on him and to make the performance more dramatic.
  • Magician Detective: In the course of his side career of debunking spiritualists and mediums, Houdini became essentially the patron saint of this trope.
  • Momma's Boy: Very much so. And it was his mother's death which spurred Houdini's obsession with unmasking the frauds and charlatans who preyed on the grief-stricken in the guise of mediums and spiritualists.
  • Named After Somebody Famous: "Houdini" means "like Houdin", and reflected his early admiration of the 19th-century French stage magician Robert-Houdin.
  • Nice Jewish Boy: Despite hiding behind a French-inspired name and being very aggressive and flamboyant in his stage persona, Houdini was in fact almost a stereotypical Nice Jewish Boy.
  • Person as Verb: "(Pulling/doing a) Houdini" as a synonym for making an escape or jailbreak is very common.
  • Phony Psychic: Houdini dedicated his life to exposing and ruining bogus spiritualists and other mystically-themed con artists.
  • The Power of Acting: Houdini was, above all, a consummate showman and could carry a performance in swim trunks with no equipment whatsoever.
  • Punch-Punch-Punch Uh-Oh: As noted under Fatal Method Acting Above, Houdini would allow visitors and guests to punch him in the stomach to demonstrate the strength of his abdominal muscles. When properly prepared (which he wasn't on the night of his death), he could take an amazing amount of damage without apparent effect.
  • Safecracking: Another of Houdini's skills, although to be fair most safes used in his act were gimmicked for both safety and drama. However, he frequently allowed himself to be locked in bank vaults and other safes provided by the public as part of promoting his stage show.
  • Skeleton Key: Houdini had a rather large collection, and kept some on (and sometimes in) his person at all times.
  • Sleight of Tongue: Houdini's wife Bess is said to have aided him in this fashion on several occasions.
  • Slipped the Ropes: Houdini did this a lot. On more than one occasion, police officers he challenged handcuffed him to something and walked away, saying, "We'll be back for you in an hour." Before they reached the door, Houdini would walk up to them and say, "Take your handcuffs with you."
  • Stage Magician: Most people don't remember that Houdini started out as a stage magician, and his escape artist stunts were mainly a sideline to his magic act which he used to drum up publicity for his shows.
  • Super Not-Drowning Skills: Houdini's magic tricks required him to hold his breath for three minutes, which is bordering on superhuman. Various rumors indicated that he could hold his breath longer were created by some of his tricks, or confusion with details of other feats as well (e.g. surviving 1 hour 30 minutes in a sealed casket underwater by controlled breathing).
  • Swallow the Key: One of his techniques for getting keys past strip searches and other inspections; he would then regurgitate the key when he needed it.
  • Trust Password: Houdini set one up with his wife Bess to test any spiritualist or psychic who claimed to have communicated with his spirit after death -- a code phrase that he would send across to verify that the medium was for real. To the shock of almost no one, no medium who claimed to have reached his spirit after he died in 1926 was able to provide the phrase.
  • Vaudeville: For most of his career, Houdini was not just a headline act, he was the highest-paid performer in all of American vaudeville.
  • Weird Trade Union: Houdini served as President of the Society of American Magicians from 1917 until his death in 1926.