The third child born to Mayer Sámuel Weisz, a rabbi, and his second wife, Cecília, in Budapest, in 1874, Erik Weisz was just 4 years old when he left cosmopolitan Hungary for a new life with his family in Appleton, Wisconsin, population about 5,000 then.
Rabbi Weisz took up new duties leading Appleton’s Zion Reform Jewish Congregation and Erik had his first name change, to Ehrich Weiss. The Weiss family fell into poverty, however, and by the time Ehrich was 9, he was living in a boarding house in New York City with his family and trying to make money on his own. That was when he had his debut as a pint-sized trapeze artist known as “Ehrich, the Prince of the Air.”
At the city’s Pastime Athletic Club, Weiss was coached in running by Joseph Rinn, a magician. It may have been Rinn who recommended a book to Weiss, the autobiography of Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, the French watchmaker and illusionist.
Weiss changed his name again and made his debut as a professional magician – as the 17-year-old Harry Houdini. He performed card tricks and appeared in a tent show with Emil Jarrow, a teenaged strongman who had gotten his start with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in Germany.
Houdini was by some accounts just mediocre at the sleight-of-hand work but he persisted, sometimes performing at Coney Island with his sibling Theodore, billed as Dash, in the Houdini Brothers.
He took to the road, performing at vaudeville houses, but he was 25 before he caught a break, when he met manager Martin Beck in St. Paul, Minnesota. By then, Houdini was performing an act in which he escaped from handcuffs. Beck urged him to pursue the escape business, and got Houdini booked into bigger theaters, then on a European tour.
In London, at Scotland Yard, the headquarters of the metropolitan police, he gave a demonstration of an escape from handcuffs that baffled police and led to a hit show at the city’s Alhambra theater, where his salary rose to $300 a week – about $9,000 in today’s money.
Now known as The Handcuff King, Houdini toured Europe, challenging local police to restrain him. He always managed to escape, sometimes from jail cells naked, which handily promoted the next show.
He returned to the U.S. a star. He traveled the country again, this time in better style, and upped the ante, discarding handcuffs and escaping from locked, water-filled containers (sometimes, in a cross-promotion, local brewers had him escape from a sealed vat of their beer). Soon he needed a new angle.
On Sept. 21, 1912, when he was 38, appearing at the Circus Busch in Berlin, Houdini publicly debuted his most famous escape, from “the Chinese Water Torture Cell.” A locked glass cabinet was filled with water and the magician was suspended upside-down in it with his feet locked to the top. To complete the escape, he trained to be able to hold his breath underwater for more than three minutes.
It was a sensation in Germany and, eventually, nearly throughout the world. Houdini would go on performing it until his death in 1926, after he ruptured his appendix. How did he do it?
“I’m just a clever guy getting out of stuff,” he once explained mysteriously.
The magician Teller might have offered a better clue when he was interviewed for a 2017 article and said, “I have in fact had a very close look at the water torture cell, which is shockingly small. You picture it as this towering thing. But it was a compact, efficient thing. ... It’s a brilliant piece of mechanics.”
And that was magic.