He was born Ehrich Weiss on March 24, 1874, to Rabbi Samuel Weiss and his wife, Cecelia, in Budapest, Hungary. By 1887, though, the family was in chaotic and pulsing New York City, and four years after that, young Ehrich created a magic act with a friend named Jacob Hyman. They called themselves the Brothers Houdini, and Ehrich chose a new first name, Harry.
Hyman went his own way, and by the final year of the 1890s, the man known as Harry Houdini was the hottest attraction in vaudeville, thanks to his extraordinary, mystifying handcuff-escape tricks. His trip to Europe in 1900 turned him into an international star, and his escape tricks became more elaborate. In 1904 at London’s Hippodrome, he performed his “Mirror Cuff” escape, an hourlong escape from specially made cuffs with nesting locks.
In 1906, he escaped from the jail in Washington, D.C., where Charles Guiteau, the man who assassinated President James A. Garfield, was held, and the following year he performed his first “manacled bridge jumps” in Rochester, N.Y. In 1912, Scientific American magazine declared that his underwater box escape from the East River in New York was “one of the most remarkable tricks ever performed.”
Then a new type of fame beckoned him. And not even Harry Houdini could escape the siren call of the silver screen.
In 1919, having already conquered the stage, the superstar of illusion and escape set out to become a master of motion pictures.
The stage showman became an early-days action star in “The Master Mystery,” a 15-episode serial from 1919; “Terror Island” from 1920; “The Man From Beyond” from 1922, which he also wrote and produced; “Haldane of the Secret Service” from 1923; and a surviving five-minute fragment of “The Grim Game” from 1923.
After his foray into film, Houdini continued to work on stage, finally hitting Broadway in 1925 with the 2 1/2-hour extravaganza entitled “HOUDINI,” featuring tricks, illusions, his most famous escapes and an expose on spiritualism.