Harry Houdini: Remembering One of the Greats
The last time we talked about a famous illusionist, we were remembering The Amazing Randi. Randi was a man who dedicated his life to science, and to the debunking of so-called “magicians.” Today, we’re talking about a man who kept his secrets guarded. That’s right, we’re talking about one of the greatest illusionists of all time — Harry Houdini.
Erik Weisz (known as Harry Houdini), was born in Hungary in March of 1874. His parents were named Mayer Samuel Weisz and Cecilia Steiner, and he was one of seven children. The family immigrated to the United States in 1878 and settled in Appleton, Wisconsin in an area that is now known as Houdini square.
In 1887, the family hit hard times when Harry’s father (a rabbi) lost his job. He and his father moved to New York City in search of work, where they lived in a boarding house on East 79th Street. The rest of the family joined them in NYC when they found permanent housing.
Houdini started performing as a way to make money for his family from a young age. His public debut was at 9 years old when he began performing trapeze stunts under the name “Ehrich the Prince of the Air.”
Harry always had an interest in magic and stunt work and was trained as a teenager by magician Joseph Rinn. His career as we know it officially began when he was on a vaudeville tour of Europe. He would challenge police officers to handcuff him, and astound them through his escape.
Houdini was one of the greatest escape artists of all time. He started with handcuffs and sealed milk containers and quickly escalated when audiences grew tired of watching him perform “low stakes” tricks.
With someone as beloved as Houdini, it’s hard to say which trick was his most “famous.” But here is a quick rundown of a few that we love —
The Water Torture Cell
Houdini is suspended from his ankles and dunked into a glass box filled with water. There were two movies made after his death that credited this trick with his demise. In reality, it had nothing to do with his death.
Suspended Straightjacket Escape
This trick might actually be Houdini’s most well-known. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Houdini would don a straightjacket and escape from it while suspended upside down.
The Vanishing Elephant
Where Houdini famously made an entire elephant disappear in front of a live audience.
A Peek Behind the Veil
Many magicians consider the explanation behind famous tricks to be a breach of the “magician’s code,” we think that it’s a fascinating and important part of our mission to educate our visitors. So, if you don’t want to take a look behind the veil, you can opt-out of the rest of this blog post. But, if you’re curious like us, keep reading for some of the secrets behind Houdini’s best-known tricks.
Houdini actually revealed the truth behind this illusion himself in his 1910 book titled Handcuff Escapes. He admitted that the trick was successful because he was able to acquire slack inside the straightjacket as it was put on. While he was being strapped into the jacket, he made sure that his arms were crossed (not folded), across his chest. He also ensured that his dominant (right) arm was on top.
He made sure that there was slack at the front of the jacket, and then he took a huge breath to expand his chest when the jacket was buckled. This way he had plenty of room to wiggle out of the straightjacket.
The Vanishing Elephant
The secret to the vanishing elephant lies in the theater in which the trick was performed. No audience member had a perfect view of the cabinet in which the elephant disappeared.
There is some dispute behind how the cabinet actually functions (discussed at length in this article), but one thing that is for certain is that the audience’s position in the theater allowed Houdini to discreetly pull a curtain in front of the elephant.
Obviously, Houdini is one of the greatest illusionists of all time. We love him for his work, and for the lasting impact that he has on the world of illusions. Do you have a favorite Houdini illusion? Reach out to us on Instagram and let us know!
As always, if you’re looking to learn more about optical illusions, then now is the best time to plan a visit to the Museum of Illusions NYC. Click here to plan your visit, and don’t forget to bring your mask and proof of vaccination!