Houdini, King of Handcuffs
Legendary magician and escape artist Harry Houdini married Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner on June 22, 1894. When they met, she was performing as one of the Floral Sisters at the Sea Beach Palace, in West Brighton Beach, New York; he was a virtually unknown magician. Partners in work and life for the next thirty-two years, the Houdinis never attempted escape from the bonds of matrimony.
“Houdini: houdinize, vt. To release or extricate oneself from confinement, bonds, or the like, as by wiggling out.”
Funk and Wagnall’s New Dictionary as quoted on Houdini Letterhead. The American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920.
Born in Budapest, Hungary, as Ehrich Weisz in 1874, the future Houdini emigrated with his family to Appleton, Wisconsin, when he was just a few years old. His father had been hired as the rabbi of a Jewish congregation there, but the job lasted only a few years. As the family struggled to make ends meet young Erich Weiss, as his name was now spelled, held a variety of low-skilled jobs and ran away from home at least once. Many stories, some of them fanciful, surround the early days of his performing career. In about 1890, in New York City, he adopted the name Harry Houdini as part of a Houdini Brothers magic act. The name was chosen to invoke the reputation of Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, the father of modern magic. In his solo performances as a magician, Houdini appeared in amusement parks, sideshows, and vaudeville. He also began to augment his act with handcuff tricks.
In the early years of their marriage, with Beatrice as his assistant, Houdini advertised that he had “escaped out of more handcuffs, manacles, and leg shackles than any other human being living.” By 1899, the “King of Handcuffs” had dropped magic from his act and left for a European tour, where he was acclaimed as a brilliant “escapologist.”
In 1904, Houdini returned to America triumphant. Over the next fifteen years, he perfected a series of amazing acts including extricating himself from the jail cell of presidential assassin Charles Guiteau, escaping from a water-filled milk can, and performing his world famous water torture cell routine. By the 1910s, he returned to magic and was soon embraced as a master magician as well as a brilliant escape artist. In 1918, hundreds gasped as Houdini made a 10,000-pound elephant disappear on the brightly lit stage of New York City’s Hippodrome Theater.
During the 1920s, Houdini dabbled in film, but primarily devoted himself to exposing fraudulent mediums—a campaign that resulted in a highly-publicized conflict with mystery writer and spiritualist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Ever the performer and self-promoter, Houdini brought his anti-spiritualist crusade to the stage. With hundreds watching, he revealed the techniques mediums used to “communicate” with the dead, and he authored a book, A Magician Among the Spirits, in 1924.
Wealthy and world famous, Beatrice and Harry Houdini celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary in 1914 on board the S.S. Imperator of the Hamburg-America Line. Fellow passenger Theodore Roosevelt was so amazed by Houdini’s shipboard performance that he invited Houdini to meet his grandchildren. Five years later, the couple celebrated their silver anniversary with a formal dinner party at the Alexandria Hotel. Their marriage held strong until Houdini’s sudden death on Halloween, October 31, 1926. The “Genius of Escape” was just fifty-two years old.
- Explore the Library of Congress’ Houdini collection, held in the Rare Book & Special Collections Division and online as part of American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920, which includes photographs and related items of personal memorabilia documenting Houdini’s life and career. Learn more about Houdini in the Biographical Chronology of his life.
- Read Today in History features about other twentieth-century entertainers including composer George M. Cohan, impresario Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., singer Sophie Tucker, and legendary dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
- Learn some of Houdini’s stage secrets in “Folklore of Stage People,” an interview text in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940, pages five and six of the second interview in this set.