The Early Life of Houdini
Harry and Bessie Houdini in 1894
Harry Houdini began his career at 17, doing small magic shows with his brother in music halls and sideshows. By 1895, Harry and his new wife, Beatrice Raymond, had joined the Welsh Brothers Circus where they sang and danced and performed a trick called “metamorphosis,” in which they switched places in a locked trunk. During this time, Houdini worked on his voice and showmanship and most important to his career, became an expert at handcuffs. This expertise in escape would allow Houdini to become an international superstar.
With each arrival in a new town, Houdini would offer $100 to anyone who provided handcuffs he could not escape, including the local police. He never had to pay the $100. His easy escapes provided excellent publicity for his shows and he quickly became a headliner, playing in large cities across the country. Observers across the country gathered to see Houdini when he came to town, mesmerized by his ability to seemingly escape any restraint.
Harry’s popularity spread throughout the United States and in 1900, he and Beatrice took their show to England. Though they arrived with no bookings and only $100, Houdini garnered popularity in Europe after successfully breaking free from a pillar, while handcuffed in Scotland Yard. To further increase publicity, he began to jump into rivers while handcuffed and chained. Allowing the suspense to build, Houdini would often remain underwater long after observers believed he could survive, only to rise up, waving the chains above his head. These stunts worked and Houdini’s fame spread quickly throughout Europe, leading to sold out engagements.
In 1905, after returning to the United States, Houdini’s popularity continued to grow as he performed more and more daring feats. He escaped from a prison cell, freed himself from a straitjacket while hanging upside down and broke free from a packing crate that was nailed shut and immersed underwater.
Houdini was able to perform these feats by keeping in excellent physical and mental health. He installed an oversized bathtub in his house to increase his lung capacity and to practice being underwater for long periods of time. He trained himself to use his right and left hands with equal skill and would continually perform card and coin tricks without looking at his hands, in order to refine his skill. Houdini would even practice tying and untying rope knots with his feet. Determined to remain a popular and relevant entertainer, Houdini continually worked on his techniques and created new and more daring escapes.