Houdini's Many Acts and Illusions
Harry Houdini began his professional career at age 17 doing magic shows before civic groups, in music halls, at sideshows, and at New York’s Coney Island amusement park, where he sometimes performed 20 shows each day. For a time he worked with his brother Theo as The Houdini Brothers. This changed when Harry met Beatrice Raymond, a teenaged singer and dancer who was also attempting a career in show business. Harry and Bess married in 1894 and Bess joined the act as Harry’s new partner. (Theo started a solo career as a magician under the name Hardeen.) Harry and Bess remained devoted companions for the rest of his life. He depended on her to care for him and handle the necessities of life. Harry gave her the credit for his success, and developed the habit of writing her a love note every day.
In 1895, the Houdinis joined the Welsh Brothers Circus for six months. Harry did magic, Bess sang and danced, and together they performed a trick called “Metamorphosis,” in which they switched places in a locked trunk. Not satisfied with the small scale of the act, Harry continued to work on new tricks and to develop his speaking voice and showmanship. He also became an expert at handcuffs. Arriving in a new town, Houdini would claim the ability to escape from any handcuffs provided by the local police. His easy escapes provided excellent publicity for his shows. Houdini offered $100 to anyone who provided handcuffs from which he could not escape, but he never had to pay. Through his increasingly complex escapes and his shrewd use of publicity, Houdini became a headliner on the vaudeville circuit, playing in cities across the country. Not satisfied with that low level of fame, however, Houdini decided to gamble by taking his act to Europe.
In 1900, Harry and Bess sailed to England with no bookings and only enough money to survive a week. Houdini was able to get an engagement at a London theater, but his breakthrough came when he successfully broke free after being wrapped around a pillar and handcuffed at Scotland Yard. The publicity from that escape caused the theater to extend Houdini’s booking. His fame quickly spread and he eventually played there for six months. Sold-out engagements quickly followed in Germany and then throughout Europe. Wherever he went, Houdini called upon local police to restrain him, but he continually confounded the authorities and escaped. To increase publicity, he also jumped into rivers while handcuffed and chained. Allowing the suspense to build, Houdini remained underwater long after many observers were certain he couldn’t survive, only to spring up, waving the chains over his head.
By the time Houdini returned to the United States in 1905, he was an international celebrity. Among the stunts performed to publicize his American appearances, Houdini escaped from the prison cell that held the assassin of President James Garfield, squirmed from a straitjacket while hanging upside down, and broke free from a packing crate that had been nailed shut and immersed underwater. This showmanship also extended to his act. As a regular feature of his performances, Houdini was shackled and lowered into an oversize milk can filled with water and then hidden by a curtain. Though he was usually able to escape in three minutes, Houdini frequently stayed behind the curtain for up to a half hour, making his re-appearance all the more dramatic. On one occasion in England, Houdini allowed the milk can to be filled with beer rather than water. As someone who never drank alcohol, Houdini was not used to the effects of the beer and had to be pulled to safety by his assistants. It was one of his rare failures.
Houdini was able to perform his difficult feats by remaining in excellent physical and mental condition. He pushed himself relentlessly. To develop his capacity for holding his breath, Houdini installed an oversize bathtub in his house so that he could practice regularly. Through extensive training, he was able use his left hand nearly as well as his right. While casually chatting with friends, he would perform card and coin tricks without looking at his hands, or tie and untie knots in pieces of rope with his feet. Determined to stay on top of the entertainment field, Houdini refined techniques he had already mastered and continually developed new and more daring escapes.