“No prison can hold me; no hand or leg irons or steel locks can shackle me. No ropes or chains can keep me from my freedom.” These words were spoken by one of the greatest magicians to ever walk the earth. His art entertained the majority and left the rest puzzled. His legacy continued through other famous magicians who claim him as their inspiration. All of his contributions to the art of magic and the artists that he inspired to perform, started from humble beginnings. You may know Houdini as a magician, but you should know his story as an immigrant.
The very fabric of the United States is made of immigrants. Even with this in mind people immigrating in the 1920s faced many hardships. Some of these hardships could be traced back to the fact that “many English-speaking, native-born Americans of northern European descent the growing diversity of new languages, customs, and religions triggered anxiety and racial animosity”(Nativism). Even though these ideologies existed at the time one man strived above it all. He was born in 1874 as Ehrich Weisz in Budapest, Hungary to a Jewish Rabbi with his six siblings. As a young boy he moved from budapest to Appleton, Wisconsin with his father. He later claimed that Appleton was his place of birth to presumably escape the possible prejudice that would come from being an immigrant. As immigrants at the time Erich and his family were every poverty stricken. Once Weisz reached the age of 13 it came time for him and many other children at the time to help support the family so, he was put to work doing odd jobs in New York. These jobs included as shining shoes, selling newspapers and factory work. He was first introduced to magic by the illusions of the traveling circuses that would pass through the city(Meadows). This first exposure sparked an obsession to learn how these acts were performed. He was devoted to his mother and His first ever account of him performing was hiding money throughout his close and as his mother would shake him the money would fall and he claimed that he was indeed “magic”(Meadows). Ehrich was forced to beg in the streets for spare coins like this due to the fact that his mother and father could not get high paying jobs because they were immigrants. He was still, even as a boy, able to merge his devotion to his family and his new found interest in magic.
In 1883 Ehrich debuted his first stage act as trapezist. He went under the name “Ehrich, the Prince of the Air”. At the age of twelve Ehrich and his brother Theo began taking an interest in magic. Ehrich biggest idol was French magician Robert Houdin. After reading a book by Robert Houdin about magic his passion was cemented and young Ehrich Weisz was now Harry Houdini. At 17 Houdini left his family and pursued his magic career. By the age of twenty he had performed some small shows around New York. He performed next to snake charmers human oddities and fire breathers. In 1899 Harry caught the attention of entertainment manager Martin Beck who got him booked at some of the foremost vaudeville venues in the country. Harrys famous trick he began his career with was called “Metamorphosis”. In this trick an assistant is locked in a box and a curtain is raised. Within a mere few seconds when the curtain drew Harry had switched spots with his assistant. His assistant’s name was Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner. She later became his wife. One of Harry’s hobbies was handcuffs. He revealed that almost all handcuffs can be unlocked by a single key or a bent piece of metal. He collected handcuffs, took them apart and studied their mechanisms. He would go through town to town breaking free of police handcuffs as well as trick handcuffs that some spectators may have brought. Harry continued on his career of escaping with a new introduction of the straightjacket added to his arsenal of tricks. He had his arms crossed and was strapped in and carried behind a curtain. Through extreme body contortion of almost every muscle he was able to squirm out, break through the curtain and end the show with a bow. As houdini’s fame spread all across the world he wanted to take his talent abroad. In July of 1900 he performed at Alhambra Theatre in London. After he toured the continent setting box-office records in Berlin and Dresden. Within a year Harry became famous worldwide. He went on to perform tricks such as “Chinese Water Torture” and “Vanishing Elephant”. Sadly his fame was to a degree short lived. In 1926 he died as a result of a ruptured appendix. This was caused by a blow to the abdomen by McGill University student named J. Gordon Whitehead. He approached Houdini’s dressing room asking if he could withstand a blow to the stomach as harry previously proclaimed. Harry was struck four times. He went on the next two days in extreme pain without seeking medical attention. He was advised to get immediate surgery but decided to continue performing. By the time he received medical attention and his appendix removed it was too late. His appendix had already ruptured. Harry Houdini died on October 31, 1926.
When you think of the word magician, you think of the legendary harry Houdini. He not only entertained the masses with his death defying escapes, but he inspired a new breed of magicians to continue dazzling the masses. Houdini’s was able to succeed in life but thrive despite his humble beginnings. Most people had know idea that a man with such talent and raw ambition could have ever had to face the the struggles of being a poor immigrant. The great Houdini should not be remembered and praised by you only for his feats as quite possibly the greatest magician to walk the earth, but also achieving all of this with his background as a poor immigrant.
Article by Hank Sanford and Connor King
Meadows, Michael, director. Houdini – Unlocking the Mystery. Houdini – Unlocking the Mystery, New Wave Entertainment,
30 Oct. 2005, www.youtube.com/watch?v=72IBUiXJogc.
“Nativism and Fundamentalism in the 1920s (Article).” Khan Academy, www.khanacademy.org/humanities/us-history/rise