Harry Houdini For Kids

Have you ever seen or heard something that you couldn’t believe, as if it was magic? Maybe you’ve tried to learn some card tricks or other illusions to impress your family and friends. With enough practice and a convincing performance, anything is possible! 

According to the subject of this podcast, “What the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes.”

Our story begin is 1874 in Budapest Hungary, when Harry Houdini was born. He had six brothers and sisters. His real name was Erik Weisz. 

Erik’s family moved to the United States in 1878, and eventually settled in Wisconsin. The Houdinis were Jewish and their father was the rabbi for the local congregation. When his father lost his job, the family moved to Milwaukee, and eventually ended up in New York City. As a child, Erik took several jobs to help his family, and first showed off his skills as a trapeze artist when he was only nine years old. A trapeze artist hangs from a rope and does tricks in the air. His performing name was ‘Erik, the Prince of the Air.’

Erik was coached by the magician Joseph Rinn while he was a teenager. When he first started out, he did not have much success. He first performed in dime museums and sideshows, sometimes also performing as ‘The Wild Man’ at the circus. In the beginning he focused his show on card tricks, and he even called himself ‘The King of Cards’ for a short time. However, other professional magicians noted that Houdini lacked the grace and finesse – or style – to be a magician who was excellent at card tricks. Because of this, Houdini would start to experiment on escape acts. An example of an escape act, is when Houdini would put handcuffs on himself and then escape them before a timer ran out.

When Erik became a professional magician he started calling himself Harry Houdini, naming himself after the French magician jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin. Although he claimed he took the name Harry as a tribute to another magician, the American magician Harry Kellar, it is widely believed that it came from the nickname ‘Eri,’ which is what Erik’s family called him.

In 1894, Houdini was performing with his brother Theodore (also known as ‘Dash’) at Coney Island. Their act was called ‘The Brothers Houdini.’ While there, Erik met and courted a fellow performer named Wilhemina Beatrice ‘Bess’ Rahner. Eventually they would marry, and Bess replaced Theodore in the act, which changed its name to ‘The Houdinis.’ Bess became Houdini’s stage assistant for the rest of his life. 

Five years later, Houdini met a stage manager named Martin Beck in Minnesota. Beck was impressed by Houdini’s handcuffs act, and encouraged him to keep concentrating on his escape acts. Beck also asked Houdini to perform on the Orpheum Vaudeville circuit, which was a chain of movies and theaters where performers could take the stage with their act and perform in front of large audiences. Houdini’s act fit right in with the other types of vaudeville performers: musicians, dancers, comedians, trained animals, ventriloquists, and strongmen. After a few months on the circuit, Houdini was performing at top vaudeville houses all over the country.

The following year, Beck was able to send Houdini and his act on a tour of Europe. Although it took a few tries for Houdini to convince any stage managers to allow him to perform in their theaters, eventually he was able to interview with the manager of the Alhambra Theater. After a demonstration of his escape act from handcuffs at Scotland Yard, Houdini was booked at the Alhambra for six months. 

For the next twenty years Houdini would go on to perform all over Great Britain. He performed his escape acts, as well as card tricks, illusions, and outdoor stunts. At the time he was one of the world’s highest paid entertainers. He earned the nickname ‘The Handcuff King’ by traveling to places like the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Russia, and challenging the local police to lock him in their jails. In Russia, Houdini even escaped from a prison transport van.

Houdini also spent a lot of time performing in the United States. Many times he would perform for street audiences, and he escaped from jails, handcuffs, chains, ropes, and straitjackets. Around 1908, Houdini switched from escaping from handcuffs to escaping from other, more exciting traps, such as a locked, water-filled milk can. He even went so far as to challenge his audiences to come up with contraptions to try and hold him. Some examples are: nailed packing crates (both in and out of water), riveted boilers, wet sheets, mailbags, and even the belly of a whale that had washed ashore in Boston!

When Houdini was in Berlin, Germany in 1912, he introduced the Chinese Water Torture Cell into his act. During the performance, he was suspended upside-down in a locked glass and steel cabinet that was filled with water, requiring Houdini to hold his breath for over three minutes. This act was performed by Houdini for the rest of his life.

Houdini wrote a book for the magic brotherhood (his fellow performers and magicians) explaining some of his tricks. The book was called Handcuff Secrets, and he revealed how many locks and handcuffs could be opened with applied force or shoestrings. Houdini also discussed how he sometimes carried concealed lockpicks and keys. When he was tied down in ropes and straitjackets, he would gain room for his body by expanding his shoulders and chest and holding his arms slightly away from his body. 

Over the years, some of Houdini’s tricks would change as he discovered ways to make them more exciting. The straitjacket escape was first performed with Houdini behind a curtain, popping out when he was finally free. When he figured out that the audiences were more impressed when they could watch him struggle, Houdini eliminated the curtains. He would also sometimes attempt his straitjacket escapes while dangling upside-down from the roof of a building in the city. 

While Harry was known for his escape act and performances, he also performed other tricks. One of his most famous non-escape stage illusions was performed in New York, when he vanished a full-grown elephant from the stage. 

Houdini was very invested in supporting the work of both professional and amateur magicians. He served as the president of the Society of American Magicians for nine years. Houdini’s goal was to create a large unified network of magicians across the country. While on his vaudeville tours, Houdini would meet with the local magicians, give speeches, and throw banquets to convince them to join his Society. He was successful in places like Buffalo, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and even London. If a local club of magicians did not exist, Houdini would gather the local magicians, introduce them to each other, and encourage them to form a club. Houdini created the richest and longest-surviving organization of magicians in the world. At this time it is made up of almost six thousand members and nearly three hundred assemblies around the world. 

Houdini would film his outdoor escapes, which led him to acting and a film career. While he started a film production company, it was not successful. Some of the titles of the films that Houdini acted in are: The Grim Game, The Master Mystery, Terror Island, and The Man From Beyond.

Harry Houdini died from a ruptured appendix. It is believed that while he was suffering from appendicitis, a punch he received to his stomach made the illness worse. Houdini continued performing until his pain and the poor condition of his health forced him to be hospitalized. He passed away in 1926 in Detroit, Michigan. 

Harry started from very simple begins, but with lots of imagination, practice and determination he became a world-class entertainer. He spent many hours perfecting his skills and strengthening his body so he could perform the task. Like Harry, you can find something you want to improve at and stick with it until you become better at it. Physical exercise is also very good for your body.

Have you ever seen a magician or a magic trick before? Learning how to entertain others with magic can be fun. Recently, my daughter became interested in card tricks. We found a deck of cards and watched a few videos about how to do some basic tricks. When you find the time, you should try it to. It’s a fun skill to develop and is lots of fun to entertain your friends and family!