Harry Houdini was born on March 24th 1874 in Budapest, Hungary, with the name of Ehrich Weisz. He was one of six children and the son of Rabbi Mayer Weisz and his second wife, Cecilia Steiner. In 1876, Mayer Weisz immigrated to the United States with the dream of a better life. He found work as a rabbi and changed his last name to Weiss. In 1876, the remainder of the family joined him in the United States.
The family moved to Milwaukee when Ehrich was eight years old. During his early years, Ehrich sold newspapers and shined shoes to help support the family. On October 28, 1883, nine year old Ehrich made his first appearance on stage, performing a trapeze act. He billed himself, “Ehrich, the Prince of the Air.” At 12, Ehrich hopped a freight car and ran away from home. A year later her returned to New York and continued to help support his family by working as a messenger, necktie cutter, and photography assistant. Nothing is known of his year away from his family.
About this time, Ehrich and his brother Theo began to pursue an interest in magic. As a stage name, Ehrich Weiss became Harry Houdini by adding an ‘I’ to the last name of his idol, French magician Robert Houdin. Harry is simply an Americanised version of his nickname, Ehrie. At 17, Ehrich, now known as Harry Houdini, left his family to pursue his magic career. By the age of twenty, Harry had been performing small acts throughout New York. He soon married and joined a circus where he began to develop and perfect his escape tricks.
Through the years, Houdini gained fame after repeatedly escaping from police handcuffs and jails. Harry was even given certificates from various wardens for escaping from their prisons. After making his name in America, Harry toured Europe, where he expanded his repertoire by escaping from straitjackets and coffins. Eventually, Harry was able to accomplish his dream of having a full show dedicated to his magic.
In his later years, Harry took his talent to the film studios, where he both acted and started his own film laboratory called The Film Development Corporation. Years later, Harry would receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In addition, Harry showed interest in the field of aviation and was the first person to ever fly over Australian soil.
In the 1920s, Harry became interested in the occult, specifically in debunking mediums and psychics. His training in magic helped him expose frauds that scientists and academics could not. He chronicled his time investigating the occult in his book, A Magician Among the Spirits.
In 1926 Houdini ‘officially’ died as a result of a ruptured appendix, after suffering a blow to the abdomen by university student J. Gordon Whitehead.
Houdini refused to seek medical help and continued to travel, eventually succumbing to peritonitis on October 24th 1926 at the age of 52.
Chronicling the life of a man such as Houdini is easy.
His accomplishments are well reported and stage and TV illusionists to this day draw inspiration from the great man.
But the greatest mystery, one which still is the cause of much controversy among theatre historians and fans, is not his seemingly impossible feats of escape, but the manner of his death.
Medical science today, tells us that it is almost impossible for an appendix to be ruptured by blunt trauma caused by a punch for example.
In fact, coroners still maintain that it is more likely that he was poisoned than killed by a perforated appendix.
So why the confusion over the cause of death and why would the more likely explanation need to be covered up?
It is on record that Houdini’s life was threatened a number of times, both Harry and his wife had also suffered from non-specific poisoning in the weeks prior to his death.
A clue could be that an organised network of spiritualist fanatics, who Houdini had publicly humiliated by proving them fraudulent, had worked relentlessly to orchestrate a campaign to destroy his legacy following his death.
The leader of this network was none other than Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle, who is suspected of sending a Spiritualist Minister named Arthur Ford to seduce Houdini’s widow, then organised a bogus seance where Houdini had ‘returned’ to tell the world that the Spiritualists were right all along.
Another clue as to the manner of his ‘official’ cause of death could be that Houdini had a very rare, though harmless medical condition called ‘Situs Inversus’.
Situs Inversus, as any medical textbook will tell you, is where the major organs of the body are ‘reversed’, so the appendix would not have been on the right side of Houdini’s body where the fatal blows were struck.
That was another curious omission from the original coroner’s report, which again throws up more questions than offers answers.
So was he murdered to protect the reputation of one of Britain’s most respected writers, the creator of Sherlock Holmes no less, who although fictitious, still brings thousands of Tourists to Britain each year?
The same Conan Doyle who may also have been the perpetrator of the Piltdown Man hoax of 1912, by creating the fake fossil that fooled the scientific world for over 40 years.
It is suspected that the motive for this elaborate hoax was to get revenge on the scientific establishment for debunking one of his favourite psychics…..
Or is it just me who remains unconvinced by the official story?
Houdini’s funeral was held on November 4, 1926 in New York with more than 2,000 mourners in attendance. He was buried in Queens, New York at the Machpelah Cemetery with the crest of the Society of American Magicians inscribed on his grave.
The Society still holds its “Broken Wand” ceremony every November at Houdini’s gravesite to this day.
Bess Houdini died in 1943 but was not allowed to be buried alongside her husband as she had requested, because she was not of Jewish descent.