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The Llewellyn Encyclopedia

Term: Houdini


Houdini: Born Ehrich Weiss (1874–1926) in Budapest, Hungary, and moved with his family to the US in 1878. At 9, he made his public debut as a trapeze artist. He also spent time working as a locksmith. Houdini started performing magic tricks professionally, especially with cards and coins, in 1891. He added handcuff escapes. Met and married Bess Rahner in 1893. He and Bess had an act where she was a psychic medium, but they abandoned it when their agent tells them to focus on escapes. They go to Europe and by 1904 he became a huge star.

Many conjurors today acknowledge that Houdini was not the best magician of his day, but he was certainly the best advertiser and publicist. Even so, by the 1920s his career was flagging and he needed a new publicity focus. Combining his knowledge of magic, locksmithing, and earlier work as a fake medium, he started to debunk small-time mediums and psychics. When he went up against well-known medium “Margery” (Mrs. Mina Crandon), a furor took place. At first, she was declared real by a scientific committee, but after Houdini participated in tests with her, the declaration was rescinded. Houdini’s assistant at the time, James Collins, alleged that Houdini had him place false evidence against her during a test. There is still a great deal of debate over Margery.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, became a friend of Houdini. However, Doyle’s belief in mediums and Houdini’s antipathy toward them eventually broke their friendship.

Houdini died on Halloween in 1926 from appendicitis and peritonitis. A recent book claims that Houdini was also a spy and that his death was murder.


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