Picture of Harry Houdini in 1899 at age 25

By Den Ardinger 32° KCCH

Harry Houdini, known by many as the finest magician of any age, was born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary on March 24, 1874.  He was the son of Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weisz and Cecilia Steiner and was one of seven children.  The family came to the United States in July 1878 and settled in Appleton, Wisconsin where the spelling of his name became Ehrich Weiss.  His father became an American citizen in 1882.

His father was not very successful and the poverty of the family forced them to move frequently; first to Milwaukee and then to New York City.

Ehrich was a born showman and athlete and at the age of nine made his public debut as a trapeze artist calling himself “Ehrich, the Prince of the Air.” Once he became a professional magician, he began calling himself Harry Houdini after the French magician, Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin who he greatly admired.  Houdini had been trained in performing magic as a teenager by Joseph Rinn who inspired him to take up the craft and perform in sideshows wherever he could. 

In 1894 he met his future wife, Wilhelmina Beatrice “Bess” Rahner, who was also a performer.  After they married, Bess was his stage assistant for the rest of his life.

As a performer, Houdini traveled widely and specialized in more and more complex escape tricks with each becoming more daring than the last.  By 1899 he was concentrating on escape acts and was performing with the best vaudeville actors in the country.  In 1900 he toured Europe and performed at the Alhambra Theatre for six months after baffling Scotland Yard with his ability to get out of handcuffs that they had no key for or by escaping from their most secure holding cells.

For twenty years he appeared all over the world and became one of the highest paid performers while doing mystifying dangerous escapes, card tricks, and other amazing stunts.  By 1908 he was famously escaping from a locked, water filled milk can.  As an athlete he had trained himself in breath control and he could hold his breath for very long periods of time.  During one act before a live audience, he appeared to hold his breath under water for eight minutes without panicking.

In 1923, Brother Harry Houdini became a Mason in St. Cecile Lodge No. 568, in New York City.  He received his Entered Apprentice Degree on July 17 and passed to Fellow Craft on July 31.  He was raised a Master Mason on August 21, 1923.  He was active in his Lodge and became a life member on October 30, 1923.   He was also a member of the Shrine Temple.

Although he never claimed to have supernatural powers, he commonly used advertising implying that he dematerialized to escape.  He encouraged the public to invent ways to hold him in, such as by nailing crates shut instead of locking them, locking him in a straight-jacket, suspending him by chains upside down while high in the air or confining him under water where he would then miraculously escape before live audiences in the thousands.  Many of his escapes have never been explained.

Harry Houdini died October 31, 1926, at the age of 52.  His cause of death is thought to have been the result of being punched in the stomach during a dare before he could prepare himself for the blow which resulted in appendicitis.  He died in Grace Hospital in Detroit, Michigan. 

Brother Harry Houdini, more than a man… a Mason.