Houdini, aka Eric the Great
While many choose to focus on the mysteries surrounding his sudden death, the early life of Harry Houdini is just as unusual and unknown. He was born in Budapest, the son of a Rabbi and the fourth child of a family readying to immigrate to America. His real name was Ehrich, though he was really Houdini even then.
Magic actually ran in his family, to a certain extent. One of his relatives was Compars Herrman, a popular magician in the mid-nineteenth century who was also the first magician to perform in the White House (in front of Abraham Lincoln.) Though Houdini never met Compars, other influences found him early.
One day during his childhood, a circus came to his hometown featuring a magician. According to The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini, this magician performed a wide variety of tricks, cutting off peoples’ limbs and plucking gold coins from thin air. But the coup de grace was a trick called Paligenesia, where a volunteer is chloroformed and has their body parts ripped off, then reassembled. Ouch! Allegedly, the magician messed up one of his tricks, exposing how he did it, and Houdini realized the secret behind the magic. The excitement surrounding the magician’s stunts and the challenge of figuring out how they were done enticed the young Houdini. Soon, he was on street corners putting on his own show.
There are several different accounts of his first attempts at performing, though there is some consensus that he was nine years old at the time. According to the BBC, he started by performing for some of his friends, under the stage name Ehrich, Prince of the Air, mostly doing contortionist stunts. (This was just the first of many pseudonyms. He would also go by Eric the Great and Cardo, before finally settling on Houdini.) In another account presented in the biography, Houdini “persuaded a visiting circus to pay him thirty-five cents to demonstrate his virtuosity at hanging upside down and picking up needles with his eyelashes.”
There is another early “magic trick” he performed which, while possibly just a myth, highlights the tense childhood Houdini had. His family was forced to live on very little money and Houdini worked odd jobs from a young age. One day, when he felt his parents were particularly despondent about their finances, Houdini panhandled for money, then returned home. From the biography: “When he got home he commanded his mother to ‘Shake me! I’m Magic!’ She obeyed, with gusto: coins sprayed everywhere. There was almost enough to pay the overdue rent.”
When he was 17, Ehrich read the memoir of Robert Houdin, a french magician, and soon after paid homage to the man and by taking his name. With his new identity, Houdini started to perform more frequently, often in small freak shows (essentially entertaining the crowd until the freaks arrived.) He slowly saved up money, and when he had earned enough, Houdini was able to purchase the rights to his first magic trick, the Metamorphosis (magicians would buy and sell the exclusive rights to use various tricks.) The trick featured Houdini handcuffed inside a trunk and a partner outside, and by the end the two had switched places. This was the first stunt Houdini performed on a proper stage, and the centerpiece of many of his early shows. Soon, he added more stunts involving handcuffs, a specialty of his.
Of these early performances, Houdini later said, “I generally kept very quiet, and tried to make a living, not knowing that I was developing my dexterity by working ten to fifteen times daily.” Soon, Houdini got married and started touring at slightly larger venues with his wife. But these performances were fraught with failure. In Nova Scotia, for example, he tried to free himself from a running horse, but it took too long and by the time he did, the audience was far behind him.
However the biggest problem during the first half of Houdini’s career was that audiences were only interested in acrobatic feats, card tricks and phony mind reading, while Houdini really just wanted to do escapes. Americans just assumed that if someone could escape from handcuffs, it meant the handcuffs were defective. It was Houdini who made people believe in the magic of escapes, not the other way around. Still, for several years in the mid-1890’s, Houdini forfeited his dream, but in 1898, he finally acted on it and got his first taste of fame. Houdini convinced a Chicago police station to lock him up naked in a cell only to escape minutes later. The next day, his picture was in the papers and global stardom was not far off. By following his deepest desires, he had unlocked the secret to success.