Houdini, Harry

BORN 24 Mar 1874, Budapest: Rakos-arok-Gasse 1 - DIED 31 Oct 1926, Detroit, Michigan: Grace Hospital, room 401
BIRTH NAME Weisz, Erik (Hungarian)/Ehrich Weiss (German)
CAUSE OF DEATH peritonitis resulting from appendicitis
GRAVE LOCATION New York City, New York: Machpelah Cemetery, 8230 Cypress Hills Street, Glendale, Queens (near the front gate)

Harry Houdini was born as Erik Weisz in Budapest. His father was a rabbi and his family emigrated to the USA in 1878. When he was 10 years old he performed as a trapeze artist. He became a professional magician and took his name from J.E. Robert-Houdin, his famous French example.

Initially he had little success. In 1893 he performed with his brother Dash (later known as Hardeen) at Coney Island and there he met fellow performer Bess Rahner. They married and Bess replaces Dash in the Houdini Act.

In 1899 his manager Martin Beck advised him to specializeconcentrate in escape acts and soon Houdini found himself performing at the better houses. In 1900 he went to Europe where he was an instant success. In many cities he escaped from restraints and prisons. After his return he bought a house at 278 W. 113th Street, Harlem, New York. During the next years he was very successful in the USA. In 1912 he first performed the act of the Chines Water Torture Cell where he had to hold his breath for three minutes. He also escaped from straitjackets while he was dangling on burning ropes. Startin in 1901 he made many movies and apart from his escape acts, Houdini was an enthousiastic aviator. But after flights in Germany and Australia he didn't fly again. In 1916 he had a short affair with Charmian Kettridge-London, Jack London's widow.

After the death of his mother Cecilia he started a crusade against psychics and mediums. He wrote about his efforts in "A Magician Among the Spirits" (1924). Houdini posessed a huge library on magicians as well as spiritualists and he had corresponded on the subject with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who believed in spiritualism. Their mutual interest had led to a friendship between the two men. In 1922 Doyle visited Houdini at West 113th Street and read the letters of D.D. Home and I. Davenport in Houdini's library. Doyle remarked that most books took a sceptic view and missed the monumental works of the believers. Houdini asked him for a list of books he should acquirre. On 17 Jun 1922 they had a seance in New Jersey where Lady Conan Doyle was the medium and a message of Houdini's mother came through in English. Houdini had serious doubts since his mother had never known English and the messagte didn't mention her birthday. Within two weeks he wrote in an article that he had never encountered a phenomenon that suggested that communication with the dead was possible. Soon he received an indignant letter from Conan Doyle. Their friendship turned sour and ended with a last letter of Doyle to Houdini on 26 Feb 1924. Perhaps Houdini went too far when on 2 Jan 1925 Houdini he spoke in Sympathy Hall in Boston and called Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Oliver Lodge 'menaces to mankind'. After that moment one of the spectators stood up and shouted 'I know one thing you can't do, Houdini. Fill this hall twice like Conan Doyle did!'.

In 1926 Houdini was reclining on a couch after a performance. A student named J. Gordon Whitehead asked if the claim that he could take any blow to the stomach was true. Houdini said it was true and Whitehead immediately hit him three times. Houdini was unprepared and protested but he probably received several more blows and was in pain. He didn't seek medical advise and continued performing and travelled 1.000 miles by train to Detroit to perform at the Garrick Theatre. In Detroit he was diagnosed with acute appendicities, but he insisted on performing and manage to complete his performance. Afterwards he collapsed and was rushed Grace Hospital. He was operated twirce before he died there on October 31st.

After his death spiritualists tried to contact his spirits, involving his widow Bess. They claimed that the code word that he had left her came through and Bess' position was unclear. But by 1930 she was convinced that no communication with Houdini had taken place.

In 1993 Houdini's gravesite was severely damaged by vandals. Magician David Copperfield donated $15.000 to the Society of American Magicians for its repair. During his life Houdini had visited the gravesites of other magicians and also paid for restorations. The bust atop of the grave was stolen on 15 Aug 1983 and recovered after 19 years.

Related persons
• was a friend of Doyle, Arthur Conan
• cooperated with Grossman, Harry

30/10/1922Houdini denies having observed any evidence of contact with the death. He stated in an article in the New York Sun that he had an open mind, but that he never had seen anyhing that pointed in the direction of communication with the death. Thirteen days earlier he had participated in a seance together with Arthur Conan Doyle. Houdini didn't refer to this event, but Doyle took it badly and wrote Houdini an irritated letter. [Doyle, Arthur Conan ]
2/1/1925Harry Houdini publicly scolds Arthur Conan Doyle at the Sympathy Hall in Boston. He also raged against Oliver Lodge. Houdini called them 'menaces to mankind'. That same day he had brought $5,000 to mayor Curley of Boston, to be paid to someone that would produce a spiritualist phenomenon that he wouldn't be able to reproduce as a magician. Nobody took the bet. Doyle and Lodge were strong promotors of spiritualism. His attack didn't please the audience and one spectator shouted: 'I know one trick you can't do, Houdini. Fill this hall twice like Conan Doyle did!'. Doyle had previously spoken at the Sympathy Hall. [Doyle, Arthur Conan ]
31/10/1936Last Houdini seance on the tenth anniversary of his death at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood. The seance took place on top of the hotel. Nothing happened and after this seance his widow Bess was convinced that she wouldn't be in contact with him in this life. The spiritualists were shocked when she declared in public that she didn't believe in spiritualism. 
30/10/1976Houdini seance at his gravesite. It was the evening before the fiftieth anniversary of Houdini's death. 
31/10/1976Seance in the room where Harry Houdini died, fifty years after his death. Nothing happened. Houdini died at the Grace Hospital in Detroit, Michigan. 


The grave of Harry Houdini at Mechpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York City.
Picture by Androom (16 Apr 2008)


The grave of Harry Houdini at Mechpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York City.
Picture by Androom (16 Apr 2008)


• Christopher, Milbourne, Houdini: The Untold Story, Pocket Books, New York, 1975
Harry Houdini - Wikipedia
Jack and Charmian London | American Experience | Official Site | PBS

Hourlier, Louis

Published: 27 Apr 2008
Last update: 21 Feb 2024