Harry Houdini was born in Hungary before emigrating to the United States with his family in 1878. Born as Erik Weisz, the family adopted the German spelling of their names on arrival to the US and thus he became Ehrich Weiss. Weiss’ performance debut was from being as little as 9 years old as a trapeze artist, calling himself “Ehrich the Prince of Air”. Erich stylised himself as Harry “Handcuff” Houdini upon starting his career as a professional magician, naming himself after two of his magical idols: American magician Harry Kellar and French magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin. Houdini would go on to become the famous magician, escape artist, and illusionist in the entire world.

Houdini began his career as a magician in 1891, but had little success in the early years, performing in low end venues for a pittance and even doubling as a circus freakshow act on the side. Houdini was noted as lacking the finesse of sleight of hand to perform close-up card magic and similar tricks based on misdirection. His big break came in 1899 when he met agent Martin Beck who was impressed by Houdini’s handcuff act and advised him to focus on escapology. In 1900 Beck arranged a European tour for Houdini.

Houdini took Great Britain by storm and, after baffling the police of Scotland Yard by escaping from their handcuffs, he was booked at the Alhambra, a prominent West End theatre, for six months. Between 1900 and 1920 Houdini performed across Britain, Germany, France, Russia, and the United States, becoming one of the most well-paid entertainers in the world. Houdini gained prominence in each city by directly challenging their local police forces to restrain him, often with him being strip searched for keys or lockpicks beforehand. He would free himself from handcuffs, chains, straight-jackets, ropes, and prison cells, often leaving no evidence of how he achieved his escape.

Houdini retired his handcuff escape act due to many impersonators plagiarising the act, and he began becoming more creative with his escape attempts. He invented many now-iconic forms of escape act, often submerged in water, such as the milk can escape and the water torture cell escape, he even escaped being nailed into a coffin and dropped into the sea and was buried alive on multiple occasions. These creative, unique, and most importantly life-threatening acts thrilled audiences and Houdini’s fame skyrocketed. Check out part two next week for more on these career-defining tricks and the heart-breaking death of Harry Houdini!

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