The Welsh Brothers circus is mentioned in chapter 27 of ragtime. In this chapter, Houdini learns that his mother has passed away. Houdini was obsessed with his mother. He was known for referring to her as the love of his life. Houdini was told upon his arrival that his mother was calling out his name before she died. Houdini became convinced that she was trying to tell him something. The Welsh brothers circus is brought up when Houdini was talking about believing in oculists. In the circus, one of his tricks was to blindfold himself and guess what item someone was holding in the audience. He knew that he used a code for such a trick an dthus was skeptical of spiritual fraud.
Harry Houdini was born as Erik Ivan Weisz in Budapest, Austria-Hungary, on March 24, 1874. From 1907 on, Houdini would claim in interviews to have been born in Appleton, Wisconsin, on April 6, 1874. His father was Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weisz and his Mother Cecelia Steiner.
Houdini first arrived in the United States at the age of four in 1878. Upon entering the States, Houdini’s family changed the spelling of their last name to Weiss. The family lived in Appleton, Wisconsin, where Houdini’s father served as a Rabbi until 1887. After leaving Wisconsin, Houdini ‘s family moved to New York City, and in turn, the “Magic” began. Houdini debuted as “ Ehrich, the Prince of the Air”. He was a nine-year-old trapeze artist. As a teen, Houdini greatly admired the French Magician Jean Eugen Robert- Houdin. A friend told Houdini that adding an “ I” to Houdin would mean “ like Houdin”. Houdini would then claim that the first part of his name was a tribute to Harry Kellar, another man he admired.
In the beginning, Houdini’s career was a struggle. He started off focusing on card tricks, which was very common at that time. Houdini realized that he needed to have an act that would make him unique. Thus, he began his career as an escape artist. Houdini first performed with his brother “Dash” at Coney Island in an act known as the “ Houdini Brothers”. In 1893, he met Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner whom he eventually married. She would replace dash in the act, which then became “The Houdini’s” and would remain that way for the rest of Houdini’s career.
In 1899, Houdini met Martin Beck. Beck was impressed with Houdini’s escape acts, and wanted to become his manager. This was the turning point in Houdini’s career. He performed stunts all over the country and became known as the “ Handcuff King”. He eventually took his act overseas to Europe. He would challenge police to place him in shackles and lock him in a cell. To ensure the validity of the stunt, Houdini would sometimes have himself stripped. His tours of Europe amassed Houdini great wealth. Houdini’s bizarre relationship with his mother was made evident when he went on to use some of that wealth to purchase a dress that was said to have been made for Queen Victoria. Houdini returned to the United States in 1904 and purchased a house in Harlem, New York.
He continued to perform his handcuff act in the United States until 1908, when he realized the public wanted more. He then began to escape from locked water filled milk cans. The risk of death made his acts far more thrilling to the public. This opened the door to a new chapter in Houdini’s career. The public would challenge him to escape from all sorts of contraptions. Brewers would even challenge him to escape from beer filled containers.
Houdini’s introduced his most famous act, the Chinese Water Torture cell, in 1912. In this act, Houdini was suspended upside down in a locked glass and steel cabinet filled with water. The act required that he hold his breath for more then three minutes. Houdini would go on to perform other famous acts such as the “Suspended Straight Jacket Escape”, the “Buried Alive” escape, and the “ Overboard Box Escape”. He starred in several movies, and became the president of Marinka & Co, America’s oldest magic company.
If the average American were to guess how Houdini would die, they would probably say Houdini died during his stunts. Thus was not the case. Houdini was famous for having superior control over his body. He claimed that he could take a punch from anybody. He challenged famous boxers to punch him in the stomach numerous times throughout his career. In 1926, after performing in Montreal, Houdini was challenged by McGill University student John Gordon Whitehead. Whitehead punched Houdini when he was not paying attention. Houdini, who had appendicitis at the time, was not able to prepare his stomach for the blow. His appendix was ruptured, and he developed an infection. He refused medical treatment, and went on to perform his last show in Detroit, Michigan. He performed his show, and afterwards, was rushed to Detroit’s Grace Hospital where he died at the age of 52.
Houdini is remembered as one of the greatest Magicians and performers of all time.