Harry Houdini is internationally famous as the world’s foremost magician and escapologist. For 35 years, from 1891 until his sudden death on October 31, 1926, at the age of 52, Houdini amazed audiences with seemingly impossible escapes that became increasingly dangerous.
More mysterious than any of his escapes, however, was the circumstance of his final act: his death. Houdini did not perish before an audience performing one of his stunts; rather, his death seems to have resulted from pride and stubbornness.
Houdini’s escapes made great copy, and newspapers closely followed his exploits throughout his long career—up to and including his puzzling death. Reading these contemporary accounts provides fresh perspective on the man and his times.
Houdini was born Erik Weisz on March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Austria-Hungary. His family immigrated to the U.S. and lived in Wisconsin and then New York City where, at the age of 9, Erik began his performing career as a trapeze artist called “Ehrich, the Prince of the Air.”
In 1891, at the age of 17, he began his career as a magician, first performing card tricks billed as the “King of Cards.” His fame grew when he moved on to escaping from handcuffs, eventually becoming widely known as “The Handcuff King.”
To publicize his escape act, Houdini would challenge a city’s local police force to use their strongest handcuffs on him. This Nebraska newspaper article reported the time the 25-year-old Houdini confounded the Omaha Police Department.
According to this article:
Three pairs of wrist fasteners were placed on Houdini first, then his feet were secured with very heavy leg irons, and to make his escape a still greater feat, he bent over and permitted his wrists and ankles to be secured with two additional pairs of handcuffs.