The true PHY
of a per story
son’s life
The Amazing Life of
Check It Out
as you read, look for:
This is a trick writers use
to make their plots more
exciting—and to keep you
reading. They put their
characters in danger and
leave them there for a while,
keeping you in suspense.
n the night of October
escape artist. The short, handsome
24, 1902, the people of
man had astounding abilities to free
Blackburn, England,
himself from handcuffs and chains.
poured into the Palace
He was already a superstar. But some
Theatre. It was Friday night, and the
people still wondered whether he
mostly poor working families were
was a fraud, whether the chains and
weary from a long week of toiling in
handcuffs he used in his shows were
the cotton mills. But as they trudged
in fact fakes.
through the cobblestone streets,
Houdini wanted to win over the
passing the canals and the brick
doubters in his audience. The posters
factories with high, soot-stained
advertising his show included a
chimneys, young and old buzzed
bold challenge: Audience members
with excitement. They knew they
could bring along their own chains
were about to see a show they would
and locks. They could climb up
talk about for the rest of their lives.
onstage and bind Houdini with their
They had come to see Harry
Houdini (hoo-DEE-nee), the famous
Scholastic Scope • SEPTEMBER 20, 2010
own hands. If he failed to
escape from someone’s locks,
Top: UPI/Bettmann/Corbis; Right: The Everett Collection, NY
He was the most famous man in the world, an escape artist who
astounded audiences with his incredible tricks. Even today, 84 years
after his death, we still wonder: what were Houdini’s secrets?
by Deborah Hopkinson
Until he came up with
his handcuff-escape act,
Houdini struggled for
success. In 1896, he was
ready to give up. He ran a
newspaper ad offering to sell
the secrets of his magic for
$20. No one bought them.
Scholastic Scope • SEPTEMBER 20, 2010
time keeping a job. The family
his tremendous strength and fitness
and card tricks. They performed
moved, first to Milwaukee, then to
would be a key to his success.
a dozen shows a day, practiced
New York City. Both Ehrich and his
When he was 18, Ehrich and a
father went to work in a sweatshop,
friend created a magic act called
week—barely enough to survive. After
a factory where workers labored long
“The Brothers Houdini.” The name
six years, Houdini began to think of
hours for terribly low pay.
“Houdini” came from a famous
quitting. Then everything changed.
Although not tall, Ehrich was
French magician named Robert
One night in March 1899, when
incredibly strong and fit, even as a
Houdin. Ehrich’s nickname was
Houdini was performing in St. Paul,
young boy. Late at night, following 12
“Ehrie,” which in English sounds
Minnesota, a man in the audience
hours of work, young Ehrich would
like “Harry.” And so Ehrich Weiss
challenged him to escape from
build up his body through running,
became Harry Houdini.
handcuffs. Houdini, relying purely
swimming, and boxing. Later on,
Three years later, he fell in love
placed in a cabinet behind a curtain.
The curtain went up and Houdini
Fifteen minutes later, the curtain
wowed the crowd with his usual
was lifted to reveal Houdini, lying
stunts. Then a man named William
on his side, still bound. The crowd
Hodgson climbed onstage hauling
groaned. Houdini looked exhausted,
six pairs of massive cuffs. The heavy
near fainting. Bess Houdini hurried
chains clanged across the floor.
over and mopped the sweat from her
Houdini examined the handcuffs
carefully. It looked, he said, as if
husband’s face.
The curtain closed. Twenty
left: Houdini, chained and shackled
for one of his famous “bridge jumps”
TOP: Harry and his wife, Bess
BOTTOM: Houdini, bound and sealed
in a wooden crate, is lowered from
the side of a ship for one of his great
underwater escapes.
escaped easily. The crowd went wild,
Rahner, a small, brown-
and Houdini had found his specialty.
haired woman everyone
Soon, he was spotted by a famous
called Bess. They married,
agent, who offered him $200 a week
created a magic act, and
to perform in a New York theater.
began to seek their fortune
This offer, Houdini later wrote,
as “The Houdinis.”
“changed my whole life’s journey.”
A Tough Beginning
old when he accepted Hodgson’s
someone had tampered with the
minutes later, the curtain rose again.
challenge. His real name was Ehrich
locks. He was willing to accept the
Was Houdini free of his chains? No!
Weiss. He was born in Budapest,
challenge, but he would need extra
Instead, he complained he’d been
Hungary, on March 24, 1874. His
time. The audience broke into cheers.
bound so tightly his arms were numb
father, Mayer Samuel Weiss, was an
and blue. Could he be set free for a
educated rabbi who came to America
few minutes and then try again?
when Ehrich was 2. Rabbi Weiss
Hodgson knew how to bind
Houdini’s arms and legs in a way
that would make escape nearly
impossible. Hodgson and a friend
pinned Houdini’s elbows to his
Hodgson refused. “If you are
beaten, give in.”
The crowd was getting impatient.
settled in Appleton, Wisconsin, and
sent for his wife, Cecilia, and five
sons. They arrived on July 3, 1878,
sides. They yanked his arms behind
Finally, the curtain dropped. People
and joined Rabbi Weiss in Appleton,
him, tugging so hard that Houdini
spoke in hushed whispers.
where eventually another son and a
claimed his arms were about to
break. They bound his legs and
Scholastic Scope • SEPTEMBER 20, 2010
Maybe this mystifying American
was a fraud after all.
making about $400 a week, as much
day, no movie theaters,
as some working families earned
computers, or theme
in a year. But Houdini wouldn’t be
parks. But there was plenty
satisfied until he had become an
of cheap entertainment.
international star—the greatest
Every city and town in
escape artist in the world.
of small theater or “dime
Harry Houdini was 28 years
daughter were born.
But Ehrich’s father had a hard
Within the year, Houdini was
televisions in Houdini’s
America had some sort
So in 1900, he set sail for Europe.
And that is how Harry Houdini
museum” where different
came to be chained up on a stage
entertainers would
in Blackburn, England, one night in
perform. There were all
October 1902. If he failed, could he
kinds of acts: singers,
still call himself “King of Handcuffs”?
dancers, jugglers, trick
©Ray Roberts/Topham/The Image Works
handsome reward.
Left to Right: Brown Brothers; Culver Pictures; UPI/Bettmann/Corbis
ankles tightly. Then Houdini was
on his own strength and flexibility,
with Wilhelmina Beatrice
There were no
Houdini would pay that person a
constantly, and yet earned only $25 a
That night, Houdini’s challenger
bicycle riders, performing
refused to let him take a break and
monkeys, rattlesnake
rub his arms, though Hodgson
tamers—and magicians,
did allow Bess Houdini to bring
of course. Harry and
her husband a drink of water. The
Bess traveled the country
curtain dropped again as Houdini
performing their magic
continued to struggle. Fifteen
minutes later, to enthusiastic
A poster advertising
Houdini’s famous “Chinese
Water Torture Cell” escape.
applause, Houdini emerged with
his hands free. Then, just
before midnight, panting
Scholastic Scope • SEPTEMBER 20, 2010
A Shocking End
heavily and with his hands and
torn muscles, and even a ruptured
arms bleeding and swollen, Houdini
kidney. But nothing stopped him.
threw the last of the chains onto the
He developed a series of famous
a group of students came to visit
stage. The crowd burst into cheers!
stunts, including the Milk Can
Houdini in his dressing room.
Later, a reporter wrote that it looked
Escape, which Houdini called “the
Houdini always bragged about his
as if “some tiger had clawed him.”
best escape I have ever invented.”
incredible strength, and one young
One night in Montreal, Canada,
man asked to test the hardness of
By the time Houdini returned
A large, empty milk can was filled
to America in 1905, he was earning
with water (see the poster, below left).
his stomach muscles. Houdini
$1,000 a week­—a fortune in those
An assistant handcuffed Houdini and
accepted the challenge, but the
days. He kept improving his act.
helped him squeeze into the narrow
young man began punching him
He escaped from padlocked piano
can. Water sloshed onto the stage
before he could ready himself.
crates, giant envelopes, and steamer
as Houdini’s head disappeared. The
Immediately, Houdini was in
trunks. He jumped from bridges and
assistant shut the top, padlocked it,
agonizing pain. Still, he traveled to
hung upside down from skyscrapers.
and closed the curtain. Audience
Detroit by train, refusing to cancel
He suffered from broken bones,
members stared anxiously at a
his opening-night show. By the time
giant clock on the stage.
he went to a doctor, his appendix
Thirty seconds ticked by. A
had burst. He died on October 31,
minute. Two minutes. Some
1926. He was just 52 years old.
audience members could
Houdini’s funeral attracted
not bear the suspense: they
thousands of admirers, who
hurried from their seats and
cheered him as the world’s greatest
waited outside for news.
performer. Even today, his stunts
At last Houdini emerged,
inspire amazement and wonder.
dripping wet, from behind
Houdini most certainly found
the curtain. He stood next
ways to sneak lock-picking tools
to the milk can, which was
into his acts, often with the help of
still closed and locked. The
Bess or a theater owner eager for
audience screamed with
a successful show. It is unlikely he
amazement and relief.
could have escaped from William
Each year, it seemed,
Houdini’s fame grew.
Hodgson’s locks that night in
England without some help. But
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the
creator of Sherlock Holmes,
believed Houdini owed his
success to psychic powers
his tremendous strength and daring.
More than anything else, the force
behind Houdini’s success was the
determination that blazed in his
electric-blue eyes.
“I have done
things which I
rightly could not
do,” he once said,
“because I said to myself,
‘you must.’ ”
Scholastic Scope • SEPTEMBER 20, 2010
Top: The Granger Collection; Bottom: Brown Brothers
many of his tricks relied purely on