Houdini Revealed

Some 80 years after his death, Harry Houdini is back in the public spotlight. This photo essay sheds light on the escape artist's life

A relentless self-promoter, Houdini appeared in several films. Performing his daring escapes for the screen, he had hoped that he could slow down his packed schedule. His showmanship did not translate in film, and his movies proved to be failures. (Library of Congress) (Box Office Bust)
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Harry Houdini freed himself from chains after jumping off a pier into Boston's Charles River, wiggled out of a strait jacket while hanging upside down in Times Square and appeared alive and well after being submerged in his Water Torture Cell. The great escape artist defied belief and entertained hundreds of thousands of people throughout the early 20th century until he died on Halloween in 1926, at age 52. His death certificate blames a ruptured appendix, but rumors circulated that he may have been murdered.

A new biography, The Secret Life of Houdini by William Kalush and Larry Sloman, has caused many people, including the magician's great-nephew, to reconsider these rumors. Houdini, they believe, may have been poisoned by Spiritualists, a group who claimed to speak to the dead through séances. Houdini went to great lengths to debunk their practices, often exposing their tricks on the stage. In late March, forensic pathologists announced that they will exhume Houdini's body to determine once and for all what happened to the escape artist.

In this photo essay, explore the extraordinary life of Harry Houdini. To begin, click on the main image above.

Born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest Hungary in 1874, the future escape artist soon immigrated to the United States with his family. A showman with great charisma, Weiss changed his name to Houdini in homage to Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, the founder of modern magic, and took off for the vaudeville stage. Here, the struggling performer met Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, then a member of the song-and-dance act The Floral Sisters. (Corbis) (Before He Was Houdini)
After a three-week courtship, the two married and started performing together. One of their acts, the Metamorphosis, an illusion where they switched places in a trunk in a matter of seconds, proved popular, but the success Houdini sought still eluded him. In 1899, Houdini forfeited his magic tricks to focus full-time on the art of escape. (Library of Congress) (The Metamorphosis)
Houdini and his wife left for England, where he tested his skills on the country's jails. Locked away in the nude so as to assure the public that he carried no tools, Houdini emerged unshackled in a matter of minutes, an event the local police confirmed in this document. (Library of Congress) (Jailbreak)
In England, crowds of thousands gathered to watch Houdini break out of seemingly impossible locks. When he finally returned to the United States five years later, he was an international star and a headlining act. (Library of Congress) (The Great Houdini)
At age 33, Houdini took some of his performances off the stage and into larger venues. Handcuffed and chained, he stands poised to jump from Boston's Harvard Bridge into the Charles River below, in this picture. Thousands watched as he escaped the manacles, emerging from the water triumphant. (Corbis) (Crowd Pleaser)
In 1908, Houdini issued a challenge to his fans: If someone could come up with a device that would hold him, he would pay them $1,000. This new gimmick, which made his act even more engaging, kept crowds on the edge of their seats and offered Houdini even more publicity. (Library of Congress) (The Challenge)
Always ambitious and adventurous, Houdini also prided himself as an aviation pioneer. In 1910, he became the first person to sustain flight in Australia. (Library of Congress) (The Aviator)
A relentless self-promoter, Houdini appeared in several films. Performing his daring escapes for the screen, he had hoped that he could slow down his packed schedule. His showmanship did not translate in film, and his movies proved to be failures. (Library of Congress) (Box Office Bust)
In the 1920s, after many years entertaining crowds as an escape artist, Houdini changed his show to expose the methods and motivations of the Spiritualists, a group who claimed they could contact the dead through séances. Testifying against them in Congress, he also exposed their tricks while on stage, an act he turned into a Broadway show. Soon, Houdini received death threats from the group. (Library of Congress) (Secrets Exposed)
After Houdini's death on Halloween in 1926, his sibling and fellow magician Theodore Hardeen tried to continue his brother's work. Houdini left much of his magic and spiritual collection to the Library of Congress; his Theater Collection to his wife Bess; and his stage apparatus to his brother. Hardeen, though, never achieved the notoriety of his brother. (Library of Congress) (Leaving a Legacy)
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