American Dream Fulfilled: Harry Houdini

From the time of this nation’s birth, immigrants have crossed over to America’s shores in the pursuit of a new life built with hard work, determination, and ingenuity. Their immense contributions are part of the very fabric of this country. To highlight the incredible talent and diversity that immigrants have brought to our land over hundreds of years, MurthyDotCom will be periodically highlighting the life of a notable immigrant who has left a lasting mark on history. The first entry in our continuing An American Dream Fulfilled series is iconic magician Harry Houdini.

Born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary in 1874, the man who would become known to world as Harry Houdini immigrated to the United States with his parents and siblings when he was four years old. Immigration officials changed his first name to Ehrich and the entire family’s last name to Weiss upon entering the country. The Weiss family settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where Herman, the family patriarch, became the rabbi of a congregation. Though forced to begin working during his childhood to help support his struggling family, Ehrich still found time to begin performing in a neighborhood circus as a trapeze artist. He quickly discovered he had a talent for entertaining and learned a few simple magic tricks to impress his friends.

Ehrich moved to New York City with his father when he was thirteen and continued to hone his magic skills, eventually devising his famous stage name and pairing up with a friend to develop an act called “The Brothers Houdini.” The two eventually took their act on the road, where Houdini met and married a young performer named Wilhelmina who became his onstage assistant. After several grueling years of relentless touring, all the while developing the intricate escape acts that would become his trademark, Houdini attracted the attention of a wealthy vaudeville tycoon who booked him in a series of high profile venues across America. He quickly gained a devoted following of fans who were entranced by his theatrical showmanship and increasingly daring performances, which nearly always involved him escaping from handcuffs.

After a five-year long tour of Europe that earned him worldwide fame, Houdini continued to perfect his act back in America. He developed several underwater escape tricks that are still renowned for their technical mastery, and became one of the world’s first movie stars when he performed some of his most well-known escapes in a 1918 film serial.

Houdini also maintained his high profile by publically sparring with prominent figures within the emerging Spiritualist movement, whose members claimed to possess powers that allowed them to communicate with the spirit world. Houdini devoted himself to exposing Spiritualists as frauds who were nothing more than performers and charlatans. This eventually resulted in the end of his friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and a firm believer in spiritualism. Sir Arthur actually became convinced that, not only was spiritualism real, but that Houdini was employing paranormal powers to perform many of his daring feats!

After beginning a run of sold out Broadway shows in 1926, Houdini felt he had reached a career peak. But the high point was short lived. Houdini died on October 31, 1926 from illnesses related to a ruptured appendix, which was likely brought on when he absorbed several blows to his belly from a fan during a show of strength. His demise was mourned worldwide and culminated in a large public funeral in New York City.

As one of the first worldwide superstars, Harry Houdini rose from humble beginnings as a rabbi’s son struggling to make ends meet to earning the adoration of millions of fans entranced by his groundbreaking performances. Still regarded as a master illusionist nearly 100 years after his death, Houdini’s name is synonymous with skill and showmanship of the highest order.  His American dream was to delight people, young and old, with the wonder of magic – and that dream is still thriving today.

[See Houdini exhibit visits Jewish Museum Milwaukee by Sari Lesk, The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, 12.Sep.2019. Also see American Experience: Harry Houdini, PBS]


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