Before blockbusters, before stunts and special effects, there were magicians. People that could disappear in front of a crowd, get rid of handcuffs in less than 3 minutes, or even get away from a cell without any keys.

The 31st of October 2016 will mark the 90th anniversary of the death of the most famous magician: Harry Houdini. A man whose name is now synonymous with magic in modern American culture.

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Portrait of Harry Houdini in chains. c.1900 (detail) (sepia photo), American School, (20th century) / Private Collection / Prismatic Pictures

Houdini’s Rise to Fame

The magical maestro quickly became a legend due to his amazing ability as an escapologist, able to free himself from the most complicated locks and chains.

Harry Houdini, 1920s / Bridgeman Footage

Harry Houdini, 1920s / Bridgeman Footage

Within the early 1900s there were many famous scientific minds and literary geniuses that became immortalised due to their works. However, Houdini and his expert skills of trickery helped to spread the art of magic around the world. A showman in the soul, the ‘King of Handcuffs’ saw his career explode when he met his excellent manager Martin Beck. Beck was impressed by his handcuff acts and booked Harry all over Europe after a year representing him.

Left: Poster advertising a performance by Houdini at the Alhambra, London (print), English School, (20th century) / Private Collection / Peter Newark  American Pictures Right: Poster advertising a performance by Houdini, 1906 (colour litho), American School, (20th century) / Private Collection / Peter Newark American Pictures

Left: Poster advertising a performance by Houdini at the Alhambra, London (print), English School, (20th century) / Private Collection / Peter Newark American Pictures
Right: Poster advertising a performance by Houdini, 1906 (colour litho), American School, (20th century) / Private Collection / Peter Newark American Pictures

When you have talent and a good marketing campaign, being a worldwide celebrity is basically a piece of cake. But with audacity (and Houdini had a lot), it is a free way to posterity. After being introduced to William Melville, the Chief of the British Secret Services Bureau, Houdini impressed Scotland Yard agents so much that he got booked for six months at the Alambra Theatre, one of the most prestigious theatres at the time.

Left: Poster advertising a performance by Houdini, February 1923 (print), American School,  / Private Collection / Peter Newark American Pictures / Right: Houdini's Water Torture Cell escape. Houdini, with his ankles secured in stocks, was submerged and locked in place in full view of the audience. c. 1913 / Photo © Everett Collection

Left: Poster advertising a performance by Houdini, February 1923 (print), American School, / Private Collection / Peter Newark American Pictures /
Right: Houdini’s Water Torture Cell escape. Houdini, with his ankles secured in stocks, was submerged and locked in place in full view of the audience. c. 1913 / Photo © Everett Collection

A Multitalented Man

Houdini performed a wide variety of complicated tricks throughout his career. One of the hardest and best known is the Chinese water torture cell escape.

Houdini was not only good with his hands… he also had a pretty face. When you are a magician, you need some actor skills as well: therefore, cinema was his next career step. Alongside movies starring himself doing magic, he also had great roles such as Justice Department agent Quentin Locke in the 1919 serial film The Master Mystery, which featured one of the first robots on screen.

Houdini’s popularity was so high that he was good friends with almost every celebrity of his era; the legend says that before he became famous he was touring with the three Keaton brothers. The little one would have been known as Joseph Frank Keaton if he hadn’t taken a tumble in front of Houdini, who consequently called out ‘that was a real Buster’. And so, the movie legend Buster Keaton was born.

Left: The Master Mystery The Houdini Serial by Harry Grossman and Burton L. King 1920 Right: Harry Houdini, Advertising poster for "The master mystery" c. 1919  / Private Collection / Prismatic Pictures

Left: The Master Mystery The Houdini Serial by Harry Grossman and Burton L. King 1920
Right: Harry Houdini, Advertising poster for “The master mystery” c. 1919 / Private Collection / Prismatic Pictures

An Unexpected End

But, every great life must have its end and Houdini’s didn’t oppose the rule; his final trick involved asking someone in the public to punch him in the stomach, to show that he was invincible. However, without warning and without time to prepare, a spectator started to violently punch Houdini in the stomach and he sadly passed away a few days later from peritonitis, on the 31st October 1926.

Portrait of Harry Houdini c.1913 (detail) (sepia photo) / Private Collection / Prismatic Pictures

Portrait of Harry Houdini c.1913 (detail) (sepia photo) / Private Collection / Prismatic Pictures

The Spirit of Halloween

Nowadays, the 31st of October is renowned on a wider scale for its festival celebrating spirits and the dead, however Houdini, as a mastermind of tricks, was pretty certain that spirits and mediums were just charlatans. He spent a lot of time travelling the United States, making it his mission to expose them; he wrote several books about it.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, was actually a believer in spirits and fairies although this did not stop him and Houdini becoming friends.

Poster for Houdini's fraud exposure show (detail) / Universal History Archive / UIG

Poster for Houdini’s fraud exposure show (detail) / Universal History Archive / UIG

Find out More

See all Houdini images and footage in the archive

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