Erik Weisz was born on March 24, 1874 in Budapest, Hungary. His family soon emigrated to the United States. His name was altered to Ehrich Weiss after his family emigrated from Hungary to Wisconsin when he was 4 years old.
He had several brothers and a sister. When he was only five or six years old he started doing card tricks and in his teens was performing magic for money. He called himself Ehrich the Prince of Air when he was nine years old.
When he was 13, Weisz moved with his father to New York City, taking on odd jobs and living in a boarding house before the rest of the family joined them.
He won several competitive medals as a member of the Pastime Athletic Club track team in New York. Weiss worked hard to build up his physical stamina.
In 1894, Ehrich decided to start his career as a magician and changed his name to Harry Houdini. The name pays homage to Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, the French performer widely considered the father of modern magic.
Adding the “i” followed tradition as well, as this was a common way that magicians invoked the name of the famous 18th century Italian conjurer Pinetti. “Harry,” on the other hand, was merely a pleasantly American twist on “Ehrie,” his boyhood nickname. (PBS)
He married Wilhelmina Beatrice “Bess” Rahner in 1894, and she became his constant companion, ardent supporter and talented co-star in many of his acts. (Pacific Coast Air Museum)
Ferenc Dezső Weisz, Houdini’s younger brother, had performed with his sibling earlier in his career. As the “King of Handcuffs” gained fame, he and his brother, then known as Hardeen, continued to work on illusions, maintaining the belief that the pair were vicious rivals to keep the interest in both of their acts.
As Hardeen once stated, “We made no secret of the fact that we were brothers… but we did keep secret not only the fact that we were good friends but that Harry had set me up in business!” (Ripley’s)
He made a name for himself escaping from handcuffs, securely chained boxes thrown into rivers, straight jackets (while suspended by his ankles), and any number of other incredible situations.
Some may not be aware that another of the passions of Houdini’s life was aviation. He asked Orville and Wilbur Wright and Glenn Curtiss to sell him a plane but they wouldn’t.
Later in 1909 Houdini went to an air show in Berlin and approached the winner of one of the races. He offered to buy the plane and pay the pilot to teach him to fly. (Pacific Coast Air Museum)
Houdini’s airplane was a Voisin, named after its French designer/builder. It looked more like a box kite than a modern airplane and with good reason. Its design was based on principles worked out years before by an Australian named Lawrence Hargrave who had built the first controllable box kite. Houdini’s Voisin had a pusher engine and performed quite well for its time.
In 1910 the Australians made Houdini an offer he couldn’t refuse: they would pay him generously if he would spend six weeks there flying in public shows. He, his wife, and his ground crew packed up the Voisin, boarded an ocean liner, and set up operations at a place called Digger’s Rest, Victoria, near Melbourne.
Houdini went on the record books as the first person ever to fly an airplane in Australia … powered and sustained and controlled. Houdini was presented with a trophy for his achievement and was lauded in the press. (Pacific Coast Air Museum)
Houdini flying over Australia:
It was on his way back from Australia that Houdini made a connection to Hawai‘i. “Houdini, the handcuff king, was a through passenger on the steamship Manuka, fresh from Australia.”
“He was asked by local theatrical managers if he would stop off here, and he relied he would be glad to a series of entertainments – at $1500 per week.”
“The managers gasped and fell dead, metaphorically. Mr Houdini, it is needless to say, passed on and will give exhibitions in Canada.” (Advertiser, May 26, 1910)
Fortunately John Cox of WildAboutHoudini-com was able to acquire an unpublished image of Houdini and Bess with lei, noted as “Honolulu 1910”.