One of the biggest celebrities of the 20th century, Harry Houdini wowed audiences with his daredevil escapes and mystifying illusions. However, he had a fraught relationship with the nature of failure, and sadly, it drove him straight to an end so agonizing—it's unforgettable.
1. He Was A Lost Boy
Before becoming the legendary Harry Houdini, the fledgling magician was simply known as Erik Weisz. Hailing from Budapest, Hungary, Erik and his family immigrated to the US in the hopes of capturing the American dream. But sadly, their new chapter was more like a nightmare. At only four years old, Erik watched as his entire family began to fall apart.
2. He Came From Nothing
To begin with, Erik's father faced unemployment and a tragic cancer diagnosis. As the head of the household struggled to hold his head above water, Erik became more determined than ever to protect his family, especially his beloved mother. The family barely scraped by—but as Erik grew into an enterprising young boy, he effortlessly slipped into any role that would pay him an extra dollar.
3. He Was A Prince
Erik was only eight years old when he began working. He sold newspapers and shined shoes. But one job, in particular, ignited a newfound passion in the young boy. At the age of nine, he debuted as a trapeze artist—and his stage name proved that he had a flair for the dramatic: "Ehrich, the Prince of the Air". No stranger to taking chances, Erik dove into his next great adventure.
4. He Had A Dangerous Upbringing
When he was 12 years old, Erik packed his belongings, waved goodbye to his mother, and followed his sickly father into the rumbling belly of New York City. In the 19th century, it was a dangerous place to be—but Erik and his father desperately needed to find work. Shacked up in a seedy boarding house, Erik's prospects looked bleak.
He had no clue that his true calling lay just around the corner.
5. He Found An Escape
Erik met his destiny when he discovered the pleasures that Coney Island had to offer. As a fun getaway, it boasted dazzling sideshows with talented entertainers. Its playfulness contrasted the stark reality of the depressed city, and Erik just couldn't get enough. Only capable of amateur magic, he devoted himself to learning the tricks of the trade.
Unfortunately, in his quest to become a performer himself, he ran into a vexing problem.
6. He Was Too Small
You see, young Erich was incredibly skinny and stood at a height of only five-foot-five. His stature was his Achilles' heel, and to overcome this literal shortcoming, he decided to focus on becoming a strongman. Through rigorous training, he could build his strength, as well as his mind-over-matter capabilities. To succeed, he needed to stand out from the crowd.
Tapping into his impressive laser focus, young Erich got to work—but his path to stardom wasn't a straight shot.
7. He Went To Extremes
Before he could become great, Erich had to become strong. To reach his peak physical fitness, he began going on five-mile runs through Central Park, pushing himself to the limit. He also cut out all vices that were detrimental to his health, such as nicotine and drinking. But perhaps most importantly, he studied the great magicians that came before him—and it led him straight to the infamous moniker that we know him by today.
8. He Found The Perfect Moniker
In 1890, Erich picked up the autobiography of the French magician, Robert-Houdin. He devoured the text, learning as much as he could. At the time, young Erich was under the incorrect assumption that adding an "i" to the end of a word meant "like" in French. This is why he gave himself the name Harry Houdini—an homage to one of the greats that came before him.
The dramatic name change was a step in the right direction. However, deep in his heart, there was still a void that longed to be filled.
9. He Fell In Love At First Sight
You see, although Houdini seemed like he was all work and no play, he also wanted to find a partner—someone with whom he could weather life's nasty storms. Luckily, his wish came true. In 1894, a beautiful young girl crossed Houdini's path, and it was impossible to look away. Her name was Bess Rahner, an 18-year-old fellow performer who sang and danced.
The aspiring magician fell in love with Bess at first sight—but his feelings weren't as simple as they seemed.
10. He Came Out On Top
Unfortunately, Houdini's road to true love hit a tiny speedbump. You see, at the time, he and his brother Dash had their own show on Coney Island, "the Brothers Houdini". When Bess entered the picture, Dash beat his love-stricken brother to the punch—and a love triangle emerged. Dash and Bess were a brief item before Houdini ultimately won her heart.
Like everything else in his life, Houdini had made up his mind about Bess, his feelings propelling him toward one of his most important decisions yet.
11. He Had One Exception
Houdini thought Bess was his perfect match in more ways than one. For one, her tiny stature—standing at four-foot-eleven— measured up nicely next to him. So, when it came to sealing the deal, the besotted magician didn't waste any time. Three weeks after meeting Bess, he married her. Later, in speaking of his marriage, he stated, "This is the one shackle I don't want to escape from".
Houdini took his life very seriously: his romance, his family, and, of course, the secrets of his craft. But before he could fully trust Bess with these secrets, he asked her for one very important thing.
12. He Took His Secrets Seriously
On one fateful night, Houdini led both his brother and Bess to the middle of a bridge. Flexing his dramatic sensibilities, the somber magician waited for a nearby Church to ring its midnight bells. Once the ringing ceased, he made both of his closest confidantes swear an oath that they would never reveal the secrets behind his acts.
Placing all his trust in Bess, Houdini felt secure. He could now rely on his wife as a professional colleague, as well.
13. He Struggled To Get By
Once Houdini married Bess, she replaced his brother Dash in his act—and together, they became known as "the Houdinis". But life on the road wasn't easy at all. They went on tour with a traveling circus, proudly showing their act, Metamorphosis, but sadly, their dreams of fame and fortune went unfounded. In fact, the situation seemed so hopeless, Houdini almost made the most drastic decision of all.
14. He Didn't Believe In Failure
The history of magic would have been a lot different if Houdini had decided to quit right then and there. Luckily, failure just wasn't an option. He had both a wife and mother to support. Therefore, something had to change. Audiences just weren't flocking to the shows as he had hoped. The only way forward was to rejig his performance entirely—and give the people something they'd never seen before.
15. He Was A Genius
As an uneducated, poor man, Houdini was an artist desperate to break free of his own limitations. He needed to prove to the world that a disadvantaged man like himself could rise above his sad circumstances. Looking for a performance that would set him apart, Houdini came up with his most brilliant idea yet—and it changed his life forever.
16. He Accomplished The Impossible
Houdini got his big break when he introduced handcuffs into his act—an object that most people associated with terror. His performance was pure escapology: he had to escape the intricate shackles that bound him. To audiences, it would seem like an impossible feat—but that's what made his successful escape all the more awe-inspiring.
But the jump from local performer to a global sensation wasn't done overnight. In addition to having genius ideas, Houdini also orchestrated his own rise to fame.
17. He Became "The Handcuff King"
Houdini took this escape act on a worldwide tour—but that wasn't the most impressive part. The magician worked hard to get his name out there. For every city he visited, he distributed flyers with his illustrated portrait and performed in buzzworthy publicity stunts. He became known as "the Handcuff King". Clearly, Houdini's talents went far beyond the stage.
He was an expert advertiser, and soon, his shows began to sell out. Still, he had yet to conquer the most important city of all.
18. He Wasn't Their Cup Of Tea
In 1904, Houdini's plan hit a real snag. At 30 years old, the magician arrived in London—a city bursting at the seams with its own vaudeville delights. However, the audiences weren't as eager to see him as he'd thought. In fact, most people had never even heard of Houdini and his spectacular handcuff act. Unwilling to admit defeat, the magician had to think on his feet and act as quickly as possible.
19. He Took A Risk
Determined to conquer London, Houdini made a bold call. To get everyone's attention, he staged a demonstration smack-dab in the middle of Scotland Yard. With his trusty act in tow, he had the element of surprise. His talents shocked authorities and onlookers alike, puzzling them to no end. This ingenious publicity worked wonders for Houdini—and the consequences were staggering.
20. He Conquered A Nation
After his performance at Scotland Yard, Houdini booked a six-month show at the Alahambra. What's more? Audiences just couldn't get enough of him. He quickly became one of the most famous performers in the entire nation. After all of his tireless efforts, his finances turned to pure gold. He began raking in a whopping $300 per week (equal to $9,332 today).
It was time to finally reap his rewards—and this giddy magician had no qualms about splurging.
21. He Spoiled Her
Houdini's career flourished in both Europe and America—and with his growing fortune, he was able to spend his money for the first time. He bought real estate in New York and spoiled his mother with enviable presents. On one occasion, he even presented her with a dress that he claimed had once belonged to Queen Victoria herself.
He had achieved the financial success he'd always dreamed of, but, to the ambitious Houdini, it still wasn't enough.
22. He Raised The Stakes
Having already mastered the handcuffs, Houdini decided to take his act to the next level: He wanted to be able to do it underwater. To prepare for these dangerous performances, he practiced holding his breath by submerging himself in ice-cold bathwater. His record time? Three minutes and forty-five seconds. What happened next was nothing short of extraordinary.
23. He Jumped Off Bridges
Harry Houdini was a very singular performer as he took vaudeville outside. He didn't just perform in the theatre like every other magician, he took his new show to bridges, where he stripped down to his underclothes, shackled himself, and then threw himself into the watery depths. Crowds of spectators lined the banks, cheering for Houdini as he rose to the surface—free and unharmed.
However, these incredibly successful performances caused an unforeseen wrinkle in Houdini's plans.
24. He Challenged His Competitors
Houdini's public spectacles inspired others to do the same: Copycat performers took his idea and ran with it. Well, he wasn't about to let them get away with that. In order to ruin his rival's reputations, he challenged them. On one such occasion, in September 1905, Houdini faced off against Boudini in Manhattan. Both magicians threw themselves into the murky Hudson River, disappearing into the darkness.
25. He Survived
The competing magicians worked feverishly to free their wrists and ankles—but there could only be one winner. After one minute and thirty seconds, Houdini broke the surface and claimed victory. His rival Boudini, on the other hand, almost drowned. This life-or-death performance invigorated crowds with its originality—and the cheers resounded in the open air.
Mastering these underwater acts lit a fire beneath Houdini, and he became obsessed with making the stunt even more life-threatening.
26. He Performed A Claustrophobic Stunt
In 1908, Houdini came up with his most heart-pounding performance yet—the Milk Can Escape. He squeezed himself into an oversized milk can filled with water. It was terrifyingly claustrophobic and provided him with limited mobility. He put out clever posters that read, "Failure Means A Drowning Death". Moreover, before starting the act, he invited the audience to try holding their breath for the entire time he remained submerged.
This Milk Can Escape, in particular, became an absolute sensation. But sometimes, his stunts went horribly wrong.
27. He Messed Up
Houdini became a master of endurance and control. He managed to navigate pain, panic, and fear almost effortlessly. However, he couldn't always control the world around him. Once, in New York, he went into the water and smashed his head on the ocean floor. Even more terrifying? He almost drowned in Mississippi when he misjudged how strong the current actually was.
There was always a risk—but that's exactly what made his work so exciting. Houdini, however, still hadn't discovered his most famous act of all.
28. He Made It Even Harder
By 1912, too many other magicians were copying his milk can act, and so, Houdini decided to raise the stakes once more. This time, the act had a terrifying name to match—Chinese Water [Torment] Cell. This is one of the stunts he is most remembered by. Suspended by his ankles, Houdini hung upside down in a rectangular glass box, filled with water. But there was a horrifying dark side to this particular stunt.
29. He Endured Unbelievable Pain
The Chinese Water Torture Cell was an incredibly painful show. The weight of the water, as well as Houdini's position, put immense pressure on his head. If this bothered Houdini, he didn't show it—and he continued to escape night after night. And then, the winds of change whipped his life into a frenzy once again. When silent films became the new sensation, Houdini next exactly what he had to do.
30. He Manipulated The Press
Houdini used his public performances to draw a brand new eye—the camera. The Silent Film Era became his playground and he put on shows, not only for the people but also for the press. Houdini knew exactly how to draw a crowd. In Times Square, he hung himself upside down from a great height, tied up in a straitjacket. Stunts like this attracted an overwhelming sea of people, their eyes clinging to the hanging man in the sky. But Houdini also had another trick up his sleeve.
31. He Made Headlines
Houdini took his notorious straitjacket performance to the doorsteps of newspaper companies. In fact, he strung himself up right outside their front windows. It was a brilliant move. Photographers simply had to poke their out the window to get a snapshot of the magician in action. Even better? He often gave them headline suggestions for the story.
Houdini certainly maintained his position as the number one entertainer, but sadly, he paid a startling price for his taxing career.
32. He Was Exhausted
Everything he set his mind to, Houdini excelled at. In addition to his live shows, he also became a movie star and pilot. He had a hand in every honey pot—but by 1910, he was absolutely exhausted. At 36 years old, he'd already been in the game for almost 20 years. Simply put, he wasn't the spritely young man he once was. Mentally and physically drained by his intense work, Houdini even looked much older, his hair turning gray.
In one very vulnerable interview, Houdini sat down and bared his soul.
33. He Bared His Soul
In an interview with Sydney's The Daily Telegraph, Harry Houdini revealed that he wasn't as impenetrable as he seemed. He admitted his own obsession with success, as well as the weaknesses of his own body: "I have done things which rightly I could not do, because I said to myself, 'You must'; and now I am old at 36. A man is only a man, and the flesh revenges itself".
But no matter how tired he became, Houdini was not the kind of person to admit defeat. And so he continued on—even in the face of tragedy.
34. He Suffered True Heartbreak
In 1913, Houdini fainted after hearing the most devastating news. The woman he'd worked so hard to impress—his mother Cecilia—had passed. But that wasn't the only source of heartache. Houdini and Bess wanted to start a family of their own, but sadly, Bess couldn't bear any children. Instead, Houdini eased his disappointments by entertaining young children in hospitals.
Houdini was a master of masking his own pain. And yet, he still couldn't give up performing. In 1915, he came up with a stunt so dangerous—he almost perished.
35. He Buried Himself Alive
Houdini decided to try being buried alive. He lowered himself into a hole dug six feet deep and was promptly buried beneath the dirt. The stunt did not go as planned. As he struggled to dig himself out, Houdini's strength waivered and panic set in. As he got closer to the top, he cried out for help. He only managed to break the surface with one hand before falling unconscious.
36. He Couldn't Breathe
Losing oxygen beneath the earth, Houdini had to be rescued by assistants; they rushed forward and dragged him out of the grave. Later, he wrote in his diary, expressing the sheer terror of that moment: "the weight of the earth is killing". This was the risk he took every day—but by the 1920s, the great magician shifted his focus to an extremely controversial venture.
37. He Was A Skeptic
Houdini believed in the power of trickery but not in the legitimacy of psychics or mediums. Determined to expose them as frauds, he went to extreme lengths. The magician often disguised himself and attended their séances, bringing the authorities with him. He debunked many famous mediums, destroying their careers in one fell swoop.
He relished in cutting spiritualism down at its knees—but it wasn't without its consequences.
38. He Made An Enemy
Houdini's close friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle didn't survive his obsession with debunking spiritualism. In fact, Doyle had a very startling take on the matter: He thought that Houdini was a powerful medium himself. He credited the magician's stunts to his paranormal abilities. As well, Doyle believed that Houdini used these powers to block the abilities of other mediums.
It was a mind-boggling argument, and soon, their rivalry became public knowledge.
39. He Didn't See It Coming
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may have been his enemy, but in reality, Houdini's greatest enemy was only himself. He just never knew when to quit. Oddly enough, his horrific end did not come from a failed stunt—but something else entirely. In 1926, while on tour in Montreal, Houdini welcomed a fan into his dressing room. It seemed like an innocent meeting—but it ended in unspeakable tragedy.
40. He Didn't Brace Himself
According to witnesses, a student named Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead asked Houdini if he could endure punches to the stomach without experiencing pain. Unsurprisingly, the magician wholeheartedly agreed. That's when the worst happened. Before Houdini even had time to brace himself, Whitehead pulled back his arm and punched the magician in the stomach multiple times.
41. He Performed Through The Pain
Whitehead's sudden strike blindsided Houdini who'd been reclining on the couch—and the blows definitely hurt. Still, for the great Houdini, the show went on. He performed through the evening, ignoring both his pain and fever. But despite being unable to sleep, he refused to go to a doctor. This was a fatal mistake. Two days later, the magician was in the worst shape of his life.
42. He Refused Surgery
By the time Houdini sought medical attention, he had a fever of 102 °F and severe appendicitis. Surgery was essential to his survival—but frustratingly, he decided to do his show instead. Sadly, it would be his very last moment on the stage. With a fever of 104°F, Houdini performed through the pain—even passing out mid-show and then continuing on. But the worst was yet to come.
43. He Collapsed
Houdini made it all the way to the end of the show, but once the curtains closed, he collapsed. The grievously ill magician finally made it to the hospital, and still had an air of positivity. He was certain he'd pull through. After all, he'd dodged his mortality time and time again. But it was already too late. This was a diagnosis that the magician just couldn't escape.
44. His Last Words Were Devastating
On October 31, 1926, Harry Houdini uttered his last words, and they were so disturbing—it's unforgettable. After days of ceaseless agony, 52-year-old Houdini reportedly said, "I'm tired of fighting... I do not want to fight anymore..". The legendary magician, who had seemed immortal and even god-like, had passed too soon. Still, the details of the actual cause of his demise were blurry.
45. He Left Behind A Mystery
Did Whitehead's punches cause Houdini's ruptured appendix, or did they simply aggravate or cover up a pre-existing condition? The answer will never be clear. However, one thing is certain: Houdini may have had a chance if he'd only attended to his own pain. His stubbornness was the real nail in the coffin. Before he passed, however, Houdini made one last request of his beloved wife, Bess.
46. He Had A Secret Code
Still stubborn about debunking spiritualism, Houdini and Bess came up with a secret code. After passing, if he agreed to communicate his presence if there was indeed a way to do so. He'd send her the message, "Rosabelle believe"—a code derived from their favorite song, Rosabelle. For the next decade, Bess religiously held a Halloween séance in the hopes of communicating with her late husband. The results, however, only yielded more heartbreak.
47. He Never Visited Her
Every year, Bess got her hopes up and, every year, she walked away from the séance disappointed. It seemed that Houdini was right: There was no way to communicate with the spirits on the "other side". Finally, in 1936, the broken-hearted widow had had enough. Since Houdini's passing, Bess had kept a candle burning next to his snapshot. Exhausted, she doused the candle and admitted defeat.
When speaking of her decision to abandon the séances, she said, "ten years is long enough to wait for any man". Bess was Houdini's greatest secret keeper—but years after he passed, she let loose one of his most harrowing secrets of all.
48. He Had An Imaginary Child
As we already know, Houdini and Bess were unable to have children. However, in his own special way, Houdini did have a child...an imaginary son that he named after his own father. Bess later confessed that her husband would write her daily letters about their "son's" accomplishments and progress. It was his saddest illusion yet.
His detailed letters only ceased once their son achieved the highest station possible: President of the United States.
49. He Had A Special Request
Houdini's final request to Bess wasn't his only last wish. He also had specific instructions for his burial. On the day of his funeral, his casket moved through Times Square drawing throngs of mourning fans. However, the casket itself held the secret to one of Houdini's greatest motivations. As he'd requested, his collection of his dear mother's letters pillowed his head.
50. His Past Haunted Him
Harry Houdini was an undeniable daredevil with an extraordinary life, but some believe that his willingness to throw himself into harm's way stemmed from a dark moment from his past. Allegedly, when he was only a boy, Houdini fell into the water and almost drowned. From then on, he faced his life with total fearlessness, even revisiting the concept of drowning in his underwater acts.