Five Books to Celebrate Harry Houdini

March 24, 2013 | M. Elwood

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Erik Weisz, who would later use the stage name Harry Houdini, was born in Budapest on March 24, 1874. His family emigrated to the United States in 1874 where the spelling of his name was changed to Ehrich Weiss. When he was 9, Ehrich helped to support his family by working as a trapeze artist in vaudville shows. In 1891, he switched his specialty to magic and adopted the stage name Harry Houdini, as an homage to French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin.


While performing at Coney Island, Harry met and fell in love with another performer, Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, known as Bess. The couple would marry in 1894 and she became his stage assistant. During this time, Houdini began to experiment with escape acts and by 1900 he had acquired an international reputation for his escapes from shackles, handcuffs and various locked containers.

In addition to performing around the world, Houdini also appeared in movies and became an aviator. During the 1920s, he began an enthusiastic career debunking spiritualists and mind readers after unsuccessfully trying to communicate with his deceased mother. Although he believed that supernatural powers were fraudulent, he and Bess agreed that whichever of them died first would try to contact the survivor.

Houdini died of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix on October 31, 1926. Bess Houdini dutifully held a séance on the anniversary of his death for the next decade. After the tenth unsuccessful attempt to contact her late husband, she announced that "10 years is long enough to wait for any man" and declared the experiment a failure.

Houdini: Fact and Fiction:

Escape artist
Last illusion
Masters of mystery
Secret life of harry


Escape Artist by Edward Ifkovic
Reporter Edna Ferber asks her friend Harry Houdini to investigate after a girl mysteriously disappears from her school.

The Last Illusion by Rhys Bowen
After a number of suspicious incidents, Bess Houdini hires private investigator Molly Murphy to protect her husband.


Houdini!: the Career of Ehrich Weis: American Self-Liberator, Europe's Eclipsing Sensation, World's Handcuff King and Prison Breaker by Kenneth Silverman
Pulitzer Prize winning author Silverman draws upon previously unpublished letters, diaries and scrapbooks in this biography.

Masters of Mystery: the Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini by Christopher Sandford
Both Houdini and Doyle had an interest in Spiritualism but Doyle was a believer and as Houdini became more sceptical, their friendship grew strained.

The Secret Life of Harry Houdini: the Making of America's First Superhero by William Kalush and Larry Sloman
This controversial biography suggests that Houdini's most spectacular trick was working as a spy for the British secret service.