1. He named himself after another magician.
Houdini was born Erik Weisz, but his name was altered to Ehrich Weiss after his family emigrated from Hungary to Wisconsin when he was 4 years old. Young Ehrich—nicknamed “Ehrie” or “Harry”—had a fascination with magic, particularly the work of the famed French conjurer Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin. When he began his own magic career in the 1890s, he paid homage to his hero by adding an “i” to the name “Houdin” to create the stage moniker “Harry Houdini.” In a strange twist, Houdini later courted controversy by accusing his former idol of stealing other magicians’ tricks. He even wrote a 1908 book called “The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin” in which he branded his namesake a fraud “who waxed great on the brainwork of others.”
2. Houdini first found fame as the “King of Handcuffs.”
Houdini struggled during his early years in show business and considered calling it quits and opening a magic school. He finally caught a break in 1899, when vaudeville impresario Martin Beck booked him on a tour of the United States and Europe. On Beck’s advice, Houdini made escapes a central part of his act. He began challenging audiences to tie him up or lock him in handcuffs, and he promoted his shows by staging escapes from local jails, usually after being strip-searched and put in shackles by police. The routine was a huge success. The newly christened “King of Handcuffs” played to sold-out crowds across Europe, and he later cemented his fame by staging several high-profile escapes in the United States. One stunt saw him jump into a Rochester, New York, river with his hands manacled behind his back; in another, he broke out of the jail cell that had once held Charles Guiteau, the man who assassinated President James A. Garfield.
3. His brother was also a successful magician.
After establishing himself in Europe in the early 1900s, Houdini brought over his younger brother Theo, a magician who had worked as his partner during his early career. Theo soon began performing his brother’s tricks under the stage name “Hardeen.” The pair even created a phony rivalry to help boost their profiles. “We made no secret of the fact that we were brothers,” Hardeen later remembered, “but we did keep secret not only the fact that we were good friends but that Harry had set me up in business!” Though largely overshadowed by his more famous sibling, Hardeen is now credited with having pioneered the act of escaping from a straitjacket in full view of the audience—a trick that became a staple of Houdini’s routine. He later inherited Houdini’s stage equipment after his death, and continued using it in performances into the 1940s.
4. Houdini once staged an escape from inside a sea monster.
In September 1911, a group of Boston businessmen challenged Houdini to attempt the most bizarre stunt of his career—an escape from the belly of a 1,500-pound “sea monster” that had washed up in the city’s harbor. Historians still aren’t sure what the creature actually was—it’s been described as everything from a whale to a leatherback turtle—but Houdini was up to the task. As thousands of spectators looked on, he allowed himself to be handcuffed, shackled in leg irons and wedged inside the stinking carcass, which was then covered in chains and placed behind a curtain. Houdini emerged in triumph after just 15 minutes, but later admitted that he was nearly suffocated by the fumes from the chemicals used to embalm the beast.
5. He was an aviation pioneer.
After developing a passion for aviation while in Europe in 1909, Houdini bought a French-made Voisin biplane and became one of the world’s first private pilots. The magician crashed during his maiden flight in Germany, but he continued practicing and eventually set his sights on becoming the first man to pilot an airplane in Australia. During a tour Down Under in March 1910, Houdini hopped behind the controls of his Voisin and made three successful flights near Melbourne, each only a couple of minutes long. The Aerial League of Australia certified Houdini’s display as the country’s first powered and controlled flight, but some historians have since argued that the record actually belongs to Colin Defries, an Englishman who had made a brief flight a few months earlier. In 2010, Houdini and Defries were both honored in a series of stamps commemorating the centennial of powered flight in Australia.
6. Houdini assisted with the American war effort during WWI.