Born in Budapest in 1874, Ehrich Weiss (aka Harry Weiss) became an illusionist and performer of stunts, and was especially noted for his bravura escapes. Under the name “Harry Handcuff Houdini,” he gained notoriety on a tour of Europe, during which he challenged the police forces of numerous cities to keep him locked up. Eventually, he extended his escapes to include chains, ropes slung from skyscrapers, straitjackets under water, and even a sealed milk can.
In 1904, an audience of over 4,000 turned out for a much-ballyhooed event at London’s Hippodrome in which the London Daily Mirror challenged Houdini to escape from special handcuffs that it claimed had taken a locksmith from Birmingham five years to make. Houdini’s escape attempt dragged on for over an hour, during which he emerged from concealment behind a small screen several times, asking once if the cuffs could be removed long enough to take off his coat. The Mirror representative refused whereupon Houdini produced a pen-knife and, holding it in his teeth, cut his coat from his body. After another long stretch, Houdini’s wife Bess appeared on stage and gave him a kiss. Conspiracy theorists suggest that in her mouth was the key to unlock the special handcuffs. Houdini then went back behind the curtain, and after another hour, emerged free. As he was paraded on the shoulders of the cheering crowd, he broke down and wept, saying it was the most difficult escape of his career.
In late 1926 after a Montreal performance, Houdini was reclining on his couch as an art student sketched him. Another student came in and asked if it was true that Houdini could take any blow to the stomach, Houdini said it was true. The student then quickly punched him three times before Houdini could tighten up his stomach muscles to avoid injury. Although in serious pain, Houdini refused medical attention. Soon afterward, he was hospitalized.
Harry Houdini performed his last escape on October 31, 1926, when thanks to a ruptured appendix, he “shuffled off this mortal coil.”
Bess Houdini held yearly séances on Halloween for ten years after Houdini’s death, but Houdini was a consistent no-show. In 1936, after one last séance, this one on the roof of the New York’s Knickerbocker Hotel, Bess put out the candle that had been burning beside a photograph of Houdini since his death.
She later remarked that “ten years is long enough to wait for any man.”