Harry Houdini was born Eric Weisz on March 24, 1874 in Budapest, Hungary to Jewish parents. The family spoke Yiddish, German, and Hungarian. When Houdini was four, his parents decided to immigrate to North America, and settled in Appleton, Wisconsin. Upon entry into the United States, the family's surname was changed from Weisz to Weiss by immigration officials. Erik's name was changed to Ehrich and his birthday to April 6, 1874. In Wisconsin, his father, Mayer Sámuel Weisz, was appointed rabbi of the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation (Reform Jewish Community of Zion). He also tried to support his family as a soapmaker and lawyer, however mostly unsuccessfully. After living in Wisconsin for nine years, Ehrich and his father moved to New York in 1887, where they were shortly joined by Houdini's mother, Cecelia Steiner, and six of his siblings.
The family lived in poverty, moving frequently to avoid rent collectors. Houdini later wrote that he "sold [newspapers] every night, for my father was an old rabbi, and we were dreadfully poor—[we] needed every cent we could get." Following a life of hardship, his father died on October 5, 1892. In the aftermath of this critical event, Houdini's relationship with his mother, to whom he was always close, strengthened further, and he continued to sustain a strong relationship with her throughout his life. Profoundly attached to his mother, Houdini was devastated by her death on June 17, 1913. "If God in his greatness ever sent an angel on earth in human form," wrote Houdini, "it was my mother."
Houdini mythologized the origin of his fascination with escapology. A story he told a Yorkshire, England newspaper recalled him undertaking his first handcuff escape while working for an Appleton locksmith, when he successfully removed a pair of jammed handcuffs from the wrists of a convict. In another version, his introduction to the art transpired by virtue of his love of his mother's apple pies, which she kept locked in a cupboard, and in order to get to them, Houdini had to learn lockpicking.
Partly due to his father's inability to secure a stable source of income, Houdini was forced to work from an early age to help the family make ends meet. Even at an early age he was drawn to performing, and made his debut in a neighborhood circus at the age of nine as a trapeze artist and contortionist, calling himself "The Prince of the Air."
In 1886, at the age of twelve, Ehrich ran away from home, claiming that wanderlust took hold of him, but returned home to his family a few months later. The family had since moved to New York City in the hopes that Mayer Weiss would find a better occupation there. In New York, Ehrich worked as an electric driller, messenger, newsboy, tie-lining cutter, and magician called "Eric the Great." He met Jacob Hyman at the H. Richter's Sons necktie factory. Hyman also had an interest in magic, and the two began performing together, calling themselves "Brothers Houdini," after the French magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin. Houdini would later write The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin (1908), a debunking study of Houdin’s abilities.
The troupe performed in vaudeville shows without much success until about 1900, when Houdini began to attract international fame. His acts included extrication from shackles, ropes, and handcuffs, and from various locked containers, ranging from milk cans to coffins and prison cells. In one of his popular acts, Houdini was shackled with chains and put in a box that was locked, roped, and weighted. The box was then submerged in a river from a boat, to which he returned after freeing himself underwater. In another performance, he was suspended, head down, approximately 75 feet above ground, before freeing himself from a straitjacket. The outdoor performances were attended by thousands of people. Houdini’s escape abilities were sourced partly in his great physical strength and agility, and partly in his lockpicking dexterity. Houdini starred in many motion pictures from 1916 to 1923.
In his later years, Houdini criticized mind readers, mediums, and others who claimed to possess supernatural powers, arguing that they were charlatans who produced all of their effects by natural means. He authored Miracle Mongers and Their Methods (1920) and A Magician Among the Spirits (1924). Houdini and his wife, however, agreed to carry out an experiment in spiritualism, which entailed that the first to die was to attempt to communicate with the survivor. His widowed wife declared the experiment a failure before her death in 1943.
After sustaining a fracture of his left ankle during a performance in Albany, New York on October 11, 1926, Houdini continued his tour against doctors’ orders and traveled to Montreal, where he gave a lecture at McGill University. A few days later on October 22, he invited some McGill students to visit him in his dressing room at the Princess Theater. The magician’s ankle was still sore and impeded his normal function, so he lied down on a couch during the visit.
At some point, a student named J. Gordon Whitehead arrived and asked Houdini if it was true that he could resist hard punches to his abdomen. According to witness Sam Smilovitz, when Houdini affirmed, Whitehead abruptly delivered “four or five terribly forcible, deliberate, well-directed blows” to his stomach. Houdini was still reclined on the couch and had no time to prepare for the punches that left him in considerable pain. With his back pressed to the couch and reclined, the position of his body was unfavorable to performing the trick safely.
While an adult male with a normal appendix, especially someone as physically trained as Houdini, who presumably had strong abdominal wall muscles, would not be likely to suffer injury to their appendix while standing and anticipating a strike, Houdini's reclined position with relaxed abdominal muscles made his organs more vulnerable. Moreover, when standing, the body can move backwards to absorb the force of a punch, but being reclined against a hard surface such as a couch would obstruct the body’s ability to dissipate the force, thus increasing the risk of injury.
Houdini disregarded the incident, but that same evening, he complained of discomfort and stomach cramps. His condition worsened the next day, when he boarded an overnight train to Detroit for a new run of shows. By then, Houdini developed severe abdominal pain, cold sweats, and fatigue, and his temperature rose to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. A doctor suspected appendicitis and instructed Houdini to go to a hospital, but the magician insisted on going through with his opening night show at the Garrick Theater. He proceeded with the routine and immediately collapsed from the illness, likely exacerbated by exertion, after the final curtain.
After the performance, Houdini checked into his hotel. He still refused medical treatment, and he was in such pain that his wife, Bess, demanded he be rushed to the nearby Grace Hospital, where on Oct. 24 he underwent an operation to remove his damaged appendix, which had been ruptured and caused severe peritonitis, an infection of the abdominal cavity. After a second operation on Oct. 28 and the administration of a new anti-streptococcal serum, Houdini succumbed to sepsis. He died on Oct. 31, 1926 at the age of fifty-two. Reportedly, his last words were “I’m tired of fighting.”
The official cause of Houdini’s death was listed as peritonitis caused by a ruptured appendix. At the time, the magician’s doctors believed that the illness was the result of the punch inflicted upon him over a week prior. However, such cases of “traumatic appendicitis” are extraordinarily rare. One study found only a couple dozen occurrences over a nearly twenty-year period, yet in 1926, the diagnosis was readily accepted. Houdini’s life insurance company was obliged to pay his wife a double indemnity due to an accidental death. The true cause of Houdini's death remains a topic of debate.