ByVaria Fedko-Blake, writer at
Staff Writer at Moviepilot! [email protected] Twitter: @vfedkoblake
Varia Fedko-Blake

Biopics are all the rage these days in Hollywood and admittedly, it was only a matter of time until someone decided to tackle one of the greatest entertainers of the 21st century on the big screen once more.

Although we've seen our fair share of interpretations over the years, news on the block is that a film about Hungarian-American illusionist Harry may be cropping up on our cinema screens sooner rather than later. Currently, all we know is that the biopic will focus on the magician's exploits as a debunker of spiritualists, that is no longer linked to the project and that director Dan Trachtenberg is in talks to direct — he's the man behind the successes of 10 Cloverfield Lane:

So, while we wait for more information behind the blockbuster to release itself from its pre-production shackles, why not familiarize yourself with the true story behind the real Harry Houdini:

What Is The True Story Behind Houdini, The Illusionist Getting A Biopic?

'Ehrich, The Prince Of The Air'

Harry Houdini came into the world as "Erich Weisz" on March 24, 1874. Born to a Jewish rabbi and his wife in Budapest, Hungary, he was one of seven children to emigrate with his parents to the USA in pursuit of a better life in 1876.

Although the family settled in Appleton, Wisconsin, Erich moved to New York with his father, where he soon became very interested in the trapeze arts – he was 9-years-old when he made his first appearance on the stage in 1883, calling himself "Ehrich, the Prince of the Air." During this time, he also worked as a messenger, necktie cutter and photography assistant to support his family, who joined him and his father months later.

Around this time, he became more and more interested in illusions and magic tricks, renaming himself "Harry Houdini" after reading the autobiography of French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin in 1890. He later also claimed that the first part of his name stemmed from his admiration for Harry Kellar, another prominent magician in America.

"My Two Sweethearts"— Houdini with his mother and wife, c. 1907 [Credit: WikiCommon]
"My Two Sweethearts"— Houdini with his mother and wife, c. 1907 [Credit: WikiCommon]

At the age of 17, Ehrich left home to fully pursue a magic career and by 20, he was performing solo acts around New York. At this time, he also married fellow performer Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, who would remain by his side in each of his endeavours under the name of Beatrice "Bess" Houdini.

Daring Illusions & Grand Escapes

Harry Houdini, c. 1898 [Credit: WikiCommons]
Harry Houdini, c. 1898 [Credit: WikiCommons]

Soon, his talents were spotted by a local entertainment manager, Martin Beck, who booked him for a tour of Europe. Performing at some of the best venues on the continent, Houdini won recognition for his handcuff acts — his appeal lay in the fact that he would challenge local police to restrain him with shackles and to lock him up in jail, only to see him miraculously escape. In many of these escapes, the artist was first strip searched, adding to the intrigue of his abilities.

His shows became such a sensation that he became known as "The Handcuff King" and was raking in a hefty $300 a week, swiftly becoming the highest-paid performer in American vaudeville. With his newfound wealth, among many investments, Houdini purchased a dress belonging to Queen Victoria and organized a stunning reception where he presented his beloved mother in it. Later, he said it was the happiest day of his life.

Over the next decade, he upgraded his escapes from handcuffs and straightjackets to water-filled tanks and packing crates, with each performance becoming more and more dangerous. At one point, a contraption he escaped was a belly of a whale washed ashore in Boston.

And by 1912, he had perfected his Chinese Water Torture Cell technique, which saw him suspended by his feet and lowered upside-down into a locked glass cabinet, where he was forced to hold his breath for more than three minutes. Time and time again, the possibility of failure and death thrilled his audiences so much that his name spread through the world like wildfire.

A Man Of Many Exceptional Talents

Harry Houdini's scrapbook [Credit: Flickr/Boston Public Library]
Harry Houdini's scrapbook [Credit: Flickr/Boston Public Library]

As Houdini's influence and wealth grew, the magician was able to develop other passions alongside his penchant for daring illusions. For example, he bought his first plane in 1909 and made it his mission to become the first person to man a flight over Australia the following year. Although he managed it following a number of failed attempts, he was in fact beaten by another aviator a few months earlier.

In addition to this, Harry Houdini got involved in the movie world. In 1901, he released Merveilleux Exploits du Célébre Houdini Paris, documenting his various escapes, and also starred in The Master Mystery, The Grim Game and Terror Island. Eventually, he even started his own production company — Houdini Picture Corporation.

In the 1920s, he also turned his attention to debunking psychics and mediums and became a member of a Scientific American committee, offering cash prizes to any spiritualists who could prove supernatural abilities. Unfortunately none were able to do so.

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Perhaps one of the most famous mediums he exposed as a sham was Mina Crandon, who claimed she could channel her dead brother. Another was Joaquín Argamasilla, the "Spaniard with X-ray Eyes," who argued he could read handwriting on dice through closed metal boxes. Houdini's passion for finding out phonies was later immortalized in two novels: Miracle Mongers and Their Methods (1920) and A Magician Among the Spirits (1924).

It is this area of his life, and particularly his conflict with Crandon, that is most likely to be documented in the upcoming biopic.

A Tragic, Mysterious Death

Dempsey, Houdini, Leonard spar at publicity event [Credit: WikiCommons]
Dempsey, Houdini, Leonard spar at publicity event [Credit: WikiCommons]

However, life wasn't too kind to Houdini in the end and the great talent lost his life on October 31, 1926, aged 52.

For years, there was much debate over what actually caused the illusionist's death, with some arguing that an incident in Houdini's dressing room in Montreal led to his passing. Eyewitnesses blamed a surprise attack of multiple blows to his abdomen by a McGill University student to be the cause. Apparently, J. Gordon Whitehead delivered the punches while Houdini was reclining on his couch (he had broken his ankle days earlier during a performance) at his request.

Throughout the evening, he was in great pain but did not seek medical help until much later, when the doctor said he had acute appendicitis and a high fever. Refusing to cancel his performance, he took to the stage (he passed out and had to be revived during the show) and was taken to Detroit's Grace Hospital that same night. His last words before dying were reportedly:

"I'm tired of fighting."

Although it's unknown whether Whitehead's blows were the direct result of Houdini's death, many suggest that they aggravated the acute appendicitis the magician was already suffering from. Despite this, some sceptics claim that the true story behind his death may be a brutal poisoning by a band of spiritualists, with whom he had come into conflict.

I guess only time will tell which path the upcoming movie will choose to take.

Were you already aware of the true story behind Harry Houdini?

 Houdini prepares to do the Overboard box escape, c. 1912 [Credit: WikiCommons]
Houdini prepares to do the Overboard box escape, c. 1912 [Credit: WikiCommons]


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