Harry Houdini, the great escape artist and magician was born Erik Weisz, in Budapest, Hungary, on March 24, 1874. He was brought to America by his parents Rabbi Samuel M. Weisz and his mother Cecelia in the summer of 1874. His father had taken a job as the rabbi of the Jewish congregation at Temple Zion in Appleton, Wisconsin. Erich, as his name was spelled in Appleton, always said his birthday was April 6, 1874 and that he was born in Appleton. The boy who whould become Houdini was the fifth son. His younger brother, Theodore was born in Appleton and nicknamed "Dash". Erich's nickname was "Ehrie" which later became Harry. The family lived over a store on Appleton Street. Today there is a community plaza here dedicated to Houdini. In the book, Houdini, his life and art by The Amazing Randi, there are several stories about Houdini's childhood in Appleton. He learned to pick locks by breaking into his mother's desert cupboard. He enjoyed the excitement of the cirvus when it came to town. He had a trapeze in his back yard and learned to be quite an acrobat. He learned to do card tricks from the doorman at the hotel across the street from his house. In 1883, Rabbi Weisz' congregation decided they needed someone who could speak English for their temple. Since Houdini's father could only speak Hebrew, German, and Hungarian, he had to leave and the family moved to Milwaukee. They were very poor. Harry at the age of 10 took jobs selling newspapers and shining shoes to help his family make ends meet. When he was 12 years old he ran away from home, hopping a train heading to Texas. He sent his mother a postcard from Woodstock, Illinois, telling her that he was well, and would be back in a year. He joined the circus and traveled for almost a year until somehow he received word from his mother that his father had moved to New York City to find work. In 1887, he traveled to New York to find his father. After weeks of searching he found him living in a rooming house on East 79th Street. He joined him and took a job as a messenger boy. Soon they had earned enough to bring his mother and the rest of the family east. Harry then took a job making neckties at H. Richter's factory on lower Broadway. Here he met Jack Hayman, who taught him magic tricks. Jack became Harry's partner in a new magic act called the Houdini Brothers. Harry was 16 and had recently read a book about the famous French magician Robert-Houdin. He decided to add a letter to that name and make it famous. He would be like Houdin. Their best trick was called Metamorphosis. It cost them $25 which was a huge amount in those days, but it brought them success. It was known as the substitution trunk. One partner was tied up and locked in the trunk, a screen was raised around the trunk and lifted to hide the other partner. When the screen was dropped the fellow who was tied in the trunk was now outside and his partner was tied up in the trunk! Jack decided he didn't like magic as much as song and dance, and he quit the act to be in another act with his brother, Houdini recruited his younger brother Theo as his partner and they performed together in 1891 and 1892. In 1892, their father died, and Houdini and Dash became the main breadwinners for their mother and little sister Gladys. One of his older brothers was studying to become a doctor. In 1893, the country was suffering through a depression and millions of men were out of work. Houdini and Dash decided to take their act west to the Chicago World's Fair, but by July they were back in New York and had a job performing at Huber's 14th Street Museum for $12 a week.
On June 22, 1894, Houdini at the age of 20 married Bess Rahner who was to become his new partner in magic and in life. Having grown up in show business, Bess was accustomed to the theater and traveling life. In 1895 the Houdinis joined the Welsh Brothers Circus for $200 a year plus bed and board. They had to take several roles and one of Harry's jobs was to dress in a leopard skin and wear a wig and become the "Wild Man" living in a cage. Later that year they had joined another traveling show, the American Gaity Company and toured New England. Houdini finally introduced his magical ability to escape from handcuffs to the act. He began challenging local police chiefs that he would escape from their cuffs, and built up to strait jackets. Traveling from town to town was very tiring. In 1898, the Houdinis got their big break. They were signed to a contract with the Orpheum Western Circuit by Martin Beck, the booking agent. They could decide what tricks and escapes to use in their act, and they made $125 per week travelling all over the country. However, Houdini wanted more fame than he was able to gain from being just another performer. So, on May 30, 1900, he and Bess sailed for England. They didn't have any jobs lined up, but Houdini solved that by challenging Scotland Yard to lock him up, and then escaping. After that, he was booked and performed all over England. The challenge to local law enforcement officers became a regular part of the Houdini's act and gained them much publicity. They were then booked into a theater in Dresden, Germany, in September 1900. Here they met Frank Kukol, who became Houdini's trusted assistant and remained with them throughout his career. In Germany, Houdini first tried the stunt of jumping off a bridge locked up in chains. He did this to gain publicity for his show that day. It worked so well that Houdini continued to find ways to give the public a free show in order to get them to pay to see him perform.
There is much more to Houdini's story. All you need to do to discover it is to read about it. Some of the best books on Houdini include: Houdini-His Life and Art by the Amazing Randi, The Secrets of Houdini by J.C. Cannell, Houdini-A Pictorial Biography by Milbourne Christopher, The Original Houdini Scrapbook by Walter B. Gibson, Houdini's Escapes by Walter B. Gibson, Houdini-His Legend and Magic by Doug Henning, Houdini-His Life Story by Harold Kellock, and Houdini!!!-The career of Ehrich Weiss by Kenneth Silverman