By Bartee Halie
Following a weeklong engagement at the Majestic Theater, a cheering crowd saw off Harry Houdini, escape artist extraordinaire, at the Dallas train station on Jan. 25, 1916.
The four-year-old Hungarian, destined to be the most famous live performer of his generation, came to the United States with his family in 1878. During his childhood in Wisconsin, little Erik Weisz showed more aptitude for athletics than academics and stopped going to school altogether after the third grade.
At 12, Erik ran away from home with Galveston on his mind. No one can say for sure whether he ever made it to the Texas island, only that he rejoined his relatives in New York City a short time later.
When teenaged Harry, his new and more American moniker, was not cutting ties for near-starvation wages, he was winning foot and bicycle races, boxing matches and swim meets. He even went so far as to try out for the U.S. Olympic team.
But a book, the autobiography of French magician Robert Houdin, changed his life. Harry coined the surname “Houdini” and convinced a co-worker to join him in a magic act billed as “The Brothers Houdini.”
Replacing his original partner with his real brother Dash and buying a $25 trunk trick he renamed “Metamorphosis,” Harry managed to scrape by while learning his craft. In 1893 he changed partners again dumping Dash for his new bride Bess, a Coney Island showgirl he wed after a three-week courtship.
Five years of dime museums, beer halls, traveling circuses and medicine shows left Harry feeling like a flop. Then he got a career-changing piece of advice and his big break from a vaudeville impresario, who told him to forget sleight-of-hand and focus on handcuffs.
Harry agreed to give it try, and Martin Beck gave “The Houdinis” an extended tryout on the western vaudeville circuit. Beck followed that up with a tour of Europe, where “The Handcuff King” broke attendance records in England, Scotland, Wales, Germany, France, the Netherlands and, finally, Russia.
Upon his triumphant return to The States, Houdini took the country by storm.
Moving on from handcuffs, he created the crowd-pleasing “challenge act.” Nothing could hold him – not thick canvass mail bags, riveted boilers, padlocked crates tossed in the nearest river not even the belly of a dead giant sea turtle – and the public kept clamoring for more.
In 1908 Houdini took wrist restraints completely out of his act and introduced an exciting escape of his own invention.
With posters that proclaimed “Failure Means a Drowning Death,” he risked his life, or so the audience was led to believe, in a custom-built water-filled “milk can.”
Angered by rivals’ cheap imitations of his centerpiece stunt, Houdini replaced the milk can four years later with an escape so dangerous that no one dared try to duplicate it in his lifetime. The “Chinese Water Torture Cell” was his bread-and-butter stunt for the rest of his career.
In early 1916, Houdini kicked off a seven-day stay in Dallas with his standard free exhibition. Ten thousand Texans packed the block in front of The Morning News to watch him wriggle free from a strait-jacket while dangling head-first three stories above the street. He accomplished the feat in a mere two minutes and 15 seconds.
For his finale on the evening of Jan. 24, Houdini accepted a challenge from the sheriff to slip out of a so-called “punishment jacket” widely used in the prisons, asylums and hospitals of the day. According to press descriptions, it covered “the body from the neck to and including the feet.”
The next day’s edition of The Morning News published this eyewitness account of the sensational show: “An audience that filled every seat and available foot of standing room at the Majestic Theater last night cheered Harry Houdini, ‘genius of escape,’ when he extricated himself in full view of the spectators from a ‘punishment suit’ strapped upon him by Sheriff W.K. Reynolds and two deputies. It took Houdini only nine minutes to gain his liberty.”
No one was more astounded that the sheriff, who was quoted as saying that Houdini was “the only person who had been able to release himself” from the contraption.
On his last visit to Dallas in the fall of 1924, Houdini was the star attraction for “Magicians’ Day” at the State Fair. The enormous turnout had to listen to his long-winded attack on Spiritualism in a lecture titled “Can the dead speak to the living?” before being treated to an encore of the upside-down strait-jacket escape.
Two years later, Harry Houdini died from a ruptured appendix at the age of 52.
The cause of death was several punches to the stomach from an overzealous college student exacerbated by the great magician’s refusal to seek medical attention until it was too late.
“Unforgettable Texans” brings to life the once famous people no one remembers today. Order your copy for $24.00 (tax and shipping included) by mailing a check to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.