10 Facts About Harry Houdini

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Though Harry Houdini passed away more than 90 years ago, his mystique has never faded. The famed magician captured the imagination of the world with his death-defying stunts and performances, many of which still baffle modern magicians. Whether he was escaping from a straitjacket while suspended from a crane above the streets or getting out of his famed “Chinese water torture cell” with just moments of air to spare, Houdini had a habit of leaving everyone in awe. And with performances that spectacular, it shouldn’t come as a shock that his life was just as fascinating. Read on for some interesting facts about Harry Houdini.

1. Harry Houdini's real name was Ehrich Weiss.

He likely took the first part of his stage name from his childhood nickname, "Ehrie," although some sources say that his first name was a tribute to magician Harry Kellar. His last name, however, was definitely a tribute to French illusionist Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin.

2. According to legend, He also named Buster Keaton, although inadvertently.

Along with Houdini, Buster's dad, Joe, was the co-owner of a traveling show called the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company. The story Buster tells (though some believe it's a myth) is that one day, when he was only about 6 months old, he took a tumble down a flight of stairs while he was under his dad's watch, but came out of it completely unscathed. Houdini remarked, "That was a real buster!" In those days, according to Keaton, buster meant a spill or a fall that had the potential to really hurt someone. Joe started calling him Buster, and the nickname stuck. His real name was Joseph Frank Keaton, if you're curious.

3. He introduced his famous milk can trick in 1908.

If you're not familiar with it, Houdini invented an oversized milk can that would be filled with water for his act. Once in the can, he would be handcuffed and sealed inside, then left behind a curtain to make his daring escape. When this became too commonplace, he further encased the milk can in a wooden crate. Perhaps building on this stunt, the folks at Joshua Tetley & Son, the brewers behind Tetley's beer, invited him to escape from a cask of their fine product. Houdini accepted and gave the stunt a go, but the task proved too difficult and he had to be rescued by his assistant, Franz Kokol.

4. Houdini probably didn't die from a sucker punch.

Houdini had long boasted of his physical prowess—and one of his claims was that he could withstand a punch from anyone. After a performance in Montreal on October 20, 1926, a student from McGill University asked him if this was true, and when Harry said it was, the student immediately punched him three times in the gut. Surprised by the blows, Houdini didn't have a chance to tighten his abs, which was part of his secret. He ultimately died of a ruptured appendix days later, which many people said was brought on by the punches. But that's not necessarily true.

Houdini had actually been suffering from appendicitis for a few days beforehand but hadn't done anything about it. In fact, he had continued to travel and do shows afterward. Finally, on October 24, 1926, he gave one last show and was immediately hospitalized. Unfortunately, he had let it go too long: on October 31, 1926, he died of peritonitis from his ruptured appendix.

5. The symbol of the Society of American Magicians is engraved on his tombstone.

Houdini was president of the Society of American Magicians when he died. And members are still invested in making sure the famed magician's gravesite at Machpelah Cemetary in Queens, New York, receives routine maintenance and restoration. Sadly, his beloved wife, Bess, is buried 10 miles away in Westchester; she wasn't allowed to be buried with him because she wasn't Jewish.

6. His wife, Bess, held a séance every year for 10 years on the anniversary of his death to see if he would get in touch.

Before Harry Houdini died, he and Bess made a pact that if there was a way to do it, Harry would contact her from the beyond. They even agreed upon a phrase that he would tell her so she would know it was really him speaking to her and not a ghostly imposter. When he failed to contact her on the 10th anniversary, she gave up, but the Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania, still holds the séance every year. So far, no one has gotten Harry to communicate. 

The secret code, by the way, was "Rosabelle- answer- tell- pray, answer- look- tell- answer, answer- tell." "Rosabelle" was the name of a song she sang in her vaudeville act when the two of them met, and the other words corresponded to letters of the alphabet in a language the two concocted for themselves. Combined, they spelled out "Believe."

7. Houdini was an avid aviator.

Though there's some dispute over the claim, Houdini is often recognized as the first person to ever make a controlled flight in a powered plane on Australian soil. The flight took place on March 18, 1910, in Diggers Rest, which is near Melbourne. In June, 1920, it was reported that Houdini was even making plans to embark upon what would have been the first transatlantic flight from Paris to New York. The plans, unfortunately, never materialized.

8. Houdini could also escape from copyright restrictions.

By 1912, Houdini added another act to his routine: the escape from the infamous "Chinese water torture cell," where the magician would be lowered upside-down into a water-filled tank while his feet were locked in stocks. It was a hit with crowds, and despite the overwhelming danger, Houdini repeatedly performed the stunt without a hitch. In fact, he was the only one who could legally perform this death-defying act. That's because Houdini found a way to copyright the cell routine in a pretty ingenious way. Since you couldn't copyright magic tricks, he first performed this escape as part of a one-act play called Houdini Upside Down! Well, you can copyright a play, and by incorporating the cell escape into the script, he was allowed to copyright the effect and would actively sue anyone who tried to imitate the stunt.

9. Although the Chinese Water Torture Cell didn't do him in, one of his performances nearly did.

In 1915, Houdini was buried in a pit with just dirt shoveled right on top of him for a stunt in Santa Ana, California. While trying to dig his way out, he started to panic and use up his precious air. He tried to call for help, but that's not exactly the easiest thing to do while covered in mounds of dirt. Finally, his hand broke the surface, and he was pulled to safety, where he promptly passed out. He later wrote that "The weight of the earth is killing."

10. You can still see one of his most famous stunts.

The straitjacket escape is one of Harry Houdini's most famous acts. For this one, Houdini would be strapped into the jacket and then suspended by his ankles very high in the air, usually from a crane or off a tall building. Once hoisted in the air, he would make a death-defying escape with countless onlookers below. You can still watch it below:

18 Surprising Things Stolen From Libraries

The 17th-century Samuel de Champlain map of New France was stolen from the Boston Public Library.
The 17th-century Samuel de Champlain map of New France was stolen from the Boston Public Library.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

It’s no secret that library books disappear. Many are misshelved and eventually resurface. Others are lost by library users, and some are borrowed and kept long after their return date. In many cases, the borrower pays the corresponding fine—just ask Emily Canellos-Simms, who returned a book to the Kewanee Public Library in Illinois a full 47 years late, at a cost of $345.14.

Then there’s theft, a common problem for libraries both big and small. In some of the most costly cases, these thefts are carried out by dedicated “tome raiders” who target rare books, maps, and documents, normally to sell to collectors. But it’s not always books that go missing: In recent decades, everything from presidential rocking chairs to swords and skeletons have been stolen from libraries across the world.

1. Alan Turing’s Order of the British Empire and other memorabilia

When Julia Schinghomes visited Alan Turing’s former school in Dorset, England, in 1984, she quietly walked out with an entire collection of artifacts Turing's mother had donated to the library. Bizarrely, the woman later wrote to the library to express her joy at having the items in her possession before returning some pieces by mail. But she held on to Turing’s OBE medal, his diploma from Princeton, school report cards, and a letter from King George VI. In 2018, the same woman offered the items to the University of Colorado, but under a different name: Julia Turing. She claimed to be related to the mathematician, but it’s believed she was just a Turing-obsessed superfan. The Department of Homeland Security confiscated the items, and there's now a lawsuit to have them officially forfeited to the U.S. government.

2. A 400-year-old Geneva bible

People working at desks inside a library
The interior of the main branch of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

A Geneva Bible, published in 1615, was one of the rarest books to disappear from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library during one of the largest library heists ever recorded. The pilfering, which took place over two decades, was allegedly an inside job. So far 40 books have been recovered, including the bible. It was sold to the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum in the Netherlands for $1200 and returned to Pittsburgh when the museum’s owners realized it had been stolen.

3. President Harry S. Truman’s diamond-studded swords and daggers

In 1978, thieves broke into the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri—but they weren’t looking for books. Their target was a case in the lobby that contained swords, scabbards, and daggers gifted to Truman by Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Saud and the Shah of Iran. The weapons, which were variously decorated with gold, diamonds, emeralds, and rubies, had a combined value of more than $1 million. The robbery took less than a minute and the items have never been recovered.

4. A copy of Columbus’s first letter from the New World

In 1875, the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice, Italy, acquired a Latin copy of the first letter Christopher Columbus wrote to Ferdinand, King of Spain, describing his discoveries in the Americas. The letter, known as the Plannck I edition, was stolen from the library between 1985 and 1988. It disappeared without a trace, until, in May 2003, a collector unwittingly purchased the letter from a rare book dealer in the United States. He was tracked down by investigators, and the copy was examined and found to be the genuine Plannck I. The owner agreed to turn the document over, which must have been a crushing blow, considering its estimated market value of $1.3 million.

5. A “holey dollar” and other rare coins

An Australian "holey dollar" against a white background
A single "holey dollar" is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
State Library of New South Wales, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 AU

When a thief broke into an armored glass display case in the State Library of New South Wales, he managed to make off with 12 Australian coins with a total value of almost $1 million AUD ($660,995.00 USD). The earliest and by far the most expensive coin was a “holey dollar,” the first currency minted in Australia. Only around 300 holey dollars are known to exist today. The stolen coins were never recovered.

6. President John F. Kennedy’s rocking chair

After the death of John F. Kennedy, his family entrusted Kennedy’s longtime personal secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, with the safekeeping of his personal effects. Lincoln was tasked with gathering together all the items while Kennedy’s family decided which to keep and which to donate to the Kennedy Library. Lincoln, however, decided to hold onto many of the pieces, including Kennedy’s rocking chair from the Oval Office, eventually giving them away or selling them. It was not until 2003 that the National Archives and Records Administration managed to reacquire many of the objects.

7. A copy of Ukraine’s oldest printed book

In 2017, a copy of the Apostolos, the first book printed in modern-day Ukraine, went missing from Ukraine’s National Conservation Center. At the same time, an artist working on the book’s restoration also went missing, prompting an ongoing search for both the book and the man. The man’s wife later phoned the library, promising her husband would return to explain everything. He never did. It wasn't the first time a version of the 16th-century tome disappeared. Another copy of the Apostolos, valued at around $150,000, went missing the year before, stolen from the Vernadsky National Library by a man claiming to be a supervisory authority.

8. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s official portrait and inaugural address

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York, has been the scene of two notable disappearances. In 2004, the library’s director realized a 5-foot-by-4-foot portrait of FDR had mysteriously disappeared. Apparently the painting had been left in a shipping crate upon its return from a loan at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. It was never seen again, and was either stolen from the crate or accidentally thrown away. Later, in 2011, two men were arrested in the library while trying to steal documents. The FBI raided the apartment of one of the men, where they found 10,000 stolen items, including seven copies of FDR’s 1937 inaugural address, all previously stolen from his presidential library.

9. A 17th-century Samuel de Champlain map of New France

Before his arrest and conviction in 2006, the notorious American art thief Forbes Smiley had stolen at least 97 rare maps valued at more than $3 million. One of his favorite haunts was the Boston Public Library, whose map collection was a relatively easy target for Smiley. One map that went missing from the library was the 17th-century Samuel de Champlain map of New France, which details an area stretching from current day Maine to Quebec and Newfoundland. Smiley never admitted to stealing the map, but he was the last person to view it, according to library records.

10. A fiberglass skeleton was stolen from an Australian city library.

In 2017, the Adelaide City Library was hosting a traveling exhibition by the Australian Orthopaedic Association. It’s fair to say no one was expecting a heist. However, the exhibition was infiltrated by a group of three men pretending to be council workers. Their target, for reasons unknown, was a fiberglass skeleton with a street value of about $300 USD. The men were caught on CCTV cameras casually walking out of the library and then boarding a bus, accompanied by the skeleton. No one was ever arrested for the crime.

11. Lyndon B. Johnson’s class ring

Lyndon B. Johnson gave a speech to the Coast Guard Academy’s graduating class of 1964. As a thank you, the Academy presented LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson with customized class rings made of 14-carat gold with yellow sapphire settings. The president's ring was gifted to the LBJ Presidential Library in 1970, but disappeared in 1989 during library renovations. To this day, no one knows if the ring was stolen or simply misplaced during the remodeling.

12. The Well of the Scribes sculpture

Exterior of the Los Angeles Central Library entrance
The Los Angeles Central Library has been without the Well of the Scribes since 1969..
Karen, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In 1969, the Los Angeles Central Library demolished its entire West Lawn to make room for more parking space. One of the main features of the lawn was the Well of the Scribes, a bronze sculptural basin weighing more than 3000 pounds. During the renovations, it somehow disappeared. Fifty years later, the city librarian received a call from an antique store owner in Arizona, who claimed to have in his possession a panel from the Well of the Scribes. It checked out. The man had purchased the piece—one of three panels from the sculpture—10 years previously for $500, from a woman who had kept it in her garden. It was returned to the library, and the search for the other two panels continues.

13. A Boer War veteran's diaries and possessions

The South Australian State Library was once home to Boer War artifacts belonging to an Australian soldier and ornithologist named Captain Samuel Albert White. The items included diaries, letters, photographs, uniform badges, a fob watch, and a compass, which together formed a compelling history of Captain White’s experiences. In 2015, the library informed the police that the entire collection was missing. But this was no smash and grab theft: The collection had been housed in a non-public storage area, raising suspicions of an inside job. So far, the artifacts have not been recovered.

14. A 15th-century register of blacksmiths' statutes

The Biblioteca Passerini-Landi in Piacenza, Italy, is yet more proof that renovations are a prime time for thievery. While the library was undergoing repairs in 1985, 145 rare volumes were stolen, including a priceless manuscript called Matricula et statuta paratici fabrorum ferrariorum, which documents the economic exchange and work of blacksmiths in Piacenza in the 15th century. The Carabinieri art squad, which had been trying to track down the book for decades, eventually found it on an internet auction site for the measly sum of 600 euros, far less than its actual value. It was returned to the library.

15. The first Prime Minister of India's gold dagger

A black and white headshot of Jawaharlal Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru served as Prime Minister of India from 1947 to 1964.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, died in 1964, many of the gifts he had received from visiting dignitaries were given to the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi. One such item was a janbiya, a gold dagger with a short curved blade, presented to Nehru by the King of Saudi Arabia. In 2016, library staff discovered a display case containing the dagger, as well as a precious ivory box and a scroll container, had been broken. Only the dagger had been removed. Two of the museum’s sanitation workers were eventually arrested. They pleaded guilty and admitted to stealing the dagger as a means to pay off their debts.

16. Rare LDS books and an original portrait of Porter Rockwell

In 2018, the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, was the target of a self-proclaimed Latter-day Saints antiquities dealer. The culprit, Kevin Mark Ronald Schuwer, checked out eight books valued at $300 each, having first switched the barcodes with other tomes. He also stole an original photo of Porter Rockwell, a Wild West lawman known as “The Destroying Angel of Mormondom,” which he replaced with a fake copy to avoid detection. Schuwer’s scheme eventually fell apart after he sold the items to collectors, partly because the books had markings that showed they belonged to the university.

17. Rare medical books

When books began disappearing from the Moody Medical Library in 1989, suspicion soon fell upon Emil Frey, the head librarian at the University of Texas Medical Branch, where the library is located. During the course of the year, some 80 books had vanished from the 12,000-volume rare book collection. Frey was only charged for five of the missing books, which were valued between $750 and $20,000.

18. Individual pages from ancient books

In 2009, a millionaire named Farhad Hakimzadeh was found guilty of stealing individual pages from ancient books from both the British Library and Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Using a scalpel, he carefully stripped out pages from 16th- and 17th-century tomes, including a 500-year-old map painted by Henry Vlll’s court artist. When suspicion fell on Hakimzadeh, investigators found that of the 842 volumes he had requested, 112 had been mutilated. Police raided his flat in London and found more than 100 pages from the ancient books, some with intriguing titles such as Unheard-of Curiosities and A History of Monsters. Hakimzadeh claimed his obsessive-compulsive bibliomania drove him to remove the pages to complete his own vast collection, even telling the court that on his wedding night he left his bed to go polish his books. The court was unsympathetic and sentenced him to two years in prison.

Secret Doorway Discovered in London’s House of Commons

Historian Liz Hallam Smith shows off the a-door-able opening in the wall of Westminster Hall.
Historian Liz Hallam Smith shows off the a-door-able opening in the wall of Westminster Hall.
ITV News, YouTube

Earlier this week, England’s Parliament announced that a secret door had been discovered in the walls of Westminster Hall.

BBC News reports that the 360-year-old passageway, located in the cloister on Westminster Hall’s west side, opens into a small chamber that would have led right to Westminster Hall if the other entry hadn’t been sealed. There are still traces of that entryway inside the passage, though, which include the original hinges for two wooden doors that would’ve been just under 11.5 feet tall.

Liz Hallam Smith, a University of York historical consultant for Parliament, explained that she and her team had been sifting through 10,000 uncatalogued documents about the Palace of Westminster when they uncovered old plans for the doorway, which they then located in person.

“As we looked at the paneling closely, we realized there was a tiny brass keyhole that no one had really noticed before, believing it might just be an electricity cupboard,” Smith said in a statement.

After several attempts, the Parliamentary locksmith managed to design a key that unlocked the door, revealing the long-forgotten passageway. Dendrochronologists analyzed wood from the ceiling and determined that the trees had been cut down in 1659, which tracked with historical accounts of the construction having occurred between 1660 and 1661 for the coronation banquet of Charles II.

According to Parliament’s statement, the passageway was used for coronations, Speaker’s processions—in which the Sergeant at Arms escorts the Speaker of the House of Commons from his apartments in the palace to the Commons chamber—and shortcuts by members of Parliament.

It hasn’t been used for decades, but it’s not completely empty: There’s a light switch and a working light bulb that historians believe was installed during renovations after World War II, and there’s also some cheeky “graffiti” from about 100 years before then. Bricklayers who restored the room in the years after the fire of 1834 scrawled “This room was enclosed by Tom Porter who was very fond of Ould Ale” and “These masons were employed refacing the groines [sic] August 11th 1851 Real Democrats” on its walls.

“The mystery of the secret doorway is one we have enjoyed discovering,” Mark Collins, a Parliament estates historian who helped find the passage, said in the statement. “But the palace no doubt still has many more secrets to give up.”

[h/t BBC News]

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