When Harry Houdini Mystified NYC, from the Bowery to Coney Island [HISTORY]

Posted on: May 7th, 2014 at 11:21 am by
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Harry Houdini, world famous magician, has a few connections to the Lower East Side.

Mr. Harry Houdini was actually born Ehrich Weisz in Budapest, Hungary on March 24, 1874. He was one of six children born to Rabbi Mayer Weisz and second wife, Cecilia Steiner. Two years after Houdini was born, the elder rabbi emigrated to the United States, where he found work doing the same. The family eventually found its way to Milwaukee, where Houdini sold newspapers and shined shoes to help support the house. But father Weisz and young Harry would not stay there long. They moved to New York City in 1887, living in a boarding house on East 79th Street.

Despite some flirtations with a trapeze act at nine years-old, Houdini’s first real interest in magic happened at age seventeen, when he left the household to pursue the art full time. He performed small acts around New York and joined the circus where he developed and perfected the escape tricks for which he’s legendary. The name Harry Houdini was fashioned after the French magician Robert Houdin.

Ah, the circus. How I loathe thee, but in the 19th century, entertainment options seem to revolve around menageries, beer halls, vaudeville, dime museums, dives, and side show freaks. Magicians anted up the entertainment world and Houdini set the bar for all magicians in his wake.

Much has been written about Houdini, so we won’t go the path well-tread. We’ll instead focus on the ties to the Lower East Side. First stop, Huber’s Dime Museum.

In 1891, Harry spent much of his time performing card tricks, coin swaps and disappearing acts at Huber’s Museum in New York City (and also at Coney Island during the summer).  He was featured with a friend, Jacob Hyman as “The Brothers Houdini.”

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Gangsters, Murderers and Weirdos of the Lower East Side, Part 1 Eric Ferrara

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Showhistory.com

The Brothers Houdini (now, actually brothers – Jacob Hyman was replaced by Houdini’s real brother, Theo) were granted a spot at the Chicago World’s Fair also known as the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.

From The World’s Columbian Exposition on PBS.org:

The mile-long Midway at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago was the closest an amusement seeker came to a sure thing in 1893. Strolling along, one could admire the belly dancing of Fahreda Mahzar, known as “Little Egypt, the Bewitching Bellyrina;” take in a demonstration of strong man Bernarr MacFadden’s new exercise machines; ride on George Ferris’s 264-foot bicycle-wheel-in-the-sky; or contemplate the stuffed carcass of Comanche, the “only survivor of Custer’s last stand.” With such a heady assortment of entertainment choices, many probably missed nineteen-year-old Ehrich Weiss, a.k.a. Harry Houdini, who had just embarked on his quest for fame as half of a magic act called “The Brothers Houdini.”

Houdini would continue performing at Coney Island.  It was there that he met his wife, Bess, who would eventually replace Dash as partner. Together they called themselves Monsieur and Mademoiselle Houdini, Mysterious Harry and LaPetite Bessie, or The Great Houdinis.

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The Houdinis continued to perform in dime museums for a few years and then in 1896, they joined the Welsh Brothers Traveling Circus. When the circus season closed, the husband-and-wife act began traveling with a vaudeville show. It was then that Harry became known for his ability to escape handcuffs, straitjackets, and metamorphosis.

Metamorphosis went like so, again according to TheGreatHarryHoudini.com:

In this trick, Houdini’s hands would be fastened behind his back as he was placed inside a large bag which was knotted closed. He was then placed inside a large box, which was locked and strapped closed. The box is then placed inside a cabinet. Mrs. Houdini would then draw the curtain closed and clap three times. At the third clap, Houdini himself would draw open the curtain and Mrs. Houdini would be gone. When the box is opened, Mrs. Houdini is found inside the bag with the knots and seals unbroken and her hands secured in exactly the same way as her husband’s.)

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Here’s a look at a straitjacket escape:

Back in NYC in 1912, Houdini created the “Underwater Box Escape.” In front of a huge crowd along New York’s East River, Houdini was handcuffed and manacled, placed inside a box, locked in, and thrown into the river. The box was nailed shut on all sides and had tiny air holes in it.  When submerged, it filled with water.  Inside, his hands were cuffed and his legs were shackled. Pretty sure most people would drown attempting that stunt, but ABRACADABRA, Houdini escaped just 57 seconds after being underwater!

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Courtesy LOC: Houdini steps into a crate that will be lowered into NY Harbor July 7, 1912

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Houdini before lowered into NY Harbor, July 7, 1912/ Dietz N.Y.

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Crate containing Harry Houdini, July 7, 1912 / Dietz N.Y.

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Crate containing Harry Houdini lowered into New York Harbor, July 7, 1912/ Dietz N.Y.

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Courtesy of NYPL

Meanwhile, a pair of Houdini’s handcuffs are on display at McSorley’s Old Ale House, the legendary bar still kicking on East Seventh Street.

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Courtesy of Yelp

So just how did Houdini do it all? What was his secret?

Magic.

I don’t want any other explanation. Do you?

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