One of the best-recognized names in magic is that of Harry Houdini. His ability to skillfully free himself from ropes, chains, locks, and handcuffs made him world famous, and he was billed in theaters as The Elusive American. He was a master of the escape act.
Born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary, on March 24, 1874, he was brought to the United States as an infant. The family first settled in Appleton, Wis., then moved to New York City, where the father, Rabbi Samuel Weiss (the Americanized spelling of the name), made a meager living as a teacher.
Taking his stage name from a famous French magician, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, young Harry set out to become a professional magician.
With a friend, who was later replaced by Harry's brother Theodore (known as Dash), he formed a team known as The Houdini Brothers, and they performed escape acts.
Following a highly successful tour of England in 1900, Houdini's act was solidly booked in the United States. He gave his stunts frightening, mysterious-sounding names like Metamorphosis, the Chinese Water Torture Cell, and Buried Alive.
Onstage he might be tied hand and foot and nailed into a packing case, or submerged in a giant milk can filled with water. Between shows, he might be wrapped in a hospital straitjacket and suspended upside down high above the street, only to free himself in minutes.