Erik Weisz was born in Budapest, Austria-Hungary, on March 24, 1874. When he became a professional magician at the age of 17, he named himself “Harry Houdini.”
Although he first specialized in card tricks, it wasn’t long before he began experimenting with escape acts. He soon became well-known for his uncanny ability to escape from handcuffs.
Houdini’s handcuffs act impressed audiences around the country. When he arrived in a new town, Houdini would challenge local police, claiming he could escape from any handcuffs they could provide.
He even offered $100 (a lot of money at that time!) to anyone who could come up with a set of handcuffs from which he couldn’t escape. No one ever collected on that offer, though — Houdini could escape every time.
In 1912, Houdini introduced the Water Torture Cell, which would come to define his already spectacular career. In this spectacle, Houdini would be hung by his feet and lowered upside down into a locked glass container filled with water. He would have to hold his breath for more than three minutes while he tried to escape, which he did successfully every time.
How did Houdini perform all of these feats? Did he have supernatural powers? Not quite! While he never revealed many of his secrets, he did offer some insight in a 1909 book called Handcuff Secrets.
He always stayed in top physical and mental health. To hold his breath for more than three minutes, he practiced at home regularly in an extra-large bathtub he had installed just for this purpose.
He also trained his left hand to work as well as his right hand, and he practiced many “tricks,” such as learning how to tie and untie ropes with his feet. As for the handcuffs, he revealed that many times he could open them with force, although occasionally he used shoestrings and hidden lock picks and keys.
Although he was a magician at heart, Houdini never believed in the supernatural. In fact, he would often offer $10,000 (an enormous amount of money back then) to anyone who could come up with a psychic phenomenon that he couldn’t duplicate by natural means. As usual, no one ever won that bet either…