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Harry Houdini for Kids
His Life and Adventures with 21 Magic Tricks and Illusions
By Laurie Carlson
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2009 Laurie Carlson
All rights reserved.
On March 24, 1874, Ehrich Weisz, the boy who grew up to reinvent himself as Harry Houdini, was born in Budapest, Hungary. His parents quickly had a houseful — they already had three older sons, and another son was born after Ehrich. Their father, Mayer Samuel Weisz, had studied to be a lawyer, but he found little opportunity in Hungary. The family was just getting by and times looked bleak. They were Jewish and many Jews in Europe suffered discrimination and harsh treatment. Like many other immigrants from Europe at that time, Mayer Weisz booked passage on a ship to New York City.
COMING TO AMERICA
In the late 1800s millions of immigrants came to the United States from Eastern and Southern Europe. They arrived by ship, usually traveling in family groups, with everything they owned tied in bundles or trunks. Industrialization in Europe meant that machinery replaced human labor, leaving many people without jobs or farmland. In Russia, masses of Jews left to avoid harsh anti-Jewish government policies. Over 23 million immigrants entered the United States between 1880 and 1920. From 1900 to 1914, a million immigrants arrived every year.
When immigrants got off the ships in the New York harbor, health officers examined them. If they had signs of contagious diseases, they were quarantined, hospitalized, or sent back to Europe. The newcomers stayed in hotels and boarding-houses until they could get settled. Those with money headed west by train to find farmland. The West opened to settlers after the Civil War, and homesteaders could find land of their own along the new railroad lines. Those who were poor stayed in New York City, looking for work there at factory jobs. In 1879 almost half of the 180,000 immigrants who arrived in New York City stayed there. The rest headed by train to Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, and Missouri.
This was the path followed by the Weisz family. After arriving in New York City, Mayer Weisz sent for his wife, Cecilia, and their five children. Ehrich was four years old. Cecilia and the boys traveled from the port of Hamburg, Germany, to New York City. It took them 15 days. They arrived the day before the Fourth of July and a stifling 95-degree heat wave.
Hungarian Jewish immigrants, like many others, typically changed their names when they entered the United States, Americanizing them to make them easier for English speakers to pronounce. The Weisz family changed their last name to Weiss. Armin became Herman; Natan became Nathan; Vilmos changed to William; Ehrich changed his to simply Erik, and the youngest, Deszo, became Theo — but they called him Dash. For Ehrich, it wouldn't be the last time he changed his name.
By that fall, the family was living in Appleton, Wisconsin, where Mayer had found a house and job. Appleton was a small but growing town of 7,000 residents. Grain mills ground wheat into flour, and sawmills turned white pine into paper pulp. There were only about 75 Jewish people in the town, but they planned to build a synagogue and hired Mayer to serve as their rabbi. He was respected because he was highly educated and spoke several languages — Hebrew, Hungarian, and German — and wrote poetry and essays. The family became U.S. citizens and added two more children: another son, Leopold, and finally a daughter, Gladys.
EHRICH GOES TO WORK
Rabbi Weiss was a serious, studious man, far too serious, it seems, for the Appleton people, who replaced him four years later with a more modern-thinking rabbi. Or at least one who spoke English, which Rabbi Weiss did not. With no money and seven children, the Weisses moved to the nearest city, Milwaukee, to make a go of it. There the children went to work, finding whatever ways to earn money they could. Ehrich bought newspapers and resold them on the streets, polished men's boots for a few cents, or ran errands. They were destitute, and Cecilia had to go to the Hebrew Relief Society to ask for food for the children and coal to heat the house.
One day Ehrich and his younger brother Dash lost nearly their entire day's earnings — two dollars — on the way home. To make up for the loss, Ehrich used their remaining nickel to buy a flower from a florist shop. He went out on the street and sold the flower to a passerby for ten cents — doubling his investment. Dash joined him and the two bought and sold flowers until they had recovered two dollars. They hurried home, knowing their mother wouldn't be disappointed.
When he was nine, Ehrich joined an older kid who started the Jack Hoeffler 5-Cent Circus to make money. Ehrich created a tightrope stunt, calling himself Ehrich, Prince of the Air, after seeing a traveling tightrope walker. The young people performed in an open field, Ehrich swinging from ropes and doing acrobatic stunts wearing a pair of red knitted tights his mother made for him. His first stunt? Bending over backward and picking a pin up off the ground with his teeth. Later he claimed he also picked up sewing pins from the floor with his eyelashes — but no one can know for sure.
Houdini later remembered, "Training as a contortionist was, of course, the first step toward my present occupation of escaping from strait-jackets and chains, for it is chiefly through my ability to twist my body and dislocate my joints, together with abnormal expansion and contraction powers, which renders me independent of the tightest bonds." Gymnastics, exercise, and tumbling would remain part of his physical fitness training for the rest of his life.
His interests moved from gymnastics and acrobatics to magic. He had to teach himself, however, turning to books for all the information he could devour. He spent plenty of time at the public library reading whatever books caught his interest. His first book purchase, for ten cents, was a simple little book about magic.
Street magic — simple tricks done with papers, coins, or marbles — was easy for Ehrich to learn and cost nothing. It's always fun to learn some of the simple tricks he read about and practiced.
Even with the children working, the Weiss family was not able to make enough money to support themselves. When Ehrich was 11 years old, his parents sent him back to Appleton, hoping he could learn a skill to earn better pay. Ehrich lived with and worked as an apprentice to Mr. Hanauer, a locksmith in Appleton. Locks and hardware had always fascinated Ehrich. When he was younger he had used a wire buttonhook (a tool for buttoning ladies' boots) to open locked cabinets at home. He had also surprised the neighborhood in Appleton by somehow unlocking all the doors on College Avenue one night. Now, under Mr. Hanauer's guidance, he taught himself exactly how locks worked. When an opportunity arose to show off his talent, he discovered his unique skill might one day be important.
A policeman brought a handcuffed prisoner to the lock shop one day. The fellow had been found innocent and the police wanted to release him, but the key to the lock had broken off inside the lock. Mr. Hanauer and the officer went out for a snack, leaving Ehrich to figure out the task. After several futile attempts to saw the handcuffs apart, Ehrich decided to use a secret technique for opening the cuffs' lock — one he'd discovered himself. He took a pick, inserted it into the lock's mechanism, and with a few twists the locked cuffs sprang open.
Mr. Hanauer returned to the shop in time to see the open handcuffs lying on the table. He saw they hadn't been sawed apart or broken. "That's very good work," he told Ehrich. At that point, Ehrich realized he might find his special talent useful someday. He didn't know that handcuff escape acts would make him an international star.
Years later Harry Houdini remembered that day, saying, "The very manner in which I then picked the lock of the handcuff contained the basic principle which I employed in opening handcuffs all over the world. Not with a duplicate key, which seems to have been the only way others had of duplicating my performance." The prisoner remained the only person ever to watch Houdini open a lock. We still don't know his secret.
But working in the shop didn't last long, and Ehrich returned to his family in Milwaukee. About that time, at the age of 12, he ended up striking out on his own. He rode a train toward Texas looking for opportunity but somehow ended up in Kansas City, Missouri. Boarding another train, he wound up back in Wisconsin, about 50 miles from his family. For unknown reasons he didn't return to his family at that time. A childless couple, the Flitcrofts, took him in and cared for him that summer.
In 1887 Ehrich rejoined his father and the two ended up in New York City, hoping to find work and a new home for the rest of the family. They lived in a boardinghouse for a time. Mayer sold some of his book collection to buy food, and the rest of the family soon joined them.
Again Ehrich and his brothers tried to make money by doing odd jobs as well as using their wits. Ehrich worked the sidewalks, doing card tricks and magic tricks for donations. Rabbi Weiss, who worked cutting out clothing for a sweatshop, was often ill and knew the family was in dire straits. One day he made Ehrich promise to take care of Cecilia for the rest of her life if anything happened to Mayer. Ehrich didn't hesitate. Of course he would, he told his father. Like most children, he figured that day would never come.
When Ehrich noticed a sign outside a shop saying Help Wanted, he perked up. There was a long line of applicants standing outside the door, waiting to apply. Ehrich, desperate for something to support the family, rushed up to the front, brashly took down the sign, and went inside the front door.
"I'm here for the job," he told the surprised clerk. That was enough — he got the job and went to work immediately, cutting fabric into strips for others to stitch into neckties.CHAPTER 2
A Star Is Born
Ehrich's brash confidence helped him get the job at Richter's necktie factory and was a key to his success. He had nothing to lose and needed the work and the money desperately, so he didn't feel he could hang back and wait to be noticed. Getting noticed and making a name for himself would be a goal throughout his life.
SPORTS AND FITNESS
For a young person with little money or opportunities, sports offered a chance to become a winner. Ehrich could work out and train without spending much money, then compete, win prizes, and gain attention and acceptance. He excelled at many sports, including running and swimming. He trained by swimming in the East River and jogging a ten-mile run through Central Park.
Ehrich joined an athletic club, the Pastime Athletic Club, where he could make friends and enter competitions. He became so good that he tried out for the U.S. Olympic swim team, but he didn't make it. At age 16 he won a prize in the American Amateur Athletic Union one-mile race, and at 18 he set a record for a run around Central Park and defeated an English champion in a 20-mile race.
Ehrich also enjoyed gymnastics, and in New York he began learning to box. By age 17 he was good enough to compete in amateur boxing matches, aiming for the 115-pound championship, which could have launched him in a boxing career. He became ill, however, and couldn't complete the finals. The boy who won the championship had already lost to Ehrich in an earlier bout, so Ehrich might have won the match.
In addition to excelling at running, swimming, and boxing, Erich was an avid cyclist. Bicycle racing was a popular sport at the time, and Ehrich kept a scrapbook filled with newspaper stories about the winning bicyclists. He used a bicycle often himself, both to keep in shape and for transportation. He worked as a bicycle messenger, delivering messages around the city.
Keeping his body in top shape laid the foundation for Ehrich's later career, and he always prided himself on his strength and agility. He refused to use alcohol or smoke cigarettes, partly because his father had forbid them as immoral and partly because his coach at the Pastime Athletic Club warned him they would ruin his athletic ability.
HARRY HOUDINI IS BORN
Ehrich had always been interested in magic tricks and stunts, and he amused friends at the athletic club and the necktie factory with clever card and coin tricks. He performed in the neighborhood at places like the Young Men's Hebrew Association, where he called himself Ehrich the Great. Without money to buy equipment, however, his act was limited to simple tricks. Then, when he was about 15 years old, he discovered a book that changed his life. It was called Memoirs of Robert-Houdin, Ambassador, Author, and Conjurer, Written by Himself. He stayed up all night reading the book about Robert-Houdin, then the world's most famous magician. It was also a book about magic, a topic Ehrich utterly fell in love with. Robert-Houdin, a French magician, recorded his adventurous life as a performing magician during the middle 1800s. His stories of performing illusions involving people floating in the air, as well as performances before European kings and queens, fascinated Ehrich.
Ehrich's mother found him the next morning, still in his work clothes, pouring through the pages of the book. The book became a foundation for the rest of his life. He said, "My interest in conjuring and magic and my enthusiasm for Robert-Houdin came into existence simultaneously. From the moment that I began to study the art, he became my guide and hero. I accepted his writings as my textbook and my gospel." It sparked his interest in magic as a professional career. "To my unsophisticated mind, his 'Memoirs' gave to the profession a dignity worth attaining at the cost of earnest, life-long effort," he said.
From that book on, Ehrich began collecting all the information he could find or afford regarding magic. Eventually he built a huge personal library that helped him research stunts, tricks, and the history of magic. At about this time, Ehrich also began taking acting and debate courses at a local club, hoping to polish his ability to speak and present before an audience.
In 1891, while working at Richter's, 17-year-old Ehrich and a fellow necktie cutter, Jacob Hyman, joined to create a magic act to bring in extra money. Ehrich called himself Ehrich the Great, or Cardo if he was doing card tricks. Jacob changed his name to Jack Hayman. The pair realized they needed a better, more theatrical stage name, but what?
Ehrich wanted to emulate his newly discovered hero, Robert-Houdin. Jacob told Ehrich that if you added the letter i to a person's name in French, it meant "like" that person. Certainly, being like Robert-Houdin was Ehrich's goal. Houdin with an i became Houdini, and Ehrich, who had been given the nickname Ehrie by family members, became Harry. At that moment Ehrich's new identity and name came together, and he became Harry Houdini.
Harry and Jack called themselves the Houdini Brothers. They did simple acts such as card tricks, coin swaps, and disappearing scarves that reappeared as flowers, as well as a trunk escape trick that didn't take expensive props or equipment. It wasn't easy getting bookings, however. Harry took the plunge and quit his job at Richter's, doing solo acts when Jack couldn't join him.
In 1892, at nearly the same time Harry was launching his magic career, his father fell seriously ill. Rabbi Weiss had cancer and knew he was dying. He called Harry to his bedside and made Harry promise to take care of his mother. Harry had already made that promise to his father when he was 12 years old. Now he repeated it as the old man faded away. How Harry would support his mother without an education or trade was not clear. But he vowed to fulfill the promise.
Harry set out to perform as often as possible, scraping for whatever he could earn by his wits. He got a gig at Huber's Dime Museum, where he performed with a series of freaks, strong men, and variety acts. Dime museums were a lot like circus sideshows, but remained in one place. Instead of the show traveling from town to town, the freaks and performers traveled between dime museums. For Harry, it was starting at the bottom of show business, but he could make steady money and learn the tricks of the trade from the other performers.
Excerpted from Harry Houdini for Kids by Laurie Carlson. Copyright © 2009 Laurie Carlson. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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