When it is said that Freemasons are men that come from all walks of life, the notion is entirely true. For centuries, men across the globe have come together to share in the joys of brotherhood and learn from the Masonic teachings. These men are doctors, laborers, politicians, scientists, musicians, and even magicians, perhaps the most famous of which is Harry Houdini.
Celebrated for his groundbreaking and awe-inspiring stunts and illusions, Houdini was also an ardent Freemason with a charitable nature. His open-handedness was perhaps due to his growing up in dire poverty and struggling to survive on the lowest rung of society. Houdini knew the joys of entertaining and supporting other people and lived his life accordingly. He lived an extraordinary life that came to a tragic end, and his story is certainly worth the telling.
Prince of the Air
Harry Houdini was born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary, on March 24, 1874, to a large Jewish family. He was one of seven children and his parents, Rabbi Mayer Sámuel Weisz and Cecília Steiner brought the family to the United States when Erik was four. They arrived in America on July 3, 1878, on the SS Fresia, changing their name to the German spelling Weiss and Erik’s name to Ehrich.
Ehrich’s father became a rabbi of the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation in Appleton, Wisconsin, where the family lived until 1882. Rabbi Weiss became an American citizen that year but lost his job serving the congregation at Zion. The family moved to Milwaukee and soon to New York City, where they moved into a boarding house. Like many immigrant families of the era, they were poor, and the children had to find work. At just nine years old, young Ehrich performed the first of what was to become a lifetime of stunts when he performed as a trapeze artist. The young daredevil named himself Ehrich, the Prince of the Air.
Ehrich was drawn to magic from a young age and was coached by the magician Joseph Rinn at the Pastime Athletic Club. With his penchant for performing, Ehrich expanded his repertoire to include escape acts and magic acts, although they earned him little notoriety. In 1893, Erich married fellow performer Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, who regularly assisted him on stage during his performances under the name Beatrice “Bess” Houdini.
The Age of Harry Houdini
The following year, Weiss officially launched his career as a professional magician, dawning the name Harry Houdini which was an homage to the great French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdini. He was not successful at first, and it wasn’t until 1899, when an entertainment manager named Martin Beck discovered him, that his popularity increased.
Beck booked Houdini at vaudeville venues across the country and scheduled him on a tour of Europe. During his performances, the police would handcuff Houdini and lock him in a cell, only for him to escape. Before long, he was the biggest star in American vaudeville, charging vast sums to perform. Amazingly, as Houdini’s reputation and fame increased, so did the difficulty and complexity of his stunts.
By the turn of the century, Harry had graduated from jail cells to water-filled tanks, coffins, and straight jackets. He was suspended high above the ground and buried alive in the earth. During a typical stunt in his set, he was put in chains and placed inside a box that was then locked close, only for him to escape. In another, the box was tossed from a boat underwater. By 1912, he had upped the ante so much that he integrated a stunt into his act called the Chinese Water Torture Cell. In this act, his feet were tied, and they suspended him in the air and lowered him into a glass box filled with water from which he had to escape. The trick required him to hold his breath for three minutes and became the pinnacle of his career. His crowds so enjoyed the stunt that he performed it regularly until his death.
While many have debated the authenticity of these tricks, Harry Houdini could only perform these fantastic escapes because of his tremendous physical strength, agility, and unparalleled lock-picking skills.
Beyond the stage
As his fame grew, so did his fortune, allowing him to indulge his other interests, including aviation and film. He purchased his first plane in 1909 and attempted to become the first pilot to fly over Australia, losing out by a few months to Capt. Colin Defries.
In 1909, Houdini launched his film career when he starred in Merveilleux Exploits du Célèbre Houdini Paris, which documented his escapes. He also received an offer that same year to star as Captain Nemo in a silent version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but the film never went to production. His other movies include The Master Mystery, The Grim Game, and Terror Island. He established The Film Development Corporation in New York and became president of Martinka & Co., America’s oldest magic company, in 1923.
Freemasonry and Personal Vision
Known to his brethren by his real name, Brother Ehrich Weisz was initiated into St. Cecile Lodge in New York in 1923 and was raised on July 31 and August 21 in 1924. He enthusiastically engaged the Masonic community in New York, holding a performance for the Scottish Rite Valley of New York, which saw 4,000 people attend at the Scottish Rite Cathedral. Brother Weisz used the money he raised to support fellow Freemasons in need. After becoming a Master Mason, Houdini became a member of Mecca Shrine Temple in New York City.
When he wasn’t on stage or pursuing one of his other interests, Houdini was devoted to cultivating his art form and pushing for the success of his fellow magicians. He was the president of the Society of American Magicians (a.k.a. S.A.M.) from 1917 until he died in 1926. Harry oversaw tremendous growth during his term, using his vision and leadership to develop a national network of magicians. As he toured, he would find and attend meetings at local magic clubs, addressing the members and encouraging them to join SAM. Houdini was responsible for driving the most significant movement in the history of magic, convincing local groups in cities such as Buffalo and Detroit to create local branches of SAM.
During his tenure, Houdini created the world’s most prominent society of magicians. Today, there are thousands of members and hundreds of branches. He was elected nine times in a row to serve as SAM’s president for his success.
The Spiritualism Conflict
As the face of magicians across the globe, Houdini was fanatic about maintaining the integrity of his craft. At the same time as he was working to unionize magicians all over the world, the spiritualism movement was gaining popularity. Harry saw the movement as a scam and began campaigning publicly against fraudulent psychics. He debunked the famous medium Mina Crandon and incurred backlash from followers of spiritualism, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, formerly his friend.
Those who followed spiritualism believed mediums had supernatural powers that allowed them to read the minds of others and communicate with the dead. Houdini attacked the movement for years, arguing mediums used special effects and tricks to convince the public of their powers. In 1920, Houdini wrote Miracle Mongers and Their Methods and A Magician Among the Spirits several years later, chronicling his efforts to debunk the spiritualists.
Death and Legacy
Houdini was still regularly performing stunts at the time of his unfortunate passing. Houdini had long claimed he could withstand any punch to the abdomen and routinely incorporated it into his performances. In 1926, while lying in his dressing room at the Princess Theatre in Montreal, witnesses saw Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead, a student of McGill University, repeatedly punch Houdini. While it isn’t conclusively known what caused Houdini’s death, it is known that Houdini wasn’t prepared for the beating, which caused him a great deal of pain. He performed despite the pain in his abdomen and did not seek medical attention. After several days, he developed a fever and acute appendicitis and consulted a doctor who suggested he have surgery immediately.
Rather than listen to the physician, Houdini continued his tour, performing for the last time on October 24, 1926, at the Garrick Theater in Detroit, Michigan. When he took the stage, he had a fever of 104° and passed out during the show. He was revived, finished the performance, and then was admitted to Detroit’s Grace Hospital. Harry Houdini died there on Halloween, 1926, at 52. While it can’t be confirmed, there is speculation his attacker was a spiritualist angry at Houdini’s long standing campaign to debunk the movement.
Brother Wiesz’s funeral was held on November 4, 1926, in New York, where over 2,000 mourners attended the service. Following his passing, Houdini’s stage props and gear went to his brother Theodore Hardeen who performed with them for a time. The collection was on display at the Houdini Museum in Appleton, Wisconsin, until it was auctioned off in 2004, mainly to the famed magician David Copperfield.
Remembered as history’s most influential magician, Houdini inspired subsequent generations to create their illusions, many of whom have been Freemasons, including Harry Keller, Howard Thurston, and Harry Blackstone. Today, there is even an “Invisible Lodge” for Freemasons who are magicians or pursuers of a related art form.