Erich Weiss struggled for years to make a go of a magic act that mostly consisted of card tricks. Born Ehrich Weisz in Budapest in 1874, he dubbed himself "The King of Cards" but performed in venues that were a far cry from the vaudeville palaces of the day. His career did not take off until he followed the advice of an Orpheum circuit impresario and recast himself as an escape artist, wowing audiences with his deftness in unshackling himself from handcuffs. A superb natural athlete, Weiss combined great strength and technical skill with a flair for self-promotion. He now billed himself as the "Handcuff King" and issued a $100 challenge to anyone who could keep him manacled. Soon he was escaping from jail cells in cities around the world to boost ticket sales for his shows. He worked his way out of leg irons, burglar-proof safes and padlocked mailbags. In homage to the famous French magician Jean Robert-Houdin, he now called himself Harry Houdini.
To stay ahead of the competition, Houdini had to engineer ever more spectacular escapes. He was drawn to what he feared, and he also knew how to play on the fears of his audience. Although he suffered from claustrophobia, he deliberately placed himself in situations that would have tested anyone's nerve. He was secured by handcuffs inside a packing crate that was lowered into the East River. He escaped from a straitjacket while hanging upside down over Times Square. In his Chinese Water Torture escape, he was suspended by his ankles in a glass cabinet while submerged in water. Another magician died trying to duplicate a trick in which Houdini escaped from a padlocked milk can filled with water. "Tonight, for the price of one seat, you can experience life on the edge of the Grim Reaper's scythe," he proclaimed. Houdini himself nearly died trying to perform this same trick when beer was substituted for water, and the small air pocket inside the container filled up with CO2.
Houdini was almost obsessively fearful of death, yet repeatedly risked his life performing dangerous stunts. He shared an interest in spiritualism with his friend Arthur Conan Doyle, who turned out to be much more credulous than his fictional creation, Sherlock Holmes. Having lost a son during the First World War, Conan Doyle desperately wanted to believe it was possible to make contact with loved ones beyond the grave. Houdini had lost his beloved mother and also wanted to believe. However, as a master illusionist himself, he quickly saw through the other-worldly hocus-pocus performed by mediums of his day. His friendship with Conan Doyle ended when Houdini began exposing the tricks used by fake mediums to bamboozle the public.
As Houdini grew older and his escapes more arduous, his performances began to take a serious physical toll. He ruptured a kidney trying to free himself from a rope and urinated blood. He broke an ankle while being lowered into the Chinese Water Torture chamber. On what proved to be his final tour in 1926, he was injured when a college student in Toronto punched him in the stomach before he had a chance to tighten his abdominal muscles. He went on with his performance as usual that night, but the pain grew worse. He refused medical attention rather than miss a show at his next stop in Detroit, and he collapsed on stage. It turned out his appendix had burst, and he died days later of peritonitis. His body was returned home to New York for burial in a bronze coffin that had been used as a prop in one of his routines.
The bronze coffin proved to be the one contrivance Houdini could not finally escape. He had arranged with his wife Bess to try to make contact from beyond the grave, using a special code known only to the two of them. The message they had agreed on consisted of his pet name for her and a single word: BELIEVE. Bess conducted a well-publicized séance each year on Halloween, the anniversary of his death. The séances continued for years, but the message was never received.
In seeking to unbind himself from death, Houdini may have failed to grasp the true nature of the challenge. The skills that were called for in this most daring of all feats were not those of an escape artist but rather of a master illusionist. While exposing fake mediums, he had once commented, "It takes a flimflammer to catch a flimflammer." Yet in trying to perpetuate the life of one Harry Houdini (a.k.a. Erich Weiss, a.k.a. Ehrich Weisz), he had fallen for the oldest trick in the book. It was not the grave he needed to escape but rather the illusion of self.