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Harry Houdini by Harry Houdini

My birth occurred April 6th, 1874, in the small town of Appleton, in the State of Wisconsin, U.S.A. My father, the Rev. Dr. Mayer Samuel Weiss, at that time received an annual salary of $750 (£150). Some of the leading actors in the congregation, thinking he had grown too old to hold his position, supplanted him for a younger man, and one morning my father awoke to find himself thrown upon the world, his long locks of hair having silvered in service, with seven children to feed, without a position, and without any visible means of support.

We thereon moved to Milwaukee, Wis., where such hardships and hunger became our lot that the less said on the subject the better.

October 28, 1883, was the date of my first appearance before an audience. I appeared as a contortionist and trapeze performer, being advertised by the manager, Jack Hoeffler (now proprietor and manager of a circuit of theatres in the Middle West of the United States), as "Ehrich, The Prince of the Air."

Later in life I worked at a number of trades, such as locksmith, electrical driller, photographer, cutter, etc., etc.: but I prefer to pass rapidly by those hard and cruel years when I rarely had the bare necessities of life and speak of the time when I first started to do handcuff tricks -- the tricks which eventually brought me to the notice of the world.

One day whilst working as an apprentice in a locksmith's close by the police station, one of the young bloods of the town was arrested for some trivial offense. He tried to open his handcuffs with some keys he had on his person, and in the attempt broke off one of the keys in the lock of the handcuff. He was brought to the shop to have the cuff opened or cut off his wrist, and this incident, trivial as it may seem, in after years changed my entire career.

>While the master locksmith was trying to open the handcuff the whistle blew for the dinner hour. Being a loyal union man, and incidentally, perhaps, having a sharpened appetite, he called me to his side and said, "Harry, get a hack-saw and cut off this handcuff," and then went out with the police officer to dine.

I tried to cut off the cuff, but the steel was too hard, and after breaking half-a-dozen saw-blades, the thought struck me to attempt to pick the lock. I succeeded in doing it, and 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 year 1893 found me as an actor! I played the part of an old man in a play entitled "My Uncle." During rehearsal I seemed unable to remember a single line, in fact would have spoilt the entire rehearsal had I not been allowed to read my part from the script. Notwithstanding this, the show opened up in a small town near St. Louis, Mo., and strange to relate, I was the only one who knew his part perfectly! The show as such a success that the only way possible for me to get back to St. Louis was to deposit my trick trunk as security for railroad fares.

It was while in St. Louis that I formulated the basis of the method for performing my packing-case escape, and it happened in this wise: The winter was a bitterly cold one, and I had no money with which to purchase wood to start a fire to warm my room. So seeing a discarded packing-case in front of one of the large drygoods' shops, I thought I would take it home for firewood. I knew I would make myself too conspicuous by carrying so large a case through the streets, and further knew that no police officer would permit me to break it apart in so crowded a thoroughfare, so I conceived a method of taking it noiselessly apart, and used this same method when I presented the packing-case mystery for the first time in Essen Rhur, Germany.

The presentation of this mystery resulted from a challenge issue to me, more in jest than earnest, by one of the employees of a large linen factory which I visited while in that city. It happened that during my visit, one of the men, engaged in packing a case of linens to send to America, recognized me, and knowing I had just escaped from the local jail, laughingly said, "If we nail you in this packing case like we do linens you never would be able to get out." Jokingly I replied, "Oh! that would be easy," and proceeded on my way, thinking the incident was closed.

Next day, on reading the morning newspaper, to my astonishment I found that the packers had publicly challenged me to escape from one of their packing cases, into which they purposed to nail and rope me. My thoughts flew back to the year long gone by when I secured firewood to heat my room, and I determined to accept their challenge, meaning to escape by using as a basis the method I had employed in securing my firewood years ago.

It was a sensation, and has been the means of putting a few solid stones in the foundation of my reputation.

In 1895 I was engaged by the Welsh Brothers' Circus, a circus which traveled almost exclusively through the State of Pennsylvania, and for the services of Mrs. Houdini and myself I received the sum of £4 weekly, railroad fares and board.

The amount was small, but I still look back with pleasure upon that season's work as being one in which we had an abundance of clothes to wear and good food to eat, for the Welsh Brothers certainly fed their artists extra well.

For this £4 weekly Mrs. Houdini and myself first of all had to give a free performance in front of the side show to attract the crowds. Inside, I then lectured upon the curiosities, gave a magic show, worked the Punch and Judy show, and with the assistance of Mrs. Houdini finally presented a second sight act. In the main concert Mrs. Houdini acted as a singing clown, while later on we presented our specialty, which consisted of the trunk trick in connection with the braid trick. With this same performance we created a big sensation at the Alhambra Music Hall in London in July, 1900, as many of the readers will undoubtedly recall.

I offered my handcuff act to the Welsh Brothers for L1 extra per week, and it was rejected. Eventually I offered to clown the bars, collect lithographs, and do my handcuff show for 12s. extra per week, and it was also refused. In fact, several managers later on refused to allow me to do handcuffs, and it was only after persistently presenting it every once in a while like a trick in several museums that I eventually was allowed to do the act steadily, and only after I had become known to the managers.

In 1897 I appeared with a medicine show in the Indian Territory with Drs. Hill and Pratt, the former from San Francisco, and the latter from Denver, Colorado.

I had to sell medicine on the streets from the carriage, and exhibited my prowess to the gaping public, free of charge. We received as salary £5 weekly, board and traveling expenses, and from this engagement we managed to save our first $100 (£20). As I dwell on thoughts of the past I can realise how important an item the board must have been, as I always was blessed with a good appetite. In fact, it is now no longer a puzzle to me why my parents remained in adverse circumstances, feeding a family of six boys and one girl, who ate as much as a small army. The only wonder still is how did we grow up at all?

In 1898 things became so bad that I contemplated quitting the show business, and retired to private life, meaning to work by day at one of my trades (being really proficient in several) and open a school of magic, which with entertainments would occupy my evenings. I therefore started to play one more tour of the Dime Museums to fulfill my expiring contracts, and it was this trip which made Houdini, The Handcuff King, famous.

When working at a small hall in St. Paul, a party of managers, while sight-seeing, happened to come in. They saw my performance, became impressed with the manner in which I presented it, and one of them, Mr. Martin Beck, perhaps more in a joke than sincerity, challenged me to escape from one of his handcuffs. He had none with him, but next day purchased a few pairs and sent them on the stage. I escaped! He then booked me for one week, and it was the first chance I ever had had, and my act in a first-class theatre created a sensation. My salary for this week's engagement was $60 (£12). In those days I opened my performance with fifteen minutes of magic, but gradually dropped it out until handcuffs were exclusively presented in connection with the trunk trick. We have never looked back since, but have kept on going forward, hoping in a few years to retire to private life and enjoy the harvests of my successes.

My largest income derived from a season's work was from the summer season in Russia in 1903. America ranks second as the payer of salaries, and, although strange as it may seem to the readers, in Great Britain I receive my smallest salaries. However, having made so many friends in this country I like to be among them. Of course, I also must have made a few enemies, but that is part of life.

After working contracts which I have signed for Great Britain I expect to accept no more, as two performances a night of the work I do is too trying for my physique.

When I retire, perhaps I shall reside half the year in Great Britain and the other half of the year in America.

Writing my latest book, "The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin," I consider my greatest and most gratifying achievement. This is the only book in the annals of magic which contains original research and material.

"Robert-Houdin Unmasked" is a book that will live long after we are all dead, will stand as a monument of years of diligent research and endeavor, and will bring me back to the minds of the public when I am long forgotten as a public performer.

Harry Houdini By Harry Houdini The Magician Annual , 1909-1910, published in London

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