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Magician, escape artist and skeptic Harry Houdini (Ehrich Weisz) was born in Budapest on this day in 1874. A trapeze artist, card trickster and circus “wildman,” he began concentrating on escape acts in the 1890s, married a fellow performer, Bess Rahner, who became his lifelong stage assistant, and made his reputation in a tour of England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany, France and Russia. In each venue, he challenged the local police to shackle him and lock him in jail, and then he made his escape. His acts increasingly became death-defying and were brilliantly publicized as he became the highest-paid vaudeville performer in the U.S. Houdini relied mainly on his physical agility and stamina, concealed picks and keys, and knowledge of the vulnerabilities of the materials that bound him; he revealed some of his secrets to his fellow magicians in books throughout his career. In the 1920s, after his beloved mother died, Houdini began debunking and exposing the tricks of mediums, psychics and spiritualists. He joined the Scientific American committee that offered a cash prize to anyone who could demonstrate supernatural powers. Houdini died of a ruptured appendix in 1926 after being punched several times in the torso, and was buried in Queens, New York under the crest of the Society of American Magicians. Bess, who died in 1943, was not permitted burial next to him because she was not Jewish.
“No performer should attempt to bite off red-hot iron unless he has a good set of teeth.” —Harry Houdini
Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.