10 things you might not know about Harry Houdini

As Adrien Brody’s lavish new drama about the great man showcases on Channel 4, we reveal his fascinating life of spying, obsession with the macabre, his love of flying… and the real reason why he died

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Oscar-winner Adrien Brody has always wanted tell the story of the master escapologist Harry Houdini – and we can now see him take on the role in the first of a two-chunk biopic which airs on Channel 4 on Sunday.

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Born in 1874 to a Hungarian immigrant family, Harry Houdini’s first escape, of course, was from the desperate poverty of his early years to the global stardom of his life in the US.

Brody’s drama is a lavish and spectacular attempt to cram in many of the eye-catching details of his eventful life. But, apart from the fact that he was pretty nifty with a load of chains and some handcuffs when he found himself immersed upside down in a tank of water, what do we really know about the man?

Well, here are the ten fascinating facts about him…

1. Why the name?

Born Erik Weisz in 1874 in Budapest, Hungary, to Jewish parents, he changed his name to Ehrich and his friends called him Ehrie, which inspired his Americanised first name Harry. He later changed his surname to Houdini because his partner, Jake Hyman, said it would mean ‘like Houdin’ in honour of the magician Robert-Houdin….

2. Eric you say?

Houdini was not his only stage name, others include Eric: Prince of the Air, Eric the Great and The King of Cards…

3. The child star

He took to his craft from an early age: his first performance was aged nine when his party trick was picking up pins with his eyelashes whilst hanging upside down. His fee? A mere thirty-five cents. Another of his early tricks was known as The Wild Man which saw him locked in a cage wearing a loincloth and eating raw meat.

4. Houdini and Sherlock Holmes…

He was friends with Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But unlike the Scottish author, Houdini wasn’t a fan of spiritualism. While Conan Doyle was convinced that Houdini could communicate with the dead without knowing it, Houdini believed all mediums were conmen and occasionally took to attending séances disguised in a false beard and hat and revealing himself at the last minute ….

5. Houdini the spy

This was not his only undercover work. As tonight’s drama suggests, he worked as a spy for many years for the American and British governments.  The claim, made in the 2007 book, The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero by William Kalush and Larry Sloman, is that Houdini spied on royalty and political leaders of Europe for many years. Being fluent in German certainly helped apparently….

6. A fascination with death

Houdini had a fascination with the macabre and bought the first electric chair and even performed stunts to inmates on Death Row.

7. He loved his Missus

Houdini adored his wife Wilhelmina Beatrice ‘Bess’ Rahner – played by Kristen Connolly in the drama – whom he married only two weeks after their meeting. They called each other “Mr. Houdini” and “Mrs. Houdini” and he wrote her hundreds of love letters. They never had children, but had a pretend child whom they would refer to in letters as Mayer Samuel Houdini, named after Houdini’s own father. Bess was also his onstage assistant and, after he died, was so distraught she attended séances trying to communicate with him – despite her husband’s belief that mediums were all fakes.

8. A passionate flyer

An enthusiastic aviator, in 1910 Houdini was the third person to fly across Australia on his own Voisin biplane and during his life firmly believed that his lasting legacy would be his contribution to the fledgling art of flying…

9.  Hold your breath

A perfectionist, Houdini had an enormous bath tub fitted into his house so that he could practice holding his breath: something he could eventually do for three minutes.

10. The myth about his death

He died from peritonitis on October 31 (Halloween) 1926 after suffering from acute appendicitis. The myth that he died following the ill effects of a punch is now thought to be untrue, although it was true that he was belted unexpectedly in the tum by a Canadian student keen on challenging the magician’s feted abdominal strength a week before his death. (Poor Houdini didn’t have had a chance to tighten his abs, and while it was unpleasant, this is now not believed to have contributed to his demise). Houdini was buried beside his parents with his mother’s letters under his pillow and his grave in the Queens area of New York has been known to be visited by people who wish to raise his spirit on Halloween….

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Houdini airs on Channel 4 at 10pm on Sunday September 7, with the concluding part airing the following week