It may seem appropriate that the world's greatest escape artist and illusionist, Harry Houdini, died on the day when many people try to portray themselves as something other than what they really are.
Houdini always claimed that he was born in Appleton, Wisconsin, on April 6, 1874. However, a birth certificate found after his death revealed that he was born on March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary. He was the son of Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weisz (1829-1892) and Cecilia Steiner. At birth, his name was Ehrich Weiss (or Weisz). He immigrated at the age of 4 on July 3, 1878, on the SS Fresia with his mother (listed as Cisy), sister Aurine, and brothers Nathan and Willi. At first, the family lived in Appleton, where Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weisz served at the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation. In the 1880 U.S. census, the family was living on Appleton Street. His name was listed as Ehrich Weiss, but friends called him "Erie" or "Harry."
On June 6, 1882, Rabbi Weiss became an American citizen. According to the laws at that time, American citizenship was automatically given to all minor children, including young Ehrich, or Harry. The family moved to New York City in 1887.
As a child Ehrich took several jobs, one of which was as a locksmith's apprentice. He made his public debut as a 9-year-old trapeze artist, calling himself, "Ehrich, the prince of the air".
In 1891, Weiss became a professional magician and began calling himself "Harry Houdini" in honor of French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. He first specialized in card tricks, calling himself the "King of Cards." However, he also dabbled at escaping from handcuffs. He soon realized that the audiences were more interested in his escapes than in card tricks. He met fellow performer Wilhelmina Beatrice (Bess) Rahner in 1893 and married her three weeks later. For the rest of his performing career, Bess would work as his stage assistant.
Harry Houdini went on to enjoy success as a performer in the United States and abroad. He would free himself from handcuffs, chains, ropes, and straitjackets, often while hanging from a rope or suspended in water, sometimes in plain sight of the audience. In 1913, he changed his legal name to Harry Houdini.
In October of 1926, while riding in a train from Montreal to Detroit, Houdini complained of severe abdominal pains. Upon arrival in Detroit, he had a temperature of 104. Houdini insisted the show must go on at the Garrick Theatre. His last performance was on October 24, 1926. The next day he was hospitalized at Detroit's Grace Hospital.
On October 25, doctors removed his appendix, which had burst, rupturing far over on the left side of the abdomen, resulting in strepococcic peritonitis. A second operation was performed on October 29 to address the poison that was spreading through his system. Finally, on October 31, 1926, Harry Houdini passed away. After escaping death so many times on stage, Harry Houdini died in a hospital bed.
Houdini always was interested in psychics and spiritualists and their so-called powers. Houdini scoffed at such "powers" and often used his training and insights to expose frauds. Fearing that spiritualists would exploit his legacy by pretending to contact him after his death, Houdini left his wife a secret code - ten words chosen at random from a letter written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - that he would use to contact her from the afterlife. His wife held yearly séances on Halloween for ten years after his death, but Houdini never appeared.