victorian notables harry houdini

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Steampunk Notables: Harry Houdini

Classic photo of Houdini his his trademark chain ensamble

Harry Houdini
Born 1874, Died 1926
Age 49, 55″, 160 lbs. A fit man with blue eyes and black, graying wavy hair, dressed in fine clothes (wrinkled if not performing), or swimwear for some escapes.

Advantages: Breath Holding, Charisma, Collected, Extra Arms (“legless” when in use; clumsy and lack opposable thumbs), Filthy Rich, Fit, Manual Dexterity, Reputation (Celebrity); Temperature Tolerance

Disadvantages: Broad-minded, Claustrophobia (Mild only when no method of escape), Compulsive Generosity, Fanaticism (to himself), Intolerance (Charlatans), Motion Sickness (seasickness only), Reputation (a threat, to spiritualists), Secret (Techniques), Self-centered, Workaholic

Quirks: Avid collector and boxing fan, destroy photos of people hes angry with, Health nut (but loves sweets), Mildly dyslexic, slovenly

Photo of a young Houdini and assistant

This is Houdini around the time of his first attack on fraudulent mediums. His skills cover knowledge of tricks and illusions, including both Western and Indian magic; Performance/Rituals covers the holding of seances. His “extra arms” are his feet, which he has trained to perform simple tasks. His secret reflects the fact that if the public knew how he did his tricks, he would lose audiences and be inconvenienced.


Harry Houdidi was born Ehrich Weiss to a poor Jewish family in Hungary (not, as he later claimed, Wisconsin). When they traveled to America, Ehrich quickly showed a penchant for trickery and performance. In 1891, he read the memoirs of Robert-Houdin, a French magician; he and a fellow factory worker formed “The Brothers Houdini”. His brother Theodore replaced his partner, and the two traveled the Midwest. Harry eventually went solo at a dime museum, where he met his wife Bess in 1894. The couple toured, performing whatever shows would bring in money; at one point, he posed as a medium, but the faith of his patrons frightened him. Houdini discovered a talent for escape artistry, often challenging local police departments to try and keep him locked up.

European Advertisement for Houdini’s world tour

In 1899, Houdini went into vaudeville, soon dominating the theatres. He traveled to Europe in 1900, and became a sensation, constantly developing new illusions and escapes. IN 1905, he began a world tour, spending most of his time in Europe or the U.S.A., where he had a residence in New York. He developed a brief obsession with aviation in 1909-1910, becoming the first man to fly a plane in Australia.

Photos of Houdini flying in Australia

In 1913, Houdini channeled his energy into motion pictures, writing, and his large library, without huge success in his new careers. When his mother died, he became interested in Spiritualism, and in 1922, he befriended Sir Author Conan Doyle, a staunch supporter of the movement. Doyles wife supposedly contacted Houdinis mother, but he became disillusioned when the “spirit” spoke English, which his mother barely understood. In 1924, Houdini became spiritualisms greatest foe, and began a crusade of exposing mediums as frauds.

Being lowered into the legendary “water torture” container

Houdini continued to tour, attacking spiritualism and performing his stage show. On October 22, 1926, a college student punched him in the stomach to test his reputed ability to withstand such blows, not realizing Houdini needed to be prepared. His appendix ruptured, but Houdini continued to push himself; he developed acute peritonitis, and died on Halloween.

Posing in a jail cell (prior to breaking out, I’d assume)

Houdini is charming, and most people like him at first. However, he is actually an egomanic who holds grudges. He prefers to be called an “escape artist” rather than a magician, and to be addressed by his adopted name. If asked he will gladly perform a few tricks (but dislikes Indian magic). His interest border on the macabre; he is fascinated by criminals, death, insanity, museums, and children (especially twins). He would be thrilled to encounter supernatural forces that he could not disprove, probably seeing them as a means of contacting his mother.

In spite of appearances, Houdini leaves little to chance. His shows are prepared (and skillfully publicized) in advance, even “challenges” often being scripted. He talks his way out of immediate dares, researches locations, and prepares (and sometimes plants) what he needs for a trick. His mentalists acts are researched using town records and gossip.

Further Reading:
Meyer, Bernard C., MD: Houdini: A Mind in Chains
Silverman, Kenneth: Houdini!!!: The Career of Erich Weiss

Internet Resources:

Stoddard/Smithson, B. (1999) – Gurps Who’s Who II, pg. 100-101, SJG:Austin
[edited for removal of game specific content]

1 comment:


The second photo is actually of Houdini with his wife Bess. I can’t remember if they were married at the time that it was taken, but it’s definitely her.