Harry Houdini was one of the most famous people on the planet in the early 1900s. The Hungarian-born American illusionist and escape artist wowed crowds across the world with death-defying stunts and also appeared in a number of motion pictures.
Houdini got his start in the 1890s as a dime museum magician. However, he garnered little attention doing simple card and sleight of hand tricks. His big break came in 1899 when he exhibited a handcuff escape trick to Martin Beck in St. Paul, Minnesota. Beck, a vaudeville theatre owner, was so taken by the escape that he told Houdini to make that his entire act. Beck would then book Houdini as an escapist across the US.
After a few years Houdini’s escapes grew grander and so did the stages he would perform upon. By 1920 he had performed across North America and Europe. His most famous escapes included the Chinese Water Torture cell, which involved Houdini being straight-jacketed and suspended upside down in a glass box filled with water and the overboard box escape, which saw Houdini being sealed inside a crate, with nails and ropes, before being lowered into New York’s East River.
At the height of his celebrity Houdini was drafted to entertain U.S. troops, as can be seen in today’s featured photograph. There is no photographer credited for the image and it is dated ‘circa 1920’.
The picture shows Houdini horsing around with two of the era’s greatest, and most famous, boxers: Jack Dempsey and Benny Leonard. In the image, Leonard is restraining the escape artist as Jack Dempsey aims a punch at his chin. Around them soldiers are seen kneeling and grinning, some with rifles in hand.
Dempsey, aka the Manassa Mauler, was world heavyweight champion from 1919 to 1926. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest, and most aggressive, boxers of all time. In the 1920s Dempsey was pulling in bigger paydays than Babe Ruth thanks to headlining record breaking events. The Colorado-born fighter had a record of 68-6-11 with 53 KOs. He passed away in New York City in 1983, aged 87.
Leonard was a world lightweight champion from 1917 to 1925. Though not as well-known as Dempsey, Leonard is regarded as one of, if not the, best lightweight fighters ever. The 5’ 5” New Yorker had a record of 186-22-9 (3) with 70 KOs.
In 1947, while working as a referee Leonard suffered a massive heart attack. He collapsed and died in the ring. He was only 51 years old.
Not long after Leonard and Dempsey featured in this picture Houdini himself would die. On October 21, 1926 Houdini, aged 52, passed away from peritonitis and a ruptured appendix. It is believed Houdini’s condition was the result of a punch to the stomach delivered by a university student in the dressing room of Montreal’s Princess Theatre.
Witnesses reported that, while Houdini was reclined on a couch nursing a broken ankle, the student approached him and asked about a previous claim the illusionist had made about punches to the stomach not hurting him. Houdini apparently responded that his stomach could endure much punishment. The student then repeatedly, and without warning, punched Houdini in the abdomen. After the incident it is said that Houdini suffered with terrible pain for about a week before being admitted to hospital and dying.
Despite his passing almost a century ago, Houdini’s name remains synonymous with illusions and escapes. Our vault is filled with fantastic images from his improbable career, you can view them below: