1886, after slipping away from his family’s apartment on New York’s
East Side, 12-year-old Ehrich Weiss sent his mother a postcard.
“Dear Ma,” he wrote, “I am going to Galveston,
Texas and will be home in about a year. My best regard to all…Your
The young Hungarian immigrant’s intention to find his fortune in
the Lone Star State got derailed when he hopped the wrong freight
car. Instead of the Gulf coast, he ended up in Kansas City.
It took him another 37 years before he finally got to Galveston,
but by then no one knew him as Ehrich Weiss. He long since had adapted
a different name. And he had found his fortune, or at least a far
better living than he had made when he first started out as a messenger
boy and necktie cutter.
Weiss was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1874, the son of a rabbi
and a school teacher. His family left Europe when Weiss was about
two. They first settled in Wisconsin, but eventually ended up in
A stout, athletic young man, Weiss flirted with the circus world
as an acrobat, but while performance art would be his calling, he
went on to develop a better act. Two important things led to that:
Weiss got interested in locksmithing and, at 16, he bought a used
book on magic. The author was Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, a Frenchman
considered the father of modern magic.
The rest, as
they say, is history. Weiss taught himself to pick locks and otherwise
free himself from restraint or confinement. He also took on a stage
name inspired by the book that inspired him. By the early 1900s,
the young man now known as Harry Houdini was well on his way to
becoming the most famous escape artist ever.
made two Texas tours, the first in 1916 and the last in 1923.
While both visits got ample ink from the state’s newspapers at the
time, in 2002 Austin magician Ron Cartlidge wrapped up Houdini’s
Texas story in a privately published book, “Houdini’s Texas Tours,
1916 and 1923.”
Houdini went where the people were, doing extended gigs in Fort
Worth, Dallas, San
Antonio and Houston.
The smallest city he played was Austin,
which in the teens had not yet topped 30,000 in population. Likely,
he came to the capital because he knew he could attract a lot of
University of Texas students. And he did.
Performing at the Capital City’s newly opened Majestic Theater (now
on Congress Avenue, Houdini drew large crowds. He handily pulled
off his signature water-escape trick, but part of his stchick involved
issuing a challenge to local residents to come up with some form
of confinement from which he could not escape. He accepted four
homegrown figurative glove-slaps and deftly got out of all of them.
Clearly, Houdini was not only a good magician, he worked magic in
getting good publicity for his act.
To assure good crowds for his shows, Houdini also did a free public
stunt wherever he went. In Austin,
with assistance from Chief of Police Will J. Morris and two of his
officers, Houdini had himself placed in a straightjacket and suspended
upside down on a rope from the fifth floor of the Littlefield
Building at 6th and Congress. As 5,000 Austinites looked on,
he got loose within four minutes, deftly climbing up the rope to
an open window.
He didn’t have time to accept all the challenges he got in Austin,
and one proposition – proving he could escape from the
old Travis County Jail at 11th and Brazos streets -- he flat
turned down. Jail breaking, he said, “was old stuff.”
On his second tour in the Lone Star State, he hit all the cities
he had played in seven years earlier, finally seeing Galveston.
There, part of his act was channeling a message from a recently
aside, Houdini had become interested in trying to communicate with
the dead. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to devote as much time to
that as he would have liked.
The famous performer could work his way out of locks and chains,
wooden packaging crates, straightjackets and even his trademark
“Chinese Water Torture” water-filled container, but like all mortals,
he could not escape death.
That came, fittingly enough given his dabbling in spiritualism,
on Halloween afternoon in 1926. He had suffered an attack of appendicitis
while performing in Detroit and died following surgery.