Harry Houdini (born Erik Weisz, later Ehrich Weiss or Harry Weiss; March 24, 1874 – October 31, 1926) was a Hungarian-born American stunt performer, noted for his sensational escape acts. He first attracted notice as Handcuff Harry, on a tour of Europe, where he would sensationally challenge different police-forces to try to keep him locked up. This revealed a talent for gimmickry and for audience involvement that would characterise all his work. Soon he was extending his repertoire to include chains, ropes slung from skyscrapers, straitjackets under water, and having to hold his breath inside a sealed milk-can.
In 1904, thousands watched as he tried to escape from a special handcuff commissioned by London's Daily Mirror, keeping them in suspense for a hour. Another stunt saw him buried alive and only just able to claw himself to the surface, emerging in a state of near-breakdown. While many suspected that these escapes were fabricated, it is ironical that Houdini was meanwhile presenting himself as the scourge of fake magicians and spiritualists. As President of the Society of American Magicians, he was keen to uphold professional standards and expose fraudulent artists who gave practitioners a bad name. He was also quick to sue anyone who pirated his own escape-stunts.
Houdini made a number of movies, but quit acting when it failed to bring in money. He was also a keen aviator, and aimed to become the first man to fly a plane in Australia, but according to the official definition of sustained flight, he was beaten to it by two others. Even the circumstances of his death were dramatic and mysterious. According to one version, a student in Montreal asked him if his stomach was hard enough to take any blow, to which he replied that it was, whereupon the student rained a series of blows on it before Houdini had had time to tense up. A few days later, he died of a ruptured appendix. But this may have been unconnected, as he had already been suffering appendicitis and refusing to seek medical attention.