“Handcuff” Autograph with Handcuff Key - c1922
Scarce, boasting autograph “Harry Handcuff Houdini”, signed by master magician Harry Houdini in black fountain pen, originally inside a list of other signatures likely from a guest book. Framed with a genuine handcuff key from Houdini’s personal inventory, formerly in the huge collection of Paul Harter, a lock and key connoisseur who purchased the item from Houdini’s brother Hardeen. Together with a leaflet explaining the story behind the key. The adjoining photo shows an identical key next to the handcuffs, both of which were sold at a major Houdini auction in 2004. In process of being archivally framed.
HARRY HOUDINI (born Ehrich Weiss 1874-1926) was a Hungarian-American magician and escapologist, stunt performer, actor and film producer, as well as a skeptic and investigator of spiritualists. Harry Houdini forever changed the world of magic and escapes, and is widely regarded as one of the greatest escapologists in history.
As a child, Ehrich took several jobs, then became a champion cross country runner. He made his public début as a 9-year-old trapeze artist, calling himself “Ehrich, the prince of the air”. Weiss became a professional magician and began calling himself “Harry Houdini” because he was heavily influenced by the French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, and his friend Jack Hayman told him that in French, adding an “i” to Houdin would mean “like Houdin” the great magician. In later life, Houdini would claim that the first part of his new name, Harry, was an homage to Harry Kellar, whom Houdini admired a great deal. However, it’s more likely Harry derived naturally from his childhood nickname “Ehriee”.
Initially, Houdini’s magic career resulted in little success. He performed in dime museums and sideshows, and even doubled as “the Wild Man” at a circus. Houdini initially focused on traditional card tricks. At one point, he billed himself as the “King of Cards”. But he soon began experimenting with escape acts. In 1893, while performing with his brother “Dash” at Coney Island as “The Houdini Brothers”, Harry met fellow performer Wilhelmina Beatrice (Bess) Rahner, whom he married. Bess replaced Dash in the act, which became known as “The Houdinis”. For the rest of Houdini’s performing career, Bess would work as his stage assistant.
Harry Houdini’s “big break” came in 1899 when he met manager Martin Beck in rural Woodstock, Illinois. Impressed by Houdini’s handcuffs act, Beck advised him to concentrate on escape acts and booked him on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit. Within months, he was performing at the top vaudeville houses in the country. In 1900, Beck arranged for Houdini to tour Europe, where he was a huge sensation.
From 1907 and throughout the 1910s, Houdini performed with great success in the United States. He would free himself from jails, handcuffs, chains, ropes, and straitjackets, often while hanging from a rope in plain sight of street audiences.
Houdini explained some of his tricks in books written for the magic brotherhood throughout his career. In Handcuff Secrets (1909), he revealed how many locks and handcuffs could be opened with properly applied force, others with shoestrings. Other times, he carried concealed lockpicks or keys, being able to regurgitate small keys at will. When tied down in ropes or straitjackets, he gained wiggle room by enlarging his shoulders and chest, moving his arms slightly away from his body, and then dislocating his shoulders.
Harry Houdini died of peritonitis secondary to a ruptured appendix. It has been speculated that Houdini was killed accidentally by a McGill University student, J. Gordon Whitehead, who delivered multiple blows to Houdini’s abdomen (with permission) while he was in Montreal. These repetitive blows are thought to have been a stunt, in which Houdini displayed his dexterity. Houdini died of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix at 1:26 p.m. in Room 401 on October 31 (Halloween), 1926, at the age of 52.
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