One of the greatest lock pickers

The tragic demise of Harry Houdini.

Harry Houdini aka “The Handcuff King” was born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary in 1874. Weisz’s fascination with locks and restraints began at a young age when he apprenticed as a locksmith. This early exposure to the intricate mechanisms of locks laid the foundation for his exceptional lock-picking skills. Often picking locks with astonishing speed and finesse young Erik realized this skill intrigued people who witnessed him doing it. Weisz’s fascination lead him to study magicians including one  popular magician of the time Jean-Eugène Robert Houdan. Weisz was so impressed by Houdan that he took inspiration for what would become his stage name “Harry Houdini.”

Throughout his career, Houdini demonstrated his prowess in breaking free from various restraints, captivating audiences worldwide. But even after the show Houdini would constantly practice lock picking, study locks or even work on untying knots with his toes. Lock picking became an obsession of sorts. His traveling show would carry several steamer trunks full of locks and handcuffs for the show and for practice.

His mastery over locks empowered him into a master showman who would face numerous lock-picking challenges publicly, each one more daring than the last. Some of the most memorable include:

1. The Mirror Challenge: The Mirror handcuffs were custom made and polished to a mirror finish. The cuffs complicated mechanism contained an early form of disc wheels. Houdini was reluctant to do the escape when first presented with the challenge to escape the mirror handcuffs, however a few days later in front of 4000 people Houdini escaped from the mirror cuffs….. it took him over an hour. Personal note to the current owner of the mirror cuffs: David, can I come over and see them? I’ll bring soup … We have lunch, talk a bit, good times I promise.

2. The Chinese Water Torture Cell: This illusion consists of three parts: first, the magician's feet are locked in stocks; next, he is suspended in mid-air from his ankles; finally, he is lowered into a glass tank that overflows with water. Now upside down, underwater, Shackled and handcuffed, Houdini had to pick open his handcuffs and extract himself from this tank of water, a feat that required exceptional dexterity and lock-picking skills. Despite two Hollywood films depicting this illusion as the reason for Houdini’s demise, but this is far from the truth. Read on to learn what really happened…

3. Jail breaks: If Houdini had ever been wanted for a crime the authorities would have a terrible time keeping the Hand Cuff King locked up. Houdini often staged jailbreak scenarios, where he would be stripped of his clothing and searched for any lock picking tools. Then he was handcuffed, shackled, and placed in a local jail cell. Spectators were left in awe as he picked his way out of seemingly inescapable situations. Jail break were often done as he arrived in a new city to promote his upcoming shows. How did he do it? Similar to taping a KICK ME sign on someone’s back Houdini had a collection of picks with small hooks on the handles. While being searched (in the nude) he would hook the picks onto those who were searching him only to retrieve them afterwards before being placed in the cell.



Houdini's remarkable life came to a tragic end on Halloween, October 31, 1926. You’d think that after defying death so many times that it would take a natural disaster to kill Houdini. Perhaps he felt this way too, but we will never know. The details surrounding his death are muddy and  shrouded in controversy, but here it is: According to the official report, 9 days earlier a male student named Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead approached Houdini backstage before a show in Montreal and asked if it was true that he could withstand any blow to the abdomen.

It's false that Houdini went around asking people to punch him in the stomach. There's no record of this in all Houdini History.  Even  the best biographer on Houdini, Ken Silverman, agrees. It's a story made up by others. Mostly Sidney Radner. When approached on this he said, "Houdini would have loved it! As long as we spelled his name right." Houdini was a very smart man and would not go around the world telling people to punch him. However famous historian Al Hirschfeld, who knew Houdini well said “He could swell his stomach and shrink it, and withstand blows. He would say, "Hit me. Hit me as hard as you can." And I’d say, "Well, I don’t want to." He said, "No, do it." And I would hit him with a -- I would hurt my hand, I mean, before I’d hurt him.

Houdini accepted the students challenge. However, before he could prepare himself, Whitehead struck Houdini several times in the stomach, causing severe injuries.

At 52 Houdini was a seasoned veteran of the stage and felt the show must go on. Despite reeling from the blows delivered by Whitehead (who may or may not have been a boxer) Houdini went out and finished the show that fateful night in Montreal. It wasn't until days later that he finally sought medical attention. Unfortunately, it was too late.
Whitehead's blows either started, contributed, or covered-up the appendicitis that would take Houdini's life. His death marked the end of an era in magic and escape artistry, leaving the world in mourning for the great master of illusions and lock-picking. If only his understanding of the inner workings of locks translated to the inner workings of his own body, he might’ve sought medical help and unlocked himself a few more years. We can only speculate, but the fact remains, Houdini’s lock picking skills are legendary and his legacy remains alive and well.

Shop now

You can use this element to add a quote, content...