Harry Houdini was born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary on March 24, 1874. His family moved to America 4 years later, where they lived in poverty. Young Erik constantly practiced his tricks until at the tender age of 12, he ran away from home to make his way in the world. He worked as a street performer and in medicine shows, but also began developing an act in which he would invite spectators to tie him up with ropes from which he would easily escape. His destiny was sealed as a performer when he read the autobiography of magician Robert Houdin. In honor of this great master of the magical arts, Erik gave himself the stage name "Houdini."
Houdini was an excellent magician, but the centerpiece of his act was always the escapes. He had many famous getaways that he executed on stage, including Metamorphosis (a trick in which he was bound and locked in a trunk that was opened after only 3 seconds to reveal that he'd disappeared and been replaced by his wife) and the Chinese Water Torture Cell Escape (in which he was bound and suspended upside down in a locked glass cabinet filled with water). But his most elaborate escapes were performed in public and often involved many layers of danger.
Although he is most renowned for being the greatest escape artist of all time, Houdini's life was filled with a broad range of accomplishments. He had the world's largest collection of magical memorabilia, was the first person to fly a plane on the continent of Australia, served on a Scientific American team to debunk spiritualists and, in a series of movie serials, was the first big-screen hero to defeat a robot villain.
For a man who faced his own mortality on a daily basis, Houdini's death was anticlimactic. He died from a burst appendix on October 31, 1926. To further disprove communication from the spirit world, Houdini left a secret code with his wife that would indicate to her if a message from beyond was really from him. Every year on the anniversary of his death, his wife held a séance. The message never came.