In 1898, Harry Houdini considered quitting magic.
At that point — more than a decade before his infamous underwater box escapes — the profession seemed like a financial dead-end; he’d do 20 shows a day in rundown venues and barely scratch out a living. Houdini and his wife, Bess, who was part of his act, made ends meet by working as phony mediums. They lived modestly on the road and sent home much of their earnings to his mother, Cecilia, who lived in a tenement on the far reaches of East 69th Street.
Taking care of his mom was a responsibility that he could not shirk. Houdini’s father, a self-styled rabbi who himself struggled to support the family, made a promise to his wife on his deathbed. He vowed that their son Harry — born Ehrich Weisz — would “pour gold in your apron someday.”
Still, he could never have guessed that his son would be able to buy a Harlem home that, today, is on the market for $4.6 million.
Just before the turn of the century, such an accomplishment seemed unlikely to Houdini himself: The magician was so desperate he considered going to work for the Yale Lock Co. That was, until theater impresario Martin Beck caught his act — a hodgepodge of sleights of hand, disappearing birds, card tricks and handcuff escapes — in St. Paul, Minn., and saw star power in the young magician. He gave Houdini the best advice of his life.
“Houdini was told by Beck to get rid of the magic and to concentrate on escapes,” said John Cox, a magic historian who runs WildAboutHoudini.com. The scarves went into cold storage. Houdini gave his birds to a friend. (According to “The Secret Life of Houdini,” by William Kalush and Larry Sloman, the friend ate said birds.)
“Houdini [began breaking] out of jails to create publicity. He made cash bets [for $25] that he could escape any set of handcuffs,” said Cox. The magician never had to pay out a single wager.
“He did OK in America, but Beck’s idea was for him to go…