Not yet Houdini, Ehrich Weiss is shown exhibiting his competitive spirit and wearing medals hewon as a member of the Pastime Athletic Club track team in New York circa 1890.
Harry Houdini was born as Erik Weisz (he later spelled his birth name as Ehrich Weiss) in Budapest, Hungary, on March 24, 1874. From 1907 on, however, Houdini would claim in interviews to have been born in Appleton, Wisconsin, on April 6, 1874.
His parents were Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weiss (1829–1892) and his wife,Cecelia (née Steiner; 1841–1913). Houdini was one of seven children: Herman M. (1863–1885); Nathan J. (1870–1927); Gottfried William (1872–1925); Theodore "Theo" (1876–1945); Leopold D. (1879–1962); and Gladys Carrie (born 1882 – unknown year of death).
Weiss came to the United States on July 3, 1878, sailing on the SS Fresia with his mother (who was pregnant) and his four brothers. The familychanged the Hungarian spelling of their German surname into Weiss (the German spelling) and the spelling of their son's name into Ehrich. Friends called him "Ehrie" or "Harry".
They first lived in Appleton, Wisconsin, where his father served as Rabbi of the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation. According to the 1880 census, the family lived on Appleton Street. On June 6, 1882, Rabbi Weiss became anAmerican citizen. Losing his tenure at Zion in 1887, Rabbi Weiss moved with Ehrich to New York City. They lived in a boarding house on East 79th Street. They were joined by the rest of the family once Rabbi Weiss found permanent housing. As a child, Ehrich Weiss took several jobs, making his public début as a 9-year-old trapeze artist, calling himself "Ehrich, the Prince of the Air". He was alsoa champion cross country runner in his youth. 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, erroneously, that in French, adding an "i" to Houdin would mean "like Houdin" the great magician. In later life, Houdini would claim that the first partof his new name, Harry, was a homage to Harry Kellar, whom Houdini admired.
In 1918, he registered for selective service as Harry Handcuff Houdini.
 Magic career
"My Two Sweethearts"—Houdini with his mother and wife, c. 1907
Houdini in Handcuffs, 1918
Houdini began his magic career in 1891. At the outset, he had little success. He performed in dime museums and sideshows, andeven doubled as "The Wild Man" at a circus. Houdini focused initially 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 theact, which became known as "The Houdinis." For the rest of Houdini's performing career, Bess would work as his stage assistant.
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 atthe top vaudeville houses in the country. In 1900, Beck arranged for Houdini to tour Europe. After some days of unsuccessful interviews in London, Houdini managed to interest Dundas Slater, then manager of the Alhambra Theatre. He gave a demonstration of escape from handcuffs at Scotland Yard, and succeeded in baffling the police so effectively that he was booked at the Alhambra for six months....