Harry Houdini is wrapped in chains next to a prison bed.

Unlocking Leeds: Houdini's Local Legacy

For Escapology Day on Thu 21 September 2023, we’re taking a look back at Harry Houdini’s legacy in Leeds. Dubbed ‘The Handcuff King’, Houdini wowed audiences across the world, and made multiple visits to Leeds – not just at our own City Varieties Music Hall, but also at the lost Empire Theatre.

Written by Aaron Cawood. Researched through West Yorkshire Archive Service.

A Houdini History

On 24 March 1874, Erich Weisz was born in Budapest. The name change would not come until later, with Weisz making his performance debut at only age 9, as ‘Ehrich: The Prince of the Air’, a trapeze artist. 

After reading Memoirs of Robert-Houdin, the autobiography of magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, Weisz took up the stage name Harry Houdini and began performing card magic. Though he was never heralded as a deft sleight-of-hand magician, his interests soon turned towards the art of escapology. It wouldn’t be until years later, after marrying Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner (who would eventually become best known as his assistant ‘Bess’) and departing a double act with his brother, that Houdini would catch his big break. 

Once a manager stateside had taken a shine to him, Houdini worked American Vaudeville circuits and tried eventually to break Europe.

Facing little success, Houdini eventually demonstrated a handcuff illusion at Scotland Yard and, baffling even the police officers, was offered a six-month engagement on London’s West End. 

Harry Houdini aged 26, c.1900. The portrait is signed.

Harry Houdini age 26, c.1900

The Great Escapes

Embarking on a tour around Europe, Houdini visited The Varieties on two occasions, first in 1902. 

For this engagement, Houdini was paid £130, 18s 6d for the week. Today, that is approximately equivalent to £10,234.70 – or 396 days worth of wages for the average skilled tradesman at the time.

The management books from the time state that the performance was ‘extra special’. Houdini would go on to return to The Varieties in 1904. 

Arguably, though, these may not have been his most famous visits to Leeds. When the Empire Theatre still operated on Briggate, Houdini made appearances there too. Most notably, in 1911, Houdini accepted a challenge from the staff at Tetley Brewery.  

Taking one of his most iconic stunts, in which he would escape from a sealed milk can filled with water, the staff suggested he should escape from a full beer barrel instead. Accepting the challenge, the night was advertised with specific notice – ‘it is positively the first time that such an affair has taken place in any part of the world’. 

But, in an unexpected twist, it’s recorded that Houdini lost consciousness while inside the barrel. He was freed by his chief assistant, and the event has gone down in history as one of Houdini’s only failed escapes. 

A clipping of Houdini's agreement to take part in the challenge at The Empire.

Houdini's response to the challenge.

Houdini recorded in the Management Book, c.1902. The note reads 'Extra Special'. Credit: West Yorkshire Archive Service

Houdini recorded in the Management Book, c.1902. Credit: West Yorkshire Archive Service

A performance of 'Babes in the Wood' at The Empire Theatre, which was situated on Briggate. Credit: Leodis

The Empire Theatre, which was situated on Briggate. Credit: Leodis

Did You Know?

Houdini once escaped from a ‘sea monster’. Chained inside the mysterious carcass that had washed up in Boston, he later said the chemicals used to embalm the creature almost caused him to faint.

Houdini owned a movie studio. In fact, he had a brief film career, including The Master Mystery and The Man from Beyond.

He was an avid aviator, and in 1910 he became the first person to pilot a plane in Australia.

Though Houdini passed away in 1926, it has not stopped people from trying to get in touch. His wife enacted annual séances after the loss, and once she gave up, the tradition was adopted by the Houdini Museum. These annual séances continue to this day every Halloween – which happens to be the anniversary of his passing.