By Tom Interval
After he and his family moved to the United States, his name was Americanized to Ehrich Weiss. By the time he performed professionally in the 1890s, he called himself Harry Houdini and legally adopted that name in 1913.
While Houdini had many people believing he was born on April 6, 1874, in Appleton, Wisconsin, he, himself, wrote in a letter to his brother Theo that “April 6th…will be my adopted birthdate.” Even Bess, his wife, perpetuated the myth two years after Houdini’s death in the 1928 biography, Houdini: His Life Story, by Harold Kellock.
Regarding the Appleton claim, besides the fact Houdini might have preferred people thinking he was born in the United States, he used the location on legal documents, including passport applications and immigration papers. On those documents, he even had friends, such as Leo Rullmann, treasurer of the Society of American Magicians, attest to the lie.
So why do I restate these facts about Houdini’s birth?
For the first time, I came across a 33-year-old Pittsburgh Post-Gazette clipping mentioning me. It was a follow-up “correction” to a previous article in which I stated correctly Houdini was born in Budapest. According to the correction’s author (apparently John G. Craig Jr.), “Thomas Interval’s statement that Harry Houdini was born in Budapest, Hungary, has been questioned. Appleton, Wis., also claims the honor.” (I like the counter-journalistic passive voice, “has been questioned.” Tell me, Mr. Craig, who questioned it? I have my suspicions.)
Even as a 19-year-old Houdini fanatic, I knew the accepted date and place of Houdini’s birth. That fact had been known since at least 1959, the year William Gresham stated it in his biography, Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls, and a decade later when Milbourne Christopher made the same substantiated claim in Houdini: The Untold Story. Had the Post-Gazette called and spoken with me for as little as one minute, I could have shared my sources to validate my claim.
Today, print, broadcast, and online media still sometimes regurgitate the wrong date and location of the escape artist’s birth (what Houdini buff could forget the Today in History April 6 AP video from only six years ago?). But, while it’s never a good idea to publish or share misinformation, it makes me smile to know that if Houdini was alive today, he would be endlessly amused to know just how many of the facts about his life and career still elude us.