Inside Harry Houdini’s Entrepreneurial Legacy, on the 90th Anniversary of His Death

Everyone knows about the most famous escape artist of all time. Fewer people know about his entrepreneurial pursuits off the stage. This story originally appeared on Inc.com.

CREDIT: Creative Commons

CREDIT: Creative Commons

Machpelah Cemetery isn’t easy to find. It’s nestled among at least seven other graveyards spanning a four-mile stretch of park in Queens, New York. It’s nondescript with a tiny sign; if you don’t look carefully, you’ll drive right past it.

Harry Houdini died 90 years ago on October 31, 1926. His grave is marked by a large granite bench adorned by a sculpture of a woman knelt in mourning. Above her lies the emblem of the Society of American Magicians and a bust of Houdini’s head and shoulders. Machpelah Cemetery may be difficult to spot, but once you’re inside, the famed escape artist’s grave stands out.

It’s fitting: The man was a master of marketing and promotion. Anyone trying to build a brand or create instant buzz could learn from him.

In life, Houdini would pack the theaters in new towns by staging public challenges before his shows. Crowds would gawk at the lunatic hanging upside-down in a straightjacket in the middle of the town square, and then he’d escape in time to do his scheduled show.

Less known is that Houdini was entrepreneurial outside his life as a performer. Especially toward the end of his life–he died young at 52–the magician started to explore ways to stay in the spotlight after his performance days ended.

In 1921, five years before his death, he founded the Houdini Picture Corporation in New York. His goal was to become a mogul: someone involved in all aspects of the burgeoning cinema industry, from acting to development to distribution.

And it played a large part in ruining him financially. Very few details are known about Houdini’s financial estate at the time of his death–most of his business records are either spread out across the world or lost to the ravages of time–but it’s known that he didn’t leave much of an inheritance for his wife Bess when he died.

An entrepreneurial spirit

Houdini was born Erik Weisz (later changed to Erich Weiss) in Budapest, Austria-Hungary in 1874. His family moved to Appleton, Wisconsin when he was 4 years old–and his entrepreneurial spirit was apparent from a young age in the form of innate childhood curiosity as a locksmith’s apprentice.

It’s a trait that potentially saved his career. He started performing magic at the age of 17, and found himself just successful enough in the late 1800s to buy a show and attempt a national tour. “It’s probably his first entrepreneurial failure,” muses Bill Kalush, founder of the Conjuring Arts Research Center and co-author of The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero. “And he decides, before the turn of the century, ‘Well, I’m just going to get out of this.'”

In 1895, Houdini and his wife found themselves traveling with the Welsh Brothers Circus. The magician, working as a phony spiritualist, became fascinated by the psychology of why people were attracted to magic. It ended up being a perfect fit with his childhood knowledge of locks: At their core, he determined, people just want to be free.

 To David Copperfield, the acclaimed performer who currently owns the world’s largest collection of Houdini memorabilia near his home in Las Vegas, this lesson is revelatory for magicians and entrepreneurs alike. “When somebody sings a song, they sing about heartbreak,” he explains. “You can relate to it. You sing a song about loss, you sing a song about happiness, people relate to it. In magic, nobody relates to having doves appear. But they do relate to stories that are meaningful to them–and Houdini’s story was a meaningful one. It was the fact that you could free yourself. Nothing could hold him.”

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