13. Harry Houdini wanted his little brother to succeed as a magician – just so long as his career didn’t eclipse his own
Harry Houdini is arguably the greatest magician who has ever lived. The Hungarian-born illusionist wowed crowds the world over, earning himself huge sums of money. What lots of people don’t know is that Houdini’s early success was largely driven by sibling rivalry. ‘Harry Handcuff’s’ younger brother Theodore Hardeen was also a magician and the two boys even performed together before the older sibling went off on his own to make himself a fortune.
Both boys were born in the city of Budapest in the 1870s and then came to America in the late 1880s, settling with their parents in Wisconsin. By the time they were in their teens, Harry and his younger brother Theo (sometimes known affectionately as ‘Dash’) were performing magic tricks on the streets to earn money for the family. In 1893, they made it to Coney Island. There, they started making a name for themselves as ‘The Brothers Houdini‘. Theo’s seemingly impossible acts of escapology, in particular, wowed the crowds – and wowed his older brother too. Harry became determined to learn his little brother’s straitjacket escape trick and to make it even better.
When he saw his younger brother dazzling crowds by escaping from a straitjacket in front of their eyes and not hidden behind a screen, Harry then vowed to do the same trick but hanging upside down. And the older brother, ever the businessman, soon realized there was money to be made in the sibling rivalry. The competition between the two brothers was exaggerated and played-up to sell tickets. At times it even got a little out of control, such as when Theo, by the turn of the century a successful showman himself, told a journalist that he might consider hiring the ‘great Houdini’ as his own assistant.
By all accounts, the rivalry was real, even if it was exaggerated for the press. Some biographers believe that the older Houdini wanted his brother to be successful, but not as successful as himself. Others even maintain that, while he became the family superstar, he was secretly jealous of Theo’s happy family life, especially since he and his wife were unable to have children of their own. In the end, however, they remained brothers and friends. When Houdini died in 1926, he ensured all his tricks, props and manuals were passed to his younger brother on the proviso they are destroyed upon his death.