Forget everything you know about Harry Houdini being a "magician": he was actually an escape artist and a total badass. While he's quoted as having said "My brain is the key that sets me free," his body — which he kept in oh, hell no condition — definitely contributed to his success. Think you're tough because you can bench press a buck-fifty? Houdini could jump off a bridge into an icy river, weighed down with 35 pounds of metal cuffs and chains, and swim back to shore completely unharmed.
While his physical regimen sometimes veered toward the obsessive, it's also what made him one of the most popular entertainers of the early 20th century. HISTORY is celebrating his feats with Houdini, a two-night miniseries on the famed performer — so in the spirit of warming up for the premiere on September 1 at 9/8c, here's how Houdini pushed his body to unprecedented limits.
As a teenager in New York City, Houdini was a member of several athletic organizations, competing in bicycle races, foot races, and boxing matches. He would plunge into the fast-moving East River to get his swimming fix, and running a ten-mile circuit in Central Park was an effortless feat for him. He tried out for the U.S. Olympic swim team as a teen (he didn't make the cut), by 17 he was already an amateur boxer, and by the time he turned 18, he had beaten Sidney Thomas, a British racing champion, in a 20-mile race.
As Houdini became more immersed in the world of escape artistry, he realized physical fitness alone wouldn't cut it — he had to come up with innovative and offbeat ways to train. He committed to applying the same fanaticism to learning the skills of his craft — like picking locks and holding his breath for extended periods of time — as he did to honing his physique.
He began collecting handcuffs and locks from all over the world and studied them obsessively, often enlisting his brother to tie him up on the roof of their apartment so he could practice escaping. He spent hours untying knots with his toes, and slept for just four hours a night with a notebook next to his bed so he could jot down ideas when he awoke. In fact, he practiced so hard and was so singularly consumed with honing his craft that he often forgot to eat and bathe.
But all of that seems almost normal in comparison to how hardcore Houdini would soon become in his training. How many people's fitness regimes involve a giant, custom-built bathtub? Houdini had one installed in his house so that he could practice holding his breath underwater. By the age of 18, he was able to stay submerged for almost four minutes. When he was in the mood for something more extreme, he'd fill it with ice so he could get used to plunging himself into frigid water, a risky practice that would become a key part of his act.
If that wasn't diehard enough, Houdini then proceeded to get gag-inducingly weird. He would tie a string to a small potato, swallow it, and regurgitate it. When he failed to bring the potato back up, no harm done — potatoes are edible, after all. But not everything he swallowed was quite so digestible: once he'd trained his stomach muscles to puke up objects on command, he moved on to swallowing things like keys and lockpicks.
Have you spent hours running up and down flights of stairs in preparation for a backpacking trip? Did you ever attempt to eat 50 hard-boiled eggs to try out the Cool Hand Luke challenge? Head to the comments and share the craziest, most obsessive, Houdini-like practices and routines you've employed in the service of your own craft or passion.
Then learn from the master himself from HISTORY's Houdini premiering September 1 at 9/8c.
Jonah Flicker is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY covering food, drink, music, film, and lifestyle.
Illustration by Alexandra Cannon