Houdini began his magic career in 1891, but had little success. He appeared in a tent act with strongman Emil Jarrow. He performed in dime museums and sideshows, and even doubled as “The Wild Man” at a circus. Houdini focused initially on traditional card tricks. At one point, he billed himself as the “King of Cards”. Some – but not all – professional magicians would come to regard Houdini as a competent but not particularly skilled sleight-of-hand artist, lacking the grace and finesse required to achieve excellence in that craft. He soon began experimenting with escape acts.
In 1893, while performing with his brother “Dash” (Theodore) at Coney Island as “The Brothers Houdini”, Houdini met a fellow performer, Wilhelmina Beatrice “Bess” Rahner. Bess was initially courted by Dash, but she and Houdini married in 1894, with Bess replacing Dash in the act, which became known as “The Houdinis”. For the rest of Houdini’s performing career, Bess worked as his stage assistant.
Houdini’s big break came in 1899 when he met manager Martin Beck in St. Paul, Minnesota. Impressed by Houdini’s handcuffs act, Beck advised him to concentrate on escape acts and booked him on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit. Within months, he was performing at the top vaudeville houses in the country. In 1900, Beck arranged for Houdini to tour Europe. After some days of unsuccessful interviews in London, Houdini’s British agent Harry Day helped him to get an interview with C. Dundas Slater, then manager of the Alhambra Theatre. He was introduced to William Melville and gave a demonstration of escape from handcuffs at Scotland Yard. He succeeded in baffling the police so effectively that he was booked at the Alhambra for six months. His show was an immediate hit and his salary rose to $300 a week.
Houdini became widely known as “The Handcuff King.” He toured England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Russia. In each city, Houdini challenged local police to restrain him with shackles and lock him in their jails. In many of these challenge escapes, he was first stripped nude and searched. In Moscow, he escaped from a Siberian prison transport van, claiming that, had he been unable to free himself, he would have had to travel to Siberia, where the only key was kept. In Cologne, he sued a police officer, Werner Graff, who alleged that he made his escapes via bribery. Houdini won the case when he opened the judge’s safe (he later said the judge had forgotten to lock it). With his new-found wealth, Houdini purchased a dress said to have been made for Queen Victoria. He then arranged a grand reception where he presented his mother in the dress to all their relatives. Houdini said it was the happiest day of his life. In 1904, Houdini returned to the U.S. and purchased a house for $25,000 (equivalent to $697,130 in 2018), a brownstone at 278 W. 113th Street in Harlem, New York City.