Harry Houdini had an uncanny ability to escape from almost anything: ropes, jail cells, handcuffs, water-filled milk cans, straightjackets, even graves. His death-defying stunts attracted adoring crowds during the early 1900s. Today, 87 years after his death, Houdini remains one of the most influential magicians in history

His name was added to the Oxford English Dictionary, and now serves as a noun synonymous with magician. His name appears in thousands of articles, on board games and in comics.  Why is Houdini so popular?  Why does he still command so much interest? And how has his legacy influenced the magicians who perform on stage today?

“He really changed the course of magic,” said Kenneth Silverman, author of “Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss.” “He performed tricks that were miraculous, in front of enormous audiences of 100,000 people.” Silverman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and a retired NYU professor, became fascinated with Houdini because he was interested in the prominent characters that made up American culture in the 20th century.

Houdini was born Ehrich Weisz in Hungary in 1874 to an impoverished immigrant rabbi. He spent his childhood selling newspapers, shining shoes, running errands, working as a locksmith apprentice, and finding other odd jobs to help support his family. “He made his way up with hard work, not with luck,” Silverman said.

In his spare time, Houdini read books about magic tricks. One of them in particular, titled “Memoirs of Robert-Houdin, Ambassador, Author, and Conjurer,” sparked Houdini’s enthusiasm for the field so much that he made his stage name Houdini. According to a biography by Milbourne Christopher titled “Houdini: The Untold Story,” it was the custom at the time to add the letter “I” to the end of your mentor’s name to show admiration. “’From the moment I began to study the art he became my guide and my hero,’” Houdini said. “’I asked nothing more of life than to become in my profession like Robert-Houdin.’”

Houdini joined the Welsh Brothers Circus in 1895 for six months. The experience exposed him to more magic and more showmanship. It also made him hungry for greater fame. So he began learning more crowd-pleasing stunts involving handcuffs, and worked on self-advertising. “Houdini made sure his name was out there,” Silverman said. “He was a great publicist on his own.”

His big breakthrough happened in 1899 when he successfully broke free from police restraints. The escape made the front page of the Chicago Journal, and Houdini was signed as a professional magician.

Houdini became the world’s greatest escape artist. His audience loved his rags to riches success story and they were fascinated with his magic with a dangerous edge. Houdini’s career took off at a different speed and direction than other 20th century magicians thanks to his willingness to break away from traditional magic. Before him, magicians would appear on stage wearing big robes and make a rabbit jump out of a hat or a bird disappear into thin air. But those tricks were too safe for Houdini.

In “The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero,” William Kalush and Larry Sloman wrote, “This flawed mortal struggled, schemed, and persevered, transforming himself into America’s first international sensation by creating the idea that he could beat any possible restraint” (Kalush 551).

And he did. He went from escaping handcuffs to escaping straightjackets, and from that to escaping jail cells and entire prisons. He performed all over America and England, and came up with new and more dangerous stunts along the way. Houdini’s last stunt, the “Challenge of the Egyptian Mystic,” involved being locked in an airtight casket and dropped to the bottom of a swimming pool on Lexington Avenue, where he remained for an hour and a half.

Thanks to his great escapes, some still never recreated to this day, Houdini’s flame continues to burn. Many contemporary magicians attempt to recreate his popular stunts during their performances, so Houdini’s name still really holds center stage in the magic world. David Copperfield escaped from Alcatraz. David Blaine was buried alive. The list goes on.

“I have recreated many of Houdini’s escapes, like the suspended straitjacket one,” said modern-day escape artist Roslyn Walker. Walker, an England native, trails closely behind Houdini. He set two world records within the practice of escapology and is ranked sixth in the Ten Greatest Escape Artists in History.

“Houdini was a great showman,” Walker said. “His sole task was to create a legacy at any cost. And he succeeded.”