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"The little-known secrets behind the men & women who shaped America"

Ehrich Weiss could make an elephant disappear right before your eyes

By Paul Niemann

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[November 20, 2008]  Erik Weisz was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1874. When he came to the United States with his family, immigration officials changed his name to Ehrich Weiss. His family often called him "Ehrie," which rhymes with "Harry" and was a nickname derived from his first name. The Hungarian-born boy claimed Appleton, Wis., as his new hometown.

Weiss was a world-famous performer, but most people have only heard of him by his stage name. In fact, Funk & Wagnall's dictionary even listed his stage name as a verb.

DonutsHe made his debut as a magician at age 9 in a local circus, where he billed himself as "Ehrich, the Prince of the Air." OK, so his title wasn't all that impressive, but what were you doing at age 9? He performed with his four brothers early in his career and continued to work with his brother Theo for a while. When Ehrich got married, he replaced Theo with Bess, his new bride.

Around 1900, vaudeville was the top form of entertainment, and Weiss was becoming a star performing his tricks on stage rather than working as a vaudeville performer. Along the way, one of the people he knew on the vaudeville circuit was Joseph Keaton. It was Weiss who gave Keaton the nickname of "Buster."

Around the turn of the century, the place to be in the entertainment industry was in Europe, not America. So in 1900, Ehrich and Bess left for Europe and spent the next five years there.

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One of Ehrich's greatest tricks was making an elephant disappear on stage. Unlike other performers, he would perform many of his tricks in full view of the audience.

In 1910, he became the first person to fly over Australia. But it wasn't his aviation skills for which he is remembered.

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His experience with magic enabled him to expose many of the fraudulent "spiritualists" and so-called psychics who tried to convince their audiences that they could communicate with the deceased. He was friends with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, until Weiss exposed Doyle's friend -- Boston's famed Mina "Margery" Crandon -- as a fraud.

Weiss' career, which later included a number of movies in which he starred, lasted for nearly 30 years. He died on Halloween in 1926 at age 52, and his wife tried unsuccessfully to contact him every Halloween for the next 10 years through sťances that she conducted.

Why did she fail in her efforts to reach him?

Because not even the wife of Harry Houdini, aka Ehrich Weiss, could do that.

[By PAUL NIEMANN]

Paul Niemann's column is syndicated to more than 70 newspapers. He is the author of the "Invention Mysteries" series of books. He can be reached at niemann7@aol.com.

Copyright Paul Niemann 2008

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