Friday, July 21, 2017

BUYER BEWARE: USD presentation piece on eBay

A rare brass presentation piece commemorating the first public performance of Houdini's Water Torture Cell is currently being auctioned on eBay. It's now up to $3,500 with 64 bids. However, something fishy might be going on here.

There are three known USD presentation pieces, and Dr. Bruce Averbook owns all three. He believes the one pictured on eBay is his, and the photos used in the auction are the same photos that were used back when he purchased it in 2007. He posted the original photos to Kevin Connolly's CONJURING HISTORY Facebook group, and the similarities are unmistakable. "Natalie Antiques" appears to have been cropped out of all the current auction images.

Current auction photo (left) and 2007 photo (right).

Bruce has reported the issue to eBay, but with only 17 hours remaining on the auction, there may not be time for the website to investigate, so...BUYER BEWARE!

UPDATE: Well, this sold for $6,500.99. Here's hoping it works out.


Criss Angel joins Houdini on the Walk of Fame

Magician Criss Angel received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame yesterday. I admit I'm not a follower of Angel's work, but I do like that he's an open admirer of Houdini and repeatedly pays tribute to the escape king, whether it be a Houdini motorcycle in his Las Vegas showroom or naming his show "Believe" after the famous codeword.

In fact, Criss kicked off his speech at yesterday's dedication ceremony by telling the story of how inspired he was when he first came to Hollywood in the 1990s and saw Houdini's star. "It's unbelievable," said Angel. "Houdini died in 1926 and this star will remain here for as long as this planet is here."

Other magicians in attendance yesterday were Lance Burton (who spoke) and The Amazing Jonathan. Actor Gary Oldman and UFC fighter Randy Couture also spoke.

Angel's star sits across the street from Houdini's star at Hollywood and Orange. Also in the vicinity are Penn & Teller, David Copperfield, and Bill and Milt Larsen.

Other Houdini-related stars to seek out on the boulevard are actresses Mae Busch (The Grim Game), Lila Lee (Terror Island), and Nita Naldi (The Man From Beyond). Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh are also honored.

You can see photos from the event at the Daily Mail.


Thursday, July 20, 2017

LINK: Houdini's circus wagons in Budapest

Philip Treece at recently ran across two Houdini circus wagons in Budapest, one sporting the Welsh Bros name. Where did these come from? Click the headline to find out.


'The Queen of Budapest' reigns in October

The third book in Vivianne Perret's French language "Houdini Magicien & Détective" series, La Reine de Budapest ("The Queen of Budapest"), is due for release on October 4, 2017. It can be pre-ordered now at the French Amazon does not yet have cover art, but I do!

While these adventures are fiction, author Vivianne Perret sets each book in a historically accurate time and place. Her first book, Metamorphosis, was set in San Fransisco in 1899. The second, Le Kaiser Et Le Roi Des Menottes ("The Kaiser and the King of Handcuffs"), found Houdini in Berlin in 1900. As you can tell by the title, this latest adventure has him in Budapest, which Houdini visited during his first tour of Europe.

Vivianne has shared with me the location for book 4 (hint: we've spent time there lately), but I will save that news for another time.


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Alan Davies Houdini doc airs July 28 in the UK

The well-made 2014 documentary The Magic of Houdini with Alan Davies will air on PBS America and SKY 534 in the UK on Friday, July 28 at 9PM. It then repeats at 12:00 AM and 4:00 AM on July 29.

In The Magic of Houdini, comedian Alan Davies travels to various Houdini locations in the UK and U.S. Along the way he talks with: Roger Dreyer, David Copperfield, Ruth Brandon, Ken Silverman, Kevin Connolly, Richard Sherry & Dayle Krall, and 93-year-old Larry Weeks (his last interview). As I wrote in my original review, it offers up a nice time capsule of the Houdini world in 2014.

For those in the U.S., know that you can stream the documentary on Netflix. It has not been released to DVD.


Monday, July 17, 2017

Is there a Houdini pet buried in West Hollywood?

An article in last weekend's Los Angeles Times about a television newswoman's need to downsize from her large home in Beechwood Canyon to a rental in West Hollywood (this is news?) contained the following curiosity:

Murphy was also tasked with figuring out how to change the configuration of the living and dining spaces that Henderson described as “awkward.” They wanted to make use of every inch of space while avoiding clutter and finding a way to reflect the Spanish-inspired exterior of the historic development. (Legend has it that one of famed illusionist Harry Houdini’s beloved dogs is buried in the courtyard.)

Wait, what's this now? Houdini's dog buried in West Hollywood? Let's pick at this bone.

When one mentions Houdini's dogs, one thinks of Charlie and Bobby. Charlie died around 1911. Bobby died on December 15, 1918. Houdini was not in California during either of these times. There were other dogs -- Silverman speaks of a dog named "Ehrich" -- but those might have belonged to other family members (a family photo in Henning shows an assortment of dogs and cats). So I'm skeptical that any Houdini dog is buried here. However, there is another possibility.

Following Houdini's death, Bess and Ed Saint moved to Los Angeles and lived at several different addresses between 1933 and 1943. Among their residences was one at 8565 West Knoll Drive in, yes, West Hollywood (as can be seen on the letterhead above). The Times article does not give the address of the newswoman's rental, but but if it's anywhere near West Knoll, this could be the bungalow where Bess and Ed lived.

Bess had many pets. She was especially fond of birds. As far as I know, she did not have a dog at this time, but she did have a pet marmoset named "Satan" (so named because it was vicious to all expect Bess). I don't know when Satan died (he was 10 in 1936), but I could see Bess giving Satan a burial in the garden.

Among the (27) photos accompanying this article is one that shows a slab with a cross (above). It doesn't specifically say this is the rumored gravesite, but it certainly appears to be. So is this the grave of Satan?

Do I dare suggest...exhumation? Or do we have to argue that Satan might have been poisoned first?

Bess letterhead from the collection of Jim Rawlins.


Friday, July 14, 2017

The owners and occupants of Houdini's 278

The big news of the last month is that Houdini's famous New York brownstone at 278 W 113th Street in New York City is on the market for the first time in 26 years. Having looked at the house inside and out, top to bottom, today I take a look at the history of the house and its various owners and occupants. Including a few ghosts!

At the time of its construction, "278" (as Houdini called it) was located in what the New York Times described as a "genteel enclave" of Harlem. Indeed, both Central Park and Morningside Park are within a few blocks, and it's said the area was populated with affluent German speakers. But exactly when 278 was built isn't entirely clear. Real estate websites such as Zillow show the date as 1890. But the earliest real estate listing for the house (and several others on the block) appears in the New York Herald on April 5, 1896. Interestingly, it reads "restricted."

New York Herald, April 5, 1896

The first occupants of 278 appear to have been Thomas K. Moore and his wife M.E. Moore. They are the ones selling in 1896 and may have been the original builders. The house is still on the market in May 1897. (You can see that listing here.) On May 2, 1899, the house was purchased my Moses Kahn, his wife Henrietta Kahn, and Theresa Goldsmith with a $10,000 mortgage from Seamens Bank.

The 1900 census shows David Lubin, a Polish inventor and agriculturalist, living at 278 with his wife, Flora, and their four children. It's likely the Lubins were renters. On January 28, 1902, a fire broke out on the second floor, resulting in $75 worth of damage to the building and $135 damage to the contents. The Lubins are still in the house as late as 1903.

278 in Houdini's day.
In 1904, Houdini bought the house for $25,000 cash (purchase price $20,000 plus $5000 still due on the mortgage). Houdini boasted it was "the finest private house that any magician has ever had the great fortune to possess." But he was really purchasing 278 as a new Weiss family home, and especially as a luxurious new home for his mother. It was a big step up from their previous dwelling at 305 East 69th Street. During these years, Harry and Bess were continually on tour, so 278 was open to any Weiss or Rahner in need of a room. Houdini even once referred to it as "my apartments."

278 also became the home and workplace of Houdini's brother Dr. Leopold Weiss (well before the brothers had their famous falling out). Leopold was New York's first radiologist, and he set up his practice in the house. In 1907, Leo survived an attack by an intruder wielding a razor. The papers reported on the incident and later the capture of the assailant, Frank Thomas. But none of the newspapers mentioned Harry Houdini as the owner of the house.

In July 1913 Houdini's mother died. Her death devastated him. Several months later, Harry and Bess moved in with the Hardeens in Flatbush and put 278 up for sale at a "sacrifice" price of $18,000. Below is the listing in the August 23, 1914 New York World.

New York World, Aug 23, 1914.

Why did Houdini want to sell? Most biographies say the house just contained too many memories of his mother. This sounds perfectly valid. But Houdini collector Jon Oliver (who owns furniture from 278, including Houdini's bed) says Harry Hardeen Jr. told him the real reason was that mama's body had remained in the parlor for a full week that it took Houdini to return from Europe, and the smell made the house uninhabitable. This might explain why the house never sold. Instead, he rented it out to student members of Sigma Alpha Mu, a Jewish fraternity at nearby Columbia University.

Houdini in 278.
Either the house had a good airing out or Harry was finally able to shake his grief, because after four years with the Hardeens [read: The Flatbush years], Harry and Bess moved back into 278 in February of 1918. In July, Houdini transferred ownership of the house to Bess. Because of this, some newspapers mistakenly reported that Houdini "has just purchased a new home in Harlem."

Houdini then made 278 the home and "Houdini Central" that it had never really been before. At one point, Bess's mother Balbina Radner moved in permanently. The house also saw a succession of live-in maids and no shortage of animals. Visitors spoke of the trick front door that opened from the hinges, and also the fact that Houdini had wired the house for sound so he could amaze visitors with his "mind reading" prowess. Stacks of books and files filled every available space. Houdini once said, "I actually live in a library."

In fall of 1926, as Houdini was embarking on his tour, he reportedly stood outside 278 in tears. When Joseph Dunninger, who was driving him to the train station, asked him what was wrong, Houdini replied that he had seen his house for the last time. He was right. Houdini died that Halloween.

After Houdini's death, Bess sold 278 to her neighbors, John and Filippina Bonanno for just $3000. A mortgage was arranged that had the Bonannos making twice yearly payments to Bess with 6% interest. While Bess had (amazingly) cleared the house of Houdini's collections, donating them to the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library, she left furniture and Houdini ephemera (including a Milk Can) in the basement. This appears to have been fine with the Bonannos, and everything remained well after Bess's death in 1942.

Rose Bonanno, who knew Houdini when she was a child, was a good custodian of Houdini history. She did not make radical changes to the house, keeping as much of the original woodwork and period fixtures as possible. The house even remained on D.C. current well into the 1980s. In 1953, she welcomed Houdini producer George Pal to the house, whom she felt bore a resemblance to Houdini. Dunninger and Blackstone were also visitors.

Rose also allowed Houdini séances to be held in the house. During one séance in 1949, Rose claimed to receive a phonecall from Houdini who instructed the sitters to look at "Paper Magic, page 118, Fig. 12." (There is no Fig. 12 on page 118.) A photo of the last séance, done as a live Halloween broadcast in the early 1970s, appeared in Walter Gibson's The Original Houdini Scrapbook.

Rose kept up her twice yearly payments (in June and December) to Bess's sister, Marie Hinson, who had inherited the mortgage. Which each payment, she included a friendly note. In one she wrote that she recently read Houdini The Untold Story by Milborune Christopher. "He mentioned your name in the book," she told Marie. "It is not a bad misinformed book. He wrote nice things about him."

But her letters also sadly track the downfall of the area. In 1972 she wrote:

"We are all fine and always working hard to keep the house up but the neighborhood is in a deplorable condition. It's more like a slum, everyone back and front of houses, houses boarded up and windows broken and plenty of fires."

When Rose died on September 19, 1979, her brother, Rev. Charles Bonanno, inherited the property, but was unclear where the mortgage stood. "You see my sister died so sudden that I am not familiar with her debts and income," he wrote to Marie, now 92.

With the help of Marie's son, Vincent, Charles paid off the remainder of the mortgage ($750) on July 10, 1979. Now in a nursing home himself, he was eager to sell, but found it difficult. "On fifth avenue it would be worth a good deal but not in Harlem," he complained to Marie. "The section is very poor full of drug addicts and muggers."

However, at one point he reported that he might have a possible buyer from the world of magic.

"Got a call from Rochester from a Mr. Peter Ruff (Houdinii) uses Harry's name with a extra "i" to his name, wants to buy the house if the price is right. I don't know what to say as I have no idea what to charge for it, have you ?? Hope I get a buyer soon as I can't hold out too long with the tenants in it taking advantage of my absence from the house and doing what they want."

Charles eventually sold the house in April 1980 to Louis Moise. At this time the basement was finally cleared and its contents and auctioned off in a general estate sale in New Jersey. Houdini buffs in the know walked away with countless treasures, including posters and portraits of Houdini's mother and father. (Read: The greatest Houdini auction ever.)

But treasures remained. In 1985, magician and Houdini buff Dixie Dooley paid a remarkable visit to the house (covered in his book, Houdini Question Reality). At this time, the house had a tenant named Mr. Wilkes. Wilkes did not allow Houdini fans into the house, but on this stormy night he made an exception for Dooley. In fact, not only did he allow the magician to see the entire house, but in a story that makes all Houdini fans green with envy, he gave Dixie posters, a printing block, an overboard box and a spirit table, all of which had somehow been lingering in the house all these years. Wilkes refused money for the items. The fact that Dixie promised to "treasure them" was good enough for him. He then told Dixie that the spirit of Houdini was a regular visitor. "One night he turned the lights on and woke me up from a sound sleep," said Mr. Wilkes.

In 1991, Fred Thomas purchased the house from Louis Moise. Thomas claims he had no idea it was Houdini's former home until his neighbors told him so. But Thomas shut out Houdini fans, saying, "People are always outside taking pictures of the house. I've developed a callousness." A profile of him in the Daily News was headlined: "Hey, Houdini fans, leave this poor man alone."

Thomas lived on the first two floors (Garden and Parlor) and turned the top two floors into rental apartments. It's said during the renovations that a stash of valuable Houdini silent movie posters were discovered in the walls. He also added a call box to the front of the house, which robbed it of any potential status as a historical landmark. (A historic plaque was eventually installed as part of the Cultural Medallion Program). In 2000, Thomas took out a $100,000 mortgage on the house, which was paid off in 2010.

During Fred Thomas's ownership, the only glimpse of the inside of 278 came when one of the apartment units came up for rent or a resident threw a party. The all-important parlor level, where Houdini had his trophy room and library, remained closed off to all. But Thomas's investment paid off as the area dramatically improved.

278 today.
Today 278 is on the market for $4.6 million, ironically returning to its relative value in 1904. On June 18, 2017, there was a one time only open house that finally gave Houdini fans a chance to see inside [covered in detail here]. Happily, much of the house has remained intact, especially the parlor. It's still very much the house Houdini inhabited.

The sale of 278 is being handled by Douglas Elliman Real Estate. As of this posting, I've not heard of a buyer. But let's hope whomever becomes the next owner of 278 honors its historic connection to the world's greatest magician, and will continue to preserve those parts of the house that have remained unchanged and still hold that Houdini magic.

A very big thanks to Tom Interval and Bill Mullins for uncovering the pre-Houdini history of 278 and sharing their research. Thanks to Fred Pittella for allowing me to share his 1914 real estate listing. And a very big thank you to John Hinson for providing me with the original mortgage and correspondence between Marie Hinson, Rose and Charles Bonanno.


Thursday, July 13, 2017

I'm not done haunting Houdini's house

Having examined "278" inside and out, top to bottom, it's now time to delve into the history of the house and those who have inhabited the home of Houdini. Stay tuned for "the owners and occupants of 278."

Houdini fiction from John Pirillo

There is certainly no shortage of Houdini fiction out there these days, both in print editions and eBooks. Now the prolific John Pirillo has released a series of self-published eBooks mashing-up Houdini with Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, and even Merlin.

Below are a list of Pirillo's Houdini works on Amazon:

You can lean more about John Pirillo and his work at his official website.


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Penn Jillette on the importance of magicians

AM New York has a brief Q&A interview with Penn Jillette promoting the season 4 return of his TV show Penn & Teller Fool Us. The interview concludes with the following, which I think is pretty insightful and important:

What’s the importance of magic as a creative medium these days?

Magic, the way you’re using that word . . . starts with Houdini. He said, "I’m doing tricks. There is nothing supernatural here." In that sense, magic is a very modern art form. There are some idiots who go on TV and say, "I have real, magical powers," and then do a card trick. Let’s throw those people out. In this day and age, where everybody yells "fake news," the most important skill is the skill to determine what is true. Magicians deal with that, playfully. They say, "what appears to be real may not be." That simple sentence, "some people can do tricks," is one of the most important sentences you will encounter though the 21st century. "Some people can do tricks," and some will do it playfully, some will do it maliciously, and the most dangerous people will not know they are doing it.

I know some may balk at the idea of modern magic "starting" with Houdini. Most would say it started with Robert-Houdin or even Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft. But it could be argued that Houdini's standard and repeated statement that what he was doing was accomplished purely by natural means -- "there is nothing supernatural about it" -- was a very untypical and modern thing to hear from a magician during the Golden Age of Magic. Of course, the more Houdini said this the more people insisted he was supernatural, so...

Click below for more Houdini talk from Penn. I also highly recommend his podcast Penn's Sunday School where Houdini is frequently mentioned.


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

A mini Mirror Handcuff mystery

A reader named Ian sends in these images of a mini (5.5cm) brass replica of Houdini's Mirror Handcuffs with a request for help in identifying them. These belonged to his late brother-in-law, Matthew Brown, who was a handcuff and Houdini collector. Ian points out they are the size of thumbcuffs, if one had very large thumbs. He has no idea how old they are or whether they are one-of-a-kind and he does not have the key. Ian sold his brother-in-law's collection, but says, "This is the last and most intriguing cuff which is why I kept it too last."

At first I was excited to think we may have found the mysterious Tatler cuffs, but these do not appear to be the same design.

If anyone has any idea what these are, please leave a comment below or contact me. I can also put you in direct touch with Ian.

UPDATE: So it appears these are one of several different working mini Houdini handcuffs made for fun by John Bushey of Minnesota and Ian McColl of Australia. These particular cuffs are said to have been made by McColl.

Thanks to Terry Roses.


Monday, July 10, 2017

Andrey Fedorov takes on Houdini in Russia (update)

David Saltman at The Houdini File reports that Andrey Fedorov, chief historian of the Russian Association of Magicians, recently presented a lecture at the Fifth Magic History Gathering at The Magic Circle in London that challenged many of the accepted stories about Houdini's one and only tour of Russia in 1903. Chief among these is whether or not Houdini really escaped from the Siberian Transport Prison Van. (Oh my!)

David is himself an expert on Houdini in Russia and says he's in "lively correspondence" with Andrey, so I look forward to reading what David might have this. I'll share his links here.

UPDATE: David's first post is up. Happily, Fedorov not only confirmed the Prison Van escape, but discovered that Houdini might have done it twice! Read:


Sunday, July 9, 2017

Houdini model plane lands in Diggers Rest cafe

A scale model of Houdini's Voisin biplane now hangs at Houdini's Café e Cucina in Digger's Rest, Australia, site of Houdini's historic 1910 flight. The model was built by Gary Sunderland for the 100th anniversary celebrations in 2010.

Houdini's Café e Cucina is located at 52-56 Old Calder Hwy, Diggers Rest, Vic, 3427. You can check out the menu and more at their official website and Facebook.

Thanks to David O'Connor and


Friday, July 7, 2017

Kenneth Silverman, 1936 - 2017

Friends Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz have just delivered some sad news. Kenneth Silverman, author of the seminal Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss, passed away tonight at age 81. He had been ill for some time.

© Nancy Crampton

Kenneth Silverman was born on February 5, 1936 in Manhattan. He grew up on East Seventy-Fifth Street, directly across from the tenement building where Houdini lived as a boy. As a teen in the early 1950s he performed magic as Ken Silvers. He even once appeared in a TV commercial for M&Ms. He was later educated at Columbia University, and became a professor emeritus of English at New York University.

As a biographer, Silverman won a Pulitzer Prize, an Edgar Award, and the Bancroft Prize for American History. He was also a "card-carrying" member of the Society of American Magicians.

In 1996 Harper Collins published Silverman’s Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss, which remains the finest biography of Houdini yet written. I had the honor of meeting Professor Silverman in 2011 when he gave a talk on Houdini at the Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

Ken is survived by his partner Jane Mallison, by his two children, Willa and Ethan, daughter-in-law Ronit, and three grandchildren: Benjamin, Eve and Isaac.

UPDATE: Ken Silverman's New York Times obituary contains the following, which is wonderful tribute to his work on Houdini and devotion to his subject:

In the frantically titled “Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss, American Self-Liberator, Europe’s Eclipsing Sensation, World’s Handcuff King and Prison Breaker — Nothing on Earth Can Hold Houdini a Prisoner!!!,” published in 1997 [sic], he outdid himself in wringing every last fact and facticule from the historical record. 
“He has sifted through scrapbooks, diaries, letters, playbills, census reports, court transcripts, thousands of press clippings in half a dozen languages and even the minutes of the Hebrew Relief Society,” the magician Teller wrote in The New York Times. The research was so exhaustive that Professor Silverman published his sources in a separate volume, “Notes to Houdini.” 
“As part of the research,” Ms. Mallison said, “he had me strap him into a straitjacket, and one New Year’s Eve he asked me to lock him into a canvas mailbag to see if he could get out.” 
On certain matters, Professor Silverman nevertheless maintained strict silence. Adhering to the magician’s unwritten code, he refused to reveal the secrets behind Houdini’s most famous tricks. Historian and magician struggled. In the end, Pulitzer or no Pulitzer, the magician won.


Thursday, July 6, 2017

China discovers Houdini's Secret Life

Bai Hua Zhou literature and Art Publishing House has released The Secret Life of Houdini by William Kalush and Larry Sloman in China. The hardcover came out on May 1, 2017.

The Secret Life of Houdini was published in 2006 and was the first major Houdini biography since Ken Silverman's Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss. While Secret Life contains a rich amount of new material and some amazing never-before-published photos, it also contains a fair amount of Houdini mythology and puts forward the sensationalistic notion that Houdini worked as a spy (a theory I don't buy at all). So it's a mixed bag.

The Chinese edition of The Secret Life of Houdini can be purchased at (U.S.) and (China).

Thanks to Arthur Moses for the alert.



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