Thursday, January 31, 2013

HOUDINI'S ORIGINAL GRAVE BUST REVEALED!

Last week I did a post about the smashing of Houdini's original grave bust in 1975. The destruction of the bust has long been a mystery, but thanks to Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz of the Houdini Museum in Scranton, the real story has come out. Turns out it wasn't the ghost of Houdini who did the deed, just some jerk on PCP.

Today we have another twist in the story. The smashed bust survives! Here are photos of the original marble bust today. The owner, who generously supplied these pics, wishes to remain anonymous. This has not been seen is almost 38 years and I'm thrilled to be able share these images with Houdini buffs everywhere. Pretty haunting, if you ask me.





Thank you "Harry Bust".

UPDATE: S.A.M. breaks (news of) Houdini's bust

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Read Houdini's D.C. hearing transcript

Continuing a Washington D.C. theme today, reader Eric Fry alerts me to this terrific new Houdini item at The Miracle Factory.

This is the full first-person transcript of Houdini's testimony before a Congressional committee debating a bill to outlaw fortune-telling in the District of Columbia. At times the hearings were downright riotous. One meeting had to be adjourned when angry mediums disrupted the proceedings and order could not be restored. At one point the bill's sponsor, Representative Sol Bloom of New York, fainted. Houdini held his own against the sometimes bizarre questioning ("Have you ever been to Allahabab?"), but the bill ultimately failed to pass.

The Miracle Factory is offering this as a PDF download for $9.99. It's fully searchable and can be read on any computer or mobile device. (I wish they'd also offer a hardcopy. I'd love to have this one on the shelf.)

Purchase the Houdini Hearings e-book at The Miracle Factory.

Mr. Houdini goes to Washington

The Washington Symposium on Magic History is set for the weekend of April 25-27, 2013 at the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel & Conference Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

The event is being hosted by Ken Trombly, a major magic and Houdini collector, and will of course feature some moments with our favorite Master Mystifier.

William Kalush, co-author of The Secret Life of Houdini and founder of the Conjuring Arts Research Center in New York, is scheduled to give a lecture on Houdini at the conference. There will also be "a private exhibit for our attendees only at the Library of Congress of some amazing relics of magic history from their Houdni and McManus Young Collections."

The event will honor two longtime friends of the magic community, Carl Williams and Nick Ruggiero.

For more information and registration details visit the The Washington Symposium on Magic History at MagicPosters.com.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Aaron Sorkin drops out of Houdini

Uh-Oh. Deadline Hollywood reports that writer Aaron Sorkin has dropped out of the Houdini Broadway musical slated to star Hugh Jackman for the 2013-2014 season.

According the site, Sorkin dropped out because of scheduling conflicts with his HBO series The Newsroom and his duties writing a Steve Jobs biopic for Sony Pictures. The producers are looking to "continue developing the musical utilizing Sorkin’s initial concepts and other materials."

Frankly, I don't buy the scheduling excuse. It sounds to me like Sorkin's script didn't work and is going to get a rethink. While I'm a fan of his film work, I was always perplexed by the choice of Sorkin, who's never written a Broadway musical before. I also wasn't doing cartwheels at the description of a plot "told in a contemporary tone" (whatever that means) about "an epic battle that took place between the world's greatest illusionist and a trio of women, known as Spiritualists."

So while I'm not brokenhearted to see Sorkin go, I am very spooked that this could be a major setback for the musical. I was really hoping to see Houdini on Broadway before the end of the year. What happens now? Stay tuned.

UPDATE: New York Theater Guide has quotes from the principles involved:

Aaron Sorkin: "I was really looking forward to returning to Broadway and working with such an incredible team. I am very disappointed my schedule won't allow that at this time."
Producers Scott Sanders and David Rockwell: "Mr. Sorkin's considerable talents are an asset to any project and we regret that he's unable to remain with Houdini. However, what Hugh and the creative team continue to create is one of the most exciting projects we've ever been a part of. Our projected arrival on Broadway and additional creative team announcement will be made at a future date."

UPDATE 2: According to Vanity Fair, Sorkin has now somehow found time in his busy schedule to write a different Broadway musical.

How to eat like a (Handcuff) King

Last week I landed a copy of the awesomely named 1922 book, The Stag Cook Book: A Man's Cook Book for Men by C. Mac Sheridan. Yes, I like to cook, but this one is headed to the Houdini shelf and not the kitchen because on page 83 Houdini provides two recipes for "Scalloped Mushrooms and Deviled Eggs." Houdini did it all!


XXXVII

Houdini

SCALLOPED MUSHROOMS AND DEVILED
EGGS

The Mushroom Dish
   Choose for this purpose fine firm ones. Pick, wash, wipe and peel--then lay them in a deep pudding dish well buttered.  Season them with pepper and salt, and add a little onion.  Sprinkle each layer with rolled bread crumbs, dot with small pieces of butter and proceed in this way until dish is full, having the top layer of bread crumbs.  Bake in moderate oven.
The Eggs
   Boil the eggs hard.  Remove shells and cut eggs in half, slicing a bit off the ends to make them stand upright.  Extract yolks and rub them to a smooth paste with melted butter, cayenne pepper, a touch of mustard and a dash of vinegar.  Fill the hollowed whites with this and send to table upon a bed of chopped lettuce or water cress, seasoned with pepper, salt, vinegar and a little sugar.

Other foods Houdini was said to have enjoyed were Chicken Paprika, Hungarian goulash (of course), and Chop Suey. We know from her niece that Bess made cherry pies (she had a special cherry pitting machine in the kitchen at 278), and Houdini provided a recipe for another cookbook for Bread and Butter Custard. He also ate at a kosher restaurant with his brother, Nathan.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Nick Lewin recalls his brush with Houdini and Hitchcock


Magician Nick Lewin has posted on his blog, remarkablemagic.com, his memories of filming an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents called, Houdini on Channel 4. The episode was written by especially for Nick by friend and producer Michael Sloan (creator of The Equalizer). Nick offers up several interesting details on the 1987 production, including:

"Sloan added a couple of special treats to the episode especially for magic buffs and they hugely benefited the impact of the episode. The production licensed some rarely seen Houdini footage from the Manny Weltman archives which was featured to fine effect in the production. It was really great to find myself onscreen working side by side with my childhood hero.

The second surprise that Michael included in the episode was in regard to the secret Houdini shrine/séance room created by my character in the storyline. With a lavish touch of authenticity, all the Houdini memorabilia that festooned my séance room actually belonged to Houdini himself. It had been shipped to Toronto from Abb Dickson’s collection in Atlanta, under the supervision of Mike Russo."

Houdini on Channel 4 features Nick as Jack Barclay, a magician performing at a faux Magic Castle, and even has a ghosty appearance by Houdini himself played by Jan Filips. It's good fun.

Read 'My Brush with Alfred Hitchcock and Harry Houdini' at Remarkable Magic. Nick has also posted the entire episode on his official website HERE.

Arthur Moses showcases his Houdini foreign editions

Super collector Arthur Moses is expanding his official website houdinispeaks.com with images of items from his own collection, starting with a new page devoted to "Houdini in Foreign Languages" (one of Arthur's specialties).

Houdini's Spirit Exposes from Iceland? A Portuguese edition of Sherlock Holmes and the Houdini Birthright? Batman-Houdini in German? These are all there along with cover pics.

Arthur also teases that he's going to present something on the site related to his Houdini voice recordings (he has the complete and unedited versions), so this could get very interesting indeed!

So head on over to houdinispeaks.com and brush up on your international Harry.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Ghosts of Beacon Hill

WILD ABOUT HARRY meets Google Earth at 10 Lime Street in Boston. 'Nuff said.

Click to enlarge.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Margery Files revisited

Today we have a very special encore presentation of "The Margery Files." Once again Anna Thurlow, the great granddaughter of Mina Crandon a.k.a. Margery the Medium, is giving us an exclusive look at rare artifacts from the private Libbet Crandon de Malamud Collection. Says Anna: "You have drawn such a lovely narrative with these artifacts it just feels wrong to not include this."

These are Dr. Crandon's actual notes on the first Houdini-Margery seance held on July 23, 1924. What makes this seance of particular interest is it was the only one held at the Crandons home at 10 Lime Street in Boston. Later sittings were moved to the Charlesgate Hotel where Scientific American committee member Dr. Daniel Comstock (who founded Technicolor) kept an apartment. Perhaps this is why this one sitting had the most detailed notes by Dr. Crandon. It's also maybe why this sitting produced the most spiritualistic phenomena.

This fascinating two-page document provides a moment by moment account of what occurred in the darkened room. I love how it describes when Houdini had control of Margery's hands he "explored each arm to the shoulder to insure that it was her two hands." (A lot of touching went on during these things.) The notes are signed by Houdini and the other attendees; J. Malcolm Bird, O.D. Munn, and R.W. Conant, the assistant to Dr. Comstock who couldn't attend. "Psyche" is Margery.

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge

Houdini explained much of this phenomena in his booklet, Houdini Exposes the tricks used by the Boston Medium "Margery." Margery's ringing of the Bell Box -- here called a "contact board" -- was done by her foot (I covered some of that here). The floating megaphone that landed at Houdini's feet on his command was actually sitting on top of Margery's head, like a dunce cap, and flung with a snap of her neck. Of this particular method Houdini would later write, "This is the slickest ruse I have ever detected."


However, the third paragraph describes phenomena involving an "illuminated plaque" – a piece of cardboard that was placed atop the Bell Box -- which moves and actually levitates. This is downplayed in most accounts of the seance. And while Houdini included an illustration of the plaque in his Margery booklet (near the back), he doesn't mention the phenomena in his actual account of the seance, nor does he make any attempt to explain it. Maybe the "ruse" was so simple he didn't feel a need to expose it? Or maybe he couldn't? Hmmm...

Also, some accounts of the sitting say Margery's Victrola (which played Drdla's Souvenir) mysteriously "started and stopped" during the seance. However, I don't see this reflected in the notes. To me it appears that the Victrola winds down naturally during the length of the sitting, and when it stops (once) Dr. Crandon gets up to restart it. I don't believe this is a record of any Victrola-related phenomena. I just think Dr. Crandon is chronicling everything that happened during the seance so it's clear who had "control" of Margery at all times. Houdini also makes no mention of the Victrola in his accounts.

This is the pleasure of being able to do research from primary sources that one can make fresh discoveries and refine past interpretations. Once again, thanks to Anna Thurlow for sharing these amazing artifacts and allowing all of us to play the role of research detective among...The Margery Files!

Click here for a page with links to all seven installments of The Margery Files.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The truth of what really happened to Houdini's bust

In April 1975 the original bust on Houdini's tomb at Machpelah Cemetery in Queens was destroyed. How, why, and who did it has never been discovered. Legends have grown up around this incident. Bernard C. Meyer ends his provocative 1976 book, Houdini A Mind in Chains, with his own poetic theory of who might have committed the deed:

There is one ghostly hand, however, that might have smashed that granite bust--the hand of Ehrich Weiss, the rabbi's son, who from an early age had heard the injunction against the fashioning of graven images. Perhaps like a wrathful Moses destroying the calf of gold, reconciled at last to the faith of the patriarchs, the shade of Houdini's most secret self made one last escape, stole from the grave and performed his most amazing trick--his own decapitation.

Then there's the less poetic claims. One persistent rumor, espoused by no less than James Randi, is that escape artist and Death Blow author Norman Bigelow smashed the bust believing that Houdini had hidden his secrets inside. It's also been said the bust was smashed as part of a gang initiation. Ralph Stollow, the superintendent of the cemetery in 1975, told police that he received an anonymous call a week before the incident warning that the grave had been "booby trapped."

It's also been suggested that the bust was never smashed at all -- it was stolen. In fact, some claim the bust recovered by police in 2002 from the home of Stephen Chotowicky in New Hyde Park was the original bust and not the Society of American Magician's replacement (stolen in 1983).

But today we can put all the stories to rest because the tireless Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz of the Houdini Museum in Scranton have discovered exactly what happened that night in 1975. The full story can be heard in a special two part episode of The Sensational Tales of Dorothy & Dick, the new radio show hosted by Dorothy and Dick on station WFTE in Scranton.

You can hear the broadcasts by clicking on the files labeled "Show 10-Houdini Gravesite Ptt 1" and "Show 11-Houdini Gravesite Ptt 2" at dorothyanddick.com. The bust smashing story is in Part 2 starting at 08:38.

But I would highly recommend giving both these episodes a full listen because Dorothy and Dick tell the entire story of how they restored Houdini's grave bust in a "commando" raid in 2011. It took a lot of effort and is an amazing tale, and their generous act certainly washed away the dark shadow of what happened on the site in 1975.

The bust-less exedra pedestal in 2005.

Speaking of The Sensational Tales of Dorothy & Dick, I recently recorded two episodes discussing the 1953 biopic, Houdini. The shows have aired live on WFTE a few times. I expect it will be archived at dorothyanddick.com soon.

UPDATE: HOUDINI'S ORIGINAL GRAVE BUST REVEALED!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Speaking of books...

This little baby just dropped through my mailbox. Mysteries of People and Places by Phyllis Raybin Emert was released by TOR in 1992. It only has five pages on Houdini, but you gotta love that he made the cover.


This was part of the "Strange Unsolved Mysteries" series of books by Emert. Copies can still be found on Amazon.com.

WILD about Houdini books

I've launched a new page here at WILD ABOUT HARRY -- a Bibliography. Here I've listed over 200 books by and about Houdini. While these are all books from my collection, this is not a collectors bibliography in that I only list one edition of each title (the first edition). This is for easy reference and an attempt to have a comprehensive list of all Houdini books in one place, although I make no claims that this will ever be complete. But I think I can get close.

While I've included pamphlets and lecture notes, I've drawn the line at magazine articles (for that I recommend Arthur Moses's amazing Houdini Periodical Bibliography). I also don't list general magic books that only feature a section on Houdini. I'll continue to add more books as they come to my attention and/or possession.


Photo of Houdini and Bess book shopping in Paris from Houdini A Pictorial Life by Milbourne Christopher.

Choose your "H"

This unique Houdini autograph sold last week in an online RR Auction for $1,640. Collectors are aware that Houdini modified the "H" in his signature. Here he gives the lucky recipient both.


This signature was affixed to the address panel of an original mailing envelope with Houdini’s return address and postmarked April 22, 1926.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

"Precious Lump of Sweetness" turns 137

Beatrice Houdini was born Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner on January 23, 1876, in Brooklyn, New York. Like Houdini, Bess came from a large immigrant family and was also bitten by the showbiz bug in her teens. While working at Coney Island in a song and dance act called The Floral Sisters, Bess was courted by Houdini's younger brother, Theo (Hardeen). But it was the older Houdini brother that she fell in love with and married on June 22, 1894.

So today we say, Happy Birthday to Bess Houdini...or as her love-struck husband would call her: "Darling Wifey", "My Silver Bride", "Champagne Coquette", "My Ownest Darling One and Only", and (my favorite), "Precious Lump of Sweetness."

From the collection of MSW.

Below is a collection of "Best Bess" posts to help celebrate her day:

Did Bess Houdini smoke pot?

Bess Houdini on Facebook

Houdini's pet names from love letters published in Houdini The Key by Patrick Cullition. Bess birth date confirmed by John Hinson.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Dr. Gail Saltz and Brooke Rapaport 'On Harry Houdini'


Psychiatrist, author, and TV commentator Dr. Gail Saltz will be interviewing Brooke Kamin Rapaport, author of Houdini Art and Magic and curator at the Jewish Museum in New York, as part of her series examining psychological factors that have shaped the minds of larger-than-life historical figures. Their historical figure of choice: Houdini (of course!).

Some of the questions they will address: What drove this self-taught man? What was the meaning of disappearing and reappearing? Why was he consumed with debunking the spiritualist movement?

ON HARRY HOUDINI
Date: Mon, Jan 28, 2013, 12 pm
Venue: 92YTribeca Lecture Hall
Location: 92YTribeca, 200 Hudson St
Price: from $21.00

Click here for more information and to purchase tickets.

Construction starts today on Houdini Plaza


WHBY News reports that construction is supposed to start today on the Houdini Plaza renovation project in downtown Appleton, Wisconsin.

Jennifer Stephany of Appleton Downtown Inc. says they hope to finish the work before the first outdoor Farm Market in mid-June. She says they're already hearing from groups that are interested in hosting events there, and that's the impact they were hoping the improvements would have.

The renovations will cost $1.5 million. They include a fountain, and spaces for large and small events. The city is contributing $1 million, and there's a fundraising effort to collect the remaining $500,000.

Visit the Downtown Appleton website for more information on the Houdini Plaza renovation project.

The adventures of Houdini and Charlie

The blog Easy Metaphors, which appears to specialize in comic strips about famous personalities and their pets, has posted a strip about Houdini and his dog, Charlie. I'm impressed that they know the name of Houdini's real dog (maybe they even saw my post from 2011 on Houdini pets?). However, it was Houdini's second dog, Bobby, who was the "escape artist". But we won't quibble.

Enjoy dog people: harry houdini at Easy Metaphors.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Nita Naldi making a comeback

Is 2013 the year of Nita Naldi? Suddenly a great deal of traffic is heading to WILD ABOUT HARRY via Google searches for the silent movie star who played Marie Le Grande in Houdini's The Man From Beyond. My profile of Nita in my Leading Ladies series is actually my second most viewed story of the new year.


So what's up with Nita? Was there a recent documentary or film retrospective about her maybe? Even the webmaster of the excellent nitanaldi.com isn't sure why there is a sudden upswing in Nita traffic.

Whatever the reason, looks like Nita is ready for her closeup.

"Hey, this blog is supposed to be about me, toots."

Sunday, January 20, 2013

W.C. Fields and "Friend Harry"

Here's a little addendum to our Margery Week. This is a photograph of Houdini and comedy great W.C. Fields taken during a chance meeting in front of the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston on August 27, 1924. Houdini was in a particularly good mood as he had just succeeded in detecting the methods used by "Margery the Medium" the day before. This was the reason for his stay in the city.


Houdini and Fields knew each other from their Vaudeville days. The photo was snapped by Houdini's assistant, Jim Collins. Field's said he was glad to see "Friend Harry" again "and find you looking so well and happy."

Houdini and W.C. Fields now enjoy an eternal connection at The Magic Castle in Hollywood. Fields' original trick billiards table sits in the Inner Circle across from the Castle's new Houdini aquarium. A Houdini bust also sits above the "W.C. Fields Bar."

Fields info from Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss by Kenneth Silverman (page 340). Photo from the Jon Oliver Collection.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Interview with Anna Thurlow, great granddaughter of "Margery"


Today we have a special bonus to wrap-up our week-long journey through the private Libbet Crandon de Malamud Collection, or what I've been calling, "The Margery Files". Here's an exclusive interview with our generous patron, Anna Thurlow, the great granddaughter of Mina Crandon aka "Margery the Medium."

WAH: First, thank you for allowing me to share these amazing items from your family archive on my blog. Can you tell me how you came to have these treasures, especially Margery's seance kimono? That's an incredible piece of Spiritualist history!

ANNA: Thank you; it has been a pleasure collaborating with you on this week’s project. It is wonderful to be able to share some of these items with an audience that can truly appreciate them and can help put them in their larger historical context.

Libbet Crandon de Malamud
I inherited the collection from my mother, Libbet Crandon de Malamud. She was an anthropologist. When she was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 42 she realized that she would no longer be able to conduct field work, and she thought that she would finally have the opportunity to write about her grandmother, Margery. My mother was always fascinated with Margery and raised me on stories about her. My mother asked her father for his permission to write the book (he was intensely shy and reticent to talk about his mother). To her surprise, he not only supported the idea but gave my mother the papers he had stored up in the attic for 50 years, and this is the core of the collection. Other items, such as the kimono, were also left to me by mom. I think she might have worn it a few times (I have as well, to a several of Sid Radner’s séances).

My mother did not live to write her book. Just before she died, she asked me to write it for her. I named the collection after her, since by all rights it should have been my mother talking with you right now and sharing these documents. She would have loved every minute of this discussion!

WAH: Do you have any idea what happened to other famous Margery-Houdini artifacts like the Bell Box and the "Margie Box". Also, it's said that Dr. Comstock constructed a second control apparatus for the final seance. Any idea what happened to that, or have you ever see a photo of it?

ANNA: Unfortunately, I do not. I don’t think the Margery Box would have ever been in her possession, since Houdini built it, and although I am not familiar with the Comstock apparatus my guess would be that Comstock kept it. I suspect that these items remained in the hands of the researchers and sitters since these were items used on her, not for her.

The basic items in her séance room – a table, cabinet, bell box, and chairs – probably existed at 10 Lime Street until the family sold the home in the 1940’s. Since Margery’s mediumship began as intimate, domestic affairs and many of her “props’ were essentially household items, these things probably just faded back into the house and disappeared with time. The chairs that I have, for example, were sitting in a back bedroom at my grandparents house for years and no one particularly wanted them, except me. For me these are very personal items and all that is left of that side of my family, so I have made an effort to preserve, document and understand them.

WAH: Of course, there are rumors that Margery and Houdini had an affair or were otherwise somehow in collusion. Willard Green tells a story of how he saw Houdini and Margery riding together Houdini's car the day after the seance. Have you ever gotten any sense that there was anything fishy going on between Houdini and Margery?

ANNA: I think the reason why the idea of them having an affair is so compelling is that it seems like there was an undeniable connection between them. What form or depth that connection had, I do not know. But they shared a lot in common and that still somehow comes across today.

A big difference between them however was that whereas Houdini identified early on magic as his career of choice, and spent a lifetime perfecting his craft and developing a concrete philosophy around it, Margery’s mediumship began as an intimate affair for her family and close friends, and it evolved into something over which she did not have full control. There were very few intellectual outlets for women at that time, and spiritualism was a way for women to become “explorers into the unknown” without having to leave the intimacy of their own homes. It was not uncommon for middle class women to hold séance circles (although it was uncommon for them to actually be the medium). Margery did not seek out publicity or fame. Margery is not even her real name, but her nome de séance, which she requested from the Scientific American to protect her identity when the Committee asked to investigate her. Dr Crandon, however, loved the attention and he created a second career for himself based on her mediumship. I find it remarkable and inspiring how she continually transformed the mediumship into something uniquely her own, despite the fact that she was not always the agent of it. I have come to think of her as a performance artist whose art grew organically as a reaction to her surroundings.

I imagine that when she met Houdini there must have been a strong sense of kinship. But she probably did not understand Houdini’s professional approach to his work – that would have been so far outside of her own based of reference. She probably had no idea that he would incorporate her exposure into his own performances. Naïve of her, but perhaps that is why her sense of betrayal was so great.

WAH: Okay, the big one: Who put the ruler in the Margie Box?

ANNA: I was always told that Houdini placed the ruler in the Margery Box. Margery was devastated. When Houdini exposed her methods, my grandfather (he would have been about 12 at the time) went out at night and bought all the newspapers in Boston so that his mother would not read about it.

WAH: In doing this series and re-reading the sections on Margery in the major Houdini bios (and talking to you), I can't help but get a sense of the extreme control Dr. Crandon had over her. Do you know how she felt about this? Was she comfortable being "Margery the Medium"? Do you think maybe she saw Houdini and his ability to expose her as a possible liberation from this life?

ANNA: This is an excellent question.

Dr. Crandon and Mina
There is no doubt that the Crandons had a complicated relationship: there was a great disparity in age, education and background, and she was his third wife. I think Margery struggled at first to earn Dr Crandon’s respect and that of his well educated, society friends. He also had a habit of divorcing his wives after a few years. It was a few years into their marriage when Margery began the séances, and as Ken Silverman says in his book about Houdini, Margery probably began them in part to keep Dr Crandon’s attention as well as to alleviate his morbid fear of death. One of the things that made Margery’s séances remarkable was that they were an occasion for joy and playfulness: table raps sounding out the musical refrain of Taps, victrolas turning on in the dark to play European waltzes, floral scents floating through the air, a dancing table that led the entire séance group down the stairs, and all with the friendly, rough and tumble voice of Walter, Margery’s dead brother.

The stakes changed, however, when Margery’s mediumship caught the attention of famous people such as Arthur Conan Doyle and the committee members of the Scientific American. Suddenly she was subject to the scrutiny of scientists and investigators, and had to devise means to incorporate and satisfy scientific controls around the séance. This became a defining characteristic of her mediumship as her séances were subject to a dizzying array of tests, committees, and contraptions. Funnily enough, the séances that Houdini attended were the least interesting, in my opinion. In period of 1926-1929 she produced wax fingerprints of spirits, psychic paraffin hand molds, footprints of unborn babies (a bit creepy), automatic writing in foreign languages such as ancient Chinese and Japanese, and the Cross Correspondences (whereby seances were held at the same time in different cities and fragments words were received, which, when combined, formed a full sentence). It has been suggested that Dr Crandon was coercive in forcing her to conduct séances even when she didn’t want to, and I think that is true. She certainly seems to have become quite bitter in her later years, and tried to commit suicide during one séance by attempting to jump off the roof of 10 Lime Street. She did ultimately kill herself through alcoholism and died on November 1, 1941 at the age of 51 (only one day after the anniversary of Houdini’s death, coincidentally – and I’ve heard that she predicted the day of her own death). So I think one can definitely say that she had conflicted feelings about the path her life took.

I certainly do not see her as a victim, however. I think one thing that has gotten lost in the written history is that what she produced in the séances was often quite beautiful, and fun. She took on an intellectual challenge and certainly gave the investigators a great show. I would like to think that she derived some sense of satisfaction from that.

Mina Crandon's own copy of "Margery" the Medium.

Thanks again to Anna Thurlow for providing us with such a memorable and fascinating week. The good news is it isn't over just yet. We still have one last unique item to share, so watch out for The Margery Files Revisited coming soon.

The Margery Files:

Interview photograph of Anna Thurlow from The History Channel documentary Houdini: Unlocking The Mystery.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Margery Files: Keepsakes

This week WILD ABOUT HARRY is showcasing rarities from the private Libbet Crandon de Malamud Collection, courtesy of Anna Thurlow, the great granddaughter of "Margery" the Medium.

Today we conclude our week-long look inside the private Crandon family archives with what I think is a poetic postscript. Below is Margery's own copy of Houdini pamphlet exposing her methods. You would think she would not have kept one of these -- that she would not want to preserve this for the record -- that it should not be part of "The Margery Files". Yet here it is; Houdini's last word on Margery, brought to us by Margery herself. Is she trying to tell us something? A complicated, curious, and in the end, I can't help but feel it's a somewhat sad relationship.

"It is sad," says Anna Thurlow, the great granddaughter of Margery and our guide this week. "I have always felt that they could have had such a different relationship had they circumstances been other than what they were. They shared a lot of traits and background."


One final thing about the above image. Anna originally sent me a scan of this cover. That was great, but I asked if she could just photograph it for me "sitting on a table or something." I thought that would make it more personal. Anna did one better and sent the above photo with the booklet laying on the fabric from one of Margery's skirts. "One of two items of clothing of hers I still have," says Anna.

And what might that other item of clothing be? Well, that's our grand finale...

Margery's seance kimono!


I hope you've enjoyed our special week being Wild About Margery. Please join me in extending my thanks to Anna Thurlow for allowing me to share these amazing and revealing items here on WILD ABOUT HARRY.


Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Margery Files: Have a seat

This week WILD ABOUT HARRY is showcasing rarities from the private Libbet Crandon de Malamud Collection, courtesy of Anna Thurlow, the great granddaughter of "Margery" the Medium.

Continuing our privileged look inside the Crandon family archives, let's move now from the past to the present, from paper artifacts to the physical. What you're looking at below are two of the actual chairs from Margery's seance chamber on the top floor of her home at No. 10 Lime Street in Boston. It's not a stretch to think that Houdini himself could have used one of these chairs during his first sitting with Margery on July 23, 1924 (the only sitting conducted at Lime Street). What a thrill to see they still exist in 2013!


Below are two photos from psychictruth.info of Margery conducting seances (and producing ectoplasm) while sitting in what are easily identifiable as the chairs above.

Click to enlarge.

The underside of the chairs show they were manufactured by the Paine Furniture Co. of Boston, MA. If only these chairs could talk!

Click to enlarge.

Speaking of the seance room, Anna Thurlow, or generous guide through The Margery Files, confirmed for me that the famous Houdini/Margery sittings were recorded! It's mentioned in Ken Silverman's Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss that Dr. Crandon dictated everything that was happening at the moment into what was called a Ediphone. Says Anna:

"Ah, the ediphone. What I would give to know what happened to those recordings. Yes, the seances were recorded in three forms of media: sitting notes, photographs obtained under red light, and the ediphone. I have a smattering of sitting notes and photos, but sadly no recordings."

Tomorrow we will conclude our amazing week-long journey with a few precious and revealing Keepsakes. Trust me, you won't want to miss the grand finale!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Margery Files: Inside man

This week WILD ABOUT HARRY is showcasing rarities from the private Libbet Crandon de Malamud Collection, courtesy of Anna Thurlow, the great granddaughter of "Margery" the Medium.

While know Margery and Dr. Crandon enlisted J. Malcolm Bird and Heward Carrighton as informants during their seances with Houdini in 1924. But is it possible that they also had an "inside man" at the infamous 1929 Arthur Ford seance in which Houdini's spirit was said to have returned and delivered the coded message to Bess? Apparently they did indeed. The evidence comes from a remarkable find in The Margery Files.

This is an original photostat of the letter Beatrice Houdini signed after the seance affirming that Ford had delivered the correct coded message. This letter was sent to press outlets and has appeared in print before. But what makes this copy especially interesting is that it was sent the day after the seance to "Dr. & Mrs. Crandon" by Francis R. Fast, who was part of the inner circle. This is the first evidence I've ever seen that shows Margery was looped into the Ford seances by someone on the inside.


Busted!

So who was Francis R. Fast? Fast was a wealthy patron and close friend of Arthur Ford. He and Ford actually shared an apartment. It was Fast, along with John W. Stafford, Associate Editor of the Scientific American, who travelled to Bessie's home on January 6, 1929, to tell the widow (recovering from her famous fall) that Ford had contacted Houdini via his spirit guide "Fletcher." After this, Bess agreed to sit with Ford. Even though he was a stranger to Bess, Fast was at each of the Ford sittings.

Fast also appears to have been an acquaintance of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. After Ford claimed to have made contact with Houdini's mother during a Feb 8, 1928 seance, Fast sent a coded message to Conan Doyle informing him of the event. Doyle passed the information onto Margery, referring to Fast and Ford as "our people."

Fast went on to pen The Houdini Messages in 1929, a detailed account of the Arthur Ford seances. In it he reproduces Bess's letter as the frontispiece. In regards to Margery, Fast tips his hat on the final page in his one and only mention of the medium:

Enough has happened in these latter years in the way of outstanding demonstrations of psychic phenomena to give anyone ample reason to alter any preconceived notions about these things, what with the clear-cut and as yet unassailable results in the "Margery" case alone, on which the whole argument for the survival and communication may rest secure for all of time.

The letter Bess signed on that fateful day in 1929 was used against her (and Houdini by extension) by pro-spiritualist forces for years. Of course, Bessie isn't really saying that Houdini delivered the code from beyond. She's just saying that the correct code was delivered by Ford. How he got the code is another story.

In 1934 Bess would issue a new statement firmly renouncing the Houdini messages.


Bessie's retraction.

Tomorrow we'll move out of the paper archives for something a little different, as we build to our grand finale on Friday. You'll want to be sitting down for this one...

Francis Fast background from The Houdini Code Mystery by William V. Rauscher and The Secret Life of Houdini by William Kalush and Larry Sloman. Bess retraction letter from Houdini His Legend and His Magic by Doug Henning and Charles Reynods.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Margery Files: Subtle betrayals

This week WILD ABOUT HARRY is showcasing rarities from the private Libbet Crandon de Malamud Collection, courtesy of Anna Thurlow, the great granddaughter of "Margery" the Medium.

Today I bring you another round of "photo play" between Houdini and the Crandons. This photo from "The Margery Files" and was taken during the July 24, 1924 seance, which was Houdini's second sitting with the famous medium. It's an original photograph that might be strangely familiar, but we'll get to that.

This photo shows Houdini "controlling" the left side of Margery with the electric bell box between his feet. Note that Houdini has rolled up his pants leg. That's because he had sensitized his leg by wearing a surgical bandage all day so that he could detect the slighted moment of Margery's own leg in the dark. "She made so bold a sliding movement with her ankle to reach the box that I think she was under the impression that I was badly fooled or was going to help her like the others," Houdini later wrote.


It's not clear who took this photo (possibly Dr. Crandon), but it appears to have been among a second set of photos that Houdini sent to Margery. Below is a never-before-published letter from Houdini to Margery that bares this out. This followed their correspondence in my previous post. Here Houdini's tone is a little more formal, but it's interesting how he states that he is "honestly not a skeptic" and how "Harmony must reign."

Click to enlarge.

I can't help but think Houdini is purposely lulling Margery into a false sense of security here when he promises to cause her no "inconvenience of physical discomfiture." What must she and Dr. Crandon have thought when Houdini arrived at the August sessions with the formidable "Margie Box" in tow?

On the back of the photo we again find the handwriting of Dr. Crandon. Normally Dr. Crandon always sat to the right of his wife during seances, but here he identifies the second control as J. Malcolm Bird. Bird was a fellow member of the Scientific American committee and was a houseguest of Crandons during the seances. He was also deeply in the tank for Margery. "Either he is as dum [sic] as I think he is, or the good time he is having causes him to mislead the public," Houdini wrote to Bess.


Dr. Crandon's reference to Houdini's notes of the "experiment" is also interesting. Crandon would collect and keep all the notes from Margery's sitters just in case they made public comments that contradicted what they had experienced in the seance room. Dr. Crandon told Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "I have the material to crucify them, and they know I shall not hesitate to treat them surgically if necessary."

Now, the reason this shot looks familiar is it was used by Houdini as the bases for a damning illustration in his pamphlet, Houdini Exposes the tricks used by the Boston Medium "Margery". Here Houdini shows Margery's foot about to ring the bell box, which is sitting at a much more advantageous angle here.


Of this second round of "photo play", Anna Thrulow, great granddaughter of Mina Crandon and our generous guide through The Margery Files, has these thoughts:

"I feel like the two photo episodes - Bird using a photo of Margery taken by Houdini for purposes Houdini did not support, and Houdini using a photo of himself and Margery taken by the Crandons for purposes they did not support - adds some background to the subtle betrayals Margery and Houdini inflicted on each other, despite their (I think) initial mutual respect."

Indeed, the story of Houdini and Margery is filled with "subtle betrayals". In light of his letter, Houdini's use of the Margie Box could be seen as another. However, I also agree with Anna that one can sense a certain level of mutual respect between to the two master tricksters. It's a dichotomy. But maybe that's why the story of Houdini and Margery is still so compelling. It seems the truth still out there.

Speaking of the truth, tomorrow will rewrite a little postmortem Houdini history when The Margery Files exposes Margery's Inside man. And if you think I'm talking about Bird or Heward Carrington; not so Fast...

Additional references: Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss by Kenneth Silverman; The Secret Life of Houdini by William Kalush and Larry Sloman.


UPDATE: Houdini's copy of the same photo can be in Doug Henning's Houdini His Legend and His Magic along with Houdini's own notes on the back (page 87). The photo is now in the Jon Oliver Collection.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Margery Files: Photo play

It's a very special week here at WILD ABOUT HARRY. This week we are Wild About Margery. Today I'm honored to share the first of several genuine artifacts from the Libbet Crandon de Malamud Collection, courtesy of Anna Thurlow, the great granddaughter of "Margery" herself.

Let's kick things off with Margery's own uncropped copy of what is certainly one of the most famous photos ever taken of her. It was used as the frontispiece in the book "Margery" The Medium by J. Malcolm Bird, and has appeared (cropped) in various books and articles over the years. But not many people know that this photo was taken by Houdini. It was one of a series of shots Houdini and Margery took together on July 24, 1924, some of which show a very different relationship than what has come down in history (remember this post?).

In a way, the story of this famous photo is the story of Houdini and Margery's curious relationship in microcosm. So lets look at three incredible artifacts from The Margery Files. First, the photo itself:


One revelation here is that the photo was taken not in front of Margery's home at No. 10 Lime Street, but in front of No. 11. There's also some very telling information on the back of the photo. But before we get to that, let's look at the amazing, never-before-published correspondence between Houdini and Margery about this famous photo set:

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Not quite the combatants of legend, eh? What's even more remarkable is this exchange is after the July 1924 sittings in which Houdini detected Margery's methods and Margery knew that she had been caught (thanks to her informant, J. Malcolm Bird).

But here we see Houdini being disarming, cordial, even charming. He almost comes off sounding like a fan. But maybe he's just trying to reassure her that he's not going to come racing into the seance room and expose her at first blush during their upcoming August sittings (or come in with a big giant box to control her). Maybe he'll even play ball?

Margery in return is offering Houdini what I'm sure she sensed he enjoyed most: flattery. I especially love her line; "I am glad to able to say I know 'The Great Houdini'". But she's also being coy -- so casual and confident in her abilities that she isn't even sure when Houdini is scheduled to come sit with her. No advanced preparations necessary, you see.

So is this the sign of burgeoning friendship, or two seasoned gladiators showing civility before doing battle? Our generous patron, Anna Thurlow, great granddaughter of Margery, offers her own thoughts:

"It does seem to be a respectful and rather admiring tone, doesn't it? Quite different from their public conflict. It is also one of the very few exchanges from Margery to anyone (usually Dr. Crandon intercepted and assumed the responsibility of replying to her personal letters, often to the frustration of her corresponders), which says to me that this particular exchange meant a lot to her. Also, her tone in the letter is consistent with the family legend I grew up with - hugely respectful of Houdini. That is quite different from the tone Dr. Crandon reveals in his writing and correspondence, which is often derogatory."

Indeed, it appears Dr. Le Roi Crandon, Margery's husband and manager in psychic matters, at some point "intercepted" this photo as well. Because on the back we find in his handwriting:


No mention of Houdini taking the photo here. In fact, Dr. Crandon seems to be going out of his way to remove any connection to Houdini. Here he is assigning Copyright to "Small, Maynard Co.", who published J. Malcolm Bird's "Margery" The Medium in 1925. He is even going as far as stipulating that "Credit must be given." He wanted to make sure Houdini saw the slight -- which, it turns out, he did.

Because deep in a special locked room of the William Larsen Sr. Memorial Library at The Magic Castle is Houdini's own copy of "Margery" The Medium. The book contains an annotation on the frontispiece photo -- this very same photo that Houdini took, shared with Margery, and promised not to use himself...

"Photo by Houdini & no credit given."

The battle is joined. And there's more to come. Especially as we next explore Subtle betrayals.

Additional thanks to Bill Goodwin and Lisa Cousins at the Magic Castle's William Larsen Sr. Memorial Library for allowing me to photograph Houdini's copy of "Margery" the Medium.

Translate

Receive updates via email