Thursday, September 24, 2015

The best forgotten Houdini book

Continuing my examination of books about Houdini using images and insights from my own collection.

Houdini's Fabulous Magic by Walter B. Gibson and Morris N. Young is the best forgotten Houdini book. I say that because when one thinks of books on Houdini's methods, one tends to turn to Houdini The Key by Patrick Culliton, The Secrets of Houdini by J.C. Cannel, or even Gibson's earlier work, Houdini's Escapes and Magic. Maybe because Fabulous Magic contains some reprinted material from the earlier Gibson book it tends to be thought of as a somewhat recycled work. But it's actually one of the very best books on Houdini's major feats and methods and maybe the best book for the layperson. It also contains historical tidbits that aren't found elsewhere. So let's remember it today!

Walter B. Gibson and Dr. Morris Young make an excellent team. Gibson knew Houdini and Young had one of the best Houdini and magic collections in the world (it's now in the Library of Congress). So Houdini's Fabulous Magic is packed with rare images on almost every page. It was certainly the best illustrated Houdini book up to that time. Also, for me, it feels like Gibson is finally willing to part with secrets that he had kept to himself – or at least out of print – for years.

The chapters on Houdini's challenge handcuff act and jail escapes are among the best, offering a whole host of clever methods that Houdini employed beyond the "key in a kiss." A clue to why these chapters are especially strong might be found in the acknowledgements:

Reminiscences of early Houdini days were personally provided by Lewis Goldstein, only living member of the Houdini show during the Handcuff Era of the early 1900s. Goldstein also worked with the Hardeen company during that same period, and the authors appreciate his first-hand recollections.

Goldstein is likely the source of the following story of a jail escape. It's not something I've read elsewhere, and I love how it shows that Houdini and Hardeen could work together spontaneously:

On one occasion, Houdini went to look over a jail cell accompanied by his brother Hardeen. The lock was formidable, but of the spring latch type. While the police chief was asking Houdini why he didn't try to make the escape then and there, Houdini suddenly decided that he would.
Houdini whispered a quick word to Hardeen and while Houdini was being searched, Hardeen pulled a sheet of paper from a notebook, wadded it tightly, and edged close enough to the door to jam the wad into the latch socket. Houdini was put into the cell naked, keyless, and presumably defeated; but the police chief and the jailer had scarcely turned away before they heard the door clang again behind them and there was Houdini free!

Houdini's Fabulous Magic also includes a final chapter "About Houdini" which features autobiographical excerpts by the great magician himself. And while the book has a very good chapter on the Water Torture Cell, it doesn't reveal the method. Some secrets should be kept.

Publication history:

Houdini's Fabulous Magic was first published in hardcover in 1961 by Chilton Book Company. The cover art has Houdini's name running vertically down a dark green background, somewhat recalling a spirit slate. As far as I know, it was only published in the United States. The book went through at least five hardcover printings with the same dust jacket artwork (I have a 5th dated August 1968).

The one and only paperback edition (that I know of) was published by Barns & Noble Books in 1977.

First hardcover (1961) and first paperback (1977).

Houdini's Fabulous Magic would benefit from the great Houdini renaissance of the mid 1970s. The book was reprinted in a new hardcover by Bell Publishing. This time the jacket featured the famous image of Houdini in handcuffs (dated 1903 in the book itself) against an orange background. The copyright page only references the 1961 edition, but it appears this hardcover might have been released in October 1976.

Bell hardcovers from the 1970s.

Bell later released another hardcover edition with new dust jacket art that added the descriptive: "His own scrapbooks reveal the secrets of 38 major illusions." Once again, the year of publication is unclear because the copyright only references the 1961 edition. But from my own recollection, this grey jacketed edition replaced the orange edition in my local magic shop around 1978.

Houdini's Fabulous Magic long ago vanished from print. But if one is interested in learning Houdini's methods, hunting down one of these old copies would be a fabulous way to do so.

Enjoy these other selections from the WILD ABOUT HARRY bookshelf:

21 comments:

  1. Yes - I like that book as well !

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  2. Well. I have a hard bound copy of this book that I bought in the very early 70s. It indeed does reveal the secret of the USD. Not in great detail with photos but instead a clear explanation. Perry from NJ.

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  3. This is a wonderful book. I pre-ordered it from Tannens and it came with an 8X10 of Houdini. That having been said, Walter makes things up. Walter did the writing, and Morris did the research. Walter gave Morris the impression he had seen Houdini perform the Elephant twice. Morris told me this. Walter and I discussed the Elephant on our way to the MGM lot (I was giving him a tour, the gate guard whose name was Bill Hollywood knew me). That's 40 minutes -- and I got the impression Walter had seen Houdini perform The Elephant Vanish. He hadn't. He told Long John Nevil he himself had not seen Houdini perform the Vanishing Elephant. He poo poos Guy Jarrett's explanation -- which it turns out is the illusion Houdini bought from Charles Morritt. Walter missed that one. People still buy his MADE UP explanation. His explanation of Radio 1950 is entirely wrong. I know, the Radio Girl, Dorothy Young walked me through it. It is a book for the public so it's okay that it's shallow and inaccurate -- where it isn't inaccurate, it's incorrect. When I first read it, it ignited my rather limited imagination. I had been chasing Houdini's secrets for about five years. I read and reread the book and thought, "that settles that." The degree to which that DIDN'T settle that may be seen in Houdini--the Key. When one friend was debating whether to buy Houdini--the Key pre-publication, he emailed me "How was it better than "Houdini's Fabulous Magic." I don't want to say who it was (Leo Hevia) but I sputtered out (hard to sputter by email) "you can't compare Houdini--the Key with THAT!" But, really, it was the most exciting Houdini book for Houdini buffs in it's day.

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    1. Thanks Pat. Great info. Of course, Houdini The Key is now THE book for Houdini's secrets. But before that, this was the book I trusted, although I always knew we weren't getting it all.

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  4. Thanks for remembering me Patrick! Yeah, I was foolish enough to even think those old books were accurate. I learned my lesson and have remained repentant. The Dover Cannell book, the Gibson books and Fabulous Magic were pretty much all that was out there for a kid in the 1970s. Go easy on us.

    The worst explanation for the Vanishing Elephant has to be in J.C. Cannell's Secrets of Houdini book. The pachyderm walks into a sub cabinet hidden in the back. You bet. And can opener for the Russian carette?

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    1. Did cutting through the floor of the carette first appear in Cannell? I thought that was one that came from Houdini himself.

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  5. The Master Magicians was the Gibson book where he revealed the workings of the WTC not Houdinis Fabulous Magic. My error. Look on pages 182-183. Perry from NJ.

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    1. Ah, thanks Perry. I thought I was crazy.

      I had no idea Gibson revealed the USD in The Master Magicians. Wow. I'll have to check that out. I really thought that was one secret that had been kept (until Pat's book, that is).

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  6. The escape from the carette is described on page 91 in Gresham and 144 in Cannell's book. Gresham mentions the can opener and Cannell describes the tool as some type of zinc cutter. Before the Cannell book, I have no idea where the floor theory first appeared.

    You know something John, the fact that Gibson had already revealed the secret to the USD in The Master Magicians merits a blog entry of it's own. I wasn't aware either.

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    1. Yes, it does merit a blog entry, but I need to get the book. :)

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  7. There was another book I read where a one - two sentence explanation was given as to how Houdini escaped from the WTC. I know John does not like secrets being revealed so I will paraphrase......it eluded to the mechanism that locked the lid to the case.......... Unfortunately I forget what book revealed this information. Perry from NJ.

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  8. I've told this story before but I was lucky to be able to prove out Gibsons explanation of how Houdini escaped from the WTC. Back in the mid 80s I vacationed in Niagra Falls and visited the Houdini museum just as they opened and before security cameras were turned on. I was able to scamper under the baracade and climb upon the small table the WTC sat upon. To my amazement the gaff was not locked but instead moved freely (although it took effort). I remember sweat pouring down my face as I was so excited about examining the cell up close and also nervous at any time I would be observed. Today I am sad I was to nervous to take a photo of the gaff so I could better remember minute details. Anyway it was one of my great life events.....something I only dreamed of doing but indeed it became reality. How many others have been able to examine the WTC as I did? Anyone have an idea?

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    1. So how did you know what to look for? Did you read it in The Master Magicians?

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  9. On page 192 of HFM [grey cover], it appears to reveal the secret for a late version of the USD.

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    1. You're right. It does reveal it. My bad. But not the full details of the mechanism, as in Pat's books.

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  10. Once I saw the explanation of the WTC escape in my copy of the master magicians I just assumed this was where I saw it. I think if you combine the brief explanation in HFM and the longer explanation within TMM you get the full picture as to the mechanics of the secret. I knew this going into my visit to the Houdini museum at Niagra Falls so I had a good idea where the gaff was. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would not be locked and would slide open as it did.

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  11. Both the Master Magicians and Houdini's Fabulous Magic get a very basic part of the secret entirely wrong. Sid Radner wasn't happy about either book exposing the Torture Cell, but, Walter had ghosted Sid's books for him and Sid had to forgive him. He told me the books were in print before he knew Walter exposed the Torture Cell.

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  12. Based upon my examination of the WTC Gibsons explanation of its secret was spot on. His phrase "drawer fashion" was what was on my mind as I proded the cell for its secret.

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  13. So after all this, is Cullitons book regarded as giving the best explanation of how it works??????

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    1. Oh, yes, Pat's book shows you exactly how it worked, with photos.

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  14. I've been re-reading certain parts of HFM, thanks to John, and the chapter on the Vanishing Elephant is not that far off. Gibson mentions the magician's Phantom Tube principle at work and this is basically correct. And get this: The Hippodrome stage was so large, it made the cabinet that vanished the elephant look smaller than it really was. Scale can play tricks on the eyes and mind.

    Here's what I'm wondering: Houdini presented the elephant vanish with a smaller elephant to help promote his films, Beyond and Haldane, at the openings. What was the method for those vanishes? Same as the Hippodrome?

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