Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Mystifier, First Quarter 1995

Continuing my issue by issue look back at the Mystifier, the newsletter of the Houdini Historical Center that ran from 1991-2003.


The First Quarter 1995 Mystifier begins with an excerpt from the transcript of Houdini's 1926 Congressional testimony. HHC curator Benjamin Filene credits the transcript having been uncovered by HHC member Paul Rosen at the Library of Congress. It's interesting to see that Houdini cites Sarah Winchester of Winchester Mystery House fame in his list of people he believes were ruined by their devotion to Spiritualism. Houdini states:

In my 35 years I have never seen one genuine medium. Millions of dollars are stolen every year in America, and the Government have never paid any attention to it, because they look upon it as a religion. Sara Winchester spent $5,000,000; the celebrated judge of New York, Edmonds, spent all his fortune; Professor Hare, of Yale College, heard voices and saw forms, and stated a lead pencil stood upright on the table and wrote messages, and answered questions.

Wisconsin researcher and writer Larry Widen contributes a very well researched article called "Houdini in Milwaukee: The Forgotten Years." I was impressed that Widen mentions Harry and Bessie's 1897 tour as part of "Rogers Orpheum Stars", which is rarely mentioned in biographies. But most intriguing is his paragraph about the magic show young Ehrich Weiss witnessed in Milwaukee:

One evening in 1895, an elegantly garbed gentleman was working on stage at a Milwaukee dime museum. Billed as "The Bloodless Vivisectionist" he produced a series of gleaming, wicked-looking knives and proceeded to dismember a living human being before the audience's eyes. With a flourish, the man then replaced his victims limbs and head, apparently none the worse for wear. Eleven-year-old Ehrich Weiss sat spellbound through this performance. He had never seen magic combined with this caliber of showmanship. Houdini later cited the vivisectionist's performance in Milwaukee as a primary inspiration for becoming a magician.

Notice he does not identify the performer, and that he locates it in a Dime Museum. This is very different from the accepted story of Houdini's father taking him to see the celebrated Dr. Lynn at the local Opera House. In his notes, Widen lists a clipping for "Litt's Mammoth Dime Museum" in the Milwaukee Sentinel for February 22, 1885, which is presumably his source for this performer. This appears to corroborate the recent thinking that it was not Dr. Lynn that young Ehrich Weiss saw that day in Milwaukee.

The newsletter includes a museum shop update, announcing the availability of Benjilini on Houdini. It also notes that HHC Executive Director Donald Hoke has accepted a new position in Dallas.

Sid Radner devotes his "Backstage" column to his recent trip to Las Vegas, where he reports that he saw Dixie Dooley and the Harry Blackstone Jr. show (Siegfried & Roy and Lance Burton's were dark during the Christmas season). He also makes a pitch for artifact donations to the HHC.

Sid finishes with "Houdini in the News" in which he reports that Wisconsin Public Television will feature the HHC and the Harry Houdini Assembly of the Society of Young Magicians on the children's program Get Real. He says that a reproduction Houdini bust and Water Torture Cell poster will appear as props in upcoming episodes of The Bold and the Beautiful set inside Houdini's house.

Sid also has a clever new sign-off: "Until next time, keep opening those locks."

Mystifier
Volume 5, Number 1
First Quarter, 1995
6 pages

Contents:
Houdini Testifies Before Congress
Limited Edition at Museum Shop
Houdini's Years in Milwaukee
HHC Executive Director Moves to Dallas
Houdini in the News
Backstage with Sid Radner

PREVIOUS ISSUE | INDEX | NEXT ISSUE

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Monday, September 24, 2018

Jaguar Houdini commercial

Here's commercial for Jaguar featuring Houdini posted to the rights clearing company website Greenlight. (Just don't tell them Houdini wasn't a car guy.)
Below are more adventures in Houdini advertising.

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Sunday, September 23, 2018

A Master Mystery UCLA print update

Today I can offer an update on The Master Mystery print held at UCLA Film & Television Archive. If you recall, Joe Notaro and I recently visited UCLA's Powell Library and viewed the movie in their Media Lab. While the (almost) complete movie is a revelation, the old VHS viewing copies were in bad shape, with the machine eating one tape and the second not playing at all. There was also a question regarding UCLAs ability to license the print for any potential restoration, and the mystery of where the print came from in the first place. Happily, I now have answers

Last week Joe and I returned to UCLA and viewed brand new DVDs made from the old VHS tapes. Yes, that means these precious images are now preserved as digital files. I was now able to view Episode 11 (missing from Kino), and it proved to be another fantastic installment. Joe and I agreed that this episode had the best fight scenes of the entire movie, with Houdini squaring off in an extended battle with the lead thug who menaces him throughout the movie. I especially like that Houdini is dressed in tuxedo tails during the fisticuffs.

As to the origin of the print and the question of licensing, an old friend and rare magic book dealer John Cannon of Aladdin Books gave Joe and I the scoop over lunch following the Magic Castle swap meet in Hollywood a few weeks back. (He also sold me Edward Saint's own copy of Houdini's Paper Magic, so it was a good lunch!)


Turns out the 16mm print was part of the collection of John Hampton, who ran The Silent Movie Theater in West Hollywood for many years. It was here that Patrick Culliton saw the entire serial twice in the late 1950s and early '60s, an experience he never forgot. But Hampton contracted lung cancer from his hours working with the chemicals involved in film restoration, and mounting debt forced him to sell off 3/4 of his collection, including The Master Mystery, to David Packard of the Hewlett-Packard empire. John Hampton died in early 1990 at the age of 83.

But the movie had landed at an excellent home. David Packard is a passionate champion of film preservation via his Packard Humanities Institute. The Institute works with the UCLA Film & Television Archive, who hold hundreds of films on their behalf. A full list of those films on the Packard website shows The Master Mystery as one of their "works in progress." The film had also arrived not a moment too soon. The original 16mm print was showing signs of vinegar syndrome, so a preservation negative was created, saving the film.


So there doesn't appear to be any contractual impediment to using this print for the purposes of a full restoration, but one would need to approach the Packard Institute, not UCLA. I've also learned that the library of the Douris Corporation, who own the print used for the McIlhany/Kino restoration (which has two chapters missing from UCLA/Packard), was sold to Cohen Media Group in 2011, so there's a new player in the game.

However, the overall quality of the UCLA/Packard print is a reality that hit me on this second viewing. While it's true the print is free of significant film damage, it is from a 16mm source, so it is not nearly as sharp as what one sees on Kino, which I suspect came from 35mm. In fact, it could be that Bill McIlhany, who certainly must have known about the UCLA print, decided to use the less complete Douris print precisely because the image quality was so much better. So any combined restoration would require some serious work to improve the image quality of the UCLA print, and that might be a big job. So there would need to be the money, the will, and the expertise to take on this task.

But the good news is the negative is safe, the movie is available for anyone to watch at UCLA on DVD, and Houdini's complete Master Mystery survives as we approach its 100th anniversary. A happy ending.


Thanks to Maya Smukler of UCLA, John Cannon of Aladdin Books, Joe Notaro of HHCE, and Joe Fox. Also thanks to the helpful student staff at the UCLA Media Lab.

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Saturday, September 22, 2018

Daniel Stashower on his Harry Houdini Mysteries

Today is author Daniel Stashower's birthday. To mark the occasion, Mr. Media has re-tweeted this excellent 2012 interview in which the author discusses his Harry Houdini Mysteries as well as Sherlock Holmes. Enjoy. And Happy Birthday, Daniel!



As mentioned in the interview, Mr. Media has also interviewed Paul Michael Glaser. You can also search and find interviews with Milt Larsen and Larry "Ratso" Sloman.

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Friday, September 21, 2018

Let's nominate The Grim Game to the National Film Registry

Every year the National Film Preservation Board at the Library of Congress selects 25 films to showcase the range and diversity of American film heritage and increase awareness for its preservation. The public can suggest which films they think are worthy by nominating up to 50 films.

So let's get a Houdini movie in the mix! Heck, with 50 choices, we can nominate all of Houdini's movies. But let's at least be uniform in nominating what most consider his best film, The Grim Game (1919).

Here's how to do it:

  • Click to visit the 2018 National Film Registry Nomination Form.
  • You will be asked for your email address and how you heard about the site (feel free to say you heard about them from Wild About Harry).
  • You'll then have the opportunity to nominate up to 50 films, listing each by title and year.
  • Please enter The Grim Game as the title and 1919 as the year. 
  • If you'd like to list his other films, they are: The Master Mystery (1918);  Terror Island (1920); The Man From Beyond (1922); Haldane of the Secret Service (1923). I also entered the Tony Curtis biopic Houdini (1953), because there's a lot to recommend that film as choice example of American cinema.

Thanks for your support and feel free to spread the word! It would be terrifc to see The Grim Game or any Houdini movie make the 2018 list.

Speaking of The Grim Game, I will be showing the film along with giving a talk about Houdini in cinema at the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore on November 4. Click for details.

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Thursday, September 20, 2018

Houdini vs. Boudini: The forgotten challenge

This is an encore post from November 16, 2010 (one of my very first posts here on WILD ABOUT HARRY). I thought this was worth a revisit as today marks the 113th anniversary of the Houdini-Boudini challenge.

Houdini and Boudini.
From Houdini The Key by Patrick Culliton.
One of the more curious and obscure episodes in Houdini's early career was his encounter with rival escape artist, Jacques Boudini. Many cast skepticism on this "challenge," suspecting the entire thing was staged, and it very well could have been. Houdini was not above staging such encounters for publicity, and the fact that the newspaper men on the scene didn't entirely buy it could explain why Houdini never retold this story or featured it in pitchbooks, the way he boasted of besting other rivals like Cirnoc and Kleppini.

It was Milbourne Christopher who brought this episode back to life in his 1969 biography, Houdini The Untold Story. In 2006's The Secret Life of Houdini, authors Kalush and Sloman also relate the event, adding that Boudini was a "pupil" of Houdini's gone rogue. (They also note this is the earliest record of Houdini releasing himself from shackles while underwater.) Patrick Culliton tells me he "nursed a theory for years" that Jacques Boudini was actually Jacob Hyman, Houdini's first partner in the Brothers Houdini. But Pat surrendered this theory when he finally uncovered a photograph of Houdini and Boudini, which is reproduced in his book, Houdini The Key. [Update: He now believes Boudini may have been Leonard Hicks.]

One of my first forays into independent research (when I was 16) was to use the clues in Christopher to search the microfilm archives at Cal State University Northridge for an account of this event. What I found was this terrific article from the New York Times dated September 21, 1905 (which mistakenly calls him Bondini). I've transcribed it below so we can all relive this forgotten challenge exactly as it happened back in the day. It's Houdini vs. Boudini (or Bondini). Enjoy!

New York Times
September 21, 1905

A SHACKLE BREAKING MATCH UNDER WATER 
Contestants Dived 30 Feet with Wrists and Ankles Bound

ONE WAS NEARLY DROWNED

A Case of Professional Jealousy Between Houdini and Bondini, the Press Agent Says – Houdini Won.

Landlubbers with fertile brains encroached upon the field of the marine yarn spinners yesterday with a performance that transcended anything they had ever thought of. The performance was real enough while it lasted, two minutes and forty seconds. In those two minutes and forty seconds it looked as though Jacques Bondini, who had gone down to the bottom of the harbor, (the bottom was thirty feet down,) was likely not only to break the literal shackles which bound him, but the shackles of life as well.

The performance needs further explanation. Those who witnessed it were still explaining at midnight, with no satisfactory solution in sight. The facts are these:

Harry Houdini, the "sensational perplexer and mysteriarch," professional shackle and handcuff breaker, had made a wager with Jacques Bondini that he could break manacles from his hands and ankles quicker than he. Houdini has been abroad startling Kings with his performances of handcuff breaking and making them wonder what to do next with their criminals. When recently Houdini returned to this country he found that Bondini, his erstwhile pupil, was usurping his field here. That's the story as the press agent tells it. At all events Houdini challenged Bondini to a shackle-breaking match under water. The victor was to get $500.

A group of newspaper men and artists went to Atlantic Basin on the tug Fred B. Dalzell to see the performance. The Captain of the tug is John Gannon, and the contestants made him referee.

In the Basin Capt. Gannon tied fast to a float.

The two shackle-breaking artists stripped for the contest. Houdini wore tights under his clothing. Bondini did not.

Both men were shackled in five minutes. Hand and ankle cuffs were fastened about the arms and ankles of both. Then ropes were fastened about their waists and they were lowered into the water.

There was a silence as thick as a fog aboard the Dalzell. It lasted one minute and thirty seconds, but that seemed an eternity to the watchers. Then a head appeared above the waves. It was that of Houdini. He spat out brine for a second and shouted:

"Is Bondini up yet?"

"No!" chorused the crowd on deck.

Houdini stuck his hands above water to show that he had freed them of the shackles and disappeared again.

A minute later the head of Bondini appeared above the water. He looked gloomy, and it was obvious that he was not having any luck. He was down again in a minute.

In another minute and ten seconds the head of Houdini appeared.

"Is Bondini up yet?" he asked.

The answer was discouraging, so far as Bondini was concerned, but encouraging for Houdini. Houdini went down a third time, but not until he had stuck one foot above water to show that he had unfastened his ankle bracelets, too.

Houdini came to the surface again in a minute and motioned to be pulled up on deck. Then the men holding the rope to which Bondini was tied got busy.

More dead than alive, he was hauled on board. He had to be rolled and rubbed before he came to. He had failed to unfasten either the handcuffs or the ankle bracelets.

"I swallowed some water," was only explanation.

The Dalzell then steamed back to the Battery. The principals went to 40 Greenwich Street, where it was said the money would be turned over to Houdini. Nobody saw it, but the press agent said he would surely get the $500.

The question which the skeptical were asking last night was:

"Was Bondini merely a dummy intended to show off the skill of Houdini?"

Nobody answered except the press agent.

"The real thing," said he.

UPDATE: Boudini is Back!

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Houdini takes on the truant officer

Here's an interesting item from the October 21, 1911 Buffalo Courier. It appears Houdini took offense to the idea of truant children being manacled, and this is an effective way to use his fame to call out that cruel policy. Go Harry.


One wonders if part of Houdini's feelings here are rooted in any experience he had with truant officers during his own runaway years.

Related:

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Escaping from Houdini by Kerri Maniscalco

Escaping from Houdini, the latest YA history mystery thriller by Kerri Maniscalco is released today.

The #1 New York Times bestselling series that started with Stalking Jack the Ripper and Hunting Prince Dracula continues in this third bloody installment! A luxurious ocean liner becomes a floating prison of madness and horror when passengers are murdered one by one...with nowhere to run from the killer.

Audrey Rose Wadsworth and her partner-in-crime-investigation, Thomas Cresswell, are en route to New York to help solve another blood-soaked mystery. Embarking on a week-long voyage across the Atlantic on the opulent RMS Etruria, they're delighted to discover a traveling troupe of circus performers, fortune tellers, and a certain charismatic young escape artist entertaining the first-class passengers nightly.

But then, privileged young women begin to go missing without explanation, and a series of brutal slayings shocks the entire ship. The disturbing influence of the Moonlight Carnival pervades the decks as the murders grow ever more freakish, with nowhere to escape except the unforgiving sea. It's up to Audrey Rose and Thomas to piece together the gruesome investigation as even more passengers die before reaching their destination. But with clues to the next victim pointing to someone she loves, can Audrey Rose unravel the mystery before the killer's horrifying finale?.

Escaping from Houdini can be purchased on Amazon.com (U.S.) and Amazon.co.uk (UK). Below are a few more fictional shipboard adventures of Houdini.

Related:

Monday, September 17, 2018

Diggers Rest historians hold fundraiser to buy Houdini rarity


Australia's Star Weekly reports that Diggers Rest historians are holding a fundraiser to secure a local autograph book containing a rare signed photo of Houdini.

The autograph book is from 1910 and has been in the family of Toolern Vale resident Wayne Johnson for more than a century. Mr. Johnson says the autograph book had been passed down to his wife, Kay, from her great-grandmother.

"Kay's great-grandmother used to live in a hotel and she used to collect the signatures of people who came into the hotel," Johnson told the Star. "A lot of the other entries in there are signed, 'a member of the Houdini company', which also helps to verify the authenticity of Houdini himself's signature."

Houdini spent four months touring Australia in early 1910. During this time he made the first successful airplane flight on the continent on March 18 at Diggers Rest.

Diggers Rest History Project members put out a call for donations to help buy the autograph book from Mr. Johnson. They've raised about $1500 towards the $2000 goal. Johnson said he was keen to ensure that the book stayed "close to home".

"You can't put a value on this," he said. "It's been in the family for generations and I'd like it to stay in Diggers Rest."

The Diggers Rest History Project, which began in 2014, shares its collection of artifacts and historic documents with the community through Houdini's Cafe and the Diggers Rest Medical Centre.

To donate and for more information CLICK HERE.

Photo of Wayne Johnson and David O'Conner by Marco De Luca.

Related:

Sunday, September 16, 2018

New Italian Houdini biography by Massimo Polidoro

Codice in Italy has released Houdini, Mago dell'impossibile by Massimo Polidoro. This is an updated version of the biography originally published in 2001. This new edition runs 468 pages with dozens of photos and a 16-page insert of color photos as well.

Says Massimo, "I have tried to strictly adhere to Ken Silverman's scientific historian's approach… even though, here and there, I have also told some of the best "almost true" stories, but always clarifying that they were unproven or downright fabrications. I am very satisfied with the final result and I hope that Houdini buffs will like it and, above all, that it will help reach a new generation of readers that may have never heard of Houdini."

The book is in Italian, but Massimo says he and his publisher are considering some options for translations.

Purchase Houdini, Mago dell'impossibile at Amazon.it and Amazon.co.uk.

Related:

Another Houdini "instant biography" on Amazon

Amazon is listing yet another print-on-demand "instant biography" (is that a good name for these?) titled Harry Houdini: A Harry Houdini Biography by Phil Coleman. This one runs 107 pages with no photos.

I really don't know if I should be buying or even blogging about these books. They are not freshly researched biographies, nor do they appear to be written by people with any real interest in Houdini or even a point of view (I'm convinced the last one was written by a bot). These are whipped up with info found on the net, both good and bad, and seem created just to list on Amazon. This particular author is a self-publishing empire all his own, with many similar books on current events and conspiracies.

But maybe that's what makes these books worth getting? Are these unique products of this time? Will these become collectible like chapbooks are now, or will they be considered junk of the early days of print-on-demand publishing? I really don't know. But I do know they shouldn't be purchased for the purpose of learning about Houdini. There are many other better books for that.

Having said all that, you can buy Harry Houdini: A Harry Houdini Biography by Phil Coleman at Amazon.com (U.S.) and Amzon.co.uk (UK).

Related:

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Europe's Eclipsing Sensation: 1900 to 1905

Today I'm sharing a new block of preview years from The New Houdini Chronology: 1900 to 1905. These are the years that saw Houdini's breakout fame as the "King of Handcuffs and World Champion Jail Breaker" across England, Germany, France, Holland, and Russia.

As a bonus, I've also included the massive "A.D." page that tracks the amazing afterlife of Houdini from 1927 to the present.

You now access the chronology via a standalone webpage HERE. I'm no longer offering the entire chronology online as I'm working toward publishing it as a book. But if you ever need any specific information related to a date not currently previewed, feel free to get in touch.

I hope you enjoy this latest peek inside The New Houdini Chronology.

Related:

Friday, September 14, 2018

The Rise of Houdini: Haunted Burlesque & Seance

This Halloween marks the 92nd anniversary of Houdini's death, and the October events are starting to roll in! Here's an event that sounds like fun on October 26 & 27 with the Experience Theatre Project in Beaverton, Oregon. I know this is an early alert, but according to their Facebook page, it is already 50% sold out.

The RISE of Houdini 
Un Burlesque Effrayant & Seance
to Raise The Great Houdini

led by Necromancer Extraordinare
Professor DR Schreiber 
LADIES will perform frightening yet tantilizing burlesque!
WITNESS the Mesmeric Seance that Calls to Houdini!
GHOSTS WILL RISE from nowhere! 
Uncanny! Unearthly! Unbelievable! Extraordinary! 
TWO NIGHTS ONLY! 
Friday and Saturday, October 26-27, 2018
The Haunted Lodge at 4690 SW Watson Avenue, Beaverton, OR 
6PM Cocktail Party with Gourmet Hors D'eouvres prepared by Italian Chef Renato Solpietro from Napoli, Italy
7PM Haunted Burlesque feat. Lacy Knickers and Nina Nightshade. Dessert served.
8PM SEANCE to raise the dead and The Great Houdini 
Special appearances by James Luster and Janice Moss, last seen in ETP's immersive production of The Mousetrap as Det. Sgt. Trotter and Mrs. Boyle. 
A DARK, HAUNTED EVENING NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART 
Dressing in the Fashion of 1928 Recommended But Not Required 
An over 21 event. This is a theatrical performance, not an actual demonstration of dark arts.

You can buy tickets to The RISE of Houdini via Eventbright. For more information visit the official website.

Related:

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Final days to see 'Summer of Magic' at New-York Historical Society

The New-York Historical Society's exhibition Summer of Magic: Treasures from the David Copperfield Collection is coming to a close this Sunday, September 16. The exhibition features rare artifacts from the Golden Age of Magic, including Houdini's Milk Can, Metamorphosis trunk, straitjacket, Bess's stage coat, and the Mirror Handcuffs (first time the cuffs have been displayed publicly in 20 years). If you haven't seen it, now's your last chance!

This final weekened will also feature a reappearance of Houdini himself a.k.a. Duffy Hudson. Below are details.

Meet Summer of Magic’s Closing Act: Harry Houdini!
FEATURING: Duffy Hudson
Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018 | 11:00 am - 4:00 pm
Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018 | 11:00 am - 4:00 pm
Free with Museum Admission
Don’t miss the final weekend of our Summer of Magic, and your last chance to shake hands with Harry Houdini—that is, if his arms aren’t stuck in a straitjacket or handcuffs! Marvel as Houdini, portrayed by Duffy Hudson, shares his incredible life story, performs illusions with playing cards, and manages to swallow—gulp—sharp needles! Click for more info.

Visit The New-York Historical Society's website for location and hours.


Related:

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Houdini in 1904

The culmination of Houdini's European adventures and his reign as "The Handcuff King" came in 1904. The year would see him perform the greatest challenge handcuff escape of his career. It was also a unique year in that he only performed in a single country; the United Kingdom.

Houdini began the new year in Glasgow, a city that impressed him with its seven music halls "all doing well." He then moved onto the Empire Palace of Varieties in Sheffield. It was here on January 19 that he escaped from a jail cell that had once held murderer Charles Peace. This was actually the second Peace associated cell he had escaped; the first being in Leeds in 1902.

February found Houdini in Liverpool where he escaped from a jail cell and shackles in the city's local police station. A jail break from the South Shields Central police station followed. Houdini then finished up at the Empire in Birmingham. From there he informed the readers of his Dramatic Mirror column that, by his count, some 72 American acts were currently playing England. "This is certainly an American Invasion," he wrote.

Houdini returned to London in March where he would spend six weeks at the Hippodrome Theater. "Talk about being billed big," he crowed. "You ought to see London and look about. Nothing on the walls but Houdini!" At the photography studios of Campbell & Grey, he took a new series of publicity photos showing him in tux and tails and loaded down with multiple pairs of handcuffs and leg-irons. With his piercing grey eyes and wavy black hair, the images would become iconic.

It was at the London Hippodrome during a matinee performance on March 17 that Houdini accepted a challenge from the London Daily Mirror newspaper to escape a handcuff that had, reportedly, taken a Birmingham locksmith five years to manufacture. The complex Bramah lock contained six tumblers and was said to be unpickable. Today we call this the "Mirror Handcuff Challenge," but at the time it was heralded as "The Great Handcuff Contest."

The dramatic escape took over 90 minutes and was replete with moments of on-stage drama, such as when Houdini used a penknife to cut off his coat. When he finally emerged from his "ghost house" free of the formidable manacle, he broke down and wept as he was paraded on the shoulders of the cheering audience.

How exactly Houdini escaped from the truly inescapable Mirror Cuffs is still debated today. Over the years various theories and scenarios have been put forth, including a story from Will Goldstone that Bess had to plead the key out of the Mirror representative and passed it to her trapped husband in a glass of water. But today most believe that Houdini colluded with the paper in arranging the challenge from the very start, and even had a hand in the manufacture of the Mirror cuff itself. His struggle was pure showmanship. But the truth is no one knows for certain exactly how Houdini beat the legendary handcuff.

Houdini being locked into the Mirror Handcuffs, March 17, 1904.

Houdini became ill during his final week at the Hippodrome. The exact nature of his illness is unknown, but it was serious enough for a doctor to order 12 days of bed rest and for Houdini to listen. He cancelled advanced bookings in Newcastle. "First time I ever disappointed," he wrote in his diary. But Houdini still found the strength to visit the home of Henry Evans Evanion, where he marveled at the old magician's magic collection and purchased some select treasures for his own. His brother Dash and the doctor found him at 3AM and dragged him back to his hotel.

Houdini appears to have recovered by April 15 when he escaped from a jail cell at the Vine Street police station in London. He then set out to play the provinces. In Sheffield he met a young superfan named Randolph Douglas, a.k.a. "Randini." The two struck up a correspondence that would run for years. While Houdini was performing in Brighton, the Daily Mirror presented him with a solid silver replica of the Mirror Cuffs, engraved with the date and details of the escape. (Today both the original cuff and silver replica are owned by David Copperfield.)

At 30-years old, Houdini was now earning up to $2000 a week ($57,000 in 2018 money), and he begin to enjoy his wealth. He took to wearing a diamond shirt stud and purchased a 14hp Humber Tourist Car, which he claimed to have entered into several auto races. Evidence of this racing career is scant, but there is a well-known photo of Houdini and Martin Beck ("my erstwhile manager") enjoying the new car with a well-appointed Bess in the back seat with their dog Charlie.


On May 27, Houdini set sail for New York aboard the Deutschland for what would be his first real vacation in years. Martin Beck made the return trip with him, upgrading the Houdinis to First Class. Beck offered him $10,000 to play engagements in the U.S., but Houdini uncharacteristically turned the work down. It was time to rest.

If the Mirror challenge was seminal career event of 1904, then this trip home was the most impactful event for him personally. It was more than a vacation. It was time he used to reflect on his past and prepare for the future.

Laying off for three months, Houdini enjoyed his family, taking new portrait photos with all his brothers. He and Dash then travelled to Appleton to visit the scenes of their childhood. Here Houdini was interviewed by Edna Ferber in front of a drugstore on College Avenue. The interview, which ran in the Appleton Evening Crescent on July 21, said Houdini had just paid a visit to his father's old office "where I used to get my spankings." Bess didn't accompany him on the trip, and when he returned to New York, she met him at the 42nd Street Station. "She looks a treat in her pale blue dress," he wrote in his diary that night. "Am certainly pleased to see her. I missed her on my trip."

On August 11, Houdini purchased a large brownstone at 278 W 113th Street in a German enclave of lower Harlem. This would be the new Weiss family home. Into it he moved his mother, sister, and brother Leopold, who would set up his medical practice inside the parlor. He also bought a farm in Connecticut and a new family plot at Machpelah Cemetery in Queens. There he relocated the bodies of his father, grandmother and half-brother Herman. While doing so, he had their caskets opened so he could examine their remains. "Saw what was left of poor father and Herman," he wrote in his diary. "Nothing but skull and bones. Herman's teeth were in splendid condition."

Having secured his family in life and death, Harry and Bess returned to England. There he found himself embroiled in a conflict with his former employer, Moss and Thornton. Houdini's English agent, Harry Day, had negotiated lucrative new contracts for him across England. But the Moss chain claimed they still held an option on his services and tried to get an injunction against his appearance. The matter went to court and was decided in Houdini's favor "without my representative speaking one word." In retaliation, Moss and Thornton hired Frank Hilbert to do an imitation and exposure of Houdini's act, sometimes booking him in direct opposition in the same town.

Success had certainly not mellowed Houdini's feelings about imitators. In late September he clashed with Carl Mysto (real name Sam Sterns). Houdini first met Mysto in 1902. "He was a tramp," Houdini wrote. "I gave him a pair of pants and a few old shirts and a half a dollar." Now Mysto was doing a coffin escape which, his manager claimed, was beyond Houdini's powers. He also said that, unlike Houdini, Mysto did not "talk endlessly of his triumphs." Houdini hired the man who made Mysto's coffin to make him a duplicate. He then exposed Mysto's method on stage in Salford and in the pages of the London Daily Mirror.

It was also in Salford that Houdini introduced a new original creation; The Prison Cell & Barrel Mystery. It was a fusion of his jail escapes and Metamorphosis, using a male assistant, Franz Kukol, instead of Bess for the climatic transposition. (It's possible the new effect was developed precisely because Bess wanted a break from the stage.) But it somehow lacked the power of Metamorphosis, and Houdini experimented with its presentation, sometimes doing it as a straight escape. Today it is best known for the handsome poster Houdini made to promote it during his UK tour.

The last part of the year found Houdini playing dates in Bristol, Liverpool, Halifax, Leeds, Newgate, Brighton, and finally the Grand Theater in Manchester. There's no record of how the Houdinis spent the last two weeks of December, but it's likely they spent the holidays back in London.

Humber photo from the Jim Rawlins collection. Houdini Dash pic is from my own collection. Thanks to Joe Notaro for helping date the Campbell & Grey pics.

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