Monday, March 25, 2019

Looking into the future...

Yesterday I retweeted the many Houdini birthday wishes (58) that crossed the various Twitter hashtags. Among them was this standout tweet from Howard Thurston expert and mega collector Rory Feldman who shared a gem from his collection. A great photo and a terrific inscription. Perhaps they are looking at us?


You can check out all the other birthday tweets @HoudiniWild.

Related:

Sunday, March 24, 2019

The Houdini birth year conundrum

Houdini buffs have long discussed the question of Houdini's two birthdays. While Houdini celebrated it on April 6, his birth certificate shows he was actually born March 24 (today!). In a letter to Hardeen, Houdini admitted that he celebrated his birthday on April 6 because that's when their mother would write to him. "As SHE always wrote me on April 6th, that will be my adopted birthdate."

But there's another mystery around Houdini's birth that never seems to get discussed. It's the question of why Houdini for the first half of his life claimed he was born in 1873 instead of 1874. When I first started encountering this 1873 date, I would chalk it up to a misprint or isolated error on Houdini's part. But I now see there is consistency in Houdini both using this date and calculating his age during these years. So it appears Houdini really believed he was born in 1873.

This has some interesting implications. Houdini thought he was a full year older during his formative years. So when he made the decision to leave his tie cutter job and begin a career as a magician, he thought he was 18. But he was 17. When he married Bess in 1894, he believed he was 21. He was 20.

So when did Houdini learn the truth?

On his May 26, 1900 passport application, Houdini records his birth year as 1873. But on his application for renewal filed April 15, 1903, he writes 1874 for what appears to be the first time. So what happened between these dates? One pretty significant thing; he went to Budapest.

I think it's possible Houdini discovered his true birth year from records or from relatives during his weekend visit to Budapest with his mother in 1901. However, in his pitchbook, The Life, History and Handcuff Secrets of Houdini, and in his first book, The Right Way To Do Wrong, both published in 1906, he once again gives his birth year as 1873.

The Right Way To Do Wrong (1906)

But the bigger mystery in all this is why Houdini believed his birth year was 1873 in the first place.

Before I get too deep into the weeds, I need to acknowledge that it could be just an honest mistake. I know it's hard for us to conceive this kind of mistake today, but the Weiss family grew up in a very different world, one without easily accessible records, and dates would be what one recorded yourself or could remember. And when having a child a year, birthdays and even birth years could be confused. Or it could be Houdini, who we know was famously bad at recording dates, was even worse than we think!

But if it was an honest mistake discovered in 1901, why does Houdini continue to use the wrong date in his publicity material? This suggests there might be something more to this.

Now, I do have a theory that gets us into some pretty provocative territory. These are thoughts I've had for a while, but have not shared. This is pure wild speculation on my part, but hear me out.

Houdini's sister Gladys once stated that Houdini/Ehrich was named after an earlier baby who had died. This remarkable claim appears in a letter she wrote to Bess in 1936, reproduced in full in The Houdini Birth Research Committee's Report (1972). She writes:

There was an infant son Ehrich of our household, at that time. This babe through a fall, died and broke the hearts of both our parents. Both of them said, if ever another son were to be their blessing, his name would be Ehrich.

No other evidence of this earlier Ehrich has surfaced, and in the next sentence Gladys says Houdini was born in Appleton. So she might be doing some myth making here. But it seems odd for her to be doing so with Bess, and she also writes, "I'm sure you have heard mother tell you all this before." So this seems like information that was well known among family members.

So if we take Gladys' word for it, could this earlier Ehrich have been born in 1873? Could he have been born on April 6, 1873!? Could Houdini's mother have confused the birth years of the two Ehrichs? Or, and this is where it starts to get strange, could the heartbroken Cecilia have been such a believer in reincarnation (as Houdini later said he was) that she decided her new Ehrich was the old Ehrich and that he was spiritually "born" in 1873 and wanted to honor that.

In the same letter that Houdini admits to April 6 being his "adopted birthday", he writes: "It hurts me to think I can't talk it over with Darling Mother." Could his mother's clinging to the trauma of the earlier Ehrich and her strange transference onto Houdini be what they needed to "talk over"?

This also helps explain the pitchbook and The Right Way To Do Wrong. Having discovered the truth in 1901, Houdini recorded his real birth year in official records. But for the public record, one that his mother might read, it remained 1873 for HER. Tellingly, the 1914 edition of his pitchbook, published after her death, his birth year is updated to 1874.

Is your head swimming yet? Here's one final bit of Freud for you.

If there was an earlier Ehrich who died in an accident, might it explain the extreme attachment Cecilia had for her second Ehrich. Might it also explain Houdini's drive to become a "death defier" -- compulsively acting out his own death and resurrection to delight his mother and heal the grief caused by "his" original failure to escape death. Recall his famous diary entry after his Rochester bridge jump in 1907: "Ma saw me jump!" Might this be the key to Houdini's psyche?

Anyway, on his 145th birthday today (or is it 146?), I just thought I'd share my thoughts on yet another delightfully mysterious aspect in the delightfully mysterious life of the great Harry Houdini.

Happy birthday Harry!

Related:

Friday, March 22, 2019

Houdini in the rapids

Here's a terrific photo of Houdini shooting The Man From Beyond on the rapids of the Niagara River. This comes from the April 15, 1922 Motion Picture News. I've never seen this shot.


What excites me here is the bridge visible in the background with what appears to be people watching the shoot. This is not seen in the film. Indeed, in the movie there are no clear landmarks to tell us exactly where Houdini filmed these scenes. But this bridge is a landmark! Unfortunately, I've not been able to identify it. But if we could, we could potentially zero in on the exact spot where Houdini took his famous rapids ride.

So does anyone recognize "Houdini Bridge"?

Related:

Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Textbook turns 50

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Houdini The Untold Story by Milbourne Christopher, or what I like to call "the Textbook." It appeared in stores on March 21, 1969. My appreciation and admiration for this book just continues to grow.

It is a straightforward factual narrative devoid of padding: no "secrets", no unconvincing imaginary conversations, no scene-painting. But packed with solid authentic detail as the book is, Mr. Christopher with his delightfully lucid and objective style of writing contrives to make it compelling and enthralling reading none the less. 
-Baryard Brimsaw (About Magicians)

You can read my 2013 deep dive into the publication history of Houdini The Untold Story HERE.

Related:

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Dover reprints The Right Way To Do Wrong

Today Dover releases a new reprint of Houdini's first book, The Right Way to Do Wrong. Dover has a long tradition of releasing Houdini titles. They've kept The Secrets of Houdini and Houdini on Magic in print for decades, and last year released Houdini's Paper Magic. So it's fun to see them keeping the tradition alive. Nice cover as well!

With this remarkable book, the legendary magician conducts a master class in crime by revealing the trade secrets of crooks. Harry Houdini is known not only as an illusionist and escaper of handcuffs and jail cells, but also as a debunker of phony spiritualists and other charlatans. His interest in exposing fakery led Houdini to interview both police and criminals around the world. The result is this captivating volume, intended to help readers avoid being victimized by pickpockets, con artists, and other thieves. 

Purchase Dover's The Right Way to Do Wrong on Amazon.com (U.S.) and Amazon.co.uk (UK).

UPDATE: I have my copy in hand and just a heads up that this is a mere slip of a book without the original book's frontispiece photo of Houdini or any of the original illustrations, which is disappointing.

Related:

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Spectacle of Illusion by Matthew Tompkins

The Spectacle of Illusion: Deception, Magic and the Paranormal by Matthew Tompkins is a new book to be published in conjunction with the exhibition Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic, which runs April 11 through September 15 at the Wellcome Collection in London.

In The Spectacle of Illusion, professional magician-turned experimental psychologist Dr. Matthew L. Tompkins investigates the arts of deception as practised and popularised by mesmerists, magicians and psychics since the early 18th century. Organised thematically within a broadly chronological trajectory, this compelling book explores how illusions perpetuated by magicians and fraudulent mystics can not only deceive our senses but also teach us about the inner workings of our minds. Indeed, modern scientists are increasingly turning to magic tricks to develop new techniques to examine human perception, memory and belief.

Beginning by discussing mesmerism and spiritualism, the book moves on to consider how professional magicians such as John Nevil Maskelyne and Harry Houdini engaged with these movements – particularly how they set out to challenge and debunk paranormal claims. It also relates the interactions between magicians, mystics and scientists over the past 200 years, and reveals how the researchers who attempted to investigate magical and paranormal phenomena were themselves deceived, and what this can teach us about deception. 
Highly illustrated throughout with entertaining and bizarre drawings, double-exposure spirit photographs and photographs of spoon-bending from hitherto inaccessible and un-mined archives, including the Wellcome Collection, the Harry Price Library, the Society for Physical Research, and last but not least, the Magic Circle’s closely guarded collection, the book also features newly commissioned photography of planchettes, rapping boards, tilting tables, ectoplasm, automata and illusion boxes. Concluding with a modern-day analysis of the science of magic and illusion, analysing surprisingly weird phenomena such as ideomotor action, sleep paralysis, choice blindness and the psychology of misdirection, this unnerving volume highlights how unreliable our minds can be, and how complicit they can be in the perpetuation of illusions.

The Spectacle of Illusion: Deception, Magic and the Paranormal is being published in a U.S. edition (picture above) from D.A.P., and a UK edition from Thames and Hudson. Amazon shows conflicting release dates, so I will leave it to you to purchase or pre-order or both!

For more information on the exhibition, visit the Wellcome Collection website.

Thanks to Rory Feldman for the alert.

Monday, March 18, 2019

HOUDINI FLIES!

At dawn on March 18, 1910, Harry Houdini made the first powered controlled flight of an aircraft on the continent of Australia. The historic flight occurred 109 year ago today in Diggers Rest near Melbourne. Click below to read the details of Houdini's historic flight in a post I wrote back in 2010 commemorating the 100th anniversary.



Related:

Saturday, March 16, 2019

The saga of Houdini's Film Developing Corporation


It doesn't get much attention in biographies, but the Film Developing Corporation, a.k.a. FDC, was a major part of Houdini's (and Hardeen's) life from 1916 to 1925. It also marked Houdini's entrance into the movie business, albeit behind the scenes. While the FDC is today forgotten, the building that housed it remains. But we'll get to that.

Houdini formed the Film Developing Corporation on September 25, 1916. Opening a film lab was, in theory, a good investment. Movies were exploding in popularity, and even threatened to supplant vaudeville. And here at last was a way for Houdini to earn a steady income without having to tour. There was a fair amount of competition. But the FDC promised a faster, cheaper process for developing motion picture film using machinery and chemicals worked out by an aniline dye expert named Gustav Dietz. This was at a time when most film developing was still done by hand.

The executive offices for the FDC were located at 22 West 42nd St. in New York, while the film plant itself was located across the river at 216-222 Weehawken Street in Hoboken, New Jersey. Houdini was President, Hardeen Vice President, and Alfred Davidson Secretary and Treasure. Houdini took his new role seriously enough that on his 1918 draft registration card he listed his profession as: "Actor / Manager, Film Factory."

The December 20, 1920 issue of Motion Picture News gave a nice description of the FDCs laboratory operations:

On the west shore of the Hudson not far from the center of Hoboken the laboratory of the Film Developing Corporation is running full blast. The laboratory under the direction of Messrs. Houdini, Hardeen and Davidson has forged ahead by its production of work of high quality until it occupies a position as one of the leaders in the fine film development.
Although the interior of all laboratories are much the same as far as equipment and procedia are concerned, the Film Development laboratory offers some refinements in these respects. Particularly impressive is the roominess of the separate departments. Instead of having many machines in a close space with little room for expansion, there is plenty of space in every direction.
In the printing room, for instance, there is room for 15 to 20 printing machines, and a like amount of spaciousness is found in the performing department. Three projectors, two Simplexes and a Baird, are used to prove each foot of film before being sent out.
But probably the most interesting parts of the Film Developing plant are the automatic developing machines. There are three of these automatics, a small negative machine and two mammoth positive machines. Through the use of these machines, it is possible to pass films from printing machines through the various developing and drying processes without being touched by the human hands. The drying drums are totally inclosed and fed with perfect conditioned air.
In personnel the laboratory is especially fortunate tin having workers long experienced in handling of film. Superintendent Flosse has been identified with laboratory practice for many years. Mr. Joseph Leighton is an expert negative developer. Miss Madelaine Keough is floor lady, and Miss Sohns is in charge of the printing department.
The Film Developing plant has been laid out for an ultimate capacity of 1,500,000 feet weekly.

Personnel and titles would change during the first few years of the company. Nathan Saland, who had experience running film labs, was brought in as Vice President and Hardeen became Secretary and Treasurer.

Houdini had convinced his brother to leave the stage to help run the business. Hardeen's true feelings about surrendering his successful stage career for a desk job are not known. But a profile of Hardeen in the "Equipment Services" column of Motion Picture News chirpily noted:

Mr. Hardeen's executive ability has had much to do with the success of the firm in which he is interested. His long experience in the stage has given him a personality which aids him in handling employees. And strange as it may seem to view of the fact that his present work is much less exhilarating that the one which made him famous he has become thoroughly absorbed in his laboratory and only on rare occasions such as benefits does he drop his robe of business and take up the secrets of tricks of the magician.

The FDC had some notable clients, including Famous Players Lasky who would later produce Houdini's The Grim Game and Terror Island. The FDC also developed First National's innovative newsreels called "Kinograms". When Houdini formed his own production company, the FDC did all the processing for his two feature films, The Man From Beyond and Haldane of the Secrets Service. According to "Houdini's Ghost" Patrick Culliton, the lab also pioneered the concept of "Film Dailies", turning around shot footage within 24 hours for the film company to review.

With Houdini at the helm, it should comes as no surprise that the FDC aggressively advertised themselves, primarily in trade publications. Below are two such ads from 1919 and 1923.


Unfortunately, the FDC was problematic almost from the start. Dietz's special chemicals proved highly corrosive to the machinery. The war also affected the supply of chemicals needed for the automatic developers, and "rather than chance it with results not quite up to the standard" they shut the machines down. Profits proved elusive. To cover mounting expenses, in 1921 Houdini created a real estate holding company called The Weehawken Street Corporation, naming Bess Vice President. Through it he purchased the building for $35,000 and then rented it back to the FDC for $541 a month. This accomplished little. As Ken Silverman noted in Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss, "Houdini was out of his depth in this financial wheeling-dealing."

Then there were the lawsuits. A former manager, Arnold de Biere, sued the company for $2600 in unpaid salary. The case was settled out of court for $2000. The FDC was also hit with an ugly lawsuit by rival Powers Film Products, who claimed, falsely, that the FDC was a foreign owned company. The charge made news causing deals to collapse and some customers to withhold payments, one for $8000. Houdini filed a $25,000 countersuit for damage to the company's reputation.

Among the FDC stockholders was magician Harry Kellar, who had cautioned Houdini early on "not to go too deep into it as you have worked too hard for your money to throw it away." Now Kellar grew concerned that if the FDC went bankrupt, he'd be held libel for its debts. Houdini persuaded him to not sell his 125 shares and granted him the power of attorney. "I'm not worried about losing my money in the FDC," he wrote to Kellar, "but would certainly worry about losing your friendship."


The FDC and Houdini soldiered on, expanding and installing new equipment in 1922. But business didn't improve, and the following year two shareholders filed a suit against Houdini and Hardeen for mismanaging the company.

The stress of the business took its toll on Hardeen who had to have surgery for ulcers. But even with the weight of the FDCs problems, Houdini still found time to tour, make movies, lecture, write books, and launch his campaign against fraudulent spirit mediums. But with Houdini's waining interest in even his own motion picture productions, in 1925 he at last threw in the towel.

In November 1925 Nathan Salad resigned as Vice President and set up his own Saland Film Laboratories. The Weehawken Street Corp. folded that same year, and the FDC appears to have remained in existence in name only. Houdini now used part of the building as his workshop. Two famous photos show Houdini and his assistants at work inside the building, which are the only images of Houdini at the Weehawken site (as far as I'm aware).

In January 1926, G. Bert Ward leased the lab and it became the Ward Cine Laboratory. After Houdini's death, the FDCs equipment was sold to Seiden Camera Exchange. This appears to have been the official end of the Film Developing Corporation.

Film Daily, August 15, 1927.

But it was not the end for the Weehawken Street building. Happily, the building still exists today. The address is now 216 19th Street in Union City, NJ. (I visited it last year.) While modernized, it still retains its familiar structure inside and out, and would be recognizable to Houdini today. It's now a rental space frequently used for film and television work. Aware of the Houdini connection, the owners have dubbed the building "Houdini Studio."



A postscript to all this. One of Houdini's fellow Scientific American spiritualist investigation committee members was Daniel F. Comstock who had founded the Technicolor Film Laboratories also in 1916. One wonders if during their down time the conversation veered from ectoplasm to the shared frustrations of being a "Manager, Film Factory."

Related:

Friday, March 15, 2019

Houdini's London address and phone

Our friend Perry Reed has made an interesting discovery in this Getty Images clip showing an early London BT telephone directory. At the end you can see a listing for "HOUDINI, Harry, Handcuff King" with the phone number "Gerrand 1312" and the address "84 Bedford et mans." This was Houdini's London apartment, but exactly when he occupied it, I'm not sure. Unfortunately, this clip does not reveal the date of the directory.


Thank you Perry!

UPDATE: The good folks at The Manchester Society for Magic & Magicians @OrderOfTheMagi Twitter have shown me that many British telephone directories are available on Ancestry.com, including this one! The year is 1911, which is later than I always assumed for this residence. But it makes sense as Houdini was equally dividing his time between Europe and America right up to 1914.

Related:

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Houdini stamp from 1951

Here's a Houdini memorial stamp issued at the joint SAM-IBM "Mid Century Convention" in New York in 1951.


Today we take Houdini merchandise for granted. There are any number of puzzles, games, and bobble heads for the asking. But in 1951, I expect this was something unique. Of course, Houdini got an official U.S. postage stamp in 2002. In fact, that stamp was first revealed at the SAM Centennial Convention in New York. So this is somewhat of a forerunner to that.

Thanks to Kevin Connolly for reminding me I had this!

Related:

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

A close call in the Water Torture Cell


Houdini breaking his ankle in the Water Torture Cell in 1926 is his only known accident while performing the famous escape. But Houdini did the escape for 14 years, so we can assume there must have been other mishaps or close calls. Now I've found one!

The below occurred while Houdini was performing at the Palace Theatre in New York in January 1917.

The New York Clipper, Jan. 17, 1917.

While this doesn't raise to the level of a true accident, it does shows the dangers of doing any water escape. And unlike modern Water Torture Cells--which are quickly locked by padlocks--Houdini's cell required his upward folding hasps to be perfectly slotted into the locks which then required a full turn of a key. So I can see how this happened. Good thing Houdini could hold his breath for over three minutes!

Below are links to a few other close calls.

UPDATE: Jim Criswell reminds me of this quote from an interview with Dorothy Young:

"And, then the very, very exciting thing was Water Torture Cell. [...] I stood with Mrs. H. often, and she said only once in their life, did he have to give the signal to be taken out."

Related:

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Houdini on the Roadshow

Houdini showed up on Antiques Roadshow in the UK recently. Here's a tweet that shows what landed before the experts.


Thanks to Narinder Chadda.

Related:

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Here's the cover of Joe Posnanski's new Houdini book!

Today I'm thrilled to help reveal cover art for Joe Posnanski's new book, The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini, due out October 22, 2019. I love it!


Author Joe Posnanski shares with us his feelings about the cover:

"I cannot tell you how excited I am about this cover. This is my fifth book, and for each of the first four, the cover was a lot of difficult work. You want it to be perfect, of course, and that has meant looking at dozens of different possibilities. I would say, no exaggeration, that for my each of those books, the artists drew up at least 20 different covers. For one of my books, we probably looked at closer to 50 covers. 
And for The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini: This is the basically first cover they sent me. The art designer has done a wonderful job adjusting it, adding some light and flow, but it’s still the first cover.

And that’s just incredible. It’s like everyone at Avid Reader is on exactly the same page about what this book is — you have the shadow of Houdini dominating the cover, and there’s Harry peeking from behind, still very much alive, still impacting the world in countless very real ways. I’ve never had a cover that so perfectly aligns with the words. 
I cannot tell you how rare this is, for a cover to come together as quickly and as beautifully as this one has. It feels like a continuation of the magical ride that this book has been for me as an author. I’m so thrilled for you to share the cover, and I cannot wait to share the book — October cannot come fast enough for me."

You can pre-order The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. This promises to be the Houdini book event of 2019.

Thanks to Joe and the good folks at Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster for the scoop. 

Related:

Saturday, March 9, 2019

A gathering at Famous Players-Lasky

Here's a photo of a gathering at the Famous Players-Lasky studio commissary in Hollywood. This comes from the July 5, 1919 Motion Picture News. Can you spot our boy? Extra points if you can spot his Terror Island co-star and director (even though this was taken while Houdini was shooting The Grim Game).

Click to enlarge.

The Famous Players-Lasky studio stood on Vine Street between Selma and Sunset Blvd. Today it's the site of modern development and a 1968 bank building which once housed "The Society of American Magicians Hall of Fame and Magic Museum."

Below are a few more posts that show Houdini at work at the Lasky studio.

Related:

Friday, March 8, 2019

Houdini's early days online

Today I feel like giving a nostalgic shoutout to two Houdini websites that pioneered Houdini news and information on the net. While no longer updated, both sites are still available online.

First up is Bob King's "Houdini Tribute", which I believe may have been the very first Houdini site on the web. Bob devoted his site to historical Houdini ephemera as well as news and current events. It's still a fun place to explore as there are some hidden gems. The super old school design is also part of its appeal.


The next site is George Ford's Houdiniana.com, launched in 1999. I always found Houdiniana an exciting destination as it was mostly devoted to current Houdini news and events. The site went offline in 2007 and George seems to have fallen out of the Houdini world. But he was a pioneer and a good guy.  Houdiniana can be viewed via the Wayback Machine.


Finally, there was Houdini Connection, launched in 1998. I don't know who ran this site. It stopped updating in 2007, but is still online.


Related:

Translate

Receive updates via email