Friday, December 2, 2022

The bouncing beds of 278

In 1938 a ghostly phenomena was reported in Jonesville, Virginia, when the Sybert family claimed that the bed of their 9-year-old daughter, Bertha, would bounce uncontrollably whenever she was in it. Bertha also showed signs of possession. The press would dub her "Bouncing Bertha" and a bouncing bed would later appear in The Exorcist. You can read more about "The Legend of Bouncing Bertha" HERE.

In December a reporter asked Bess Houdini about the Virginia phenomena and, as you'll read below, she dismissed it as "bunk" (others would eventually come to the same conclusion). But what I really like about this article is Bess's description of bouncing beds and other trickery inside her former home of 278.

The Skyland Post, Dec. 29, 1938.

Houdini's bed survives today in the collection of Jon Oliver. No reports of bouncing.

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Unlock 'Handcuff Secrets' free PDF

This month's reward for patrons is a free PDF of Houdini's book Handcuff Secrets. Appropriately enough, this was a Christmas release in December 1909. The book was only ever published in the UK so it's one of the harder Houdini books to find. But you can find by clicking below!

The start of the month is a great time to join my Patreon. You will unlock 45 exclusive posts with 279 images and be set to receive all the great content and rewards going forward. For more information you can read my full pitch HERE.

Thanks to everyone for your support!

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Houdini's curious cross escape

One of the more unusual pieces of surviving Houdini apparatus is his "Cross Escape." There are actually two crosses. One is gaffed for quick release and was acquired by Sidney Radner from Hardeen. Today it is owned by Teller. The other was acquired by Henry Muller from Dunninger and was displayed for many years at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame. The photo in the right shows this latter cross as it appeared in the museum. (Fun fact: I now own that mannequin head.)

I admit this particular escape has always perplexed me. The Houdini Magical Hall of Fame described it as "a famous Houdini challenge escape," yet I've never been able to find any account of Houdini ever performing it. The quick release gaff seems more like a spiritualism or magic effect than a Houdini escape, and the overt religiousness doesn't seem to be Houdini's style. Recall how he took offense to Carl Mysto's use of a coffin onstage.

But David Muller recently sent me extraordinary audio of Joseph Dunninger going through the collection he sold to David's father in 1967, describing each piece of apparatus and its history. Here's what he says about the cross:

Dunninger: "The Houdini cross escape, used in Houdini's earlier performances. Made in his museum days. He would be tied to the cross, a screen would be placed in front of it and in a few moments he would liberate himself. It needs some repair as is obvious, but it's of very great historical value as it belonged to Houdini and was one of his first sensational escapes."

Hearing Dunninger call this an effect from Houdini's "museum days" is informative. Maybe this explains why I've not been able to find an account of it? And its similarity to a spiritualism or magic effect fits with the evolution of the escape act.

Teller also describes it as a "carnival item." In an interview Two Magicians One Mic Podcast, in which we get a glimpse of his cross in his "Houdini alcove", Teller says:

Teller: "It's a carnival item. It would be erected on stage and the person who's doing the spiel on the bally would take, usually, a runaway 13 or 14-year-old drug addicted girl, who happens to be with the carnival, and tie her neck and wrists to this cross. And then at the moment when they were trying to turn the tip and bring the whole group into the tent, all of a sudden she would just walk away from it. The ties would be gone."

The cross escape coming from dime museums or carnivals does makes sense. It's even possible Houdini didn't build the effect himself, but acquired it as he did his electric chair. But I'll keep on searching for some account of Houdini doing the escape himself.

In the 1970 BBC documentary The Truth About Houdini, Sidney Radner demonstrated his gaffed cross. This scene was cut scene from the documentary––possibly because The Magic Circle objected to the exposure––and it does not appear in any version of the doc today. But you can watch the full clip as a member of my Patreon below.

Thanks to David Muller for the Dunninger audio and Dan Bowen for the Teller interview alert.


Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Houdini's Budapest birthplace

Our good friend and long time reader Narinder Chadda recently visited Budapest and shot this video of Houdini's birthplace at 1 Csengery Street. In 1874 this was Rákosárok utca 1. sz., the address shown on the birth certificate of Erik Weisz.

Narinder also visited David Merlini's magnificent The House of Houdini museum in Budapest. David and Narinder recently became Angel patrons, so a big thank you to both! You can see some of Narinder's museum photos HERE.


Monday, November 28, 2022

Don Creekmore tracks Houdini in Wichita

If you're not a member of Don Creekmore's Facebook page, Escaping The Sunflower State - Harry Houdini's Turbulent Time In Kansas, you're missing out. Don has been posting daily memes tracking Houdini's appearance in Wichita 99 years ago this week. Today's meme marks the anniversary of Houdini's suspended straitjacket escape in downtown Wichita.

Houdini in Kansas is Don's specialty, and he will soon be publishing a book on the subject. You can read more at Don's official website


Sunday, November 27, 2022

Helen Keller on Houdini

Like Houdini, Helen Keller is one of those remarkable figures in American history that every grade schooler learns about. Rendered deaf, dumb, and blind by illness at 19 months, she was miraculously educated by her famous teacher, Anne Sullivan, and grew up to became a prolific writer, disability rights advocate, and lecturer. Like Houdini, her inspirational life story has been told in many books, plays, and movies.

That's why finding the below was such a treat. This appeared in the Buffalo Evening News shortly after Houdini's death. I'll let Helen speak for herself.

Buffalo Evening News, Nov. 8, 1926.

One of those times Helen would have experienced a Houdini performance was at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Fransisco. As you can see below, Houdini and Keller were featured attractions on November 6th.

Today you can always find Houdini and Helen sharing a bookshelf.

Friday, November 25, 2022

'Houdini Unchained' original art and merchandise

The Christmas shopping season is upon us, so I thought this was a good time to showcase some of the original merchandise created for Houdini Unchained: The Legacy of Harry Houdini at Muzeo Museum and Cultural Center in Anaheim, CA. The museum commissioned several artists to create original Houdini pieces. That artwork is on display and also available as prints in the gift shop.

I snapped these photos inside the gift shop last time I was there. Muzeo doesn't have an online store, so it appears the only way to buy these is to visit in person. Or perhaps you could try contacting the artists direct. I've linked them all below.

"The Handcuff King" by Chris Kawagiwa.

"The Handcuff King" by John Coulter.

"Close Call with the Sea Monster" by Justine Prebich.

"Halloween Seance" by Michelle Prebich.

Vanishing Elephant lenticular by Melissa Chan Stone.

"The Key to his Heart" by Olivia Faust.

"Asleep in the Deep" by Vincenzo Savastano.

"Great Escape" by John Coulter.

"Lil Houdini Magic Set" by We Are Pretend Friends.

Houdini patch by Badaboöm Studio.

Muzeo is located at 241 S. Anaheim Blvd., Anaheim, CA 92805. Normal hours are Wednesday through Sunday from 11am to 5pm. Houdini Unchained: The Legacy of Harry Houdini will be on show until January 22, 2023.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Nevil Maskelyne and the Water Torture Cell sale

Here's a tasty piece of untold magic history to chew on this holiday. In 1920 Houdini tried to sell his most famous escape, The Chinese Water Torture Cell, to magician Nevil Maskelyne. I uncovered the correspondence between the parties during my trip to the Harry Ransom Center last summer. Here's the story.

In January 1920 Houdini arrived in the UK for a five month tour. Having just completed two films in Hollywood, Houdini was convinced that his future lay in the movies. He was only making this tour to honor bookings made before the war and avoid a hefty fine. For the first time in years he revived his standard vaudeville act; Needles, straitjacket, challenges, and, of course, The Chinese Water Torture Cell.

Getting the Torture Cell back into action took some effort. Houdini recorded in his diary that he "nearly cracked my neck" in a test run of the escape. During the second week of the tour the glass cracked. Then in Liverpool, Houdini seriously injured his right ankle performing the escape. These struggles may have something to do with what happened next.

On February 6 Houdini sat down with magician and inventor Fred Culpitt (right) at the North Western Hotel in Liverpool. There they discussed the possibility of selling the Water Torture Cell to Nevil Maskelyne, who was performing his "Maskelyne's Mysteries" at St. Georges Hall in London at this time. Houdini gave Culpitt the go-ahead to approach the magician on his behalf.

Culpitt wrote to Maskelyne on February 10th, presenting the idea of a sale and laying out the specifics. Unfortunately, that letter in not in the Ransom Center file, so it's unclear if the idea was for Maskelyne to take possession of the cell immediately or at the end of Houdini's tour.

"It certainly seems as though they are interested in the proposition," Culpitt wrote to Houdini three days later. But there was one hiccup. Maskelyne's representative, George Facer, told Culpitt that Will Goldstone had offered the same effect to Maskelyne that very same week. "Of course, it does not matter to me who gets the illusion 'placed'," wrote Culpitt, "but I think it would be wise for me to know my position."

Houdini quickly wrote back clarifying that Goldston offered Maskelyne "some sort of mermaid illusion", not the Water Torture Cell. He also told Culpitt that he had attended Maskelyne's show at St. Georges Hall and Maskelyne had asked to see the escape. Houdini sent the magician two tickets to his show at the Empire Palace in Stratford. "If anything transpires, I will let you know," he assured Culpitt.

It appears nothing did transpire and that's the end of the correspondence. Houdini kept his Water Torture Cell and performed it for the remainder of his career.

It's hard to know how serious Houdini was about selling the Torture Cell. Perhaps his initial frustrations with the apparatus caused him to overreact. However, he reportedly did destroy magic apparatus that he had stored in the UK at the end of the tour and the cell was likely expensive to ship. So if Houdini really did believe he had no more use for the escape then it would make sense for him to offload it in the UK.

There's also another possibility, but this is pure speculation. Is it possible what Houdini was looking to sell was a second Water Torture Cell, perhaps the cell he had made for "Miss Trixy" in 1912? It's likely that cell would have been stored in England.

As for Maskelyne, the magician was 56 and not an escape artist, so it seems unlikely he would perform the escape himself. What he would have done with it is anyones guess. So this episode offers a fascinating "what if" of magic history.

Want more? You can read the original Houdini/Culpitt correspondence as a "Scholar" member of my Patreon.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Guest Blog: Houdini Broken Wand Ceremony 2022

Our friend Benjilini, magician and author of Benjilini on Houdini, provides us with a full and heartfelt report on this year's annual Broken Wand Ceremony at Houdini's grave.

On a brisk windy day with 40 degree temps., Rich Cohn picked me up with his heated car at 11:30. We went to pick up our Dean of the Society of American Magicians (SAM) and my friend of over 30 years, 93 year old George Schindler. Although, George does not drive anymore, his directions to the cemetery was better than any GPS dashboard.

We arrived at the Machpelah Cemetery off the Jackie Robinson Expressway on Exit 3-Cypress Hill St. Once again, the gate was locked as we as well as others waited patiently for someone to unlock the heavy lock. Dorothy Dietrich came to our car and said, "I could probably pick that lock but I don't want to be arrested." George said, "Houdini could escape but now they keep him locked up." I was laughing with his keen sense of Jewish humor.

A few people cleaned up the gravesite of Houdini before the Ceremony. We purposely perform the SAM-PA#1 HOUDINI ANNUAL BROKEN WAND CEREMONY on his Hebrew date of death (Yahrtzeit) due to those individuals who continue to come on his English date of death on Halloween and leave weird things on his headstone which is disrespectful. Also, in the past, many strange individuals would attend the service on Halloween dressed as witches, etc. Now, for some years, it is held on its proper Hebrew date which is the 23rd day of the Hebrew month called Marcheshvan in a dignified manner.

Some of our members visited Larry Weeks gravesite before the Broken Wand Ceremony. We noted the the 2 new markers for C. Gladys Weiss and for Dr. Leopold Weiss, sister and brother of Houdini renewed thru Dorothy and Dick and, I believe, the SAM Endowment Fund. Devlin displayed a beautiful model of the Houdini family plot with proper gravesites in order which included the exedra, the weeping woman, and the red colored SAM symbol on the 1916 exedra. I noted how Theordore Dash Hardeen's gravesite had the wrong date of birth on his marker to proclaim he was born on a leap year (Feb. 29th). Also, Dorothy provided a story concerning the life of a fallen soldier, Mr. Wolf, by his marker signifying his death in WWII near the Houdini family plot. She wants to repair that area as it was damaged during the erection of the Houdini plots.

We gathered on the exedra and a gentleman from The Polar Bear Club took many photos of us along with Mark Mitton. We had a huge crowd of 15 or more for the ceremony. George had me break the wand created with the wooden lath from Houdini's renovated home on 278 created by Barry Spector for me to use that day. He sent it to me and demanded of me to take its broken pieces home on this 96th Yahrtzeit for our compeer Houdini. As usual, I discussed the amazing things concerning Houdini's family gravesite e.g. the mausoleum on the back bears the name of Appleton. Appleton, WI was the early home of Ehrich Weisz when he immigrated to America back in 1878 at the age of 4. Houdini was able to have a bust of himself erected on his huge exedra which is not allowed in a Jewish cemetery as no graven images is permitted. Also, the headstone in front of the family plot bears the name Meyer Michael. Michael Mayers is the homicidal knife bearing killer in the old film called Halloween.

I led the Hebrew part of the service with its English translation. Training as a child from my mom, Nechama Mindle Mildred R.I.P., taking me to family members gravesites, Rabbi Noah Valley R.I.P, who conducted the Broken Wand Ceremony for many decades, and our living Dean of the SAM George Schindler allows me to perform the service with much respect and tears. Having 10 Jewish males, I was able to conclude the ceremony with the Mourners's Prayer called Kaddish. Many of our fellow compeers after the ceremony shook my hand and told me, "I was very touched for the way you led the service. I want to thank you."

11-12 of us gathered at a historical German restaurant called Zum Stammtisch. Being kosher, I enjoyed a nice beer while my fellow compeers enjoyed many delightful dishes which included some tasty cabbage too. The stories, the laughs, the camaraderie is what makes us a close fraternity. Past President Bob Braun told me "he would nominate me to be a future 2nd Vice President" as I would be honored to be a future President of our SAM-P.A.#1 Assembly. Time will tell?

I spoke to the owner of the restaurant for about 10 minutes. He truly appreciated my kind words of the beautiful architecture, the shining wooden interior of this historical German restaurant and, of its kind and highly professional staff. He appreciates us coming there for many years. He shook my hand with much kindness.

We concluded this special gathering with an anonymous fellow member presenting me some additional gifts as prizes for my kids at Rich Cohn drove George and me home. I still had tears in my eyes after the event at home thinking about my friend, George. May the Almighty One protect us with many additional years of good health, peace and wealth to be used to bring our "magic" to others and, hopefully, to ourselves as well.

Thank you Benjilini!

Photos courtesy Benjilini, Todd Harris, and SAM PA#1.


Monday, November 21, 2022

Paul Daniels Water Torture Cell

Last night's Magic Collectors' Corner was devoted to English magician Paul Daniels. It was an excellent show featuring Paul's wife and assistant Debbie. Paul and Debbie had a long running television show in the UK in the 1980s. 

If you watched last night's Collectors' Corner you might have noticed a photo of a Water Torture Cell among the effects Paul featured on the show. I thought you like to see the escape itself. Paul explains that they took pains to reproduce Houdini's real cell as closely as possible, and it looks darn good! Paul's son Martin performs the escape. Enjoy.

However, Paul's true masterpiece was his Iron Maiden Escape during his Halloween Special in 1987. For best quality, I've embedded the full show below queued up to the final escape at 30:42. Be sure and watch the entire thing as the end is unforgettable.

This week some of Paul's effects and memorabilia will be auctioned via SAS in the UK. You can view the lots HERE.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Grimm Life Collective visits the Knickerbocker

Here's another Houdini related video from Michael at The Grimm Life Collective. This time he visits the famed Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel, site of the Final Houdini Seance in 1936. He even goes up on the roof! A great regret is I never went inside the Knickerbocker when it was still an open hotel. So this video is the next best thing. Enjoy.

Thanks to Carl Morano for the alert.

Friday, November 18, 2022

You cannot keep him out!

On November 18, 1918, Houdini's The Master Mystery premiered at the St. James Theater in Boston. Houdini attended the premiere with co-star Marguerite Marsh. It's been a few years since I've celebrated The Master Mystery's debut, so let's do so today with this terrific ad from the Exhibitors Herald.

I think it's interesting that this ad doesn't feature Houdini's image. Instead, this showcases his co-star, Q The Automaton, said to be the very first movie robot. You can't keep HIM out of your theater either, as this footage from the 2015 Los Angeles Magic History Conference proves.

I'll be marking this anniversary by watching the first few episodes tonight. Q lives!