Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Houdini by Dorny

I recently found this in a folder of Houdini artwork that I've randomly saved from the internet. I don't know anything about it, other than the file name reads: "Oil paining by Werner Dornfield." Dornfield was also known as the magician "Dorny" (1892-1982). He was a past president and Dean of the S.A.M. I really like this as it's rare to see artists using the older Houdini as their subject. Dorny also knew Houdini personally, so I think we can trust the eye color.

As I said, I don't recall where I got this and I don't know who owns this painting today. So if this belongs to you and you want credit or prefer it not be shared on WAH, just shoot me an email and I'll make it disappear!


Tuesday, February 23, 2021

A word from our sponser...

This ad appeared in the Boston Globe during Houdini's appearance in that city in March 1906. Houdini always went over big in Boston, and this ad really speaks to that. I don't know if Houdini had anything to do with it, but I'm sure he was happy with the free publicity, despite being a non-drinker. Cheers!

Boston Globe, March 31, 1906.

Below are some more examples of Houdini (and Bess) in advertising.


Monday, February 22, 2021

Houdini's teacher?

Here's an intriguing tweet from the Magic Castle who are celebrating Black History Month with a look at Black History & Magic. Is this the man who taught Houdini?

According the expanded story, Houdini and Barclay met in a Boston Dime Museum in 1895. I admit I've never heard of Wilmont A. Barclay. But Houdini's first documented challenge handcuff escapes where in Massachusetts in late 1895.

In his book Houdini The Key, Patrick Culliton offers up two other possible origins of the Handcuff Act. The first is that Houdini purchased a set of keys, picks and tools from the Boston magic dealer W. D. LeRoy (which doesn't preclude the possibility that Barclay gave him the tip). The other is that Houdini acquired the act from Lewis Paul, an Australian who started doing escape work in America around 1881. This was suggested by ventriloquist Lewis Lester who worked with Houdini at Middleton's Dime Museum in Chicago.

UPDATE: Joe Fox provides the following from a profile of Barclay in the December 1983 Linking Ring. "Dick" refers to Lew Dick, who managed and assisted Barclay for many years.

The Linking Ring, December 1983.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

French edition of '100 Houdini Tricks You Can Do'

French publisher Fantaisium has released the 1954 book 100 Houdini Tricks You Can Do by Joseph Dunninger as 100 tours de magie d'Houdini pour tous. Translation is by François Montmirel.

Not sure why they decided to use poster art from The Master Mystery as cover art, but... C'est la vie.

This is latest in a series of reprints from Fantaisium. Last year they released translations of Houdini's A Magician Among the Spirits, The Right Way to Do Wrong, and Magical Ropes Ties and Escapes (see related link below). They've also released Houdini's Margery pamphlet as Trucs et Astuces des Médiums.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Off-script in Cincinnati

By 1906 Houdini had pretty much established his official show business biography. It always begins with his birth in Appleton, spins colorful tales of his childhood gift with locks, and finds the fully formed Handcuff King making an all or nothing bet on himself by traveling to Europe where he takes the continent by storm. Notably absent are his many years of toil in the lower rungs of show business and the critical role of Martin Beck. But it played well in newspapers and pitchbooks, and to use political parlance, Houdini had control of the narrative.

That's why the following from the November 19, 1906 Cincinnati Commercial Tribune is so striking. It's decidedly off-script by not only crediting Martin Beck with Houdini's discovery and early success in America, but also by saying Houdini was born in Budapest! While you can find mentions of Houdini's Hungarian birth during his early career, I've never seen it mentioned anywhere after his tours of Europe when he firmly established himself as "The Elusive American." Enjoy this rare blast of truth from 1906.

About Houdini

Eight or ten years ago, says Burns Mantle, Harry Houdini, who was seen on the local stage a week or two ago, was a poor unknown, doing twelve shows a day in a cheap western museum. His specialty was to release himself from handcuffs and other manacles.

The same eight or ten years ago Martin Beck was a rising vaudeville manager with about a third of the prestige and a sixth of the fortune that he now draws checks on. Beck saw Houdini, and Houdini talked with Beck. I believe it was Beck who gave Houdini his stage name, though the lad was born in Budapest and may have come honestly by it.

Beck signed a contract with the handcuff breaker which was extended over a period of several years, and Houdini was taken away from the museum and put into vaudeville proper. At the shrewd manager's dictation he visited police stations in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where he invited the officers to hold him with their manacles. He was not a confident performer in those days. Every time he was manacled he was frightened to death for fear he would not be able to get away and that his "act" would be ruined.

He made his first big sensation in San Francisco, after a committee of policemen had put four pairs of handcuffs, an Oregon boot, and a few balls and chains on him, and then fastened them all together. Just to make certain that he did not have a key concealed in his mouth with which he might unlock the cuffs, they sealed his lips with court plaster. Then they put him in the center of the "third degree" room and locked the door.

Houdini told me seven years ago, before he was as famous as he is now, that as soon as the door was closed he began his struggle to free himself and was working as though the devil was after him when he heard the labored breathing of some one. He glanced around the room. There was nothing that could conceal a man. Again he started to release his hands. Again he was certain he heard the breathing. And as he looked up quickly he saw a large oil painting on the wall quiver slightly. Slits had been cut in the canvas and he was being watched from that point of vantage.

The boy was clever enough to outwit the trickster, however. He edged his way slowly to the corner of the room farthest from the picture, turned his back on the spy, and in something like twenty-seven minutes was free. The feat was exploited in all the coast papers, and the "Handcuff King" was started on his career.

No one has been able to explain Houdini's system up to date. Every one is inclined to gasp, sniff and then declare him to be a fakir. Perhaps he is. But he is certainly one of the cleverest that ever lived, for he has fooled thousands of experts.

I don't know who Burns Mantle was, but from the sound of this he knew Houdini and maybe even Martin Beck. Houdini had played two weeks at the Columbia Theater in Cincinnati and was in Chicago when this story appeared, so it's possible he never saw it. If so, he may have felt the need to bring his friend Burns back on-script.

Houdini woodcut illustration from Waterloo Daily Courier, February 19, 1906.

UPDATE: Burns Mantle was a prominent theater critic and the founding editor of Best Plays. He first met Houdini in Denver in 1899 during his first stint as a reporter and Houdini's first tour on the Orpheum circuit. After Houdini's death, Mantle once again wrote about his friend and once again showed rare candor. The below is from the New York Daily News, November 14, 1926, and makes an excellent companion to the above.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Another German gem

Here's a new find from the April 1, 1901 Altonaer-Nachrichten when Houdini was appearing at the Hansa Theater in Hamburg. A couple photos I've not seen before. Das ist gut!

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Deals From The Dark Side - Houdini Handcuffs

Here's the full "Houdini Handcuffs" episode of Deals from the Dark Side with Steve Santini. This first aired in Canada in 2011 and on SyFy in the U.S. in 2012. A bonus is seeing the new Houdini grave bust coming fresh out of the mold.


The Houdini handcuffs sold on eBay in 2012 for $3,800. 

You can watch all the outside videos I share here on WILD ABOUT HARRY via my Linked Videos list at my YouTube channel.


Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Mrs. Flitcroft day

In case you haven't noticed, I moved my "TODAY in Houdini History" sidebar feature exclusively to my Twitter (#HoudiniHistory). I thought this was a good day for the reminder as today marks Houdini's 1908 visit to Mrs. Flitcroft at her home at 328 S. Sixth Street in Delavan, Wisconsin.

Mrs. Flitcroft was the woman who took in the 12-year-old Ehrich Weiss during his runaway days and looked after him. Houdini never forgot her kindness and looked after HER for the rest of her life. The below pic from Houdini His Life Story (which may or may not be 1908). In it we see she's wearing a mink stoll Houdini bought for her.

According to a 1994 Mystifier, Mrs. Flitcroft's house was still standing (at that time). A Google search does turn up what appears to be an old house at this address. But is it old enough to be the original? Wouldn't that be wild.

 Here's to all the caring Mrs. Flitcrofts out there!

Monday, February 15, 2021

Houdini's neueste Sensation!

Here's a terrific German newspaper advert from when Houdini was playing the Hansa Theater in Hamburg in December 1909. What I really like about this is it's as close to a poster for Houdini's Challenge Packing Case escape as we're ever likely to see. Doesn't take much to imagine how this could be turned into a full color lithograph. Even the headline, "Houdini's neueste Sensation!", later appeared on a German poster for the Water Torture Cell.

Altonaer Nachrichten, December 1, 1909

This is also an unusual ad in that the Challenge Packing Case escape was hardly "neueste" in 1909. Houdini had first performed it in Germany in 1902 and it became a regular part of his act from that point on. Along with the straitjacket, it was the challenge escape that enjoyed the most longevity, even making it to Houdini's 1925-26 full evening roadshow.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Houdini's Needles pin down $2,574

A packet of 24 T. Hessin & Co nickel plated Darners Needles that Houdini used in his popular East Indian Needle Trick sold in Haversat & Ewing's latest magic auction for $2,574 (including buyers premium). Below is the auction description.

In this famous trick, Houdini swallows a number of needles along with yards of thread and brings them all up threaded. The needles passed from Bess to Houdini's niece Ruth Kavanaugh. Houdini collector Larry Weeks acquired the packets directly from the family in the 1960's. This fact has been confirmed by Houdini's Great Nephew John Hinson who was also a benefactor of needles given to him by his Aunt Ruth. The lot includes Houdini's needles ONLY.

It's interesting to see that Houdini used nickel plated needles. Possibly because these offered the best reflection on stage? But one wonders if he ever experienced ill effects from having nickel in his mouth so often.

This is the fourth set of Houdini Needles of which I'm aware. 

Saturday, February 13, 2021

The Brothers Houdini take Buffalo

There is precious little material related to the Brothers Houdini (Houdini's first act). That's what makes this such a treat. This is an advertisement and review from Robinson's dime museum in Buffalo, New York, for the week of September 11, 1893. As you can see, the brothers were the hit of the "lecture room." I've included the full review as it's fun to read about the other acts on the bill. Enjoy this piece of early Houdini history.

The Buffalo Sunday Morning News, Sept. 10, 1893.

The Buffalo Commercial, Sept. 12, 1893.

The question I have is which "brother" Houdini was paired up with this week? Jack Hyman, Joe Hayman, or Houdini's own brother Dash? We may never know.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

The Germany problem

Last weekend our friend Joe Notaro at Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence shared a post about Houdini's Train Track Escape - Believe it Or Not. This is an event I've never been able to confirm. The sole source appears to be Walter B. Gibson, who did at times inadvertently spread mythology (including the trapped under the ice story). But Joe has found an account written by Gibson in 1954 that now gives us a location: Dresden, Germany. That's good! And it's bad.

I will let you go read about the escape at Joe's site. Instead, I want to talk about how this illustrates what I've come to think of as "the Germany problem."

From 1900 to 1913, Houdini performed in Germany as much as any other country. He spoke the language and was generally very comfortable with all things German. He even preferred traveling on German steamships. His engagements in Germany were lengthy and he seems to favor the country as a place to try things out for the first time. We know he did his first challenge packing crate escape in Essen Ruhr, learned to fly in Hamburg, and debuted The Water Torture Cell in Berlin. It's even said he tried out a version of Buried Alive for the first time in Germany.  So Germany is a big part of Houdini's early career. Yet we know almost nothing!

The reason for this seems due to the fact that Houdini history has largely been written by English speakers, and the stories of his German exploits would found be in German newspapers. Sure, we have a passable amount of information that can be found in his English pitchbooks (the Cologne trials, Kleppini, etc.). But I'll bet my knackwurst there is so much more!

It now appears the train track escape may be one of those "lost" German stories. But at least we now know where to look. Houdini performed at the Central Theater in Dresden during the entire months of September 1900 and October 1903. So if there is any newspaper account of this escape, it would be during those times. Also, the Harold Kellock biography claims Houdini did his first bridge jump in Dresden. That's another one I’ve never been able to confirm because...the Germany problem.

So here's a shout out to any German Houdini nuts who care to take up the challenge and uncover Houdini's adventures in Dresden. Not only might you find this train track escape, but you also may find his first bridge jump, and who knows what other untold stories!

Oh, we also have a Netherlands problem. But I guess we can tackle that another time.

Train track illustration from The Great Book of Magic by Wendy Rydell.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Watch clips from The Grim Game at

The TCM website has posted three clips from Houdini's The Grim Game along with the Robert Osbourne introduction to the 2015 airing. What makes these interesting they are from the second showing which used the alternate musical score by Steve Sterner.

Still hoping for a proper DVD release someday. If we have any entrepreneurs out there, you can enquire about the home video rights via Park Circus. I'd be happy to provide a commentary!


Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Did Houdini really almost drown in beer?

On February 9, 1911, Houdini was challenged by the Joshua Tetley & Son Brewing Company in Leeds to escape from his Milk Can filled with beer. This was the first of his popular "beer challenges." But the reason the Tetley challenge is so famous is not because it was first; it's because Houdini is reported to have failed. In Houdini His Life Story by Harold Kellock, it's said Houdini, a teetotaler, became "stupefied" by the beer fumes and passed out before he could free himself. Only the quick action of an assistant "who entered the cabinet and hauled him out" saved his life.

Tetley's is still around today and they've not forgotten this night. They even feature the following on their official website:

But there's a problem with all this. If Houdini really had such a dramatic on-stage failure during such a well-publicized challenge escape, one would think it would have been big news at the time. But I have yet to find any newspaper account of any accident or failure that night. Furthermore, in his book The Great Houdini: His British Tours, author Derek Tait reproduces an eyewitness account from audience member who says the escape went as planned.

So what really happened at the Leeds Empire exactly 110 years ago? They can't both be right. Or can they? 

I think the truth is actually hidden in the eyewitness account itself, which is also filled with nice details about how the challenge was staged. I'm reproducing it below with Derek's permission. This comes from the Yorkshire Evening Post, December 22, 1928:

"When the curtain went up, the barrel of ale was on a gantry and four brewers' men were on the stage. To a lively tune by the orchestra, they tapped the barrel and filled a jug. They poured out a glass and handed it to Mrs. Houdini and she put it to her lips but did not drink any. Then Houdini pretended to take a drink. Then the brewers' men had a glass each. After that, they filled up a tin (which was something like the milk churns you see on the railway) with beer.

Houdini, who in bathing costume, kissed his wife, and went head first into the tin. Immediately, half-a-dozen men, who were are on the stage as a committee, fastened the lid on with padlocks all around the lid, the padlocks being locked to staples that were on a collar on which the lid fitted. The can was then lifted into a cabinet and the curtains closed. In a very short period, one of the attendants went into the cabinet and almost immediately opened the curtains and Houdini walked out. The tin was then brought out and the padlocks were still fastened.

Although I met Houdini many times, I never heard of him being stupefied by the beer as his biographer says. And, by the way, a few nights after the beer episode, he did the trick in the can filled with milk."

While the eyewitness said nothing went wrong, it seems clear to me that something did. Notice he says "one of the attendants went into the cabinet" shortly before Houdini appeared. This may have appeared normal, but it was not. The only reason I can think of an assistant going into the cabinet is if something was wrong. This also comports with the Kellock account. But the speed in which Houdini appeared suggests he wasn't fully unconscious and was able to cover. So the accident appears to have happened. It's just no one in the audience knew it!

There are a few other things that stand out here. It's interesting to see Bess present, suggesting that while she retired from performing in 1908 she still appeared on stage during select escapes. I also love the whole staging of the challenge with the tapped cask and everyone taking a drink. It's also striking that the eyewitness says Houdini went into the Milk Can "head first." This was not typical. Could this have been the real reason Houdini had difficulty escaping and not the fumes?

Houdini went on to do the beer challenge (successfully) many times. Below is a list of brewers who challenged Houdini to either escape from his Milk Can or a beer-filled cask. Is your brand among them? Cheers!

Joshua Tetley & Son Brewing Company, Leeds, UK (1911)
Independent Brewing Co., Pittsburgh, PA (1911)
Hoster-Columbus Associated Breweries Co., Columbus, OH (1911)
Louis Bergdoll Brewing Co., Philadelphia, PA (1912)
Fink's Brewery, Harrisburg, PA (1912) 
Schlitz Brewing Company, Milwaukee, WI (1912) 
Hacker Brewery, Munich, Germany (1913) 
Burkhardt Brewing Company (Tivoli beer), Boston (1914) 
The Louis Bergdoll Brewing Company, Philadelphia, PA (1914)
Haberle Brewing Co., Syracuse, NY (1915) 
Dow's Brewery, Montreal, Canada (1915)
Standard Brewing Co. (Tru-Age Beer), Scranton, PA (1915) 
Hanley Brewery (Hanley's Peerless Ale), Providence, RI (1915)
Indianapolis Brewing Co., Indianapolis, IND (1915) 
Frank Fehr Brewing Co., Louisville, KY (1915)
Abner and Drury's - Washington D.C. (1916) 
G-B-S Brewing Co. (Arrow Beer), Baltimore, MD (1916)
Phoenix Brewery, Buffalo, NY (1916) 
Olt Brewing Co., Dayton, OH (1916)

Thanks to Allan J. Taylor of the UKEA (United Kingdom Escape Artists) for his help with this post.


Monday, February 8, 2021

History Goes Bump Ep. 368 - Haunted Houdini

The episode of the History Goes Bump podcast is well researched and well presented, covering much more than just the standard Houdini biography. Worth a listen!

Houdini has certainly become a favorite podcast subject of late. Below are more to enjoy.


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