Monday, August 28, 2006

Experts weigh-in on 'Secret Life' spy revelation

The New York Sun has published an article in which several big names in the Houdini world have commented on the claim from the new book, The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero by William Kalush and Larry Sloman, that Houdini was a spy.

"Some of it may be true," an author and collector of Houdini material, Arthur Moses, said, "but it's hard to believe it's all true." He did say what he has read of the book is meticulously researched and well written.

"I'll believe anything that there's evidence for," a Houdini biographer who is reserving judgment until he has read the book, Kenneth Silverman, said. But he bristled at the suggestion that Houdini's quick rise to fame was partly assisted by police. The new book apparently claims that there was a quid pro quo whereby detectives in Chicago would promote Houdini if he taught them lock escapes and other skills. To the contrary, Mr. Silverman maintained, "He owed his huge reputation to the work he did on stage."

The publisher of Genii magazine, Richard Kaufman, said Mr. Kalush had viewed documents that appear to support the claim that Houdini, if not actually a spy, helped the embryonic British intelligence service gather information.

However, a historian at the Washington-based International Spy Museum, Thomas Boghardt, who has not yet read the book, said British espionage did not start in earnest until 1909. He also said William Melville, the head of Scotland Yard, was principally involved in counterespionage in England rather than spying abroad.

To call Houdini a secret agent "in the James Bond sense" might be taking it a little far, a historian of magic, Richard Kohn, said. "He may well have been an observer who passed along observations." But he also said Houdini was very impressed with himself.

The magician and paranormal debunker James Randi cautioned, "If Houdini had been a spy, that would have gotten out. He never would have been able to sit on it." Mr. Randi said the story of Jasper Maskelyne (1902-1973) — a magician whose skills at deception helped the British defeat the Germans in North Africa during World War II — got out quickly.

Daniel Stashower thinks Houdini makes a good private eye – but in fiction. He has written three mystery novels featuring Houdini as a detective. "The same skills that make him a good magician and escape artist," he said, "also made him an interesting person to cast as a detective because he was naturally good at solving problems and figuring out puzzles."

This book is certainly going to be controversial when it hits bookstores on Halloween.


  1. I'm not sure why anyone would completely discredit this - after all, Harpo Marx, in his autobiography, "Harpo Speaks" divulges that he was a spy for the US when he went back n forth to Europe in the 30's and 40's. Harpo gives the same reason that the Houdini biopic does - since he was an entertainer he wasn't seen as a threat and could access to the highest political echelons without suspicion.

    1. I've said I think it might be possible Houdini did communicate what he was seeing in Germany and Russia to William Melville. I think what people are rejecting is the larger assumptions put forth in the book and especially the miniseries that he was going on missions, stealing secret plans and such, and his magic career was only "cover for his spying." What we have at this point really only warrants a paragraph in the Houdini story.

  2. Have there been any articles, for or against, assessing the evidence as laid out in ...Houdini Laid Bare, or any additional evidence for or against published elsewhere?

    1. It's been as quiet as a spy in the night. Maybe everyone went undercover. :)

  3. It would be professional malpractice if Melville's MI5 Secret Service DIDNT strategically debrief Houdini while he was a legal traveler in denied areas. According to records on Houdini and Melville took the same ship from US to England... plenty of time for M to assess, develop, recruit, and train Houdini as an observer. The quid quo pro? Houdini gets a new passport with a US birth (see original docs on US National Archives. M had pulled those strings before, as he turned Russian jew Sigmund Markovich Rosenblum into British Ace of Spies Sidney Reilly (the inspiration for Fleming's James Bond) A new British passport completed the identity

  4. I think that J. Edgar Hoover contacted Houdini a few years before Houdini passed away. I think they enlisted his "Spy" qualities for the USA in or around 1924. (Perhaps earlier) This was a precursor relationship prior to the Five Eyes development in the early 40's. Houdini would have been one of their greatest "Catches" had he survived.