Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Afterlife Adventures of Harry Houdini

A new Houdini graphic novel, Abra Cadaver: The Afterlife Adventures of Harry Houdini, is coming soon from Dead Dog Entertainment. The story finds Houdini plunged into the pits of hell where he must battle the devil to escape.

Abra Cadaver: The Afterlife Adventures of Harry Houdini is written by Dwight L. MacPherson with art by Drew Rausch. The book was originally planned as a four part mini-series, but now all four parts will be consolidated in a magazine format and published together as a "Cryptic Magazine Presents" available at all major bookstores and comic shops.

A preview of the comic can be found at For more information, visit the Abra Cadaver official myspace page.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Review: The Secret Life of Houdini

The “Houdini was a spy” aspect of the new biography, The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero by William Kalush and Larry Sloman – which has been so hyped in the media and debated by magic historians – is a distraction from what should be seen, first and foremost, as a major new Houdini biography loaded with fascinating new facts about the great magician’s life and career.

But what of this “spy” thing? Okay. Very quickly – in 1900 and 1902 Houdini sent two “reports” from Germany to Superintendent Melville of Scotland Yard (who was then head of what could be considered British Intelligence). Does this mean Houdini was a spy, or just a letter writer who felt compelled to report what he was seeing to his friend in London? Authors Bill Kalush and Larry Sloman do make some interesting connections back to America and the shenanigans with Houdini’s passport application...but it’s all very speculative. For me, this “spy revelation” is just one of many, many new nuggets of information to be found within these fascinating 560 pages...and it’s not even the most interesting nugget at that.

I was much more taken with the revelation of Bess Houdini’s suicide attempt; a potential third Houdini mistress (Milla Barry); the attack on Houdini’s brother in his Harlem home; the Russian Royal family's Rasputian-like fascination with the magician; Montraville M. Wood’s involvement in the development of the Milk Can; Lord Northcliff’s role in Houdini’s aviation career; Houdini’s private secret service formed to expose spiritualists (Houdini actually bought a barbershop and trained an agent as a barber so they could communicate incognito); and the very troubling revelation that Margery and Dr. Crandon may have had a hand in the disappearance of several young English boys (freaky stuff this).

I was also thrilled to see Kalush and Sloman incorporate breakthrough information containing in such recent studies as The Man Who Killed Houdini by Don Bell (which rewrites magic history by revealing Houdini suffered not one but TWO stomach punch attacks in his final weeks). And, last but not least, the wealth of never before seen photos contained here are wonderful!

I was surprised to see the inclusion of some stories I’ve always considered to be apocryphal -- the tale in which Harry, as a boy, frees a convict from a pair of handcuffs is one. But the authors promise that a complete set of source reference notes are forthcoming in a separate volume.*

The last major Houdini biography was Ken Silverman’s 1996 Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss (now out of print). I still consider the Silverman book the most authoritative Houdini biography, as well as the one that seems to best nail his complex character. But Secret Life uncovers many new facts not found in Silverman, and for the layperson it may be the more entertaining and provocative read.

It’s been 10 years since Silverman and it was time someone tackled the subject of Houdini again. My congratulations to William Kalush and Larry Sloman for doing so…and succeeding so spectacularly!

*UPDATE: Having now read the source book, my opinion of this book has revised somewhat. Please read: Unmasking The Secret Life of Houdini.

Friday, November 24, 2006

David Blaine performs escape in Times Square

Magician David Blaine took just 15 minutes to escape from his shackles four stories high over New York's Times Square Thursday after two days in a spinning gyroscope.

The 33-year-old was strapped into the contraption and hoisted by crane above the streets on Tuesday.

He spent 48 hours spinning while exposed to wintry weather conditions but still managed to thrill crowds on Thanksgiving with a dramatic exit.

Blaine plunged through a plywood stage below him and, despite the heavy fall giving him a limp, he briefly greeted fans before being whisked away in a taxi.

The stunt's success means 100 children selected by The Salvation Army will be treated to a Christmas shopping expedition. Each child will receive a $500 gift certificate from retailer Target.


Did Bess Houdini smoke pot?

While most are debating the question of whether or not Houdini worked as a spy for the U.S. and UK governments -- a theory proposed in the new biography, The Secret Life of Houdini -- another revelation in this same book is receiving some attention from magic buffs. The revelation that Houdini’s wife Bess smoked marijuana.

Bessie’s alcohol problem is well known, but this is the first documented use of drugs -- although, ironically, back then marijuana was legal while alcohol was illegal.

The smoking gun evidence (no pun intended) appears to be an October 19, 1927 diary entry in which Bess says she dined out and was home early with “no drink or weed.”

But did “weed” mean the same thing in 1927 as it does today?

I was told by Bess’s niece, Marie Blood, that Bess smoked cigarettes. She chain-smoked, in fact. This is not widely known. So could the “weed” Bessie is talking about here be tobacco?

I threw this question out to the magic historians on the Genii forums and got some answers. Turns out, “weed” was indeed a commonly used word to describe tobacco. James in Toronto says, “Pot was called a number of other things at the time, including gage, tea, muggles, and reefers. (See Really The Blues by Mezz Mezzrow for a memoir of that era.) But everyone called tobacco ‘the weed’.”

Bill Mullins adds that The Oxford English Dictionary's first print citation for "weed" meaning "marijuana" is 1929. However, he also found references to marijuana as “weed” in online newspaper archives going as far back as 1910.

So Bessie could have been talking about tobacco...or marijuana.

Either way, party on Bessie!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Houdini on Family Guy

Harry and Bess Houdini appeared on last Sunday’s episode of Family Guy in one of the show’s trademark “cutaways.”

I can’t seem to find the name of the episode, but it was about Lois taking over the High School sex education class which results in an outbreak of ear sex.

It was a very funny episode, even by Family Guy standards.

UPDATE: Here's the clip.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Houdini posters fetch big buck$ at auction

Two original Houdini posters fetched $65,000 a piece at a Swann Gallery auction of magic memorabilia held last month in New York City.

The first was a full color poster depicting Houdini’s escape from an Amsterdam jail in 1902. Anonymous bidder #419 (who reportedly took home nearly every high-end item) got the poster for $65,000.

Next came the more familiar, but equally stunning, Europe’s Eclipsing Sensation poster. This poster also featured on the auction cover catalog. Bidder #419 battled it out with a phone bidder, but in the end claimed it for another $65,000.

So who was the mysterious bidder #419? Speculation at the auction was that it was David Copperfield. However, it turns out #419 was a private company located in India.

All I can say is, "Wow!" It seems every time a Houdini poster comes up for auction a new record is set.

You can read a terrific first-hand account of the auction at

Thanks to Joseph Holland for the tip.

Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Weinstein Co. acquires Death Defying Acts

The Weinstein Co. has picked up U.S. distribution rights to the new Houdini film, Death Defying Acts, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Guy Pearce as Harry Houdini.

TWC's Harvey Weinstein bought the film off a promo reel made available for the first time at the American Film Market (AFM).

Though produced for less than $20 million, sources claim that The Weinstein Co will pay somewhere near $5.5 million for the distribution rights. This amount doesn't include the territories Weinstein has rights to outside the U.S. such as Argentina, Hong Kong and China.

Myriad Pictures has already sold distribution rights for Death Defying Acts in various territories, including U.K. rights to Lionsgate.

The film is a “supernatural romantic thriller” which tells the fictional story of Houdini’s relationship with a Scottish psychic played by Zeta Jones.

Death Defying Acts will be released in 2007.

Friday, November 3, 2006

Escape artist charged in Halloween hoax

KEY WEST, Florida (Reuters) - Police arrested an escape artist on Wednesday after he led them on a fruitless underwater search for his body when he jumped into the Gulf of Mexico, clad in a straitjacket, on Halloween -- the 80th anniversary of magician Harry Houdini's death.

Coast Guard, wildlife agents, police, fire rescuers and street performers took up the hunt for Michael Anthony Patrick on Tuesday night after he jumped backward into Key West Harbor, having jokingly asked his audience if he should do a triple back-flip off the pier.

Patrick, 55, however, somehow managed to elude his rescuers and checked into a guest house. He did not reveal how he wriggled out of his straitjacket, nor how he avoided detection until Wednesday.

Police in Key West said they planned to seek monetary restitution for the search operation, estimated to have cost more than $25,000. They charged Patrick with culpable negligence, and freed him on a $50,000 bond.

"In addition, we are recommending that Michael Patrick be banned from future entertainment activities at Mallory Square," said Bill Mauldin, Key West police chief, in a news release.

Key West's Mallory Square is known for its nightly sunset celebrations with jugglers, clowns, psychics, musicians and artists.

Houdini died of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix at age 55 on Halloween 1926. The escape artist was renowned for freeing himself from handcuffs, chains, rope and straitjackets while suspended in water or hanging from a rope.

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Houdini makes cover of M-U-M

Houdini is on the cover of the November 2006 issue of M-U-M, the official magazine of The Society of American Magicians (for which Houdini was President from 1917 to 1926).

The inside article by John Moehring asks "Was Houdini a Secret Agent?", the provocative theory put fourth in the new book The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero by William Kalush and Larry Sloman. 

Moehring doesn't draw a conclusion himself, but simply lays the surprisingly slight evidence that Kalush and Sloman use to build their spy narrative (namely a few diary entires by Superintendent Melville of Scotland Yard referencing someone with the initials HH).

The issue also contains excerpts from the new book, including the chapter that deals with his Film Developing Corporation and brief movie career.

Houdini Lives! in new novel

Here’s another new Houdini book released in time for the 80th anniversary of his death. Houdini Lives! by Al Blanchard and Adam Steinfeld is a fictional novel that finds Houdini alive and well and living in Miami Beach in 1966. Here’s a description from the book jacket:

Is it True? Can it Be? Alive and well in 1966. Only 40 years ago! 
FT. LAUDERDALE, FL – OCTOBER 31, 2006 --- It's 1966, and world famous magician, escape artist, Harry Houdini, did not die 40 years ago as people thought. He's has been in hiding from his political enemies and is planning a dramatic comeback. Who are these enemies from the 1920's, and why are they still trying to kill him? Can Stanford, the young, hip, up-and-coming magician, and his sultry assistant, Solea, save his life? A magician creates a world of wonder and asks people to believe in that world. It is the highest form of entertainment. What is Houdini's secret identity? Will this be his final illusion? Ladies and Gentlemen, prepare for a tall tale of murder, mystery, romance, and political drama. Houdini lives or dies is only a matter of time.

Houdini Lives! can be purchased an eBook ($5.27) or as a printed novel ($12.95) from

Houdini is a no show at official seance

The Official Houdini Seance was held last night at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan. Here's a full account of the seance from The New York Times:

Houdini Declines Comment, but Not for Want of Trying
Published: November 1, 2006 
Harry Houdini is still dead and still not talking. Efforts to reach him yesterday failed.

The expectations were not terribly high at an annual séance held on Halloween, the day on which Houdini died in 1926. Teller, the quieter half of Penn and Teller, showed up, saying, “I’d be stunned if Houdini showed up, and so would he.”

So the question was whether Houdini — the master escape artist, the man who could slip out of handcuffs and arise from tomblike burials — would escape the afterlife.

There was an empty chair waiting for him on the stage in the auditorium at the Center for Jewish History, on West 16th Street in Manhattan. The chair was a hard wooden one provided by Anna Crankshaw, the great-granddaughter of the Boston medium known as Margery. Houdini had tangled with Margery. Maybe he would prefer one of the more comfortable padded seats in the audience.

But why would someone who was as famous as a movie star sit there? And what’s with that “famous as a” line? He was a movie star. And he appealed to women, no matter how carefully his earliest biographers airbrushed the record.

“He was always portrayed as faithful to his wife,” said William Kalush, an author of a brand-new biography, “The Secret Life of Houdini.”

Larry Sloman, who wrote the book with him, added, “The first biography was authorized by his wife, so she put out the stories she wanted.” (Their book makes the case that Houdini was a spy who tackled special projects for British intelligence and the United States Secret Service, but that is another story.)

Up on the stage, with the empty chair, were 13 magicians and Houdini experts. One of them was Dorothy Young, 99 years old, who was in the cast of Houdini’s touring show in 1925.

She said she was “the radio girl,” which meant that she never ate until after a performance. Why not? As the radio girl, she explained, “I had to fit in the radio.”

And she had talked with Houdini about this returning-from-the-dead thing. While he was still alive, of course.

“He told me, ‘It’s humanly impossible, but I’ll be there in spirit.’ That’s firsthand.”

Next to her was Thomas J. Boldt, who was identified in the program as a “Houdinite.” As the lights went down, he stood and introduced the séance director, Sidney H. Radner, who instructed the audience to turn off all cellphones. Mr. Radner did not want anyone’s concentration broken by a jazzy ring tone, and besides, he did not expect any missed calls to be from Houdini.

“I don’t think Houdini is going to come back by cellphone,” he said.

So much for the preliminaries. He introduced Jon Stetson, whom the program identified as a “renowned New England psychic medium.” His Web site,, describes him as an “internationally acclaimed mind reading comedian” and a “corporate entertainer like no other.”

But Mr. Stetson sounded serious. He told the audience, “Success rests on your willingness to push aside logic.”

He told the people on the stage to join hands. The lights dimmed further. Mr. Stetson implored Houdini to make an appearance.

He tried flattery, telling Houdini that he was “a crusader, a genius.”

Mr. Stetson said there was energy in the room. But his patience began to wane. “We’re waiting for a sign, Harry,” he said. “It’s been 80 years, Harry.”

After about 20 minutes, he called a halt to the séance. “I do not feel contact was made,” he announced.

No, he said a moment later, he did not consider his efforts to have been pointless. “Personally, I don’t think the day is right.” Too much skepticism, too many people out there doing séances using fraudulent methods Houdini would have exposed.

And, he said, he wasn’t expecting to see a “bolt of lightning” because “the true manifestations are in us.”

“It all happens in our head,” he said.

But there were those who were not sure that nothing had happened.

“This was the closest yet,” Mr. Sloman said. “I felt something in the room. Maybe it was Harry sleeping here. Maybe it was having my hand interlocked with Kalush, who I’ve never done that with in three years of working on a book.”

Then a couple of people told Cathy Krugman, the director of development for the American Jewish Historical Society, that three of the tall, silvery letters that spell “Center for Jewish History” at the back of the stage — specifically, the I, the S and the H — did not go dark when the lights went down. And then they flickered.

In the end, Ms. Krugman said, “I don’t know if that was Giovanni.”

Giovanni Massa, she explained, was the technician running the lights.