Saturday, June 30, 2012

Houdini, the Magician's Code, and the Talking Tea Kettle scandal

Recently the book Fooling Houdini by Alex Stone has come under fire from prominent magicians such as Ricky Jay in the New York Times and Jamy Ian Swiss in Genii for, among others things, exposing magic secrets and fundamentals.

"I do break that oath," Stone told the National Post, "but for one, I think that magicians take themselves a little too seriously with the secret thing."


The Magician's Code is no joke. Houdini once said that exposing tricks is "taking bread and butter from honest hard working ambitious magicians." But even Houdini once found himself in the hot-seat over this. In fact, the scandal is partially why there is a formal Magician's Code today.

The problem erupted when Houdini published an article in the October 1922 issue of Popular Radio exposing The Talking Tea Kettle. This is an effect in which one can ask a question and hear the answer via a ghostly voice inside a tea kettle. Houdini claimed it was a tool of dishonest spiritualists "for getting money from their credulous followers" and exposed it in the same way he exposed many of their methods "as a public duty."

The trouble was The Talking Tea Kettle was the invention of magician and author David P. Abbott. Abbott created the illusion in 1907 as a "spooky" stage effect, not one for use in the séance room. To many there was a difference between a spiritualist stage act, like The Davenport Brothers (respected even by Houdini), and one-on-one séance room bunko artists like Margery. With his article, Houdini had clearly exposed a stage effect. What made it worse is Houdini purchased his tea kettle from a magic dealer and not from the estate of a deceased medium as the article claimed.

Abbott's local SAM assembly in Omaha took up the matter and, according to The Houdini-Price Correspondence by Gabriel Citron, "voted for Houdini's resignation as President of the SAM over the affair." (!) A letter published in The Sphinx pointed out that Houdini had once forced a member to resign over exposing his Milk Can effect. It's incredible to think that even Harry Houdini could be run out of a magic fraternity for violating the Magician's Code.

However, Houdini argued that he did not expose the method of the kettle in his original article, but that the magazine added the detailed explanation to his text and photographs without his consent. In MUM Houdini reproduced correspondence between himself and the magazine editor, Kendall Banning, that proved this was the case. Nevertheless, even the title of Houdini's article, "Ghosts that Talk by Radio" could be considered an exposure in itself.

Houdini remained president of the SAM and went out of his way to patch things up with Abbott personally, but the controversy only died down when the SAM formed a committee to decide on a formal code of conduct that would govern the exposure of secrets. They determined what was allowed and what was not (devoting a special section to spiritualist trickery) and also laid out punishment for those who broke the rules. A version of those rules stand to this day.

In an ironic postscript, David Abbott would later expose the Talking Tea Kettle himself in his book, David P. Abbott's Book of Mysteries. The book showed that Houdini had actually gotten the method wrong. The method Abbott employed was far more subtle and clever.

I'd tell you what that method was, but...

Thanks to Joseph Pecore for providing me with the pages in MUM that show the Houdini-Banning correspondance. You can read Houdini's original Popular Radio article in Patrick Culliton's Houdini The Key.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Houdini trading cards coming in Oct.

All About is teaming up with Eachus Publishing and the Houdini Museum in Scranton to launch Houdini: The World's First Superhero Trading Cards. While there have been individual Houdini trading cards throughout the years, this is the first full set that I'm aware of.

First up will be an 18 card preview set due out August 31. Limited to only 500 sets, it's available for pre-order now.

This will be followed by the official 54 card set to be released at the Houdini Museum's Houdini seance on October 31st. Curator and legendary escape artist Dorothy Dietrich will autograph card inserts.

You can get more information, see preview poster cards, and pre-order the preview set at All About

Thanks to Julio Sevilla for the alert.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Browse Houdini's library online

Here's a mid-week treat. David Byron, who blogs at, alerts me to, a website that catalogs libraries, including Houdini's.

Houdini described his library as "one of the largest libraries in the world on psychic phenomena, Spiritualism, magic, witchcraft, demonology, evil spirits, etc." The largest portion of the library was bequeathed to the Library of Congress, and that forms the basis of this catalog. Additional books have been added from the Messmore Kendall collection, now at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin, and from various auction and bookseller catalog descriptions.

It's fun to scan through these 80 pages and see what kinds of books Houdini had on his shelf. It's quite a mix of titles, with everything from The Esoteric Basis of Christianity or Theosophy and Christian Doctrine by William Kingsland, to the unfortunate New Minstrel and Black Face Joke Book. One thing is for sure, Houdini's obsession with the mysteries of life after death is made very clear here. (profile) (library)

Thank you David!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Did Houdini really help create Myra's mysteries?

The Mysteries of Myra is a lost 1916 movie serial directed by Theodore Wharton and written by Perils of Pauline screenwriter Charles W. Goddard. Houdini buffs are well familiar with this title as it has always been said that Houdini acted as a technical advisor on the film; one of his first forays into the movie business. But is it true?

While Ken Silverman mentions Houdini's involvement with Myra in Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss (aka My Bible), the original source appears to be Milbourne Christopher, who wrote in both Houdini The Untold Story (1969) and Houdini A Pictorial Life (1976) that:

As technical consultant in 1916 to the Pathe thriller The Mysteries of Myra, Houdini devised a whirling-mirror hypnotism machine and special seance effects.

But now Eric Stedman, who recently republished the original The Mysteries of Myra novelization and is working on a modern day adaption, is here to tell us that Houdini was not involved in this production after all. Says Eric.

"Mr. Houdini was not involved in the production of THE MYSTERIES OF MYRA. Nothing could have been more pro-spiritualism and Houdini as you know was interested in debunking all things occult, not promoting them as real as MYRA does. The actual consultants on the film were Hereward Carrington, who was the real-life prototype for the screen's first paranormal investigator Payson Alden, and Aliester Crowley, who the villain the "Master" is made to resemble.

The confusion about Houdini being involved in this serial comes from his relationship with the Grossman pictures outfit which made THE MASTER MYSTERY serial and had filmed two serials in Ithaca previously, where MYRA was filmed, one of which was called THE CROOKED DAGGER. "Houdini is making a serial with a studio that worked in Ithaca" has been transformed over the years to "Houdini consulted on THE MYSTERIES OF MYRA serial which was filmed in Ithaca." No evidence exists that Houdini even ever visited Ithaca for any reason and if he would have worked on MYRA the Whartons would have promoted that fact in their advertising. There's no such mention of him in the original literature; the press releases are all about Hereward Carrington, the prolific spiritualist writer and founding member of early spiritualism societies.

Again, the Houdini connection here is entirely erroneous; if HH had seen the script and all its astral bodies and ghosts flying around and automatic writing he would have laughed it off as ridiculous bunk."

Steve Rivkin, who is currently writing a biography of Hereward Carrington and has an excellent Hereward Carrington blog, agrees with this, adding:

"It seems likely that the numerous escapes in the film may have influenced someone to think Houdini might be involved. Hereward Carrington did not have an association with Houdini that I am aware of till about 1922 when they began to be on friendly terms. There is no known association of Houdini with the film and Carrington never mentioned it and surely would have. If anyone ever discovers proof otherwise I would be interested."

My only disagreement with all this is the idea that Houdini wouldn't have worked on Myra out of principle. In 1916 Houdini hadn't yet formed his combative stance on spiritualism. In fact, his own film, The Man From Beyond, features publicity that could be considered pro-spiritualism, and even promotes the casting of Jane Connelly as a psychic occurrence. While Houdini certainly didn't buy into spiritualism, he seems perfectly comfortable in playing up the theatrical nature of mystical whatnot (Imprisoned with the Pharaohs anyone?), and probably would have seen working on Myra as simply helping engineer movie magic.

But other than that, sounds like Eric and Steve know what they are talking about. While I still think it's important that we learn and consider Christopher's source (which very well could be a letter or diary), I'm willing to accept the challenge to this long held idea that Houdini helped conjure The Mysteries of Myra.

Did he or didn't he?

'Houdini Question Reality' released for Kindle

Dixie Dooley's self-published Houdini - Question Reality has been released for the Amazon Kindle.

First published in 2011 as a print-on-demand paperback from (where it is still available), this book is must for Dixie's story about visiting 278 in the 1980s and the hand-drawn picture he includes showing the layout of the entire house. This might be the only record of the original floor plan as it existed in Houdini's day.

The book also contains a lot of other eclectic and intriguing Houdini tales told by a true Houdini aficionado (and a bit of a character).

Get Houdini - Question Reality for the Kindle at

Monday, June 25, 2012

Haunted Houdini game walkthrough

In January of this year Big Fish Games released an online Houdini game, Midnight Mysteries: Haunted Houdini Deluxe, available as a download for $2.99. It appears to be very popular.

But if you're like me and not a gamer, but would still like to experience the Houdini content inside, now you can do so by visiting Big Fish's complete game walkthrough page.

Gotta say, whoever did this game appears to have done their homework as far as Houdini is concerned.

Get WILD in any language

Today I've added a new Blogger feature: Translation. That means you can now read WILD ABOUT HARRY in almost any language by just selecting a language from the drop down menu at the bottom of the page. Cool feature (although I appreciate the pointlessness of posting this news in English).

Okay, world, it's time to get WILD!

Houdini Lives will die on June 30

This is just a heads up that my old Houdini website, Houdini Lives!, will cease to exist after June 30 when Apple turns off their MobileMe hosting service.

I considered moving the site to a paid server, but I decided I don't need the hassle and expense of serving a site that I no longer update. Over the past few years I've moved and archived all the important news stories here on WILD ABOUT HARRY, and part of the reason I created this blog was because I saw support waning for iWeb/MobileMe and feared it was a matter of time before Apple abandoned the software and service. That day has come.

What spooks me is I still see a fair amount of traffic travel from the old site to here. This is probably because I have a WILD ABOUT HARRY news feed at Houdini Lives. But after Saturday, that feed will no longer be available.

So if you are connecting to this blog via any URL that says, change those bookmarks to (I also might look into an automatic redirect of the old URL).

Thanks. I apologize for any inconvenience.

UPDATE: The site is now offline, but the old URL should be forwarding to this blog now.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Houdini and Conan Doyle rarities on display in Tacoma

An exhibit called Arthur Conan Doyle, Houdini and Spiritualism is currently on show at the Karpeles Manuscript Museum in Tacoma, Washington. The exhibit opened May 1 and runs through August 30, 2012.

According to the description on the official website, the exhibit contains several letters written by Houdini early in his career "pleading for a job - showing almost an obsessive attitude toward his work", a paper record of a seance, including "Mrs Doyle's cross," and the contact box used.

It's not clear from the description if this "paper record" means they have the actual Automatic Writing pages from the famous Atlantic City seance on display (which would be remarkable).

The Karpeles Manuscript Museum is located at 407 S. G St., Tacoma. Admission is free. It is one of 11 museums around the country housing the private historic manuscript collection of California real estate magnate David Karpeles. Exhibits rotate every three months or so between the museums. (Here's hoping Houdini and Conan Doyle comes to their Santa Barbara location so I can give it a looksee.)

Thanks to The News Tribune.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Genii & Houdini: October 1943

Even though it was Houdini's brother, Hardeen, who graced the cover of Genii, The Conjurors Magazine in October 1943, this "Houdini Memorial Issue" marked an important moment in the history of Genii and Houdini as it was the first October issue following the deaths of Edward Saint and Bess.

Ed Saint and Bessie were great friends of editor William Larsen and his wife Gerri, and had supported Genii from the start. Many of the articles and cover images had come from the "Houdini Archive" controlled by Ed Saint.

This issue includes an article about Bessie's final train ride written by her sister, Marie Hinson. It also looks at the surviving family, notably Hardeen and his sons, Lt. Harry Houdini Hardeen and Capt. Theodore Hardeen, Jr., both of whom were serving in the military at the time. The article notes that Houdini has one other living nephew, Col. M.S. White, "and they are all that is left of Houdini's immediate family."

The magazine also has a nice article titled, "Where Houdini Alive Today - What Would He Be Doing?" In it Fred Rickard predicted:

"He would already have made intensive investigations into television. He would have made all the proper contacts to insure him being the first magician to present a televised magic show to a really large television audience."

Editor William Larsen offered up his take on Houdini's role in War World II:

"Here would have been a chance for him to take up the cudgel and attack. Knowing the world as he knew it, and as he would have known it had his life been spared, it is certain that he would have intensely disapproved everything Nazi. What a thrill he would have had exposing the "Bund."

Having produced a Houdini cover every year expect one since its founding in 1936, this would be the last of the annual Houdini Memorial Issues of Genii. And when Houdini returned to the cover of Genii after a ten year absence, he would not quite be himself.

Stay tuned.

Coming next: June 1953

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What's this about Houdini's throwing knives?

So in my morning trolling of the Internet in search of Houdini whatnot to share, I've once again come across a story about "Houdini's throwing knives." I've encountered these a few times. First was when one of the knives was displayed at the Houdini Museum in Scranton. Next was when one knife "sold" on the Discovery Channel Show Oddites for $1,300.

But I've been reluctant to post anything about these as it all seems a little suspicious to me. First off, Houdini had throwing knives??? I've never heard of Houdini doing a knife throwing act. The only provenance I find is that they belonged to "the Hartley family, who were companions of Houdini". I've never heard of the Hartley family. Also, in 2003, a completely different set of "Houdini throwing knives" sold in a Lelands auction for a revealingly low price of $349.

The current owner of these knives appears to be a professional knife thrower named The Great Throwdini, who writes on his website:

They were once the knives of THE GREAT HARRY HOUDINI (no kidding, these WERE Harry Houdini's personal throwing knives). They measure an awesome 16.5"and have cork handles. Made by the W.S. Brown Co., Pittsburgh PA.

In the Oddites show, Throwdini appears not as the owner, but as the purchaser. Again, suspicious, but I'm learning many of these "reality" shows employ similar tactics -- like having an actor present an item and then having the owner pose as the expert. But this just makes me all the more reluctant to believe that these knives have anything to do with Houdini, and are just being used as a publicity gimmick for Throwdini's act.

However, I'm certainly willing to have my mind changed. I would love to learn that Harry and Bess did a knife throwing act in their early years.

So does anyone know anything more about these? Maybe Throwdini himself can add a comment? Let's throw some light on these knives (see what I did there?).

UPDATE: Well, it appears there is a verifiable connection between Houdini and a knife throwing act. "Mr. Know-It-All" alerts me to Houdini's first pitch book (the cover of which you can see in Ken Silverman's Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss) which contains a section called, "How to do an Impalment [sic] Act." Doesn't mean Houdini performed the act himself, but he does present himself as expert enough to teach it, so knife throwing appears to be part of his skill set. Also, cork handles appear to be in line with his suggestion: "For an effective finish saturate the handles with some inflamable [sic] stuff and ignite them and then hurl at subject."

Alex Stone on 'Fooling Houdini'

A new book called Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind has been released by Harper. Doesn't look like the book has anything to do with Houdini apart from a nice name-check in the title, but that's enough for it to get a mention here on WILD ABOUT HARRY.

You can buy Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind on You can learn more about the book at the Fooling Houdini website.

Below is a clip of author Alex Stone talking about the book and the art of Magic.

UPDATE: This book is receiving a justifiably hostile reception from magicians for revealing secrets. To read about the time Houdini himself got in trouble over breaking the Magician's Code, read: Houdini, the Magician's Code, and the Talking Tea Kettle scandal.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Bessie's last address

While doing some research in the Magic Castle library, I stumbled on this item from the February 1943 issue of Genii magazine. This is the last thing written about the living Beatrice Houdini in Genii, who died on February 11 of that year.

Genii, February 1943

What I like about this is it gives Bessie's last Los Angeles address: Cedar Lodge, 2030 Griffith Park Blvd. Cedar Lodge was actually "Cedar Lodge Sanitarium." Back then, a sanitarium (or sanatorium) was a hospital for long-term illness, most typically associated with the treatment of tuberculosis. While the exact cause of Bessie's death has always been vague, Bess's niece Marie Blood told me that both she and Ed Saint died from TB.

A modern condo building stands at the site today. While the address has changed to 2018 Griffith Park Blvd., the complex still carries the name Cedar Lodge, as you can see in the Google map photo below.

Monday, June 18, 2012


Look at this beautiful original cabinet photo of Houdini recently won in a Martinka auction. Not by me, unfortunately, but the new owner did allow me to be the first to unwrap it deep inside the bowels of the Magic Castle library. A beauty!

Houdini was very fond of this profile shot. He used it on assorted stationary, his bookplate, and his business card (below).

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Cover art for 'The Metamorphosis: The Apprenticeship of Harry Houdini'

Cover art for The Metamorphosis: The Apprenticeship of Harry Houdini by Bruce MacNab has been revealed. The book looks at Houdini's early years and his tour of eastern Canada, including New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, in the summer of 1896. The cover features a very uncommon shot of the young Houdini.

The Metamorphosis: The Apprenticeship of Harry Houdini will be published by Goose Lane Editions on September 28, 2012, and is available for pre-order on (currently 34% off).

Friday, June 15, 2012

Houdini apparition appears in Visalia?

We've all heard tales of the Virgin Mary or Jesus manifesting on stone walls in Central America; but how about a Houdini apparition in Visalia, California? Gaze below at the evidence!

Okay, maybe this isn't an apparition. Maybe this is just someone who is Wild About Harry and has painted the side of their house with the image of the Master Mystifier (which, by the way, appears similar to artwork used by the Houdini Historical Center years ago). But it's still pretty cool!

Thanks to my great friend and Visalia resident Cheri Levin Richey for the alert and the pic.

UPDATE: This image was originally created by Chuck Romano. You can read about it on his blog. My Magic Uncle.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Spanish Houdini trading cards

Here's an interesting set of Houdini trading cards from Spain that recently sold on eBay. Released around 1958, these belong to a series that, according to the seller, "speaks of epic men's world records." Notice that the Water Torture Cell card uses a still from the 1953 movie, Houdini. That movie also seems to have inspired the cards depicting Houdini trapped under the ice.

Kevin Connolly of Houdini Himself has made a specialty of collecting Houdini cards for an upcoming catalog. Maybe we'll see these rarities included?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Houdini's watch sells for $25,000

An 18K gold pocket watch given to Houdini by his English agent, Harry Day, sold at Bonhams today for $25,000 (including buyers premium). The watch beat its auction estimate of $10,000 - $15,000.

Described as a "hunter cased minute repeating chronograph with calendar and moon phases", the watch carries an inscription showing it was given to Houdini by Day in May 1914. This was right at the time Houdini was performing his "Grand Magical Revue" in England. It was also Houdini's last tour of the UK before the outbreak of World War I, so it's possible this was a farewell gift from Day.

According to the auction, after Houdini's death the watch was given to his nephew, Harry White.

Harry and Bess 2012 style

Escape, a comedic new off-Broadway play by Susan Mosakowski, is now playing at the La MaMa Theatre in New York. The play features the interactions of three couples, among them Houdini's grandson, Harry Houdini III, played by Carlo Alban, and his wife, Bess, played by Samantha Soule.

According to a review The New York Post:

"Harry, who longs to follow in his famous grandfather’s footsteps, hopes to audition for the Ringling Brothers circus, but can’t extricate himself from anything. It’s up to Bess to pay the bills with her job at an S&M club.
The characters’ fates become entangled when Harry’s neighbors find the straitjacket and coffin that he’s thrown out in fits of disgust.
This daffy absurdist comedy has its moments, especially when the hapless Harry is rescued time and again by his patient wife.

Escape plays through June 24 at La MaMa's First Floor Theater located at 74A East 4th Street. Visit the La MaMa website for times and tickets.

1907 style

Titan's reprint of The Houdini Specter released today

Titan Books reprint of The Houdini Specter by Daniel Stashower is released today. This follows Titan's reprints earlier this year of Stashower's first two books in his "Harry Houdini Mystery" series, The Dime Museum Murders and The Floating Lady Murder.

First published in 2001, The Houdini Specter finds Harry and his brother Dash (Hardeen) investigating a murder with a spiritualist twist in 1898 New York. It was the last book in Daniel Stashower's series and the only one to be published in hardcover as well as paperback.

This new reprint includes an extract from Stashower's The Adventure of the Ectoplasmic Man, which teams Houdini and Sherlock Holmes. Titan reprinted that book in 2009.

Titan has rebranded these as "The Harry Houdini Mysteries" with nifty new series cover art. You can purchase all three books from Amazon by clicking the links below.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Genii & Houdini: October 1942

Continuing our look back at the history of Houdini on the cover of Genii, The Conjurors' Magazine, here we have Vol. 7, No. 2 from October 1942. This time the cover art -- "prepared under the personal direction of Edward Saint, Houdini Archivist" -- commemorates Houdini's historic first flight in Australia. Perhaps in a reference to the War effort, editor William Larsen writes, "With Australia the scene of so much aerial activity today, we consider the cover drawing most appropriate to the times."

The issue contains 8 pages of Australian newspaper clippings about Houdini's historic flight in 1910. It also features Bessie's final memorial page, and a reproduction of a "Trick idea in Houdini's handwriting, written June 9, 1926."

This issue is also notable in that it contains the obituary of Jacob Hyman, Houdini's first performing partner, written by Edward Saint. It also has an article by his brother, Joe Hyman, titled "Strange Coincidence". In it Joe talks about how his bust of Houdini mysteriously fell and broke shortly after Houdini's death, while an identical bust belonging to Houdini's English agent Harry Day also broke days later.

In his intro to this issue, Larsen writes, "Each year Genii dedicates its October number to the Houdinis: Harry and Beatrice. This marks the seventh year that we have done so. The doing of it gives us pleasure and us proud."

But changes were to come...

Coming next: October 1943

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Jackman "very excited" about Houdini musical

At the 66th Annual Tony Awards, Hugh Jackman told NY1 that he's looking forward to the staged reading (or what Aaron Sorkin called "a stumble-through") of the first act of his Broadway-bound Houdini musical. Says Jackman:

"I'm very excited. Aaron Sorkin is writing the book, Stephen Schwartz doing the music, Jack O'Brien directing [and] David Rockwell [providing scenic design]... We have a very exciting group, [and] we're about to do a first act read-through in about a week."

Jackman is being honored with a special Tony for his "contributions to the Broadway community, both as a performer and humanitarian."

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Milk Can on display as part of 'Magic' at the Chicago History Museum

The Milk Can that toured with the now closed Houdini Art and Magic is on display at the Chicago History Museum as part of their new exhibition, Magic. The exhibition startes today and runs through the first week of January 2013.

The Milk Can arrives in Chicago for Magic. Photo by Enrique Gonzalez

The Milk Can is from the collection of the American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Michigan. While it has long been touted as a "Houdini Milk Can", I've often wondered if it's not actually Hardeen's Milk Can. It certainly resembles the Hardeen Can.

But whether the Can belonged to Houdini or Hardeen, it's still a wonderful magic artifact and a must see.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Guest Blog: The Stockholm Affair

Today I'm happy to present a Guest Blog by Johan Ahlberg from Sweden. Johan has uncovered an unknown story about Hardeen's encounter with a familiar rival "Handcuff King" in Sweden.

Many years back when I became interested in Houdini, I often wondered if Houdini ever visit my country Sweden? I had found some interesting material about Houdini's tour in Copenhagen in 1913. After spending time in the Swedish royal library, and the post office earned a fortune off me, I found some highly interesting facts -- not about Houdini, but his brother Hardeen!

It was in 1876 on 29th February that Theodore Weiss, Dash, Hardeen was born. It couldn’t have been easy to live in the shadow of his brother Harry Houdini and to be presented as the brother of the Great Houdini! In my opinion Hardeen was a skilled escape artist but maybe he didn’t have the enigma his brother Houdini carried.

In Hardeen's book Life and History of HARDEEN he mentions a performance in Sweden.

King Oscar of Sweden sees Hardeen

Director Jacobsohn, from the Olympic Hippodrome of Stockholm, Sweden, happened to be in England when Hardeen's exploits so widely enthused the public, that he contracted for his performance in Sweden.
On his arrival in Stockholm, Sweden, some one determined to ruin his reputation, and publicly declared him to be an impostor, and challenged Hardeen to escape from some handcuffs which he had made specially for him. All preparations were made for the acceptance of the challenge at the special matinee in the theatre, and, on the appointed day, when Hardeen and the audience had assembled to witness the strife, the challenger failed to appear.
The newspapers of course devoted columns and columns to this episode, and so much court comment was made about this matter that King Oscar of Sweden determined to see this stranger who had raised such furor of enthusiasm, and personally attended Hardeen's performance in company with the Royal Family one evening during the months of April, 1901, at the Royal Olympia Hippodrome, Stockholm.

This is intriguing. What was it Hardeen encountered in Stockholm? Who tried to ruin his reputation and what was these special made manacles?

In the Swedish newspaper of that time, Svenska dagbladet Monday the 1 April 1901, there is an article about Hardeen [these are imperfect translations]:

The Continental Hippodrome Olympia Circus.

Today Monday the 1th April at 8 o clock afternoon
Big gala performance.
For the first time
Theo Hardeen
England, Germany and America called
The police baffler.
Mr. Hardeen will be manacled under the audience control on hands and feet with police and prison chains and in a short time will he free himself from the chains while the audience hold the keys. It's allowed for everyone visiting to bring regular police chains and prison chains from any country and Mr. Hardeen will liberate himself from them. Mr. Hardeen will pay 500 Kr to anybody that can do the same with the chains he uses during the performance.

For the first time

The wonderful trunk mystery.

In Svenska Dagbladet 18th April there is another article that sheds some light on this mystery.

The Handcuff breakers big fight
Stormy scene from Grand Hotel.
At the Circus Olympia is a man Theo Hardeen, who calls himself the “police baffler”. His specialty is to crawl into a small tent and there open a pair of handcuffs applied by the audience. He does it very well and many have wondered how does he do it? Especially since he offers a reward of 500 Kr to anybody that can do the same. Later he raised it to double the amount. First our illusionist Nordstrom and latter two English competitors father and son Cirnoc [accepted the challenge?]. Nordstrom didn’t want to tell how he did it, but Cirnoc wrote an article in a morning paper to challenge Hardeen.

Finally there was arranged a special performance at hotel grand where several press agents attended with a few selected locksmiths. In the room there where a small black tent for Hardeen's escape act. The American consul Muir was also present. When the clock hit 15 minutes past five, there was a big fight between Cirnoc and Hardeen when Cirnoc protested that Hardeen would go into the small tent to make the escape. Cirnoc jumped on to a table, pulled up his sleeves, and started to wave his arms and screaming in a strange language. A fight broke out when they tried to get hold of the handcuffs Hardeen brought with him. These handcuffs was examined by Backmans safe factory the evening before, who stated “they where impossible to open without a key.”

The attending locksmiths examined the cuffs and said they couldn’t be real police handcuffs! There where strange marks after a file and it was soldered on the cuffs. A company from Stockholm, that represented the company that fabricated Swedish police handcuffs, suggested that Hardeen try a pair of “royal Swedish police handcuffs” as Cirnoc had escape from them earlier on.
Finally they agreed that Cirnoc should open a pair of nice American handcuffs locked on him by Hardeen. Hardeen applied them on Cirnoc's wrists and locked them. Cirnoc went to a corner in the room and opened them in a few seconds! Everything was fair. All waited for Hardeen to do his magic, but nothing happened. They claimed that Hardeen should pay Cirnoc the 1000 Kr, but he refused since Cirnoc never opened his special cuffs. Latter Cirnoc was manacled with different cuffs, chains and padlocks and escaped!

Cirnoc had earlier tried to sabotage Houdini's performances in England, but according to the legend he was beaten by the Bean Giants. Now he tried to ruin Hardeen's performances.

Houdini and Hardeen had some special handcuffs made to look like a standard cuff but with a formidable lock inside. The séance handcuffs looks innocent, like a standard figure eight, but has an impregnable Bramah lock, or so it's claimed. The Houdini Bell handcuff is another unbeatable handcuff with a Chubb style five lever lock. Houdini also had a Ranking handcuff with a special lock no standard key would open.

At this time the Swedish police used a Swedish fabricated Darby style handcuff made by J.Walen in Eskilstuna. Some of these Darbys are lighter than the British handcuffs and takes a different key (photo 1.). The Swedish police also used some Bean pattern handcuffs.

Photo 1. Swedish royal police handcuffs with original keys and
prison padlock, made by J.Walen Eskilstuna Sweden.

Why didn’t Hardeen take up the challenge? And why didn’t the story add up like Hardeen told it in his book? He could have picked these handcuffs in the regulation manner. Maybe he was tired of Cirnoc and the newspaper men and didn’t want to do the handcuff escape in the open. According to information I found abut Cirnoc, it was not his son he had with him, but his brother. Little is known about Cirnoc but probably his name was Ernest Nurthen born in England 1876 and he died in 1952. He was a professional magician and claimed to be the original inventor of the handcuff act. One mystery remains; who had brought Cirnoc to Stockholm to sabotage Hardeen's performances?

For Hardeen it was not a failure. He got lots of coverage in the newspapers even if it’s an entirely different version in the newspapers.

© Johan Ahlberg

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Aaron Sorkin updates progress on Houdini musical

Aaron Sorkin has provided an update on the Houdini Broadway musical he is writing for Hugh Jackman in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

"Work on Houdini has been underway for a while, with [composer] Stephen Schwartz and I meeting regularly — either in New York or L.A. — to map out the show we’re doing (also not a biography), move index cards around a board, listen to first drafts of songs and read first drafts of scenes. That work will get more intense as we head for a June 25 stumble-through with Hugh [Jackman]."

The Houdini musical was first announced in 2008. The project gained new life when Sorking came onboard in 2010. It's now aiming for the 2013-14 season.

Wild About David

A terrific new tribute website has been launched devoted to the late David De-Val, The site covers De-Val's long career as one of the UK's preeminent escape artists, and includes goodies like this:

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Houdini and his Voisin

A postcard image of Houdini in his Voisin bi-plane in Australia has sold on eBay for $348.52. The auction received 17 bids. I've never seen this particular image of Houdini and his plane before. Note that his assistant, James Vickery, is in the shot. Looks like a dog also got in on the action.

You can read about Houdini's historic first Australia flight here.

Monday, June 4, 2012

New Houdini book in September!

Today we have exciting news of a major new Houdini book coming in September. The Metamorphosis: The Apprenticeship of Harry Houdini by Bruce MacNab looks at Houdini's early years and his tour of Canada in 1896. Houdini's Canadian adventures are a specialty of Bruce's, and after many years of research, he has uncovered fresh new information. Cover art is not yet available, but I have tracked down the publisher's description:

In May of 1896, a young magician from New York City joined the cast of the Marco Magic Company and embarked on a summer-long tour of eastern Canada, including New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. It was during this excursion that Handcuff Harry AKA Harry Houdini first showcased the talent that transformed him from a small-time conjurer, who performed for pennies in dime museums, into the world’s most celebrated escape artist. When he wasn’t performing on stage, Houdini was barnstorming through the streets of every town and city he visited, astounding onlookers in police stations, hardware stores and hospitals by freeing himself from the clutches of every restraining device strapped or wrapped around him. In this absorbing book, enriched by rare, period photographs, Bruce MacNab recounts a fascinating but shockingly untold chapter in the career of the man whose name is still synonymous with the word magic.

The Metamorphosis: The Apprenticeship of Harry Houdini will be published by Goose Lane Editions on September 28, 2012 and is available for pre-order on

Perhaps this book will finally get down to the bottom of THIS.

Jump Street directors jump to Carter Beats The Devil

The Hollywood Reporter says that 21 Jump Street directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller are in talks to direct Carter Beats The Devil.

Based on the superb 2001 novel by Glen David Gold -- which features Houdini in a small but significant role as Carter's inspiration and mentor -- the movie has long been in development. Paramount originally optioned the book in 2002 for Tom Cruise to star and produce. Once that deal lapsed, AMC took a stab at turning it into a TV series.

In 2010 the project got back on track when Michael Gilio was tapped to write the screenplay with Jon Shestack producing for Warner Bros. Now it looks like it's taken another step forward.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Hear 30 seconds of the alternate Houdini voice recording

Here is a YouTube video taken in David Copperfield's museum in which you can hear the first 30 seconds of one of the alternate Houdini voice recordings. This is the start of the non $1000 challenge version of his Water Torture Cell patter. The Houdini voice recordings were recently played in their entirety at the 43rd Magic Collectors Weekend in Chicago (click here to read my report).

An anonymous commenter drew my attention to this and it looks like it was made covertly, so you might want to listen quickly before it disappears.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Amazon lists six "books" by JC Cannell

Amazon is currently listing six new "books" by J.C. Cannell with titles like: Harry Houdini the True Escapist Extraordinaire and Houdini and his Most Spectacular Escapes. Some of these show prices as high as $26 and page counts as low as 30 pages.

This is certainly a case of buyer beware. These appear to be the 1932 book The Secrets of Houdini by J.C. Cannell (which is in the pubic domain) carved up into sections and offered up under new titles. If you want the Cannell book, it is still readily available in the good old Dover edition at less cost than any of these individual "books."

There is an epidemic of these public domain reconfigurations on Amazon at the moment. Most are obvious, like the hysterically mis-titled The Unmasking of Robert-Houndin. But with their original titles, these editions strike me as a little sneaky, so I thought they were worth flagging. It would be nice if Amazon filtered these off into their own section so they don't come up in a search of legitimate Houdini books.