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?


  1. This blog intrigued me. So, I looked thru my numerous books on Houdini for references and so far only found the ones that you mentioned in this blog. Silverman’s “Notes to Houdini” confirms that his reference came from Milbourne Christopher, “Houdini A Pictorial Life”. I then combed the internet and either found references to him being a technical consultant or it being erroneously reported that Houdini served as special-effects consultant. Eric Stedman and Steve Rivkin both made some interesting points and mention that no evidence or proof exists to support Houdini as a consultant. It would be nice to learn Christopher’s source.

    1. Sounds like we made the same journey, Joe. Christopher's Untold Story is the first time this is mentioned as far as I can find. Would be nice to know where Christopher got this info.

  2. I suspect Milbourne Christopher simply decided to trust some bad information on Houdini that was likely given to him verbally. I can well understand why it may have seemed believable looking back. Hereward Carrington's involvement and key roles are without question and largely well documented. I have even see a crude scetch of the cults outfit robes that was done by Carrington, he was involved in the effects constructed and wrote the story that was adopted and rewritten for the movie script. Carrington's story was serialized in the newspapers. Carrington mentioned his involvement many times in various publications through the years.Carrington had a long standing interest in getting involved in the film industry from at least 1916 that continued through life and later included interest in television work with his own hoped for series of course. - Steve Rivkin

  3. I have to revise part of my earlier statement as I have since found out that Houdini contacted Hereward Carrington in 1910 asking to meet him, - I have to assume the meeting took place. Later in 1911 Houdini complained about Carrington's handcuff escape article. Regardless if Houdini had worked on Myra he would have howled it to the moon like he did most things. He rarely ever passed up oppertunity to promote or take credit for something. On the other hand Carrington's association and credit is well known and mentioned in the newspaper serialization, a few magazine mentions and a book or two of Carrington's. When the estate stuff was being sold Carrington had a crude drawing of the robe design which I feel sure was for Myra, one of his books had a picture with the wheel of light from the film "designed by Carrington" - and so forth. - yes, I know, I am repeating some of what I said before but it was worth repeating. - Thanks Steve