Friday, August 31, 2012

Radner-Houdini rarities in Holyoke

The Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke, Massachusetts will display Houdini and magic memorabilia from the collection of the late Sidney Radner from September 14 to October 31. The exhibition is called "The Magic Collection of Sidney Radner". Among the items will be a unique Houdini bust, a pair of Bean Giant handcuffs, and several original challenge broadsides.

Photos by Don Treeger, The Republican

Sidney Radner died last year at the age of 91. He auctioned off much of his collection in 2004, but held on to a few precious items. Sidney's son, William Radner, now controls the Houdini-Radner rarities that are to be displayed.

The museum will host a special opening night reception featuring roving magicians on Friday, September 14 from 6 to 8pm. Tickets to this special event are $10. Regular admission to the gallery is $3.

The Wistariahurst Museum is located at 238 Cabot St., Holyoke, MA 01040. It was the site of last year's Official Houdini Seance. Visit their official website for more information.

Click here for a video of William Radner talking about the exhibition.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

'The Last Greatest Magician in the World' released in paperback

The paperback edition of Jim Steinmeyer's excellent biography of Howard Thurston, The Last Greatest Magician in the World: Howard Thurston Versus Houdini and the Battles of the American Wizards, is released today by Tarcher.

Below is a video of Jim talking about the book and the rivalry between Thurston and Houdini.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

"This book is full of lies"

Today I continue my series looking back at books written about Houdini with images from my own collection.

The first comprehensive Houdini biography was published by Harcourt, Brace and Co. on June 7, 1928. The book was Houdini, His Life Story by Harold Kellock from the Recollections and Documents of Beatrice Houdini. Hardeen famously inscribed a copy of the book with the sentence: "This book is full of lies."

1928 first edition by Harcourt, Brace.

Yes, Life Story contains wild embellishments and outright fictions, such as Houdini being trapped under he ice during a bridge jump and the full "acid on the dress" story of Houdini and Bess's first meeting. The book crystallized much of the mythology Houdini had been building up for years in his pitch-books; mythology that took years to unravel.

But this was the way Houdini wanted his story told. Like Walter Gibson's Houdini's Escapes and Magic, this was a book that Houdini would have written had he lived. At the time of his death he had already dictated several chapters of an autobiography, and the photos used in the book are noted as being expressly set aside for the purpose of publication in a book.

However, Life Story also includes a great deal of candid recollections by Bess that have the feel of truth about them. The book shows Bess, especially in her youth, to have been a real firecracker. There's a great story about Bess telling the abusive manager of Kohl & Middleton's Dime Museum to "go to hell" after learning that Harry had saved up $100 for his handcuff challenge. "We have one hundred dollars and we don't need your old dime museum," she said. Many of these stories don't make it into later biographies. This is the book that gives us the best portrait of Bess during Houdini's lifetime.

It's also nice that the original dust jacket features a photo of Houdini performing his Needles trick. Here, in 1928, Houdini is portrayed, first and foremost, as a magician, not as a death-defying escape artist. This can be held up as another piece of evidence that refutes the revisionist notion that in his own lifetime Houdini was somehow not considered a magician. Of course he was.

1930 Blue Ribbon edition
This book also infamously reprints on page 105 the secret mind reading code that the Houdinis use in their early act. This was used against Arthur Ford during the 1929 Houdini message debacle, pointing out that the code which formed the bases for the "Rosabelle Believe" test message was available to the public.

Houdini His Life Story would stand as the only comprehensive Houdini biography until William Lindsay Gresham's Houdini The Man Who Walked Through Walls was published in 1959. Unfortunately, Life Story was never published as a mass market paperback and fell out of print following the Blue Ribbon edition of 1930 (right). Apart from a print-on-demand edition by Kessinger Publishing in 2003 (which now sells for a shockingly high price on Amazon), the book remains out of print to this day.

It's a shame that this unique book has remained generally unavailable since 1930. Sure, it's "full of lies", but it contains Bessie's authentic voice and is also as close to a Houdini autobiography as we'll ever get.

Also enjoy:

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Houdini film print sells on eBay

An 8mm print of Houdini's movie The Man From Beyond sold on eBay today for $50.00. Interesting to see a Houdini movie on actual film. The seller, Fantasma Magic, describes this as "extremely rare" and says the print canisters are labeled: "Drama... Studio Unknown... Man From Beyond... Houdini & Nita Naldi reels 1-6".

Back in the days before video, 8mm was a popular consumer format. An 8mm print would have been the only way most magic buffs could see this Houdini film. In the February 1970 issue of Genii, Houdini collector Manny Weltman ran this advert. I'm wondering if this is one of those Weltman 8mm prints?

Genii, February 1970

Ironically, the film cost more in 1970 than it sold for today. This is a rare case of something Houdini related actually going down in value.

Speaking of good old fashioned celluloid, it's projected that distribution of motion pictures on film will cease in the U.S. by the end of 2013 and worldwide by 2015.

UPDATE: I recently found this ad in the December 1954 issue of Home Movies magazine that offers The Man From Beyond on 8mm "to the public for the first time."

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Grim Game opens on Broadway

It was 93 years ago this past weekend that The Grim Game opened in New York at B.S. Moss’s Broadway Theater located at Broadway and 41st St. Houdini himself put in a personal appearance at the theater, "explaining on the stage a few of the dare-devil mystifying stunts portrayed in the film."

While I've heard of Houdini doing personal appearances for The Man From Beyond and Haldane, I believe this is the first I've heard of him doing so for The Grim Game.

This information comes from (where else?) Joe Notaro's terrific blog devoted to The Grim Game, Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence. Joe has posted two newspaper ads for the Moss Broadway Theater opening and also a review of the film and Houdini's talk from the New York Tribune. It's great stuff.

Magicol, No. 183

The new issue of Magicol (No. 183) has arrived, and as always there's something in it for us Houdini nuts.

This issue is all about the joy of magic posters, and as you can see from the image on the back of the magazine (right), The Houdinis Metamorphosis poster is covered. Dr. Bruce Averbook selects this as his "dessert island" poster. "It gives me chills," he writes.

The "Houdini For President" poster is also featured in David Ben's terrific article on poster values. Something Gabe Fajuri writes about a Herrmann poster also applies here: "You know you're famous when your posters advertise who you are, not what you do."

The 43rd Magic Collectors Weekend in Chicago is also covered. It includes a nice mention of my own Houdini talk along with coverage of the big Friday night Houdini presentations by Arthur Moses and William Pack.

You can subscribe to Magicol at

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Was Houdini considering a monkey gland transplant operation?

The mighty Kevin Connolly over at Houdini Himself has dropped a bombshell! This is information that Houdini biographer Kenneth Silverman told Kevin that, should he ever reprint his book, he would add a chapter about this. It involves Houdini's singular interest in possibly having a monkey gland transplant operation in the last year of his life.

The information comes from a set of letters in Kevin's collection between Houdini and Clifford Smyth, who is credited with starting the New York Times Book Review. The 4 year long correspondence are all about one subject: monkey gland transplants into humans. Kevin has posted one of letters in which Houdini talks about witnessing an operation on an 80-year-old man and another on a woman of 32.

Was Houdini considering having the operation himself to combat years of pain due to his strenuous escapes? Kevin also speculates as to whether Houdini could have secretly had the operation in 1926. If so, could the operation have caused the infection to his appendix that lead to his death?

Anyway, this is obviously a MUST READ over at Houdini Himself. So go!

UPDATE (4/2/16): Unfortunately, Kevin has taken down his blog and this story with it. But David Saltman reproduced some of Kevin's material in a 2015 post on this subject at The Houdini File.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Milk Can escape in full view of the audience

Here's a remarkable video of French-Canadian escape artist Luc Langevin performing Houdini's Milk Can escape in full view of the audience. How can you possibly do the Milk Can in full view of an audience? Well, check out the video and see for yourself. While it's in French and the method he uses is not the same as Houdini, it's a remarkably clever interpretation and definitely suspenseful!

Thanks to Curtis Lovell II at The Magic Cafe forums for the alert and link.

The other celebrity death of 1926

Yesterday I attended the 85th Annual Rudolph Valentino Memorial Service held at his grave site in Hollywood Forever Cemetery (also the final resting place of Edward Saint). Of course, Valentino died only two months before Houdini, and also of peritonitis. At last year's memorial, magician Lisa Cousins delivered a talk about Houdini and Valentino. Nothing Houdini related this year, but I was thrilled to get a photo of the reigning "Lady in Black" after she had laid her rose at Valentino's crypt.

Lisa Cousins also alerted me to this curious video of a "ghost" at Valentino's grave. Recognize the voice? While I don't think they ever met in life, seems these two men can't escape being linked in death.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Bess and the lost grave (updated)

Originally posted June 6, 2012.

John Hinson, great nephew of Bess and Harry Houdini, has generously allowed me to share this unpublished photo of Bessie standing beside the grave of her parents, Gebhard and Balbina Rahner, and other members of the Rahner/Hinson family. I've never seen this photo nor this grave marker before.

But there's a bit of mystery to go along with this. John hasn't been unable to locate this particular grave. He isn't even sure this photo was taken in Gates of Heaven Cemetery, where Bess is buried. So where is this mystery grave?

Any grave hunters out there able to help Bessie's family find their lost relatives?

UPDATE: As you can read in the Comments below, a helpful contributor has discovered that this grave is located in Most Holy Trinity Cemetery, 685 Central Avenue, Brooklyn, NY. The plot sits at Block 82, Row 10, Grave 15. According to the cemetery, Balbina Rahner is buried there with 12 other people. (Another discovery: Bessie's father Gebhard and I share the same birthday, Dec. 3.)

Most Holy Trinity Cemetery. Find A Grave

Prince of the Air: A Story of Young Houdini

Here's one that I missed when it was first released by Leap Frog back in 2003. Prince of the Air: A Story of Young Houdini is nicely done interactive children's book and learning tool by Peter and Connie Roop with beautiful illustrations by Antonio Castro.

Released as part of the Transitional Reading Classroom Series, Prince of the Air tells the story of young Ehrich Weiss performing a tight rope act in a traveling circus in his small town of Appleton, Wisconsin. The book informs its young readers that "some parts of the book are not true. This kind of book is called historical fiction."

Like many of these books, it conceals the fact that the young hero turns out to be Harry Houdini until the end (although the title pretty much spoils that surprise).

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

"Houdini" coming to Brooklyn

Gallery Brooklyn is hosting an exhibition of traveling artwork by Bráulio Amado called Houdini. The show opens this Saturday, August 25, with a special reception from 6-9 pm. The show runs until September 16th.

Houdini is a travelling exhibition by Bráulio Amado. Inspired by the greatest magician that ever lived, the series alludes to abstract universes and fantasies, exploring mind tricks and the possibilities of the impossible. The pieces invoke the unexpected and draw from raging sounds, like those of the Melvin’s Houdini record. Expect weird stuff. 
Since 2012 the exhibition has been traveling to a different city every month, including Chicago, Denton, Philadelphia, Madrid, Berlin, Boston, and now, Brooklyn. 
Braulio Amado is a portuguese artist born in ’87. He moved to NYC to work for Pentagram Design, and now is a freelancer graphic designer and illustrator living in Brooklyn. He is also the director of PEDAL, a portuguese free-monthly newspaper about bikes, and travels around the world with his band Adorno.

For more information about "Houdini" visit the Gallery Brooklyn website.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Gary Ross will not direct The Secret Life of Houdini

Deadline Hollywood reports that The Hunger Games director Gary Ross will not direct The Secret Life of Houdini as his next film. The site says that Ross has "lost interest" in the project. Ross will instead direct Disney’s Peter Pan prequel, Peter and the Starcatchers as his next film.

Loosely based on The Secret Life of Houdini, The Making of America's First Superhero by William Kalush and Larry Sloman, the Summit/Lionsgate project has been in the works since March 2009 and is one of several Houdini films currently in development around Hollywood. The most current screenplay is by Noah Oppenheim.

After The Hollywood Reporter broke the story of Ross's interest in May, it looked like Secret Life had the best chance of making it to the screen. But Deadline reports that Ross never got as far as making a deal with the studio.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Genii & Houdini: October 1961

A magnificent photo of Harry and Bessie Houdini graced the cover of Genii The Conjurors' Magazine Vol. 26, No. 2 in October 1961. It had been five years since the last Houdini memorial issue. This issue would make up for lost time, and also kick off a new era in the Houdini-Genii relationship.

In many ways, this is one of my favorite Houdini issues of Genii. And not just because I love the cover pic. This issue announced the arrival on the scene of 17-year-old Patrick Culliton. Editor Bill Larsen Jr. writes that Patrick is "young in years, but old in the history of magic in general and Houdini in particular." Patrick would assume the role that Edward Saint played in the 1930s, motivating Genii to produce an annual Houdini issue by providing unique content. Says Patrick, "Bill hadn't done one in a couple of years and the Houdini issues always sold a few more magazines."

In this issue, Patrick writes two articles; one on "Houdini's Thumb Racket" and another about "Houdini's Assistants". Patrick had written both articles when he was only 15. (The latter article was reprinted in Walter Gibson's The Original Houdini Scrapbook in 1976.) Patrick also provided the cover portrait and the photo of Houdini's assistants "after the beer challenge." Both had come from the collection of Jacob Hyman. "Marie Hinson wrote a nice note to Bill about the Houdinis on the cover," says Patrick.

This issue also contains an impressive Houdini bibliography by Dave Price of the Egyptian Hall Museum. The contents reflect what is in the Egyptian Hall collection, and covers three pages with some 211 individual listings. It includes sections on books, articles, handbills, letters to and from Houdini, letterheads, photographs, posters, programs and more.

Notable non-Houdini items include a nice photo and announcement of the debut of Mark and Darnell Wilson's The Magic Land of Allakazam TV series (which featured a vanishing elephant), and the re-naming of Main Street in Colon Michigan to Blackstone Avenue in honor of Harry Blackstone Sr.

In his Genii Speaks column, editor Bill Larsen says, "I hope next year to really put out a collectors item in the way of a Houdini issue with Pat's help." It was a promise he would keep.

Coming next: October 1962

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Jack Houdini?

Bill Mullins at the Genii forum has discovered stock footage of a man named Jack Houdini -- said to be the "cousin of the great magician" -- releasing himself from chains and padlocks in a swimming pool in 1935. Interesting stuff, but I don't know Jack! Do you?

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Blog reveals William Hope Hodgson

The blog Brutal as Hell has posted a biography of William Hope Hodgson. A physical fitness pioneer, Hodgson was responsible for giving Houdini one of the worst experiences of his career when he shackled him onstage during his tour of Blackburn in 1902. Houdini eventually escaped, but he wrote that he would never forget the "pain and agony" of that particular challenge.

It's interesting that Hodgson went on to become an author of early horror and science fiction novels and short stories. The bio even says he created the idea of the Sargasso Sea. Anyway, you can read up on the life of Houdini's 1902 tormentor by clicking HERE.

Houdini joins the Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings

Houdini plays a role in the new book Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings by Craig Brown. The book tracks chance encounters between rich and famous people throughout history and how one meeting leads to the next, etc.

Two short chapters describe Houdini's meeting with the Tsar of Russia during his tour in 1903, and then his encounter with Teddy Roosevelt aboard the Imperator in 1914.

According to our friend Leo Hevia, who tipped me off to this book, the author gets a few things wrong about Houdini's escapes. Apparently he believes that the Big Secret was Bess slipping Houdini the keys with a kiss.

Purchase Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings on Amazon.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Chernin Entertainment buys The Houdini Box

Add one more project to the growing list of movies about Houdini currently in development in Hollywood. Variety reports today that 20th Century Fox-based Chernin Entertainment has purchased the film rights to Brian Selznick's The Houdini Box.

First published in 1991, The Houdini Box tells the story of an aspiring young magician who meets Houdini at a train station. The boy receives a letter inviting him to Houdini's house -- only to discover that Houdini died that day and left him a mysterious, locked box.

The Houdini Box was recently adapted into a successful stage play by the Chicago Children's Theater. Last year saw the release of a 3D film version of Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

Chernin Entertainment produced Rise of the Planet of the Apes (the best movie of that year, IMHO) as well as the TV series Terra Nova.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Houdini sculpture by Robert Toth to be unveiled next week

A Houdini portrait sculpture by artist Robert Toth will be unveiled next week at The Fine Frame Gallery in Salisbury, North Carolina. Billed as "A Tribute to Magic", the unveiling will take place at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 23.

A 12-inch Harry Blackstone sculpture by Toth will also be revealed. The event will feature magicians Buddy Farnan and Glenn Yost, both of whom saw Blackstone perform.

Toth received a commission to do the sculptures by Gary Darwin Magic Museum in Las Vegas. They are part of his Masters series.

Fine Frame Gallery is located at 105 S. Main St. in downtown Salisbury, NC. For more information visit

For more about the artwork of Robert Toth, visit

Source: The Salisbury Post.

UPDATE: Houdini sculpture unveiling video.

Top 10 list perpetuates Wikipedia error, a blog that specialized in Top 10 lists, has posted Top 10 Fascinating Facts about Houdini. Online lists can be lazy, but there is some real thought put into this one, and it has received a lot of positive and interesting comments.

However, I'm distressed to read under #5: Pilot Extraordinaire: "He was the third person to fly across Australia (he claimed to be the first)."

This new "fact" is a direct result of spurious changes made to Houdini's Wikipedia page by partisans in the ongoing pissing match over which region in Australia can celebrate the first airplane flight. I fought these changes earlier this year, but failed to have it removed or revised. (You can read about that here.)

This is why it's dangerous to rely solely on Wikipedia for the "facts", especially when it comes to Houdini. His page is currently a bit of a mess.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Death Defying Acts (2008)

In many ways, Death Defying Acts is the model for how not to make a film about Houdini. It opts for fiction over fact, spiritualism over magic and escapes, and incident over biography. It even omits Houdini's name from the title. What the filmmakers thought would be the "hook" of this movie is beyond me, except that it starred Catherine Zeta-Jones.

But having said that, Death Defying Acts is not without merit, and it was good to see Houdini in any form back on the big screen, if only for one week.

From the start, Death Defying Acts was more about the role of the fictional Mary McGarvie than Houdini. This was clear when the project was first announced in the trades as Death Defying Feats in 2005. At that time, Rachel Weisz was set for the co-starring role. Weisz even said she believed she might be related to Houdini! But even with the casting of Guy Pearce as Houdini the project would have trouble getting off the ground until Catherine Zeta-Jones, fresh off her Oscar win for Chicago, took over the role of Mary, reportedly agreeing to a pay cut that "saved the film."

Directed by Gillian Armstrong with a script by Tony Grisoni and Brian Ward, Death Defying Acts tells the fictional story of Houdini's obsessive search for a medium who can prove communication with the dead (and his mother) during a tour of Scotland in 1926. Houdini discovers McGarvie, a Scottish Music Hall clairvoyant, who along with her young daughter, Benji (nicely played by Saoirse Ronan), manipulates matters to get inside Houdini's cloistered world. Ultimately the two tricksters fall in love.

The film was shot in Edinburgh (where it is set) and in London's Savoy Hotel. Much was made by the British tabloid press about an on-set injury to star Zeta-Jones when a member of the crew accidentally stepped on her toe. The Sun reported that, "It virtually took the toenail clean off." Executive producer Dan Lupovitz threw cold water on the story by saying, "It was as minor incident which hardly disrupted filming. She's fine."

In the film, Guy Pearce plays Houdini as a bit of a primadonna who berates hotel porters and barks at his (fictional) manager, Mr. Sugarman (Timothy Spall). Pearce also effects a husky, gravelly voice. The result is the least likable Houdini of them all, although Pearce certainly looks the part with a very Houdini-like physique (although he's the Houdini of 1906 rather than 1926). Says Pearce: "There’s footage of Houdini and there’s audio stuff of him, but I decided to go in a completely different direction and really just work off what my own imaginative response was to the script anyway, I think, rather than really just trying to channel somebody."

The real highlight of Death Defying Acts is the outstanding production design by Gemma Jackson. The opening bridge jump in Sydney Harbor is truly evocative of the period. Many authentic Houdini photos are recreated with Pearce's likeness. Houdini's stationary is even accurately reproduced. The Chinese Water Torture Cell is nicely recreated, although Pearce's patter is hokey and its conclusion, with Pearce lounging across the top like a beach boy, seems out of character. While Bess does not appear in the film, her photograph does. Oddly, the filmmakers elected not to use a photo of the real Bess, but a photo of an unknown actress. Who is this mystery Bessie?

For once a Hollywood film does not portray Houdini as dying in the Water Torture Cell. However Death Defying Acts takes the punch in the stomach story to a new mythic level by having Houdini struck in public and dropping dead on the spot. The so credited "Montreal student", played by Justin Flagg, shouts "Trick or Treat" before he delivers the fatal blow. The punch, and Houdini's problematic appendix, are set-up throughout the film, but the depiction of his sudden death seems a bit lazy.

Produced for less than $20 million, Death Defying Acts was financed through the Australian Film Finance Corp., BBC Films and Myriad Pictures. After it was completed, The Weinstein Company bought the film after viewing a promo reel at the American Film Market, paying a reported $5.5 million for limited distribution rights. Myriad Pictures had already sold distribution rights in the U.K. to Lionsgate.

Death Defying Acts had its world premiere at the State Theater in Sydney Australia on March 10, 2008. A VIP after-party was held at the Zeta Bar at the Sydney Hilton. The film never saw a wide theatrical release in the U.S. Instead, the film played for only one week in two theaters: the Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema in New York and Manns Chinese Theater 6 in Hollywood (where I saw it on July 11, 2008).

The film actually received a good review in the Los Angeles Times, which stated; "Death Defying Acts is far more diverting and well crafted than its promotion-free release campaign might suggest. What the film loses in momentum as the romance takes over, it gains in sex appeal as its two attractive actors make their own kind of magic."

Death Defying Acts wasn't entirely "promotion-free". There was a novelization written by Greg Cox released by Pocket Books (left). This was only the second time a Houdini film was novelized (the first being The Great Houdinis in 1976). A CD soundtrack of the score by Cezary Skubiszewski was also released, and marked the first time a Houdini movie soundtrack made it into stores.

Death Defying Acts was released on DVD on October 28, 2008. The DVD packaging wisely carried a new subtitle, "Houdini's Secret". In some territories the title became Houdini's Death Defying Acts. The DVD includes commentary by director Gillian Armstrong and producer Marian MacGowan, and a Making Of documentary. A Blockbuster Exclusive DVD contained a short documentary, Houdini: The Man Behind The Magic, featuring the stars and filmmakers discussing the real Houdini.

Death Defying Acts is an interesting addition to the Houdini film canon. While maybe not the Houdini film we wanted for the 21st Century, its sincerity makes up for its flaws.

Death Defying Acts plays the Chinese 6 in Hollywood in 2008.

Also enjoy:

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Houdini in the transport chain

Here's a terrific shot of Houdini in the Siberian Transport Chain, a popular effect that can still be purchased in magic shops today. This photo was most likely taken during the same 1901/02 photo session in Germany that produced the famous loincloth shots. This pic comes from an unrelated eBay auction for a "Scotch and Soda Coin Trick".

As with his Needles, I sometimes wonder whether Houdini carried around a Transport Chain as pocket magic. He seems always ready with a chain on hand. There is a photo of him appearing to be giving an impromptu performance of the escape for a group of WWI doughboys in The Secret Life of Houdini, page 336.

The effect is also sometime called the German Transport Chain and, as one might expect, the Houdini Transport Chain.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Original Houdini handcuff photo locks down $687

Despite being in pretty poor condition, an original photo of Houdini in shackles sold on eBay today for an impressive $687 (the auction started at $14.99 without a reserve).

Taken in 1904 at the height of his fame as "The Handcuff King", this shot was used to illustrate Houdini's beautiful Europe's Eclipsing Sensation poster. It also appeared on the cover of his pitchbooks, tobacco cards, and continues to be widely used on book covers today. In many ways, it's the quintessential image of the great escape artist. This is probably why it fetched top dollar.

As always, congrats to the winner.

Friday, August 10, 2012

"Had Houdini lived he would have written this book"

Today I kick off a new series looking at books written about Houdini. I'll show the different cover art and discuss the publication history (to the best of my ability). All book images are from my own collection.

"Had Houdini lived he would have written this book." This is what Houdini's lawyer, Bernard M. L. Ernst, wrote in his preface to Houdini's Escapes, which first saw publication in 1930. Ernst goes on to explain:

"During the summer of 1926, only a few months before his death he sent me a mass of material including rough notes, drawings, blue prints, and manuscripts, with the request that it be arranged, edited and published in a series of books on magic and escapes with which his name should be connected. [...] As late as October 9, 1926, the last day he was in New York, before his death at Detroit, Mich., on October 31, 1926, he again spoke to me at my home about the projected books, and referred to additional material he had for such use."

After Houdini's death, Ernst handed the task of compiling the books to Walter B. Gibson, who was working with Houdini on a set of three books on intermediate magic at the time (the one book Gibson had finished, Popular Card Tricks, was published under his own name in 1928). In 1930 Houdini's Escapes was published by Harcourt, Brace and Company. A second volume, Houdini's Magic, would follow in 1932. A combo edition called Houdini's Escapes and Magic was published by Blue Ribbon in 1932, although the first edition shows the original 1930 copyright of Escapes, which can cause some confusion.

Houdini's Escapes (1930) and Houdini's Magic (1932).
Houdini's Escapes and Magic combo editions from 1932 and 1976.

The content of the books consist largely of Houdini effects that were never produced, such as an escape from a packing crate sent over Niagara Falls ("This can be worked into an extra good idea and needs doing some time.") and Houdini's oft discussed "escape from a block of ice". Ernst says in his forward that classic Houdini effects, such as the Water Torture Cell and the Vanishing Elephant, were deliberately omitted, and that the content was approved by the "Committee on Exposures of the Society of American Magicians" and Houdini's brother Hardeen. Nevertheless, these books still offer a terrific peek inside Houdini's mind and workshop.

Unlike many early Houdini books, the copyright on Houdini's Escapes and Houdini's Magic was not allowed to lapse into the public domain. The Ernst family, via Roberta Ernst, renewed the copyright on Escapes in 1958 and Magic in 1960. However, the books themselves remained long out of print.

Then in 1976 during the Houdini renaissance generated by the 50th Anniversary of his death, these books again saw publication. A new combo edition was published in both hardcover and trade paperback in January by Funk & Wagnalls. Individual mass market paperbacks where published by Bantam in November. These paperbacks included dramatic Houdini artwork on the backs. All the '76 editions contained a new introduction by Houdini biographer Milbourne Christopher, in which he notes: "It is fortunate this work is in print. Some of Houdini's notes, all of which Gibson returned, have since disappeared." (!)

1976 mass market paperbacks.
The 1976 paperbacks featured dramatic artwork on the back.

In 1980 a Canadian edition of Houdini's Escapes was published by Coles under the title, Houdini's Amazing Escapes. A reprint of Houdini's Escapes and Magic with a new forward by Sam Sloan was released in 2011 by Ishi Press. That edition used the cover art from the 1976 edition.

1980 Canadian edition of Escapes and the 2011 Ishi Press reprint.

If I've left out any important details or missed any editions, please let me know by leaving a Comment below.

Also enjoy:

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Climb inside Houdini's Milk Can, if you dare

Check this terrific pic of the Milk Can on display as part of the Chicago History Museum's Magic exhibition. Very clever! This shot is from an article about the exhibition in the Chicago Tribune.

The Milk Can on display is from the collection of the American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Michigan. Before the Chicago stop it had travelled with the Houdini Art and Magic exhibition. As I've speculated in a few blog posts, I believe it's actually Hardeen's Milk Can.

Magic runs through the first week of January 2013. Click for more information at the Chicago History Museum website.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Genii & Houdini: October 1956

Continuing our look back at issues of Genii magazine that have celebrated Houdini on their covers, here's Vol. 21, No. 2 from October 1956. This "Houdini Memorial Issue" (back to being an annual tradition) featured a dramatic bronze Houdini bust by Italian craftsman Nicholas Volpe on the cover.

Inside the magazine profiles Volpe's life and work, "The Magic in Art", and his desire to "recreate the face and legend of this master of magic." Where is the Volpe bust today, I wonder? It also has an article by David Price of the Egyptian Hall about a 1902 photograph of Harry and Bess.

But the real Houdini highlight in this issue is the full transcript of William Larsen Sr.'s lecture about the Final Houdini Seance in 1936. Larsen was an attendee of the seance. A lot of the information is familiar, but there are few new nuggets, such as that the night was "uncommonly cold" and that some guests "had the foresight to prepare for the occasion by stopping in at the Knickerbocker cocktail bar." Then there is this:

Now it seems that Dr. DiGhilini, a well-known West Coast mystery worker and a few other outstanding magicians didn't really believe anything was going to happen. They feared that the invited guests and the waiting world were doomed to bitter disappointment. So, they offered their services to help better matters. It would be excellent, they told Dr. Saint, to get Houdini's handwriting on the slate and they could assure its appearance there. Or, to cause a dove to fly up from the center of the table, seemingly created out of nothing. Dr. Saint refused these generous offers.

Also in this issue editor Bill Larsen Jr. announces the engagement of his mother Gerri (a close friend to Bessie in her final years) to Art Baker, a television personality most well-known for the show You Asked For It (which featured Houdini clips from time to time).

Coming next: October 1961

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Houdini scores a double today

Need further evidence of the popularity of Houdini 86 years after his death? Well, how about the fact that today sees the release of two books aimed at kids that feature a young Harry Houdini as a character.

First up is The Treasure Chest #4: Prince of Air by Ann Hood. This series finds twins Maisie and Felix transported via a treasure chest time machine into the past where they meet up with famous historical figures. In this latest adventure the twins meet, you guessed it, Houdini!

The secrets of Elm Medona thicken...with Harry Houdini!

When Great-Uncle Thorne arrives at Elm Medona, Maisie and Felix's lives get shaken up again. Uncle Thorne moves the family into the mansion proper. One night, Great-Aunt Maisie arranges for Thorne, Maisie, and Felix to rendezvous with her in The Treasure Chest. Minutes later, Maisie and Felix find themselves at a magic show on Coney Island in 1893 starring Harry Houdini. As they follow him and his brother Dash to Pennsylvania and Rhode Island and back to New York City, they wonder what has become of Great-Aunt Maisie and Great-Uncle Thorne. Then one evening at Tom Pastor's Famous 14th Street Theater, the curtain opens and all is revealed.

The Treasure Chest: Prince of Air can be purchased at in both hardcover and paperback.

Also out today is the latest installment of Scholastic's popular interactive and multi-platform series, The 39 Clues. This time Houdini joins the adventure in The Cahill Files Book 4: The Houdini Escape by Clifford Riley.

Young Harry Houdini's family is eager for a fresh start in America, but secrets from their past have followed them to New York. When the aspiring magician is kidnapped by a dangerous enemy, the Vespers, Houdini discovers a secret talent: death-defying escapes. Will his rare talent allow him to survive the attack? Or will it get him into deeper trouble than he ever imagined?

The Houdini Escape is currently available only as an eBook. It can be purchased at

Monday, August 6, 2012

Houdini on early television

Following up on my Fractured Mystery post about an early appearance of Houdini footage on T.V., Bill Mullins at the Genii forum has provided a list of even earlier appearances from his own collection:

The Washington Post, Feb 7, 1951, WMAL-TV – 6:45. "Yesterday's Newsreel" includes films of Theodore Roosevelt, Theda Bara, Harry Houdini, 1932 Olympics and second Johnstown flood. 
Los Angeles Times, July 6, 1953, p 24: Producer George Pal brings a movie of the famed Houdini in his spectacular under-water escape stunt when he guests on Art Baker's "You Asked for It" show, KECA (7) at 8 p.m. [This appears to be footage from the 1953 Houdini movie and not the real Harry.]
Washington Post, July 19, 1953, 7 p.m. – WMAL-TV. The life of magician Harry Houdini and his fabulous escapes is presented because "You Asked for It." 
Los Angeles Times, Dec. 4, 1960 (listings for Dec. 9): [channel] 13; Danger Zone (30 min.) Pappy Boyington shows films of some famous freak accidents, including the collapse of the Tacoma Bridge in 1940; the crash of a B-25 into the Empire State Building; and the late Houdini is seen in one of his well-known stunts.

Bill adds: "The 1951 show appears to be a clip show from newsreels. Prior to this, there were many other newsreel shows, and most of the listings for them didn't break out the contents. No doubt others ran Houdini footage before this one."

Thank you, Bill!

UPDATE: It now turns out the You Asked For It appearance in July 1953 was indeed film of the real Houdini, and lost footage at that! Read more here.

LINK: Great escape: Magician, wife want to free memorabilia

Click the headline for an article in the State Journal Register about the great Steve Baker (Mr. Escape) and his desire to rescue his props and memorabilia from a storage locker in California. Lots of info about Steve's career and the influence of Houdini.

Hopefully someone will step forward and help Steve preserve his legacy.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Shelton pool test anniversary

Today is the anniversary of Houdini's famous test in the pool of the Hotel Shelton in New York City on August 5, 1926. In a bid to outdo and expose the "mystic" Rahman Bey, Houdini remained sealed in a submerged casket, which contained only a limited amount of air, for a full 91 minutes. He attributed his survival to remaining calm and controlled breathing and not to any trickery or supernatural power.

The Shelton Test is sometimes called "Houdini's last trick", although we now know he repeated the test at the Worcester YMCA and did a non-submerged version at Summerfield's department store. Still, it was certainly Houdini's last wildly covered publicity stunt, and anticipated the public endurance tests of modern magicians like David Blaine.

The New York American, August 6, 1926

A wonderful first hand account of test written by Houdini himself can be read at the blog Letters of Note. The Hotel Shelton is today the Marriott New York East Side, but the hotel restaurant still bares the name "Shelton Grill." The pool where Houdini performed his famous test was filled in in the early 2000s.

Houdini's Shelton test is being recognized today on other blogs such as Slice The Life and Jewish Currents, who I have to thank for reminding me of this anniversary.