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:


  1. I remember purchasing Houdini's Escapes in 1976 when I was eleven. The other kids on my schoolbus oohed and aahed when they saw me reading it. I was privy to Houdini's secrets. Gibson's prose was tough reading for a tween. It took many years for me to catch up to understanding the details of his descriptions.

    1. Very true. I also got it in '76. I was disappointed it didn't have pictures. But some of the illustrations were pretty cool. :)

  2. I have the Bantam edition of both books, purchased from a small bookshop in Havre Montana the year they were published. Gibson's prose is indeed tough to decipher at times, but at least they're profusely illustrated. Much of the material in Houdini on Magic was drawn from these books. An obscure side note: the old film "Eternally Yours" starring David Niven from the 1930s features (and exposes) the Flight of Venus illusion from Houdini's Magic.