Saturday, January 12, 2013

The secrets of The Secrets of Houdini

Today I continue my examination of books about Houdini with images and insights from my own collection.

The Secrets of Houdini by J.C. Cannell is a remarkable and somewhat mysterious book. First published in the UK in 1931, the book does indeed expose some key Houdini methods and contains an impressive collection of rare photographs. The book is arguably superior to the officially sanctioned Houdini's Escapes by Walter B. Gibson, which was published in the U.S. the previous year. So how did this book come to be without the apparent involvement or blessing of Beatrice Houdini and Bernard Ernst?

1931 UK first edition hardcover.

Not all that much is known about the author, J.C. Cannell. According to MagicPedia, John Clucas Cannell was a journalist, author, amateur magician and also Vice-President of the Magician's Club in London. Cannell is only credited with two other works, In Town Tonight (1935) and Modern Conjuring for Amateurs (1938).

But reading The Secrets of Houdini, it's pretty clear that famed magic publisher and Magicians Club President Will Goldston had a hand in this book, even though his name does not appear as publisher or even as a contributor. Cannell makes reference to "his friend" Will Goldston within the first few paragraphs of his introduction (he says Goldston is a "spiritualist"?), and you don't have to go very deep into the book before you find a photo of Houdini and Goldston. I can't help but wonder whether Goldston was the true author of this book and used Cannell as a front? It's possible.

The Secrets of Houdini was first published in hardcover by Hutchinson & Co. in the UK in 1931. Hutchinson released a revised hardcover edition in 1932 promoted as the "First cheap edition." Added to the text was a dedication ("To my wife Dorothy") and a new "Author's Note" in which Cannell expressed surprise at the controversial reaction of the book:

Since this book appeared I have received a large number of letters from people who have read it, and their reactions to the exposure of the method and technique of a would-famous illusionist and professional deceiver interested me mightily. Some of the letter writers declared that I had struck a deadly blow at the popular belief in the supernatural by revealing the coldly materialistic explanation of this modern wizard, Houdini. Others affirmed that, in spite of my revelations their belief in the psychic powers of Houdini had not been shaken.

A paperback edition of "J.C. Cannell's famous book" was released by Hutchinson's Pocket Library in 1938. The title page notes that it's the "38th Thousand" printing(!). The Author's Note does not appear in this printing.

UK "cheap edition" and the 1938 paperback.

The Secrets of Houdini wasn't published in the United States until 1971. The first U.S. edition was put out by Gyrphon Books and was a facsimile of the UK printing. The two Gyrphon editions that I've been able to examine (my own and one in the Arthur Moses collection) have different bindings, but both state "Third Impression" on the title page, so it appears the facsimile was struck from the British 3rd edition.

This was followed by another hardcover published by Gale in 1974, also a facsimile of the Third Impression. As far as I know, neither the Gyrphon nor Gale editions were issued in dust-jackets, and neither contains the "Author's Note" (which tells us the Author's Note was unique to the UK second edition?).

1971 Gryphon editions (red) and the 1974 Gale edition (blue).

But the way most American readers (including yours truly) first discovered The Secrets of Houdini was via the Dover trade paperback first published in 1973. This edition added 24 new illustrations. Like Dover's other popular Houdini title, Houdini on Magic, it's still in print to this day. There have been dozens of printings of the Dover paperback over the years that offer subtle changes in the color of the cover art. And speaking of cover art, it was the Dover edition of The Secrets of Houdini that inspired a young David Blaine.

Original 1973 and current Dover editions.

The Secrets of Houdini was published in a new hardcover edition by Bell in 1989. This edition contained a new forward by Bud Masterson and is unique in that it restores Cannell's "Author's Note" -- the first time the Author's Note had ever appeared in any U.S. edition to my knowledge. The Bell edition also retouched some of the photographs and credits the poster and props on the attractive dust-jacket to "Flosso Hornmann Magic Inc., the world's oldest magic shop" (which had once been owned by Houdini).

In 2010 The Secrets of Houdini was made available as a print-on-demand in hardcover and paperback.

The 1989 Bell hardcover and the 2010 print-on-demand.

But perhaps the strangest "reprinting" of The Secrets of Houdini happened in 2012 when Amazon listed six new "books" by J.C. Cannell with titles like: Harry Houdini the True Escapist Extraordinaire and Houdini and the Art of Illusion and Disillusion. Some of these showed prices as high as $26 and page counts as low as 30 pages.

But this was just the good-old Secrets of Houdini carved up into sections and offered up under new titles, part of an epidemic of sneaky public domain reconfigurations that have sprung up in the digital age.

Thanks to Arthur Moses for his help sussing out details on the U.S. editions. Also thanks to John Bushey for the image and details about the 1932 "cheap" edition.

Also enjoy:


  1. I think Will Goldston was born Wolf Goldstone, but he usually isn't referred to as Will Goldstone.

    Christopher and Gresham's biographies criticized Cannell's book for inaccuracies. But I always wondered if they were trying to throw people off track. A lot of it seems accurate.

  2. This makes me want to pull the old book out and enjoy it again!

    As Eric said, Goldstone was known as Will Goldston, he was the founder of the Magicians Club in London as well as a magic dealer.
    Houdini merged Martinkas and Hornmanns together in 1919. Frank Ducrot then took it over and after he died Al Flosso bought it and that's when it became Flosso-Hornmanns.

  3. Oops. Goldston, not Goldstone. Thanks. I've only been making that mistake for...36 years. :s

    What do you guys think about the idea that Goldston might have ghostwritten this book?

    1. I think you're dead on. But that's just my opinion :)

  4. Dear John,

    This book has been of great interest to us over the years. Though I do not have time to look at the moment we have bought as many various editions as we could find. Because of Mr Cannell's AUTHOR'S NOTE you quote. Our main interest was the closing two short paragraphs of that short 3/4 page piece. We were always interested if he elaborated it in any way.

    "I am glad to know that my book has made people think more keenly about a subject in which it is so easily possible to accept or inherit careless views or untrue conclusions.
    Houdini does stand as a warning to those who are perhaps too ready o grasp at supernatural explanation of what can be explained in terms of ingenious human deception."

    What these comments clearly show, made in that era, is something many do not realize. That in Houdini's life time his legend was such that many, for what ever reason, (do not want to go into this at the moment) hordes of people perceived Houdini to be, in fact, a supernatural personality.

    Cannell was a writer and magician. These comments sound like it was written by a journalist and not a spiritualist believing magician like Goldston.

    Dick Brookz & Dorothy Dietrich
    Houdini Museum
    The only Building in The World Dedicated to Houdini

    1. Thanks Dick & Dorothy. Good point that the Author's Note not sounding like Goldston the believer. But certainly the material in the book came from Goldston. Maybe the Author's Note was the one thing Cannell wrote himself? Maybe that's why it was removed?

  5. Dear John,

    There is a chance you may be underestimating the writing ability of magician, writer and journalist Cannell.

    Surely by he time Cannell wrote "Secrets" much of this was known in the trade, etc.

    A quick check of Amazon comes up with these other books written by Cannell.

    The Secrets of Houdini by J C Cannell (Many editions)

    New Light on the Rouse Case by J. C. Cannell (1927)

    The Hundred Best Tricks by Cannell J C (1930)

    New light on the Rouse case by J.C. Cannell (1931)(Different edition)

    When Fleet Street Calls. Being The Experiences Of A London Journalist by J.C. Cannell (1932)

    The hundred best tricks by J.C. CANNELL (1932) (Different edition)

    100 mysteries for arm-chair detectives: Based on actual crimes and mysteries investigated at Scotland Yard by J. C Cannell (1932)

    In Town To-Night: The Story of the Popular BBC Feature Told from Within by J. C Cannell (1935)

    Modern Conjuring by J.C.Cannell (1940)

    100 Best Tricks by J.C. Cannell (1940) (Different edition)

    Modern Conjuring. Tricks With Cards, Coins, Handkerchiefs, Water And Liquids, Paper, Matches. by J. C, Vice-President Of The Magician'S Club Cannell (1941) (Different edition)

    Modern Conjuring by J. C. Cannell (1947) (Different edition)

    Unless the theory is Goldston wrote them also. Is there any proof Goldston wrote "Secrets"?

    Dick Brookz & Dorothy Dietrich
    Houdini Museum
    The Only Building in The World Dedicated to Houdini

    1. No proof Goldston wrote Secrets. Just a notion. But I've no doubt that Goldston has a major hand in providing content for the book. After-all, he published Houdini's Rope Ties book and we find stuff from that book in Secrets. But maybe supplying Cannell with the raw material was all he did. As you show, Cannell was prolific enough to have written it himself.

  6. Some of Cannell's explanations are wrong. We now know from Guy Jarrett, Jim Steinmeyer, and Patrick Culliton, that the explanation for the Vanishing Elephant is incorrect.

    The description of the escape from the Russian carette is nonsense. The Russians would have seen the damage caused by a saw and can opener to escape through the floor of the carette. Did Houdini make up this escape? Maybe.

    Still a nice book with that photo of Houdini doing a headstand on the statue of that lion and a very old Hardeen entering a milk can for his escape.

    1. Remember, Goldston was the guy who published the whole "Bess cried the key off the Mirror rep" story, so he was prone to embellishments. Or maybe these were stories that circulated in magic circles at the time. The sawing through the floor of the carette seems to be one of these.

  7. I'm pleased to see how popular this post is. The other posts in this mini series didn't really generate much response. But maybe that's because this book is a bit more complicated. I admit I wasn't aware of the scarcity Authors Note until I started working on this. I also never realized it wasn't published in the U.S. until 1971.

  8. This was the first Houdini book i ever owned. i remember my eleven year old mind thinking "that milk can doesn't look anything like Houdini's milk can" (same for the sub-trunk) There was a photo caption that said: 'A hitherto unpublished picture of Houdini and his wife'. The picture was so bad that i presumed the word 'hitherto' meant 'ugly.' The rope that screwed into another rope also seemed ridiculous to me. i got the impression that, to have written this, the author must have hated Houdini.

  9. btw: the first time i saw the can at the magic castle i thought "That's not a Houdini milk can. But it does look a lot like the one in the JC Cannell book." Thanks John for clearing up where that can came from!

  10. This book has a lot of excellent line drawings illustrating Houdini's tricks, but I remember as a kid wishing it had many more, like one on each page. It was difficult following the explanations for many of the feats by text alone--so much more so, I imagine, for readers in this video age.

    Surprising it took so long to come out in the US. By the way, I believe the photo in the Dover edition facing p 133 identified as Houdini is actually of Hardeen.

    1. The pool escape shot? It does look a bit like Hardeen, but it's Houdini. It was taken HERE