Sunday, June 30, 2013

Rosie, Sweet Rosabelle

Here's a haunting behind the scenes shot of Evanna Lynch as Bess Houdini in the new UK production Houdini. She does make a beautiful Bess. Behind her is Stuart Brennan (who also wrote the play) in the role of Theo Weiss. Intriguing photo. Of course, we all know Bess dated Houdini's brother first, so might there be a bit of a love triangle in this play?

Houdini is set to debut September 9, 2013 at the Stoke on Trent Repertory Theatre in the UK. Click for more info.

Thanks to Oh No They Didn't! for this shot.

Friday, June 28, 2013

When Houdini escaped the belly of the beast

In the late 1990s Columbia Pictures planned to make a big-budget Houdini movie starring Tom Cruise. The film was to be directed by Paul Verhoeven (later Ang Lee) from a screenplay by Stephen Rivele and Christoper Wilkinson. Had that movie ever been made, it would have started like this:

Cape Cod, Halloween 1924: We are at a masked ball at a Cape Cod mansion. A young couple steals away from the party and walks down to the beach, holding hands. At the breakwater's edge, they kiss -- oblivious to the fact that something large and bulbous is racing towards them, its dorsal fin slicing through the surf...

Suddenly, a large wave heaves the creature onto the beach. It spills out onto the sand beside the startled couple where it lays unmoving in the moonlight. The frightened woman asks, "What is it?" As they step closer, the creature suddenly rolls over, its jaws opening with a death rattle. The woman's scream brings us...

Hippodrome Theater, Boston: The beached creature -- a narwhale -- is now center stage, flanked by men with axes. Its belly is convulsing, as if it's about to give birth. The audience watches, mesmerized, as the beast suddenly breaks open with a sucking ripping sound and THE GREAT HOUDINI emerges from within, covered in viscera and holding chains. "Liberated, commanding, radiating primal power. Like a figure from mythology. Like a god."

Not a bad way to start a Houdini movie. What makes it even better is this is all based on fact. Houdini did indeed escape from the belly of a beached sea creature at Boston's B.F. Keith's Theater on September 26, 1911. It remains one of Houdini's most famous and bizarre challenges.

The "freak sea monster" was news in New England even before Houdini became involved. The carcass had either washed up on shore or was caught by local fisherman, depending on the newspaper account. The press claimed it weighed 1500 pounds and was "estimated to be about 500 years old." Papers struggled to describe it. One called it a "turtle-tortoise-fish or whatever it is." Soon the press simply dubbed it the "What is it?"

What exactly the "What is it?' was is still a mystery today. Houdini called it a "mongrel breed of whale and octopus." Ken Silverman in Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss suggests that it could have been an elephant seal. For the purposes of their screenplay, Rivele and Wilkienson decided it was a narwhale. But Patrick Culliton in Houdini The Key says it was actually a giant leatherback turtle. From the existing photo, it does appear to resemble a turtle more than a whale or octopus.

Houdini was playing the B.F. Keith's Theater in Boston when the "What is it?" was discovered, and soon it was announced that ten prominent Boston businessmen (one of them a taxidermist) had devised a challenge in which Houdini would be shackled in "extra strong handcuffs and leg-irons from police headquarters" and sewn up inside the belly of the beast. References to Houdini as Jonah were not discouraged.

The drama of the challenge was teased out for days. Newspapers reported that "[Houdini] concedes that it will be the most difficult test he has ever attempted." One paper noted that "Houdini has received a telegram from his family in New York telling him not to enter the monster." Houdini's only condition was that he be provided ventilation inside the creature. In turn, he signed a waiver releasing the ten challangers of any responsibility.

On the day of the challenge, "several thousand people" lined the streets of Boston to watch as the "What is it?" was carried through the streets. The journey took it from Long Wharf to the Keith's stage entrance on Mason street. Originally the challenge was to have taken place during the evening performance, but was changed to the matinee because "of certain conditions which have presented themselves." (Perhaps the carcass was not going to keep until evening in a warm theater?)

Massachusetts Lieutenant-Governor Louis Frothingham was watching from the wings as Houdini took the stage at Keith's where the sea monster and his ten challengers awaited. The auditorium was said to be "choked to the doors." It's not recorded what Houdini was wearing, but one would think a bathing suit would have been his uniform for this challenge. Houdini was shackled hand and foot and then climbed with "much difficulty" into the creature, sprinkling perfume where his head would lay. The carcass was then laced up tightly with chains run through steel eyelets three inches apart. It was then wrapped entirely with chains and concealed inside a curtain cabinet.

After 15 minutes, Houdini stepped forward, "greasy but grinning." The sea monster was then revealed to be still laced and chained exactly has it had been. Houdini is reported to have asked for a window to be opened so he could take some fresh air. What the audience didn't know was that Houdini had almost been suffocated by fumes from the arsenic used to embalm the carcass. What Houdini and press had exploited as a dangerous escape turned out to be just as dangerous as they promised.

That evening the Lieutenant Governor invited the Houdinis to his home. The next day the papers delighted in pointing out that Houdini had bested Jonah himself -- "[Houdini] took only 15 minutes to gain freedom while it took the old sailor of the Bible three days to get free."

Years later Houdini claimed in an article for Colliers that he had actually escaped from the sea monster underwater. In this version, said to have taken place before the Keith's test, Houdini said that in his struggle to get free he overturned the creature and the full weight of the carcass pinned him. Quick thinking on the part of his assistants, who started raising the carcass, took the weight off, allowing Houdini to escape. It's a great story. But like Houdini's under the ice adventure, it's doubtful it really happened.

In 2010 Patrick Culliton published in Houdini The Key the method he believed Houdini used to escape from the Sea Monster at Keith's that day. It's ingenious (even obvious), but I don't reveal Houdini's secrets here.

However, I am happy to reveal Hollywood's secrets. So here are the opening two pages from the never-made Houdini movie by Rivele and Wilkinson. A little overwrought and overwritten in my opinion, but I suspect Houdini (and Mr. Cruise) would be fine with that.

Click to enlarge

Here are some other articles online about Houdini and his Sea Monster:

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Let's make this Sunday Houdini Day at Sacred Fools in Hollywood

This Sunday, June 30, I'm going to see the 2pm matinee performance of Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini at the Sacred Fools theater in Hollywood. Joining me (so far) will be handcuff collector and escape artist, Joe Fox; Joe Notaro, webmaster of Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence; and the mysterious MSW. I'm hoping to also rope in the great Patrick Culliton and Tom Interval of Houdini Museum to make it a true Houdini dream team.

But I'd also love to throw this open to any and all Houdini and magic buffs. Let's all see the play together on Sunday and turn the Sacred Fools into our own Magic Castle for the day!

Tickets can be purchased online for $25 at the Sacred Fools website. You can also buy tickets for $16.50 via Goldstar (you'll have to sign-up for the site and there are a limited amount of these discount tickets available).

Again, the show we are seeing is on Sunday, June 30, 2013 at 2pm.

Hope to see you at the Sacred Fools!

UPDATE: Discovering the Dark Art of Houdini (and Jamie Robledo) in Hollywood.

Houdini + Bo Derek = huh?

Baseball card collecting is a world unto itself. It's a huge hobby with what seems like hundreds of sets released every year. Happily, Houdini seems to be a favorite card subject. Below are cards from the new 2013 Golden Age Playing Cards and 2013 Golden Age Exhibit Box Topper sets. Houdini is also included in the 2013 Panini Golden Age Baseball Cards and the Panini Golden Age mini set. (If you click here you can see Harry Houdini is card #25.)

Browsing the list of card subjects, it's amazing how popular Bo Derek is. She's in every set, sometimes more than once. She's even the Ace of Hearts to Harry's King of Spades. Bizarre. But better Bo than Kim Kardashian.

The above images come from eBay auctions running here, here and here. Not a bad way to pick these up. No Bo Derek collection is complete without them!

Link: Houdini and the history of magic

Click the headline above to watch a nice video at BBC News featuring Mike Caveney talking about the history of magic to promote the release of the new edition of MAGIC 1400s-1950s. Of course, he knocks Harry down a peg as a magician, but we can take it.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

UK HOUDINI play announces full cast

Jamie Nicholas is Houdini.
Director Peter Snee has announced the full cast of HOUDINI, the UK production set to debut September 9, 2013 at the Stoke on Trent Repertory Theatre. Joining the already announced Stuart Brennan as Theo and Evanna Lynch as Bess is Mark Lyminster as Martin Beck, Ion Patrick Ridge as Douglas Geoffrey, and Jamie Nichols as Houdini.

Says Snee: "After many weeks of hard work and careful deliberation, we are absolutely delighted to announce that we’ve found the perfect cast for the UK touring production of Houdini. We actually held auditions at the Hippodrome in London which was particularly fitting because Harry Houdini himself performed at the Hippodrome more than 100 years ago with a thrilling handcuff escape performance. Jamie Nichols amazed us all with his own handcuff escape and it was swiftly clear that Jamie possessed the charm, charisma and physical prowess required to undertake the immense task of playing the greatest magician who ever lived."

"In casting the other principal roles – Theo, Bess, Martin, Douglas – it became clear that the actors expertly captured with incredible delicacy the light and dark tones of the script, making us want to laugh and cry in the same scene. I’m very excited that we have a truly talented ensemble and I can’t wait to start rehearsals and open at my home town of Stoke on Trent on September 9th."

I'm intrigued to see that Douglas Geoffrey is a character in this production. Geoffrey was an assistant to Hardeen in his later years and took over the Houdini-Hardeen show as "Hardeen Jr." in 1945. (Read my profile of Hardeen Jr. here.) I'm curious to know how Geoffrey figures into the plot of the play, which is said to be about the early careers of The Brothers Houdini.

Stuart Brennan (Theo), Evanna Lynch (Bess),
Mark Lyminster (Martin Beck), Ion Ridge (Douglas Geoffrey).

September 9th – 14th – Stoke on Trent Repertory Theatre
September 16th – 21st – Blackpool Grand Theatre
September 24th – 28th Swansea Grand Theatre
September 30th – October 5th – Windsor Theatre Royal
October 7th – 12th – Dublin Gaiety Theatre

You can get updates on HOUDINI via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the official website,

LINK: Review of 'Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini' at Sacred Fools

I haven't yet made it to Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini at the Sacred Fools in Hollywood, but here is an excellent review and interview with the creators by Pauline Adamek at LA Arts Beat.

Houdini (Donal Thoms-Cappello) shows Holmes (Joe Fria) a card trick.

For tickets to Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini visit the Sacred Fools website.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Did Houdini play hero in a forgotten theater fire?

One of the great stories of magic involves Harry Blackstone Sr. averting possible disaster in 1942 when a fire broke out in a building next door to the theater during one of his performances. Blackstone was warned privately of the fire and told that he needed to stop the show. Realizing this could cause a panic, Blackstone stepped to the footlights and explained that his next trick was so big it would need to performed outdoors. He then led an orderly evacuation of the theater. Only then did the audience realize that the theater was in danger of burning down.

It's a great story and a part of the Blackstone legacy, but did Houdini perform similar heroics 17 years earlier?

In the new monograph Houdini & Gysel, author Wayne Wissner quotes a letter to Houdini from Robert Gysel in which he states:

"Understand that you was [sic] some hero at the Keiths fire in Indianapolis on apl 4th, that thru your coolness saved the spectators from being terrorized, Good for You."

Now, in a wild coincidence (which happen to me frequently when it comes to HH), right after reading this passage in the Gysel book I logged onto eBay and saw this beautiful original program advertising Houdini at the Indianapolis B.F. Keith's Theater in March 1925. There's no date for the Gysel letter, but as this program says this would be Houdini's first appearance in Indianapolis in 10 years and the majority of the Gysel correspondence is from the 1920s, it appears this could very well be the week of the Keith's theater fire. (The program sold for $214.)

But the big question remains -- what exactly did Houdini do to "save the spectators from being terrorized"? I can't find any mention of this in any biography. I also tried to find news of a theater fire in Indianapolis on April 4, 1925, but turned up nothing.

I'll throw this one out to the Houdini detectives.

Nice tweet from Sacred Fools

Mr. Teller's favorite Houdini blog... Yeah, I'm comfortable with that billing. :)

Monday, June 24, 2013

LINK: Houdini display is dark again at Whittier Museum (and remains dark)

Our good friend Joe Notaro of Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence has had quite a frustrating experience trying to see the S.A.M. magic collection at the Whittier Historical Society & Museum in Whittier, California. You may recall that the collection -- which includes the Russian Manacle, a dress worn by Bess, and three handcuff displays created by Edward Saint -- was sealed in the basement of a bank in Hollywood after it was contaminated by toxic PCBs in 2004. Last September the S.A.M. was finally able to salvage the collection and put it on public display at the Whittier Museum. I attended the opening and reported on it here.

However, seeing the collection has now become as challenging as it was when it was locked away in Hollywood. The exhibit is only opened sporadically, and even if you somehow manage to get inside, you'll discover that the Houdini case is completely dark because of faulty motion sensor lights. (Could this be because there is no motion inside a sealed case? Just a guess.) The case has been dark for two months now.

Anyway, click the headline and read about Joe's misadventures seeing what I'm now convinced is a cursed collection.

The Houdini case (photographed here in September) is now dark.

UPDATE: It appears the title link to Joe's site isn't working correctly. His site may be down. This happened right after I posted this. The curse strikes again!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Houdini's hurt feelings

Here is a revealing entry from Houdini's diary on October 20, 1916 when he was performing in Toronto, Canada:

"Toronto, Canada. No challenges as paper does not notice the house as they do not advertise in them. I helped Red Cross and recruiting drive with O.D. Stunt. After the street show 12 boys of the Red Cross, I am told collected $2796.12--a neat sum. No one even thanked me."

There's a lot to love about this. First is the glimpse into the politics of showbiz that a newspaper won't write stories about an act unless the theater buys advertising. Houdini's shorthand "O.D. Stunt" appears to be his catch-all for "outdoor stunts" (bridge jumps, overboard box, suspended straitjacket). Finally, Houdini's expression of hurt at not being thanked feels very genuine. Doesn't matter if you're the world's greatest mystifier; everyone likes to be thanked.

Houdini not being thanked.

Photo from Houdini A Pictorial Life by Milbourne Christopher.

UPDATE: This was a suspended straitjacket escape in Toronto on Wed., Oct. 18, 1916.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Unique original Houdini (1953) poster

This unique poster from the 1953 film Houdini sold a few weeks ago on eBay for only $39. According to the seller it was discovered in storage "along with some other old magic memorabilia."

What's unusual about this poster are the large borders and header. This is where theaters could post showtimes, etc. I have a few original one-sheets for this film, but I've never seen one with these borders. You might recall that Houdini's own early posters, such as King of Cards and Metamorphosis, also spot large border areas. In fact, it's one of the ways to tell and original from a later reproduction.

The seller also listed a battered The Master Mystery Episode Six ("The Mad Genius") lobby card from the same storage discovery. This one sold for the opening bid of $95. Last year a Master Mystery lobby card, also in poor condition, sold for $815.

Friday, June 21, 2013

A grinning goblin

This poem by MacKinlay Kantor appeared in the Chicago Daily Tribune on November 2, 1926, just two days after Houdini's death. It's a moving piece and I think testament to just how incomprehensible it was to people in 1926 that The Great Houdini was gone.

I especially like the reference to Houdini as "a grinning goblin." Modern depictions of Houdini tend to portray him as humorless, intense, and ultra serious. Yet if you watch film footage of the real Houdini he is constantly grinning with a real twinkle in his eye. To the public who knew him when he was alive, I think the description of Houdini as "a grinning goblin" would be very familiar.

Thanks to magician and Houdini lecturer extraordinaire William Pack for sharing this discovery.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

'Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini' playing in L.A.

It's certainly been a week of pleasant surprises. First comes word of a possible director for Summit's Houdini movie. Then Houdini (1998) is released on DVD. Now comes news of a Houdini play opening right here in my own backyard.

Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini opens tomorrow, June 21, at the Sacred Fools Theater in Los Angeles. The play is written and directed by Jaime Robledo and will run through July 27. Here's a synopsis:

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson tangle with master magician Houdini himself in the world premiere of a new whodunit featuring the famed detective duo. Sacred Fools follows up its hit show Watson: The Last Great Tale of the Legendary Sherlock Holmes with this novel mystery, which finds the brilliant twosome on the trail of a multiple murderer in New York City. But they find it difficult to sort fact from illusion when dealing with the always enigmatic Houdini, leading to excitement and even heartbreak.

Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini stars Donal Thoms-Cappello as Houdini (understudied by Curt Bonnem), Scott Leggett as Dr. Watson, and Joe Fria as Sherlock Holmes. The play features an original score by Ryan Johnson and is produced by Brian Wallis, Brandon Clark, Laura Napoli and Abraham Benrubi.

The Sacred Fools Theater is located at 660 N. Heliotrope (at Melrose Ave), Los Angeles, CA 90004. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.

This is one I'm definitely planning to see.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Houdini (1998) now available on DVD

Great news! The 1998 TNT Original Movie Houdini is now available on DVD. The DVD was released yesterday as an on demand via the Warner Archive Collection. You can order it direct from the Warner Archive website or

Houdini stars Johnathon Schaech as Harry, Stacy Edwards as Bess, and Mark Ruffalo as Theo (Hardeen). It's a traditional biopic (yay!) with outstanding production values. Houdini was written and directed by magic buff Pen Denshem, who also produced the 1979 documentary, Houdini Never Died. You can read my full review/overview of the movie HERE.

Houdini was released on VHS by Warner Home Video in 2000. This marks its first appearance on DVD.

Thanks to MSW for the tip.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

After Houdini

It's funny how we're suddenly getting stories about fictitious Houdini offspring. Last week saw the release of a novel featuring Houdini's daughter. Now we have a preview of an upcoming independent graphic novel, After Houdini, starring Houdini's son. Of course, Houdini didn't have a son, but that's what makes it fantasy!

Author Jeremy Holt recently posted the above cover image on his blog and writes:

"I wanted to share a very special preview of the new cover for my series After Houdini. I’ve revised the title due to the fact that I don’t want readers to be confused with the fact that the protagonist on the cover is NOT Harry Houdini, but his son Josef.
We’ve received very strong interest from some big publishers, so check back here for further developments."

Here's hoping we'll all get to enjoy the adventures of Josef Houdini sooner than later. And if you're curious what the original cover looked like, just click here. You can also see some preview pages from After Houdini at Graphic Policy.

UPDATE: Amazon shows the book will be released in April 2017 and can be pre-ordered here.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Does The Secret Life of Houdini have a director?

Mike Fleming at Deadline Hollywood has just posted the following:

EXCLUSIVE: Summit Entertainment is in early negotiations with Dean Parisot to direct the Noah Oppenheim-[scripted] feature about Harry Houdini that Summit has been developing the project for several years. It’s based on the William Kalush and Larry Sloman book The Secret Life of Houdini, The Making of America’s First Superhero. The tale paints Houdini as more than a master illusionist. He was a spy and a true renaissance man across the globe. This project had Hunger Games helmer Gary Ross involved for a bit, but he fell off the project. There have been several Houdini projects in development, including at DreamWorks, but like a lot of magic movies, they’ve faltered. I’ll tell you more when I know it. WME-repped Parisot just wrapped the Summit Entertainment sequel Red 2, with Bruce Willis, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren returning, and Anthony Hopkins and Catherine Zeta-Jones among the new castmembers.

As always, I have mixed feelings when I hear news about this project. On one hand I badly want a big budget Hollywood movie about Houdini. But I'm not at all thrilled with it being one that perpetuates the balderdash about Houdini being a spy.

But it's still too early to get excited...or depressed.

LINK: Houdini's bubble gum dilemma

What happens when you mix Houdini, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Needles trick, and chewing gum? You get a (maybe) true story that I've never heard before.

Click the headline and read about Harry's sticky predicament at Chuck Romano's My Magic Uncle blog.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Here's to the dads

Dedication page in Houdini's first major book, The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin.

Happy Father's Day.

Death and Harry Houdini resurrects June 21

The House Theatre of Chicago's 2012 hit, Death and Harry Houdini, returns to The Chopin Theatre in Chicago for an 8 week run June 21 to August 11, 2013.

Death and Harry Houdini is written and directed by Nathan Allen and features magician Dennis Watkins as Houdini. In the course of the evening Watkins performs several of Houdini's most famous escapes, including The Water Torture Cell.

For more details and to buy tickets visit the House Theatre of Chicago website.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Houdini vs Scotland Yard; but did it really happen?

It's part of established Houdini history that on June 14, 1900, Houdini won his career-making engagement at the Alhambra Theater in London by escaping from a pair of handcuffs at the famous Scotland Yard police headquarters. Yes, it was exactly 113 years ago today that Houdini triumphed in what was up to that point his most important challenge.

The story as vividly told in several biographies goes something like this: When Houdini and Bess found themselves "shipwrecked" in England without a booking, Houdini visited the manager of the Alhambra, C. Dundas Slater, to show him his clippings from America. Slater was unimpressed. But he did say if Houdini could prove himself by escaping from handcuffs at Scotland Yard, then he would book his act.

So on June 14, Houdini, Slater, and one of Slater's assistants traveled to Scotland Yard where they met with Superintendent William Melville himself. A bemused Melville locked Houdini's wrists around a pillar and said he'd come back for the magician after he and Slater had had lunch. "This is how we treat yanks who come over and get themselves into trouble," Melville is reported to have said.

As soon as their backs were turned, Houdini answered, "Wait a minute. I'll join you." And with that the cuffs clattered to the floor and Houdini stepped forward, a free man. Houdini won his engagement at the Alhambra and the rest is showbiz history.

It's a great story. But did it really happen?

There is shockingly little evidence to support this entire tale. In fact, there are only two pieces of evidence from Houdini's lifetime that biographers use to source the entire Scotland Yard exploit. The first is Houdini's signature in Scotland Yard's Black Museum guestbook on June 14, 1900. So we know he was there. The second is a notation on a telegram in a scrapbook in the David Meyer collection. The telegram congratulates Houdini on his Alhambra debut, and at the bottom Houdini has written, possibly years later, "This is the day I visited Scotland Yard, escaped out of their cuffs."

That's it. There's no pillar, no snappy dialogue, no deal with Slater, no Superintendent Melville. In fact, as far as I can find, the full story as we've come to know it didn't exist in Houdini's lifetime (see update). So when did it come into being? The answer only throws this exploit further into doubt.

That's because the Scotland Yard challenge first appears in the Harold Kellock biography, Houdini His Life Story, a book notorious for being a collection of Houdini mythology that has scrambled fact and fiction for years. Yet the story was so good, subsequent biographers continued to tell it in books that otherwise worked to strip away the mythology of Kellock. The magic moment has even been immortalized with illustrations in several juvenile Houdini biographies.

And then there's Hollywood. A Scotland Yard jail escape (better than just handcuffs) is dramatized as the breakthrough moment for Harry in both Houdini (1953) and The Great Houdinis (1976). Almost all documentaries also highlight the Yard escape.

Scotland Yard in Houdini's time.

The first serious doubt about the Scotland Yard challenge appeared in Norman Bigelow's Escape Masters newsletter. There he reproduces a letter to collector Ian McColl dated November 4, 1982, from Scotland Yard's curator, W. Waddell. While confirming that Houdini's name does appear in their Black Museum guest book, Waddell states:

"There is no record of any conversation between Supt Melville and Houdini, nor is there any record of the escape from a pair of handcuffs taking place."

Ruth Brandon downplayed the incident in her 1993 biography, The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini. Then Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Ken Silverman tackled Houdini's story with a fresh eye in his seminal 1996 work, Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss. Silverman rejected all that had been written about Houdini up to that point and researched his book from scratch, rebuilding Houdini's story using only reliable primary sources. His approach was if he couldn't verify the information, it isn't in the book. The Scotland Yard handcuff escape is not in the book.

However, the Scotland Yard story comes roaring back in Kalush and Sloman's 2006 The Secret Life of Houdini with all the vivid embellishments and expanded dialogue to boot! For their account the authors source the guest book signature (okay) and Kellock (gack!). But even here the authors acknowledge that it's unlikely Houdini, two weeks off the boat, could walk into Scotland Yard and meet with a man like William Melville. Unless, of course, Houdini was a secret agent (double gack).

So lets go back to Silverman. The last best Houdini biography omits the Scotland Yard story entirely.

Now, I'm not a big fan of challenging popular Houdini stories. I'm not a mythbuster by nature. I'm even holding out hope that we'll someday find evidence for the under the ice story. Not long ago someone asked me if there was any evidence that Houdini really escaped from the Siberian Transport Prison Van in Russia? That's silly. Why question that? Sure, the Russian police wouldn't provide an official testimonial, but there is a wealth of residual evidence in the form of publicity material about the escape, including a poster.

And that's another reason why I'm so skeptical about the Scotland Yard escape. If it happened the way Kellock said it did, where is all the residual evidence in the form of publicity material? Why did Houdini not promote what at the time would have been the most spectacular escape of his career? And why no mention of this in any of his pitchbooks? All his pitchbooks say of this breakthrough period of his life is: "After several trial shows and private exhibitions for manager C. Dundas Slater, Houdini received a contract."

"The Man Who Outwitted Scotland Yard" in Houdini (1953).
But where is the real version of this poster?

And what about those trial shows? There is no disputing that these took place. Houdini complained about them in letters that he wrote back to Martin Beck in America (no mention of a career-making Scotland Yard handcuff escape in these letters, by the way). So why was Houdini auditioning as late as June 27 when the matter had been settled, according to the story, at Scotland Yard on June 14? Tellingly, Kellock omits any mention of these trial shows. Of course, he would have to to make the Scotland Yard story work, just as he omits Bess's performing with The Floral Sisters to make the "acid on the dress" story work.

Now, it's possible the Scotland Yard escape didn't find its way into Houdini's promotional material because it was a private test and didn't seem newsworthy. Possible. But this would mean that Harry Houdini didn't recognize the publicity value of escaping from handcuffs at the most famous police station in all the world. And that, my friends, is impossible.

Here's what I think happened 113 years ago today.

Houdini did visit Scotland Yard. He may have met with an official there. Maybe it was Melville; more likely it was and underling. He probably did the Needles, some card tricks and, yes, escaped from a pair of Scotland Yard cuffs.

But it was not a challenge. It was a social call. Because what Houdini was doing on this day was what he had done many times in America and would do many times after. He was paying an advance visit to a police station to see if they would be agreeable to hosting a publicity stunt in which he would return with reporters and escape from restraints or even a jail cell. Houdini may have pitched the idea to the official...who may have turned him down. That was not the kind of thing that Scotland Yard would participate in.

So this confirms the visit (guest book evidence); confirms a handcuff escape (Houdini's notation); but also explains why Houdini never promoted a Scotland Yard escape and why he still had to win his engagement at the Alhambra by auditioning.

Of course, all this sounds a little too much like mundane real life, so Kellock took the nuggets of a visit to Scotland Yard on June 14 and spun it into an exciting tale in which Houdini's entire career hinged on a single handcuff escape. A great story. So great, in fact, no one ever really wanted to question it.

But this isn't without controversy. While working on this post I ran the idea that the Scotland Yard escape never happened past Houdini's Ghost himself, the great Patrick Culliton. Pat has a different take. He believes the escape happened exactly the way Kellock describes, but he believes it was a set-up. Houdini had previously convinced Melville to play the "stooge" in front of Slater and help him land his career-making engagement. Pat's simple reply: "It happened."

What do you think?

Site of the original Scotland Yard headquarters today.

Special thanks to Joe Fox. Illustration of Houdini at Scotland Yard by Fred M. Irvin from Harry Houdini: Young Magician by Kathryn Kilby Borland and Helen Ross Speicher.

UPDATE: Well, it didn't take long to shake this up. Bill Mullins has posted to the Genii forums three separate newspaper interviews in which Houdini mentions a Scotland Yard escape. However, there is no mention of Superintendent Melville, a pillar, or a bet. And just to muddy the waters more, Houdini claims to have also escaped from a jail cell that day!

UPDATE: I recently found what may be the first recored newspaper account of Houdini's visit to Scotland Yard and it is very similar to what I speculated really happened that day. Read: The real story of Houdini at Scotland Yard?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Houdini's daughter is 'Born of Illusion'

Here's a fresh new take on Houdini fiction. Born of Illusion by Teri Brown features the adventures of Houdini's illegitimate daughter, Anna Van Housen (not a real person). The novel has just been published in hardcover by Balzer + Bray. Here's the jacket description:

Anna Van Housen has a secret.

A gifted illusionist, Anna assists her mother, the renowned medium Marguerite Van Housen, in her stage show and séances, easily navigating the underground world of magicians and mentalists in 1920s New York. For Anna, the illegitimate daughter of Harry Houdini—or so Marguerite claims—handcuffs and sleight-of-hand illusions have never been much of a challenge. The real trick is keeping her own gifts secret from her mother: because while Marguerite's powers may be a sham, Anna possesses a true ability to sense people's feelings and foretell the future.

But as Anna's powers intensify, she experiences frightening visions of her mother in peril, which lead her to explore the abilities she's tried so long to hide. And when a mysterious young man named Cole moves into the flat downstairs, introducing Anna to a society that studies people with gifts like hers, she begins to wonder if there's more to life than keeping secrets.

As her visions become darker and her powers spin out of her control, Anna is forced to rethink all she's ever known. Is her mother truly in danger, or are Anna's visions merely illusions? And could the great Houdini really be her father, or is it just another of Marguerite's tricks?

From Teri Brown comes a world bursting with magic, with romance, with the temptations of Jazz Age New York—and the story of a girl about to become the mistress of her own destiny.

I don't have this book in hand yet, but checking out the Amazon preview I see that Houdini himself is an active presence throughout the book. At one point Anna goes and sees Haldane of the Secret Service:

"Mother doesn't know it, but I've been to all his movies. I missed this one the first time it came out and I'm torn, wondering if I should go inside. For me, watching a Houdini movie is like fouling up a trick onstage: It starts out great, then suddenly it's not, and you end up with a pit in your stomach, wishing you hadn't tried it at all."

Everybody's a critic!

You can purchase Born of Illusion by Teri Brown on

UPDATE: Teri Brown has now published a sequel: Born of Deception.

M-U-M's The Houdini Years PDF

The Conjuring Arts Research Center in New York is offering a special PDF download of M-U-M Volumes 1-16: The Houdini Years. Here's a description:

These earliest issues of the official organ of the Society of American Magicians are extremely rare. Under the editorships Charles Roltare, R. Van Dien, Harry Houdini, and Lionel Hartley, these first 16 volumes ran from 1911 through 1927, after which point the M-U-M became an insert in the Sphinx until it reemerged as an independent publication in 1951. Many issues contain articles written with information from Houdini’s own research files that is not available anywhere else. There are also accounts of board meetings, banquets, who’s working where, financial reports, and general gossip that make for very interesting reading.

This file took Conjuring Arts many years to assemble and only recently become perfectly complete. This is the first time this magazine has ever been reproduced in any form; Now you can own it in easy to use PDFs.

You can buy M-U-M Volumes 1-16: The Houdini Years at The Conjuring Arts Research Center website.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

LINK: Fred Pitella's Houdini and Escapes Museum website

Just a quick shout-out to Fred Pitella's excellent website, Houdini and Escapes Museum. Lots of photos of Fred's magnificent Houdini and restraints collection. I especially love the shot of an original padlock from the Milk Can and Fred's many posters of other escapists. Click on the headline and have a browse.

Houdini handcuffs on Baggage Battles

Back in January The Sun reported that the Discovery Channel was shooting a "Houdini documentary" in Dublin, Ireland. Turns out it was actually an episode of the reality show, Baggage Battles, that featured a pair of Houdini handcuffs.

Escape artist Steve Spade, who was brought in as the Houdini expert, wildly overestimates the cuffs' value at $10,000-$20,000. But all this was faked anyway. We know from the original Sun story that the show purchased the handcuffs at an American auction along with the Hardeen paperwork. They were not discovered in lost baggage as portrayed here. And the whole thing about Houdini having a "52 second record" of escaping from the 100 foot rope tie is also total fiction. But that's "reality" TV for you.

Thanks to Harry Houdini for the tip.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Houdini-Reno jump cuffs sell on eBay

A pair of cleverly gaffed Houdini handcuffs with very interesting provenance sold on eBay over the weekend for $3,700. I let the seller's description on the now closed auction speak for itself:

1882 Original Houdini Handcuffs
These Handcuffs are tricked in such a way that you can place them on anyone else and fully lock them and they will not get out without the use of the key. The trick to open these handcuffs without the key is so clever. These Houdini cuffs can be placed on your wrists behind your back and you could be thrown in the water over your head and you could still get out without the use of any key within seconds.

In 1908 Houdini sold these cuffs along with others to a well known bridge jumper by the name of THE GREAT RENO. He was another escape artist and Circus performer in Boston at the time he met Harry Houdini in person. Houdini was just getting out of the handcuff escape act and moving on to other performing ideas because there were just to many other copycat handcuff escape acts at that time. I have used these handcuffs in a performance and they are perfect for dangerous situation demonstrations

Copies of the story written in the handwriting of the Great Reno when he met Houdini in person describing this pair of and handcuff will be given to the winning bidder. The certificate of authenticity is also given to the winning bidder which is photographed.

It's wild to think of Houdini selling a pair of his own tricked cuffs (which sound like a pair of "jump cuffs" -- cuffs used in underwater bridge jump escapes) to an imitator. But if he did, this would have been around the correct time. In 1908 Houdini introduced his death-defying Milk Can escape and was leaving his career as The Handcuff King behind.

The fact that these cuffs sold for this impressive amount tells me there's at least one major Houdini collector who thinks there might be something to this tale.

And who was The Great Reno? Turns out there's actually a website devoted to the escapist at

Monday, June 10, 2013

Houdini & Gysel by Wayne Wissner

Magician and photographer Wayne R. Wissner has printed a 22 page monograph called Houdini & Gysel. The work explores the "love/hate" relationship between Houdini and Robert Gysel, using a collection of over 70 letters of correspondence between the two men.

Robert Gysel was a magician and escape artist who dabbled in spiritualism before becoming and active exposer of fraudulent mediums. Gysel regularly provided Houdini with information on mediums and other magic-related matters, but it doesn't appear Gysel was ever employed as one of Houdini's "agents", as has been suggested. In fact, in some letters Gysel presses Houdini for a job as an assistant in his full evening roadshow.

Wayne mostly excerpts selections from Gysel's letters, which reveal Gysel to have been quite an eccentric character, maybe even a touch unstable. Houdini seems appreciative of his information, but keeps him at arms length. But he also shows some concern, at one point saying, "You better take care of yourself, because I can read between the lines of your letters that you are not well."

There are also exchanges that reveal both men's feelings about other magicians, including Blackstone ("he'll steal your tricks") and Thurston ("the wallflower"). There is also a remarkable letter in which Houdini pretty much answers the question of whether or not he believes in God by stating: "I do believe in the supernatural activity of the Devine Element on man."

Wayne is offering single copies of Houdini & Gysel on eBay as a Buy It Now for $20 postpaid. His most current listing can be found here.

Houdini in May issue of ZMAN

There is an article about Houdini in the May 2013 issue of the Jewish journal, ZMAN. The article is called "The World’s Greatest Escape Artist" by Yaakov Astor.

A PDF preview of the article, which includes a nice illustration, is available online here. The back issue itself can be purchased from the ZMAN website.

Thanks to our friends at the Houdini Museum in Scranton who were tipped to this by a recent visitor.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The first great Houdini biography

Today I continue my examination of books about Houdini using images and insights from my own collection (and in this case some additional images from the Arthur Moses collection).

When Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls by William Lindsay Gresham hit bookstores in 1959, it had been a remarkable 31 years since the last major Houdini biography. That last biography was Houdini His Life Story by Harold Kellock, a book notorious for being "full of lies." With his new biography Gresham took a quantum leap forward, washing away many of the Kellock fictions and unearthing essential new information. Indeed, I consider this the first great Houdini biography, and one that all subsequent biographies owe the biggest debt. It's also still the one with the best title.

It's in Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls that Houdini's real birthplace and birthday is revealed for the first time. Gresham also dismisses as apocryphal almost all of the familiar boyhood tales (picking the lock on the pie cabinet, the locksmith apprenticeship); tells the true story of Harry and Bess's meeting and marriage; debunks the trapped under the ice story; reveals Martin Beck's involvement in launching Houdini's career; exposes some of the sordid details of the Arthur Ford seance; introduces us to Daisy White ("one of the most mischievous little minxes ever to be shot through a trap door"); and introduces a myriad of new Houdini facts that are now taken for granted.

There is also some information that remains still largely exclusive to this book, such as a one-off underwater straitjacket escape in the New York Hippodrome pool and Houdini's advanced plans for a crusade against gambling cheats "after mediums wore out." Gresham also shows great reverence for Jim Collins and the role he played in Houdini's life and career. He even goes as far to say: "Had Collins been in the dressing room that fateful day in 1926, Houdini might be with us yet."

Part of Gresham's success was because his sources in 1959 were excellent. Many of them knew Houdini personally. His Author's Acknowledgments cite: Joseph Dunninger, Walter Gibson, Will Goldston, Milbourne Christopher (and his collection of 500 Houdini letters), Sidney Radner, Robert Lund, John Mulholland, Jean Hugard, Fred Keating (the book includes two wonderful personal memories of Houdini from Keating), and even Houdini's assistant, Lewis Goldstein (likely the source of an untold story of Houdini going "berserk" when his dog was accidentally delivered to the theater instead of his trained eagle which traveled in a similar box). Gresham dedicates the book to James "The Amazing" Randi, who also helped greatly in Gresham's research.

Sure, Gresham still falls into a few familiar traps. He embraces Will Goldston's version of the Mirror challenge, with Bess crying the key out of the rep (although it's impressive that he questions the traditional version at all). He says Houdini escaped from the Russian Siberian Transport Van by cutting through the floor. He speculates on a method of the Water Torture Cell which we now know is incorrect (as we now know Sid Radner was withholding the real method from the author, which might have been wise as Gresham does reveal secrets in this book). He also reports that it was Houdini himself who survived the plane crash in The Grim Game, identifies J. Gordon Whitehead (whom he does not name) as a boxer, and includes the now discredited quote from "Jim Collins" saying that he put the ruler in the Margie Box.

Regardless, Houdini The Man Who Walked Through Walls is a top notch, well-written, and surprisingly accurate Houdini biography that provided a new and much needed fact-based foundation for magic historians to build on. It was also a book with a surprisingly long publication life.

Publication history:

Houdini The Man Who Who Walked Through Walls was first published in the U.S. as a hardcover by Henry Holt & Co. on August 3, 1959. The book would go into a second printing that same month, a third printing in October, and a fourth in January 1960. The book included several pages of photos, an "Opinionated Bibliography," and an Author's Acknowledgments in the front.

1959 U.S. first edition hardcover and 1960 UK first edition with curious cover.

In 1960 Victor Gollancz, Ltd. published the book in hardcover in the UK. For some reason, the UK edition uses an image of Robert-Houdin on the cover. Hard to believe this could have been an error -- confusing Houdin and Houdini -- but I guess it's possible. The UK edition includes slightly different photos from the U.S.

Houdini The Man Who Who Walked Through Walls was first published in paperback by Hillman Books in June 1961. All new photos were used in the paperback edition, and the Author's Acknowledgments were moved to the back of the book.

Hillman 1961 U.S. paperback first edition.

Later paperbacks were published by Macfadden Books. Apart from different publisher markings, the only noticeable difference between the Hillman and Macfadden editions is the tinting of the photo of Houdini (credited to Dunninger) on the back. Macfadden released at least five printings. All use the same cover art, but show variations in price and the occasional inclusion of "Printed in the USA" on the back.

Macfadden 3rd printing October 1967 (Arthur Moses collection).
Macfadden 5th printing July 1970 (note "Printed in USA" on back).

Houdini The Man Who Walked Through Walls doesn't appear to have been widely published outside the U.S. and UK. As far as I know, there wasn't even a UK paperback edition. However, there was a Dutch edition published in 1964 (update: Russian Gresham).

1964 Dutch edition (Arthur Moses Collection).

The 1970s saw the return of Houdini The Man Who Walked Through Walls in hardcover by what was now Holt, Rineheart and Winston. I don't know the publication order of their two later hardcovers for certain, but it seems logical that 1973 hardcover, which uses the same artwork as the first edition, came first followed by what is only described inside as an 11th printings with brand new cover artwork (this edition eluded me for years).

1970s Holt, Rineheart and Winston hardcovers.

The last printing of Houdini The Man Who Walked Through Walls was a paperback by Manor Books in 1975 with all-new cover art. This was the first Houdini biography I ever bought and read, so this particular edition has always held a special place for me.

1975 Manor Books paperback.

Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls has now fallen long out of print, and that's a shame. Sure, some of the information is now out-of-date, but by and large it's a very solid Houdini biography and one that should always be remembered as a milestone. Even the great Max Maven once called it "the best of all the Houdini biographies." Some kind of collectible Anniversary Edition would not be unwelcome one day.

UPDATEGresham on Kindle.

Also enjoy:

Friday, June 7, 2013

Rainbow MagicLand's Maison Houdini

Looks like there is a Houdini-themed attraction at an amusement park outside of Rome called Rainbow MagicLand (there's a name). I'm not sure exactly what "Maison Houdini" offers riders, but it could be a funhouse simulator like Houdini’s Great Escape at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey.

Here's a very vice photo of Maison Houdini courtesy of Julie Grajed. Julie's Instagram page was how I discovered this lastest Houdini attraction. Let's ride!

Rainbow MagicLand