Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Houdini's plan to tour East Asia in a 500-seat super car

"You wanna do what now, boss?"

One thing that is notable about Houdini's career is that he never performed in Asia. Many magicians of the time made tours of countries like China, Japan and India, scoring great success and coming back to the West with trunks full of exotic bragging rights. Some performers like Dante and Murray made world touring their life's work. But apart from his 1910 Australian tour, Houdini confined himself to North America and Europe.

However, an article in a July 1914 New York Dramatic Mirror reveals that Houdini was indeed planning to tour East Asia at the beginning of 1915. His plans were, of course, pure Houdini. In an article titled "How Harry Houdini Picked the Lock of Success", the paper reports:

Houdini plans to sail to the Continent in January, crossing to Russia and going by way of the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Japan. While he is an excellent swimmer, he doesn't like sea travel, and is going as far as possible by land. He is now having a huge motor car constructed according to his own ideas for a trip into the interior of Japan and China. The car will be built so that it can be opened to six times its own length, and will seat 500 people. With the van open and a stage arranged in front of the seats, Houdini can give entertainments at will.

One thing that should be pointed out is that the Trans-Siberian terminates in Beijing (then Peking), not Japan, so one wonders how Houdini and his 500-seat super car would deal with the body of water that separates China and Japan.

While it sounds wild, I do believe this East Asia tour was on the level. In fact, I expect the roadshow Houdini was going to present would have been his Grand Magical Revue, which he was performing at this time. This is especially interesting as it's evidence that Houdini was planning his evolution from Vaudeville headliner to touring magician as early as 1915.

So what happened to Houdini's ambitious plans? It seems likely that World War I scuttled the idea. The war broke out on July 28, 1914, just a few weeks after this article was published. Houdini would not even be able to travel back to the UK until 1920. He would remain in the U.S. and in Vaudeville for the duration of the war, and would not head up his own roadshow until 1925.

It's too bad, because oh what a chapter in the Houdini story this super car tour would have made! Thanks a lot, War. Now it's personal.

Thanks to Steve Knight at The Magic Cafe forums for putting on the path to this discovery.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Alpha releases Houdini 3-pack DVD

Alpha Video has released a set of all three of their Houdini silent film DVDs for one price. The set includes Haldane of the Secret Service, The Man From Beyond, and Terror Island.

Judging by the item photo (left), it doesn't appear these three DVDs are contained on a special box or slipcase, so I'm not sure it's a must buy for those of us who bought the films when they came out individually. (Memo to Alpha: Whip up a slipcase with unique artwork and, boom, you have me again.)

While these Alpha releases tend to be nothing special as far as the prints are concerned, Alpha does go the extra mile with nice cover art and menus. Their release of Haldane of the Secret Service is the only stand alone DVD release of Houdini's last film.

You can purchase Alpha Video's Houdini DVD three pack from or

By the way, Alpha's DVD of Mystic Circle Murder (aka Religious Racketeers -- the 1938 Bessie movie) is currently on sale for $3.99 at Why not make it a four pack!

Monday, July 29, 2013

Houdini by R.B. Ogle

This interesting illustration of Houdini is currently cycling for a second time on eBay. This portrait shows Houdini in what appears to be a Kimono and was done by R.B. Ogle, an illustrator of children's and adventure books in the 1920s.

This isn't Ogle's only Houdini work. He also did a beautiful illustration of the plane crash action from Houdini's The Grim Game. That original is now in the Arthur Moses collection. As they are both dated 1920, it's likely these were done at the same time. But why the unusual get-up here?

Chuck Romano over at My Magic Uncle discovered this one and first brought it to my attention. Until his post, I'd never seen this image before. But then in one of those odd Houdini coincidences (that happen to me all the time), when I was paging through Houdini's lost Spiritualism scrapbook, there was Ogle's Kimono'ed Houdini staring back at me from a 1925 newspaper article about Houdini teaching police "how to fight ghosts."

Click to enlarge.

The Houdini-Ogle image on eBay is not an original illustration, but a photo of the original. I wonder if the original is still out there somewhere?

UPDATE: The original illustration together with a collection of Ogle-Houdini material sold at auction for £7,800.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

IIG announces latest "Houdini Award"

The Independent Investigations Group (IIG), the international skeptical research and science advocacy organization, has announced that Dr. Eugenie C. Scott is to be inducted into their Houdini Hall of Honor. The "Houdini Award" is bestowed on people who have devoted their careers to promoting scientific and critical thinking to the public.

Dr. Scott is the Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education and has appeared in numerous documentary films addressing creationism and pseudoscience. Scott's name will join Houdini, Carl Sagan, James Randi, Isaac Asimov, and others on a plaque on display at the Center for Inquiry in Hollywood.

"The IIG Awards recognize mainstream entertainment for promoting critical thinking and scientific values and dispelling myths and superstition," said James Underdown, Chair of the IIG. "This has become an important annual event at the intersection of science and entertainment."

Also being recognized this year is the series The Dr. Phil Show. The show will receive the "Truly Terrible Television Award," given each year to a program that promotes pseudoscience or belief in the supernatural. Dr. Phil is being recognized for episodes that presented psychics as legitimate.

Previous winners of the Truly Terrible Television Award include Ghost Hunters (SyFy), The Montel Williams Show (CBS), Psychic Kids (A&E), The Oprah Winfrey Show, and the Dr. Oz Show.

The awards presentation will be held on Monday, July 29th at the Steve Allen Theater at 4773 Hollywood Blvd, with a reception starting at 7PM. Admission is free, although donations are welcome.

For more information on the IIG Awards, visit the official IIG website.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Houdini Challenge poster and other rarities sell at Potter & Potter

A nice oversized Houdini Challenge poster sold today at Potter & Potter's "Summer Shelf Sale" of magic books and memorabilia for $2,640 (including 20% buyers premium). The auction estimate was $2,000 - $2,500. According to an auction watcher at the Thayer forum, the poster "had at least two aggressive phone bidders."

The 1916 14 x 22 poster advertised a challenge to Houdini from U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officers to escape from handcuffs and manacles brought to the New York Hippodrome. As this was during the first World War, this could be considered as a Houdini-World War I item. The auction correctly pointed out that most printed matter relating to Houdini's challenges are small handbills, so the size of this adds to its appeal. I also really love the disclaimer at the bottom: "The Challengers have been absolved from all blame in case of accident."

The auction also saw the sale of a portrait photo of Houdini posing with his book, The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin for $420. A 1924 letter from Houdini on S.A.M. stationary calling for a meeting at his home to discuss the issue of "exposures for publicity" sold for $840. (This was an issue Houdini found himself in hot water over more than once.)

The small candid photo of Harry and Bess Houdini, which I speculated here could be the only photo of them at their Laurel Canyon bungalow in Hollywood, sold for $960. It blew away the auction estimate of $200-250 (and my own humble bid -- sigh).

The auction also had an interesting Howard Thurston letter dated November 15, 1926, in which the magician writes:

"Papers are full of Houdini taking his secrets to his grave. You know that is not true and it belittles the remaining magicians."

That letter sold for $1,140.

Among the non-Houdini highlights were an inscribed portrait of Leon Herrmann ($3,360), an Alexander Herrmann Throw-out card ($1,320), and a Harry Kellar "Centipede" poster which brought in the highest price of the auction, $7,800.

Congrats to all the buyers.

Two new books promise great escapes

Speaking of escapology, two new books on the subject have recently appeared on Amazon. First up is How to Hack Handcuffs Like Houdini: For Magicians, Law Enforcement & Urban Survivalist by Shawn C. Evans. Here's the description:

Do you know that you can open a pair of standard handcuffs with a drinking straw? Do you know the 3 “universal” handcuff keys that all escapologists should have in their toolkit? Do you know which handcuff key is ideal to use with sleight-of-hand techniques? Written for Magicians, Law Enforcement and Urban Survivalist, this book describes in detail the novel methods to “hack” open handcuffs --- from picking & shimming with household items, to the interesting use of HIPS devices. Chapter 1: Short History of Handcuffs. Chapter 2: Handcuff Nomenclature. Chapter 3: Escape / Hacking Methods Chapter 4: Handcuff Keys. Chapter 5: Single vs. Double Lock. Chapter 6: Shimming Techniques. Chapter 7: Picking Techniques. Chapter 8: HIPS Devices. Chapter 9: GOAH Stage Method. Chapter 10: Tricked Handcuffs.

The author is a Summa Cum Laude graduate of psychology and a life-long student of magic. He has created over 65 marketed magic effects and currently operates the website: The author is known as the coin guy who “splits” cards and is the sole craftsman who makes all the gaffed & gimmick cards for the popular Mimesis Card Workshop.

The second book is Escape or Die: An escape artist unlocks the secret to cheating death by Anthony Martin, "founder of Ambassador in Chains ministry." This one seems to be a biography mixed with the motivational. Here's the description:

Few sane people would want to be locked in shackles, enclosed in a box, and thrown from a plane at 15,000 feet for fun. But for renowned escape artist Anthony Martin, whose fascination with locks began as a young boy, it’s all in a day’s work.

Whether shackled in a bag with a python, padlocked in a cage beneath a frozen lake, or buried in a coffin under a ton of sand, Anthony regularly faces the risk of serious injury or death. However, unlike Houdini, who used illusion, Anthony’s exploits are all true escapes.

Interweaving stories of his over thirty years of daredevil feats with lessons he’s learned in the “school of hard locks,” Anthony unlocks the mystery of life after death—something Houdini had sought in séances to no avail. What happens when we die? Once we pass through the door of death, what’s on the other side?

Through fascinating parallels with his death-defying adventures, Anthony reveals the keys to making the greatest escape. With the lessons he shares in Escape or Die, you’ll be well-equipped to take a leap of faith and defeat death once and for all.

Not sure what the author here means about Houdini's escapes being "illusion" and not "true escapes", but maybe that's all part of the whole motivational thingy.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Howard Stern is an escapology fan

Escape artist Alexanderia the Great (aka Donna Purnell) was eliminated last Wednesday during the quarterfinals of NBC's America’s Got Talent. Her final stunt was to escape from a straightjacket in a locked tank of water made from bullet proof Lexan. reports that the judges seemed split following her performance. Melanie Brown and Howie Mandel offered "tepid praise." Heidi Krum said the performance kept her on the edge of her seat.

However, Purnell’s greatest supporter at the judges' table was Howard Stern. He praised her performance, saying: "Houdini is your hero; Houdini would be proud of you. I think you did a great job."

The middle-aged escape artist had previously said she was afraid to go on the show because of Stern's reputation. She feared he might belittle her physical appearance. Instead, Stern said she "really deserved a spot in the semifinals."

I'm a big Howard Stern fan. Not sure I've ever heard him talk about Houdini on his radio show, but I'd like to think he's a fan of the very first King of All Media. (By the way, Howard and Houdini score a 100% emotional compatibility on

Congratulations to Alexanderia the Great for getting as far as she did on AGT, and for getting a nice Howard Stern Houdini name-check on national television.

Spanish edition of The Right Way To Do Wrong

A Spanish edition of Houdini's The Right Way to Do Wrong has been published by Captain Swing in Madrid as Cómo hacer bien el mal.

The inclusion of an introduction by Teller tells me this is not Houdini's 1906 book, but a translation of the new edition of Houdini's collected writings recently published under this same title by The Neversink Library.

This edition also includes an introduction by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

You can purchase Cómo hacer bien el mal from or

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Is this Houdini and Bess in Laurel Canyon?

This intriguing candid photo of Harry and Bess Houdini will be auctioned by Potter & Potter this Saturday, July 27, as part of their Summer Shelf Sale. The auction includes almost 1000 collectible and contemporary magic books, as well as Herrmann, Kellar, and Houdini memorabilia, including a nice Challenge poster.

This photo excites me for several reasons. First, I've never seen it. Also, you gotta love the parrot on Bessie's shoulder. (Possibly "Laura" or "Pat Houdini". See: Houdini's pets.) But it's the location of this shot that has me most intrigued.

The catalog listing says circa 1924, but the auction house tells me that's just a guesstimate. To my eye that looks like Houdini with his black-dyed silent movie hair. He also appears dressed as he was in his Jesse L. Lasky "Extreme Houdini" publicity photos. That means this could be Houdini and Bess in Hollywood in 1919 while he was making The Grim Game (the auction house has now changed the date on the online listing to 1919).

So if this is Hollywood at that time, is it possible that this is the first and only shot of Houdini and Bess at their rented bungalow in Laurel Canyon? Could this be the "smoking gun evidence" that I spoke about in my lengthy post about the famous "Houdini Estate" last year? Those trees do look a lot like Laurel Canyon to me (I used to live there), and the house on the right does look to be in the style of a canyon home of the time.

Unfortunately, the consignor of this pic wishes to remain anonymous, so no clues where this photo came from. If only that parrot could talk.

Potter & Potter's Summer Shelf Sale auction takes place on July 27, 2013. The auction catalog can be downloaded as a PDF from the Potter & Potter website.

Thanks to Adam Steinfeld for the find and Gabe Fajuri for the auction info.

UPDATE: The photo sold for $960. See: Houdini Challenge poster and other rarities sell at Potter & Potter.

News of Houdini's lost scrapbook goes international

Looks like our big story from last week about the lost Houdini spiritualism scrapbook has now gone international. The French website ActuaLitté.com has an article about the book using a few of my photos with a nice link back. I have to say, traffic on this story has been c'est magnifique!

Here are a few more links to stories about the book:

It's odd that, apart from Magicana, I haven't been able to interest the major magic news sites like iTricks and Magic Newswire in this discovery. However, there will be a special something about the book in an upcoming Magic Castle newsletter. Yes, even the House of Vernon acknowledges that this is a pretty exciting find.

You can read the original story here. And if you are an interested collector, you can still send Mike the owner a confidential message via my Contact page.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Houdini musical now looking to 2014

After five years of development, it looked like 2013 was finally going to be the year of the big Houdini Broadway musical starring Hugh Jackman. But after Aaron Sorkin dropped out in January, all talk of a 2013 debut dried up. In fact, we've not heard a peep of news about the production since.

But now has a somewhat encouraging update. The site says it's now possible the play will open on Broadway in Fall 2014.

This information comes from recent interviews with Hugh Jackman, who is out promoting his latest Wolverine film. When asked about Houdini, the actor told Elvis Duran and The Morning Show, "We got a final workshop at the end of this year, if all goes well, next year we'll bring it to Broadway." (Video.)

Playbill says a representative for the production could not confirm immediate Broadway plans, but stated that a fall workshop will allow the creative team to determine the potential for a 2014 Broadway arrival.

Meanwhile, Aaron Sorkin, who dropped out of Houdini citing time constraints, has now magically found time to become involved in a different Broadway musical. Playbill says Sorkin's representatives have been working with Houdini producers to work out how much of his contributions will be incorporated into the future life of the production.

For me, that's just more evidence that Sorkin's work on Houdini was not up to scratch and this is the real reason for the musical going off track. But Sorkin is a media darling and I guess no one is allowed to say that. But I'll say it. I never understood his hiring in the first place.

Anyway, here's hoping Houdini and Jackman will make it to Broadway in 2014.

Stream The Man From Beyond

Houdini's 1922 silent feature film, The Man From Beyond, is now available for streaming via Amazon Instant Video. This follows Terror Island as the second Houdini movie to be made available for streaming, which means you can watch it on computers, phones, and tablets.

The version offered here is from the 2008 Kino box set, Houdini The Movie Star, which collects all of Houdini's available silent films along with rare footage of his real escapes. The steaming page features this unique Kino The Man From Beyond artwork.

It's very satisfying to see Houdini's movies being offered via the most modern methods of film distribution. Of course, we don't yet have in any form the one Houdini movie we most want to see...

Click here to stream The Man From Beyond via Amazon Instant Video (Amazon Prime members can stream for free).

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Houdini haunts The Missouri Review

The summer 2013 issue of The Missouri Review includes a special feature on Houdini by Kristine Somerville and Editor Speer Morgan.

"Many fascinating things are known about Houdini," writes Morgon, "partly because he was an assiduous collector of his own materials and also of rare books and gear concerning the history of magic. There are also so many myths and partial truths about him, which this feature tries to clarify, including stories of his death at age fifty-two and the nature of his relationship with the all-powerful milieu of spiritualism."

You can buy this issue (no. 36.2) for $8.95 direct from The Missouri Review website.

Thanks to Kirsten at NewPages Blog for this info.

"Hurry Up, Houdini!" released today

A new Houdini-themed children's book, Hurry Up, Houdini! by Mary Pope Osborne with illustrations by Sal Murdocca, is released today by Random House Books for Young Readers.

Hurry Up, Houdini! is part of the popular Magic Tree House series (#50), a mix of magic, history, science, and adventure aimed at readers 7 and up. Past books have included pirates, Abraham Lincoln and the Titanic. This time the young protagonists, Jack and Annie, encounter the Master Mystifier himself.

Today also sees the release of a companion book, Magic Tricks from the Tree House: A fun companion to Magic Tree House #50: Hurry Up, Houdini!, a book of magic tricks and facts about famous magicians and famous tricks. Both books are available now on Amazon (links below).

Monday, July 22, 2013

"Hanging with Houdini and Gaughan"

David Blaine just posted this to his Instagram page.

It appears Blaine is visiting or shooting something in John Gaughan's workshop and museum in California. That's an authentic "Houdini for President" poster to the right. I'm not sure if the Houdini mannequin Blaine is "hanging with" is an automaton, but he does appear to be writing something. John Gaughan specialized in restoring classic automata. He actually owns Houdini's Psycho.

Not long ago Blaine posted a photo of himself in an ice bath à la Houdini. Could he be working on something having to do with Houdini?

UPDATE: Reader JC has confirmed that this is indeed a John Gaughan made Houdini automaton. Gaughan made it for the 2003 Magic History Conference in Los Angeles. Here's a video clip of the Houdini automaton in action.

Russian Gresham

Last month I did a post about William Lindsay Gresham's Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls, or what I like to call the first great Houdini biography. I noted that, apart from a Dutch edition published in 1964, the book didn't appear to have been widely published outside the U.S. and UK.

But now Alexey Kozlov, a blogger and Houdini buff from Belarus, informs me that the Gresham book was actually published in Russia in 1993 as Человек проходит сквозь стену. Alexey has generously provided a cover scan of the copy in his own collection. Very nice!

Alexey also sent over some images of another recent Russian find. This is a Russian edition of Peter Eldin's The Best-Ever Book of Magic. The book has a nice section on Houdini with some unique illustrations (below).

Click to enlarge

Thank you Alexey.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

"How is it living with the most daring man alive?"

Here is a montage from the 1998 film HOUDINI starring Johnathon Schaech and Stacy Edwards. This mixes recreations of actual Houdini's escapes with beats of a worried Bessie, all to a beautiful rendition of Rosie, Sweet Rosabel. It's my favorite part of this film. Enjoy.

 HOUDINI recently became available on DVD via the Warner Archive Collection. You can read my full review/overview of the movie HERE.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Wild About Howard

Today is the birthday of Howard Thurston, born 142 years ago on July 20, 1869. Thurston was Houdini's friend and most famous contemporary. He was also Vice President to Houdini at The Society of American Magicians. Magicos still love to debate who was the more popular "magician" of the day -- the key word there being "magician." I won't get into that here, I will just say HARRY BIRTHDAY HOWARD.

Photo of Houdini and Howard Thurston from the New York Public Library's Billy Rose Theatre Collection.

First look at The Brothers Houdini

The first official photos of Jamie Nicholas and Stuart Brennan in character as "The Brothers Houdini" have been posted across the various social media platforms promoting the new UK stage production, Houdini. They look great. It's interesting how they are calling Dash "Theo Houdini."

Houdini is set to open at the Stoke-on-Trent Rep Theatre on September 9, 2013. Visit for tour details and to book tickets.

Friday, July 19, 2013

'Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini' extended through August 17

Great news. Jamie Robledo's Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini has been extended though August 17 at the Sacred Fools theater in Hollywood.

I recently reviewed this excellent play which stars Donal Thoms-Cappello as Houdini, Scott Leggett as Dr. Watson, Joe Fria as Sherlock Holmes, and Graham Skipper as Sigmund Freud. You can read my review here.

Tickets can be purchased online for $25 at the Sacred Fools website. You can also buy discount tickets via Goldstar. The Sacred Fools Theater is located at 660 N. Heliotrope (at Melrose Ave), Los Angeles, CA 90004.

Never Mind Houdini

Let's end what has been an exciting week with just one more image from Houdini's lost Spiritualism scrapbook. There are several of these small ads peppered throughout the book. I think Houdini found them as amusing as I do. Hey, at least they offered good music. Perhaps by the ghost of Mozart?

Keep watching WILD ABOUT HARRY for more rarities and revelations from this amazing Houdini artifact. And if you don't know what I'm talking about, click here.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Adam Steinfeld's YO HOUDINI

Magician Adam Steinfeld of Adam Steinfeld Magic Live has posted the first installment of his new Houdini-horror web series, YO HOUDINI. Says Adam:

"...It's a different approach, not exactly your fathers version of Houdini...more for today's hip/urban young internet generation, told thru a first person account, each episode will be under 2 minutes....I first plotted out, a 12 episode story arch, each ending in disastrous results.
I'm a big fan of twisted-tales, which is sort of like a magic illusion, you don't see it coming until it's too late."

I like it! Of course, it helps that this first episode, "In the Beginning", was shot outside Houdini's actual home. It's looking pretty good these days.

You can enjoy future installments of YO HOUDINI at

The Clairvoyant Murders Volume 2

The second installment of Charlie Mount's serialized novel, The Clairvoyant Murders, has been released for the Amazon Kindle. Here's a description:

The second part of this fascinating Sherlock Holmes novel introduces Watson to Harry Houdini, as they explore the world of London's clairvoyants, while Holmes searches for clues that will bring him closer to catching the nefarious German agent Von Bork. Written in the style and spirit of the original Conan Doyle stories, "The Clairvoyant Murders" is a must for any Sherlock Holmes fan.

You can purchase The Clairvoyant Murders Volume 2 by Charlie Mount for the Kindle on Amazon. Details on Volume 1 can be found here.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Mama's death and the birth of a myth

It was 100 years ago today on July 17, 1913, that Houdini's mother, Cecelia Steiner Weiss, died after suffering a stroke. When the news of her death reached Houdini who was performing in Copenhagen, he fainted.

It took Houdini several days to make it back to New York. The family delayed burial (against Jewish custom) so Houdini could have one last look at his mother. He placed in her casket a pair of woolen slippers which she had asked him to get her in Europe.

Houdini's mother's death might have been the single most important event in his life. His worship of his mother is well-known, and those who knew him said he was never quite the same man after her death. He mourned for months, even ordering new stationary rimmed in black. On November 22, 1913, he wrote to his brother Theo (Hardeen):

Dash its TOUGH, and I cant seem to get over it. Some times I feel alright, but when a calm moment arrives I am as bad as ever.

Even a full seven months after Cecelia's death, Houdini was still struggling with his grief. On January 19, 1914, he again writes to Theo:

I can write alright when I keep away from that heart rendering subject so will try and avoid it, if possible. But I have to write to my brother once in a while about HER whom we miss and for HER with whom I feel as if my heart of hearts went with HER.

Now, every Hollywood Houdini biopic, most documentaries, and even some magicians will tell you that after his mother died Houdini attended seances in the hopes to communicate with her. But all he found was fraud. He then set out to expose fraudulent mediums and launched into a new wave of his career as an anti-Spiritualism crusader and debunker.

It's a good story. Trouble is, it's not strictly true. In fact, the notion that Houdini's mother's death lead directly to his anti-Spiritualism crusade has grown to become one of the most permissive of all Houdini myths.

So what did Houdini do after his mother died? We know he took three months off and he and Bess travelled to the South of France (where he took a morbid interest in a cemetery for suicides). He also spent a lot of time at her grave site in Machpelah Cemetery. But unless it's found in dairies or letters that I haven't yet read, there is nothing to support the idea that Houdini attended a single séance after his mother died. In fact, it would be 10 years before Houdini unmasked his first medium. And to suggest that his interest in Spiritualism was sparked by her death is clearly false.

Houdini's interest and attitudes toward Spiritualism goes all the way back to his childhood. In the excellent book, Houdini and Conan Doyle, author Christopher Sandford says that Houdini attended a series of seances at age 11 in an attempt to communicate with his recently deceased half-brother, Hermann. Later, when his father died, Houdini sold his watch to attend a "professional psychic reunion" with Rabbi Weiss. But even at this young age, the boy who would become Houdini sensed fraud. Certainly these experiences could be seen as the psychological fodder for his later hostility towards fraudulent mediums.

In his teens Houdini and his friend Joseph Rinn attended séances and smoked out the methods of mediums. Houdini even suggested some pretty aggressive ideas for exposures (see: That time Houdini threatened to shoot all the psychics). Later Houdini and Bess would dabble in performing as psychic mediums themselves, something Houdini eventually found too distasteful to continue. But he continued to collect books on Spiritualism and eventually amassed a large library on the subject. He even attended the trial of Anne Rothe, The Flower Medium, in Germany in 1902. This is all well before his mother dies.

Just the notion that Harry Houdini would turn to a medium in 1913 is pretty improbable in itself. Houdini had by this time amassed a lifetime of experience that told him Spiritualism was hokum. Also, Spiritualism itself was somewhat in eclipse at this time, stuck between the stage shows of the Davenports and later parlor masters like Margery. It would take a World War to give the old act a boost and new relevance. Not only does Houdini not turn to Spiritualism after his mother dies, this is actually a time when he seems least interested in the subject, along with much of America.

The true genesis of Houdini's anti-Spiritualism crusade is rooted in his friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. After World War I Spiritualism was suddenly back in vogue. Doyle, who lost his son in the War, became a passionate champion of "the movement." Houdini has a lifetime of experience with the tricks of the trade, so he and Doyle had a topic to discuss when they met in 1920. This was thrilling for Houdini who always craved attention as a scholar and intellectual.

In fact, there is some evidence that Houdini was toying with a pro Spiritualism position at this time. His 1922 film, The Man From Beyond, ends with his character reading a book by Doyle and nodding in agreement. It is a major endorsement of Doyle that can't be ignored. But maybe Houdini was just trying to get closer to his new intellectual friend (he was thrilled that Doyle endorsed the film). This could have also had more to do with Houdini's belief in reincarnation than Spiritualism. But I digress.

It's in the company of Doyle that the major link between Cecelia Weiss and Spiritualism occurs. On June 17, 1922, Lady Doyle gives Houdini a séance in which she channels "HER" via Automatic Writing. Lady Doyle makes embarrassing mistakes (like writing in English and making the sign of the cross), but Houdini is polite and keeps his thoughts to himself. Sir Arthur takes this as a sign that Houdini has been swayed to the side of the spirits and says so publicly.

Now Houdini has to speak out on the topic, and what he has to say isn't complimentary. Doyle responds defensively, and suddenly Houdini is in a public debate with one of the great intellectuals of the age. THIS is what drives him to go after mediums. He is going to win this fight at all costs, which is very Houdini. He also discovers that it makes for fantastic theater and gives his career the boost that he didn't get with his movies. So Houdini becomes a debunker of fraudulent mediums. This is 10 years after the death of Cecelia Weiss.

The reason for the direct linkage to his mother's death may come from the Doyle séance, and Houdini's own statements that he did long to speak with his mother again. As with many myths, Houdini had a hand in shaping it. It's also just irresistibly convenient storytelling, which is why every Hollywood movie and quickie documentary takes this narrative bridge. However, in crossing that bridge, what gets lost is 10 important years of Houdini's life. We don’t hear about his World War I activities, the vanishing elephant, and his entire movie career. Ten years lost! Don't you hate it when that happens?

So today as we remember the great Cecelia Steiner Weiss, mother of Houdini, lets also begin to unravel years of mythology about her death sending her son among the spirits. They both deserve it.

Goodbye Mama.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Houdini Spiritualism scrapbook found in a California flea market

The lost Houdini scrapbook (and me).
Today I'm thrilled to share news of a truly incredible find. An antique dealer in Southern California has discovered a hitherto unknown Houdini scrapbook that has possibly gone unseen for 83 years.

This amazing book, which Houdini compiled and labeled as "IMPORTANT SCRAP BOOK - MISCELLANEOUS CLIPPINGS," is jam-packed with newspaper clippings about Spiritualism and Houdini's own spirit-busting activities. Many of the clippings have annotations in Houdini's own hand. The majority of the material is from 1925 with a few clippings from early 1926. The scrapbook contains many clippings chronicling Houdini's exposure of Margery the Medium and several related to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

While the scrapbook is devoted specifically to spiritualism, there are also several semi-related curiosities, such as a clipping about Friedrich von der Trenck (see: Is this Houdini in a past life?), a random Thurston advert, a story about whether pets live on after death, and a page devoted to Houdini's performance before the Roosevelt grandchildren, which is the only full account of this I've ever read (watch for a post about this soon). There are also two letters addressed to Houdini, one of which the magician has annotated, and a lengthy article about Houdini in French from a Montreal newspaper. Eerie to think that J. Gordon Whitehead almost certainly read this article.

So what's the story behind this amazing find?

A few weeks ago, I received an email from Mike, a long-time California antique dealer, saying he believed he had found a Houdini scrapbook at a local flea market. Frankly, it sounded too good to be true. But the photos he sent were intriguing, and he said an expert dealer had concurred that it was a Houdini scrapbook. He then graciously invited me to come have a look for myself.

So, on the following Sunday, I set off to see what I thought couldn't be. Well, I knew on first sight that the unbelievable was true. This is, unquestionably one of Harry Houdini's original scrapbooks. In fact, I think this might be one of Houdini's most important scrapbooks (hence the title) as it's really a tool for the magician to use in his battles against spiritualists. Many of the damning incidents that Houdini would cite against mediums (suicides related to seances, etc.) as well as stories of their underhanded methods are collected here. And then, of course, there's all the Margery material.

In fact, the importance of this scrapbook might be why it went missing from the collection of over 100 Houdini scrapbooks currently in the Library of Congress, and why it wound up on the West Coast. Mike has no provenance for the book, but it could be that Edward Saint brought this book with him to California when he and Bessie relocated here in the 1930s. Spiritualism was still a hot issue for the couple, and having Houdini's research scrapbook was probably a valuable tool. After Saint's death, the scrapbook could have been sold or given to a magician or Houdini enthusiast by Bess, and then went into storage where it's been for an unknown number of years.

Amazingly, this is the first Houdini item Mike has ever discovered in his 30 years of collecting. "It was a good day," he says.

The exciting news for collectors is that Mike is planning on selling this. He says he would like this important Houdini artifact to go to someone who "will appreciate it and look after it" and also "share it in some way with other Houdini enthusiasts." He has not yet decided whether to sell it through a national auction or privately, but he is open to hearing from interested collectors.

Now, I'm not brokering this and I don't know what price Mike has in mind (I made him the best offer I could), I'm just volunteering to put him in touch with fellow Houdini collectors as thanks for letting me see this amazing scrapbook and share the news of its discovery here on WILD ABOUT HARRY.

You can reach Mike by sending me an email via my CONTACT PAGE. I will forward all emails to him and keep all correspondence confidential.

Now put on your drool cups and enjoy these photos of Houdini's long-lost Spiritualism scrapbook!

UPDATE: Nice to see this news getting picked up around the web. Here are some links:

Houdini producing ectoplasm?

Ready for the big reveal?

Click here

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Rose by many names

These wonderful 7 X 9 press photos of Rose Mackenberg sold on eBay yesterday. Mackenberg was a chief member of Houdini's "Secret Service" -- one of his agents who went to seances to gather information on mediums he would later expose onstage. Even though they are dated 1937, they are said to show Rose in some of the different disguises she wore for her Houdini work.

Roses' undercover personas included: "Credulous Servant Girl," "Believing Semi-Invalid," "Smartly Garbed Widow," "Rustic Schoolteacher," "Small Town Matron," "Vamp from the Country," "Woman Seeking Lost Relatives," and "Tipsy Consultant."

They seller was Vintage Image Photos, which has one of the largest collections of original AP, UPI and other news service photos from the past.

Back in 2011 an unpublished manuscript written by Rose herself was offered in a lot of Mackenberg material on eBay. It never sold. Here's hoping some day that manuscript will surface as if would be wonderful to read about Roses' adventures among the spirits.

Speaking of spirits, make sure you check out WILD ABOUT HARRY tomorrow when I will reveal a remarkable artifact from Houdini's own ghostbusting days.

Saturday, July 13, 2013


This is fair warning to all Houdini and magic collectors that you will want to visit WILD ABOUT HARRY this Monday (July 15) when I will post news of a truly incredible find. This is a real thrill for me to reveal, so set your alarms and prepare to go WILD.

I've returned...

Friday, July 12, 2013

Let's see HOUDINI

The new UK stage production, Houdini, recently posted this pic to their very active Instagram page. I don't think I've ever seen this image before.

Houdini is set to open in the UK on September 9, 2013. Visit for more details.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

New Houdini Plaza opens in Appleton

The new Houdini Plaza in Appleton Wisconsin was dedicated yesterday with an official ribbon cutting ceremony. The event saw speeches by Appleton's mayor, Tim Hanna, and Matt Carpenter of the History Museum at the Castle. There was also a straitjacket escape performed by Rondini.

Matt Carpenter said the square is not only symbolically Appleton's center, but pointed out that the Weiss family lived in a small apartment that faced Appleton Street just a few blocks away.

"He lived here, he loved this city, and built his name and reputation on the ability to evoke a sense of wonder in people," Carpenter said.

"More than 10 years in the making and here we are, with sincere thanks to Appleton for sticking with the project," said Jennifer Stephany, executive director of Appleton Downtown Inc.

The new plaza was built by The Boldt Company (yes, as in Tom Boldt). The plaza hosts three main lawn areas that surround the landmark fountain and lighted column that pays homage to Houdini's Water Torture Cell.

"His name is magical and conjures up, I think, positive images for us," said Mayor Tim Hanna.

Images and info from The Appleton Post Crescent.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Red Light District performs "Handcuff King" July 17 in Hollywood

Looks like Houdini is alive and well in Hollywood this month. Not only do we have Watson and the Dark Art of Harry Houdini selling out at the Sacred Fools, but now comes word that the band Red Light District will be doing a special Houdini-themed performance during their upcoming show at Caravan Palace at the Fonda in Hollywood on July 17 (which also happens to be a significant day in Houdini history).

Singer and songwriter Juliette Angeli informs me that the band will perform their song "Handcuff King" with magician and Magic Castle regular Micah Cover on stage doing a straitjacket escape timed with the music. Sounds fun.

Red Light District is a Los Angeles based band "with one foot in the future and one in a dark, smokey jazz-age cabaret." Songs are written by Juliette Angeli & Shok and performed live as a big band. You can learn more about them via their Facebook page.

For more information and to buy tickets to the Caravan show visit the goldenvoice website. You can listen to Red Light District's "Handcuff King" below.

Houdini's 3 shows in 1 now playing on Facebook

Because I'm insane, I've created three new Facebook fan pages devoted to each aspect of Houdini's amazing career -- Magic, Escapes, and Fraudulent Mediums Exposed. This of course nicely echoes the three-shows-in-one theme of Houdini's full evening roadshow. On each page I'll feed a relevant story from WILD ABOUT HARRY. So like your favorite or like all three and you'll never miss a trick!