Friday, September 20, 2013

The Textbook

Continuing my examination of books about Houdini using images and insights from my own collection.

U.S. first edition (1969).
Houdini The Untold Story by Milbourne Christopher stood for 28 years as the definitive Houdini biography -- the textbook. Christopher was a top magician and magic historian who had a massive Houdini collection, including over 1000 letters, and made good use of his primary sources. Even today the book is a reliable go-to source. It wasn't until 1996's Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss by Kenneth Silverman that a more authoritative Houdini "textbook" would be published. For many years Christopher was king.

Houdini The Untold Story was first published in hardcover by Thomas Y. Crowell Co. on March 21, 1969. The book received rave reviews in the magic journals of the day. Part of this was because Christopher was a member of the magic fraternity. But the book was also deserving of the praise. Genii called it "undoubtedly one of the best books of the year." The Linking Ring enthused, "With the writing of this book [Christopher] now becomes one of the outstanding biographers."

But it's Bayard Grimshaw's review in his "About Magicians" column in the UK that really nails the book's core strength (while foretelling some of the sins that will plague later Houdini biographies). Says Grimshaw:

It is a straightforward factual narrative devoid of padding: no "secrets", no unconvincing imaginary conversations, no scene-painting. But packed with solid authentic detail as the book is, Mr. Christopher with his delightfully lucid and objective style of writing contrives to to make it compelling and enthralling reading none the less.

It's amusing to note that even these positive reviews start off by asking the question, "Do we really need another book about Houdini?" Yes, yes we do.

Original advertisements from Genii and The Linking Ring.

Houdini The Untold Story has enjoyed a long life in print, which makes it a fun book to collect. But there are some challenges. Notably, when seeking out the U.S. hardcovers from Crowell, you'll encounter two different states of the dustjackets. The difference is on the spines, with some having the name HOUDINI running down the spine in bold letters and others have the name running across the spine in compressed lettering. Both first editions in my collection have the lettering running down the spine. The compressed lettering appears on a second edition. But then, oddly, the bold text returns on a third edition. Was the compressed text unique to the second edition? What I have seems to bare that out, but it's also possible that both states were used on all editions and I just happened to draw two firsts with the name running down the spine.

Okay, if you're still with me after that, then you are clearly as into this as I am. So let's continue.

Crowell later released a hardcover that was more compact in size. The compact edition I own is a 7th and carries the ISBN 069040431X. What year Crowell started doing these compact editions is not clear. In fact, none of the dates of any of these hardcovers is clear as the publisher only lists the original 1969 copyright on all editions.

Spine variations of the U.S. hardcovers and the first UK edition from Cassell.

Houdini The Untold Story was released as a hardcover in the UK by Cassell & Company in October 1969. A second impression was published in February 1970. As far as I know, these were the only UK releases. There was no UK paperback (but I would love to be proven wrong on that).

The first U.S. paperback edition was released by Pocket Books in June 1970. The paperback retained all the photos of the hardcover edition. Curiously, the more impressive cover artwork (uncredited) was reserved for the back of book.

Pocket Books first paperback edition, front and back (1970).

In 1975 Pocket reprinted Houdini The Untold Story with beautiful new artwork of Houdini walking through a brick wall (still one of my favorite covers). In October 1976, just in time for the 50th anniversary of Houdini's death, Pocket released a new paperback edition with additional material advertised on the cover as being: "Candid revelations from Houdini's unpublished private papers and letters." The additional content is excellent and makes this last Pocket paperback worth seeking out.

The 1975 and 1976 Pocket paperbacks.

In June of 1988 Houdini The Untold Story returned as a hardcover in an unauthorized facsimile edition published by Aeonian Press (later called Amereon Press). This edition was published without a dust-jacket and was limited to 300 copies. The Aeonian edition did not contain the original book's photos, but it does include the additional material from the 1976 Pocket paperback. In 1996 Aeonian republished the book again (again limited to 300) with a blue cover and embossed gold title.

The 1988 and 1996 Aeonian Press limited editions.

After remaining out of print for a decade (three if we discount the unauthorized editions), Houdini The Untold Story returned in a major way in 2012 when David Haversat's 1878 Press, in cooperation with the Milbourne Christopher Foundation, released a special "Deluxe Edition" limited to 300 hand-numbered copies. The book included a new 8-page section of rare color photos from David's private collection and beautiful binding. Those who bought the book direct from 1878 Press had it personally inscribed by Christopher's wife, Maurine (who passed away earlier this year).

This Deluxe Edition was a fine way to honor the Houdini scholarship of Milbourne Christopher and his "Textbook."

2012 Deluxe Edition from 1878 Press.

Thanks to Arthur Moses for images and information on the 1988 Aeonian edition.

Also enjoy:


  1. John Hinson great nephew of Bess and Harry HoudiniSeptember 20, 2013 at 12:18 PM

    The more books come out on Houdini,the puzzle gets closer to be completed, but we have a very long way to go, its been 87 years he been gone.

    1. And then sometimes a book or movie comes out that messes up all the hard work we've done on the puzzle. But I'm not pointing fingers. ;)

  2. There's the yellow cover of the book I remember reading. After watching the Tony Curtis film a few too many times, I dispatched my Dad to the public library with a request for a book on Houdini and that is the one he came back with. Of course, I found the real story even more intriguing and that was the start of a new obsession.

    I now have one of the little paperback versions (the one with the handcuffs) which I picked up online somewhere. It was good to read it again after so many years.

    Shame on me for missing out on getting one of the new deluxe editions. I must have been sleeping.

    1. That makes sense that the yellow cover is the one you read in Australia. I wonder if it was a UK export of if an Australian publisher used that same cover art.

      Yeah, how did you miss that Deluxe ed? It's nice, but a little pricey.

    2. I have that yellow cover GB 1969 Edition published by Cassell & Company LTD. Thye had branches in Canada, Australia and South Africa, so it's likely GB printed copies were shipped elsewhere ...

  3. Great review John! Milbourne Christopher has been my favorite author on Houdini ever since I was kid. He is one of the reasons I am wild about Houdini. I was fortunate enough to get number 18 of the deluxe edition signed by Maurine Christopher; I am assuming you got an even lower number?

    1. I have #6. But I don't put much stock in the idea that lower numbers are somehow more desirable. I think that's just another way collectors make themselves crazy.

      I would have liked #278. :)

  4. You know, lately I find myself coming back to this as one the most rock solid of all the Houdini bios. A very trustworthy reference.

  5. I also agree this bio is rock solid. It has held up well and contains nuggets of great info each time I open the cover. After Silverman`s bio, I would put this book as runner up.

  6. Having used Christopher extensively while doing my Chronology, I have to say my opinion of this book has only gone up. Every time I thought I'd found something new I saw Christopher had been there first. How he did this in a pre-internat age is amazing to me. I'm actually starting to think that strictly as an information resource, Christopher is superior to Silverman.