Friday, February 27, 2015

When Leonard Nimoy went In Search Of Houdini

Today comes the sad news that the great Leonard Nimoy has died at age 83. While Nimoy will forever be known as Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame, in the early 1980s he had a memorable brush with Houdini.

For many years, Nimoy hosted the popular series In Search Of... Each week the show investigated some fresh mystery, such as Bigfoot, UFOs, or the Loch Ness Monster. On November 21, 1981, the show went In Search Of... Houdini's Secrets. The episode featured Nimoy narrating from the Houdini Seance Room at the Magic Castle (in a cape!).

Nimoy almost had a second encounter with the Master Mystifier in the early 1990s. According the Dean Carnegie (The Magic Detective), William Shatner said on a talk show that he was working on turning his Houdini book, BELIEVE, into a play in which he would play Houdini and Leonard Nimoy would play Sherlock Holmes. This, of course, never came to be.

R.I.P. Mr. Nimoy.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Lost Houdini effects found in 1935

Here's an intriguing news item from George Tucker's "Man About Manhattan" syndicated column from March 27, 1935. One wonders what exactly was found in this mysterious stash of tricks that "Houdini had perfected but never revealed"?

Click to enlarge.

Clipping source:

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Confabulist paperback cover art

Cover art for the U.S. paperback edition of Steven Galloway's The Confabulist has been revealed on Amazon. Definitely an improvement over the U.S. hardcover edition (IMHO). The book will be released on May 12, 2015 by Riverhead Books.

Speaking of The Confabulist, author Steven Galloway will appear with magician David Gifford at the University of British Columbia's Telus Studio Theatre tomorrow, February 26 at 7:30 pm. The event is being presented by the Chan Centre as part of the Beyond Words series.

Multi-award winning novelist and UBC professor Steven Galloway, author of The Cellist of Sarajevo, explores magic in his newest book The Confabulist. This beautiful, suspense-filled novel uses the life and sudden death of turn-of-the-century magician and stunt performer Harry Houdini to weave a critically acclaimed tale of intrigue, love and illusion. 
Join Galloway for this magical (pun very much intended) evening of readings and sleight-of-hand as he is joined in performance by master magician David Gifford to examine reality and illusion, and the ways that imagination can alter what we perceive and believe.

You can get more information and buy tickets at The Chan Centre for Performing Arts website.

Pre-order the paperback edition of The Confabulist on Amazon.


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Sherlock Holmes vs. Harry Houdini #4

Today sees the release of Sherlock Holmes vs. Harry Houdini #4. The graphic novel series from Dynamite is written by Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery with artwork by Carlos Furuzono. As with the previous three issues, Dynamite has released issue #4 with different covers (below).

The improbable has become the impossible! With magician Harry Houdini arrested after a blood bath that has left his wife at the edge of death, detective Sherlock Holmes must overcome his suspicions – and his demons – to free Houdini and overcome a powerful enemy that commands the unholy powers of the spirits.

Purchase Sherlock Holmes vs. Harry Houdini #4 at the Dynamite website. You can also read a good interview with creators Del Col and McCreery at Bleeding Cool.


"Is that you, Mama?"

This photo is currently on eBay with a $105 Buy It Now. The seller notes that written on the back is: "Cecília Weisz Budapest 1869."

So is this really a hitherto unknown photo of Houdini's mother at age 28?

Well, not so fast. This is the third time this same seller "ritamoio" (once under a different name) has magically come upon an unseen image of what is claimed to be one of the Weiss family. Each listing has offered the same vague details, and none have bore any resemblance to the subject. Also, Houdini's mother spelled her name Cecelia.

You know what they say. Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times...

Buyer beware.


Monday, February 23, 2015

Cover art for The Witch of Lime Street

Thanks to Crown Publishing and author David Jaher, today I'm excited to reveal the cover art for David's upcoming book, The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World. This is the first major book to cover Houdini and Margery and their famous encounters. It will be released on October 6, 2015.

History comes alive in this textured account of the rivalry between Harry Houdini and the so called "witch of Lime street," whose iconic lives intersected at a time when science was on the verge of embracing the paranormal.

Screenwriter David Jaher's extraordinary debut centers on the ensuing showdown between the world's greatest unmasker of charlatans and the nation's most credible spirit medium. The Witch of Lime Street, the first book to capture their electric public rivalry, returns us to an oft-mythologized era to deepen our understanding of its history, all while igniting our imagination and engaging with the timeless question: is there life after death?

The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World can be pre-ordered now in hardcover, audiobook, and for the Kindle at (U.S.) and (UK).


Sunday, February 22, 2015

Guest blog: Mr. Houdini Goes to Washington, Part II

Today we continue Neil McNally's fascinating examination of Houdini's testimony before Congress in 1926. In this installment, an important Houdini operative takes the stand...

Act Two: Spiritualist Charlatans

It’s easy to see why on that February day almost ninety years ago, things were getting so heated. The Representatives were there to objectively investigate the bill from all angles. Houdini wanted things to go his way because, well, he was Houdini. As for the spiritualists, they certainly weren’t going to let their main source of income-honest or not- ride off into the political sunset.

No one would argue that, throughout his career, Houdini was a decisive man of action. In this case, his statements, while powerful and convincing, needed a little more evidence to back them up.

Houdini: (to the Representatives) I am telling you what these mediums will do, and I want to introduce this witness to show what they will do.
William Hammer (North Carolina): Why do you not go into court?
Houdini: The law does not cover it. I want to show you what you can do under the law. You license these people to steal. They are criminals.
Hammer: We do not license them to steal.
Houdini: Yes, you do. I beg your pardon, but they do steal.
Judge McCleod: What statement do you want her to make?
Houdini: I want her to tell you her experiences with Mrs. Jane Coates…
Judge McLeod: You may proceed with this witness.

Enter Houdini’s main spiritualist investigator, Ms. Rose Mackenberg. For those unaware, Ms. Mackenberg was one of Houdini’s most important and little known allies in his crusade and exposure of spiritualists and assorted con artists. A detective by profession, she was hired by Houdini to assist him full time in undercover “field” work because, while he was many things, he couldn’t be everywhere at once.

Similar to Houdini in her covert approach, Mackenberg can frequently be seen in photographs of the time wearing many elaborate and comical costumes. However outlandish they may have appeared, they allowed her access to the dishonest world of phony séance parlors and the mediums who ran them. In the following except, Houdini questions Mackenberg on her dealings with the medium Mrs. Jane Coates, who was in attendance during the questioning.

Houdini: Just go ahead and state what you did yesterday.
Rose Mackenberg: I phoned Mrs. Coates at 9:30 and…made an appointment for 4:00…When she came in she took me to another room and asked me whether I understood the principles of spiritualism and went into details about that. She said she saw a blue vapor about me and got the impression of a man who was strangling and she recognized the condition of that as my husband. This man was also with a couple of children. Did I recognize who they were? She said the children appeared as though they were with my husband and were my children…She then said “You are going on a trip through the East...” I said “How do you get that impression?” She said “The spirits gave it to me very strongly…”

It’s a testament to how much Houdini seemed to respect Mackenberg that he lets her do the majority of the talking and only interjects when asking how much she was charged for these services. As she continues, Mackenberg tells of a similar “supernatural” experience with another medium present in the room, Madame Marcia. What ultimately comes to light from Mackenberg’s lengthy testimony is that Coates feared the long- reaching implications Houdini’s bill would have over her “profession,” and wanted it stamped out at all costs. Things were reaching their boiling point.

Houdini: Were you dressed differently from what you are today?
Mackenberg: Yes, sir.
Houdini: Entirely different?
Mackenberg: Entirely different…
Mrs. Coates (yelling and interrupting): I demand the right to defend myself!
Hammer: Mr. Chairman, I ask that we proceed in an orderly way. There are six to eight people talking at one time, and it is impossible for us to have any record of these proceedings.
Mrs. Coates: It will not take three minutes for me to tell you what I told her, and it will clear the whole situation.
Hammer: You may do that later.

As the already tense mood of the room continued, Houdini’s questioning of Mackenberg touched on the topic of “so called” spiritualist ministers or, more to the point, how easy it was at the time to obtain a license to become one. Houdini’s charisma is evident throughout this humorous exchange at the witness stand.

Houdini: Were you ordained a minister in spiritualism?
Mackenberg: Yes sir.
Houdini: How many times were you ordained?
Mackenberg: Six times
Houdini: Here are the ordinations if you want to see them. She was six times ordained.
Sol Bloom (New York): What did you pay for it?
Mackenberg: I paid from $5-$25.
Bloom: To be a minister?
Mackenberg: Yes sir.
Bloom: What right went with that?
Houdini: These ordinations tell the whole story. 

However, it doesn’t take long for the specter (no pun intended) of Jane Coates to once again rear her foreboding head. 

Jane Coates: May I speak a word in my defense?
Hammer: Mr. Chairman I object. Mr. Houdini is now on the stand, and you cannot take him off until this committee votes for it….
Judge McLeod: (to Houdini) Will you permit Mrs. Coates to ask these question(s) on your own time?
Houdini: Yes sir…
Coates (to Mackenberg): Will you please state if I told you there was somebody standing (at the) back of my chair, and you asked me if it was your husband, and I said I would not tell you?
Mackenberg: No…
Houdini: Did you lead her on in any way?
Mackenberg: No, in no way at all.
Houdini: She said she saw the spirits of your dead husband and children?
Mackenberg: Yes (Of which it was earlier revealed Mackenberg had none).
Coates: I deny that most positively…
Mackenberg: You said you had been to Houdini’s performance and had quite a lengthy discussion or talk with Houdini after the show, and you thought he was very nice and, in fact, you thought he was misdirected.
Coates: I said I thought he was mentally deranged.
Mackenberg: You said he was very nice, and you felt like putting your arms around him.
Coates: Oh no.
Mackenberg: And try to cure him of his misdirection or misdirected ideas.
Coates: Oh no.
Hammer: I move the witness and the two ladies be required to sit down.

The expression “too many cooks in the kitchen” more than applies to these proceedings. However, it’s interesting to note that throughout all the disorganization and heated emotions, Houdini’s apparent steely calm and collected exterior persists. In our next and final installment, many more wonders, flimflam, and questionable business practices will be revealed, but not before a certain woman named Bess will briefly come to our hero’s defense.


A very big thank you to Neil McNally. Visit his website at Photo: Corbis Images.


Saturday, February 21, 2015

BBC Radio: The Witch of Beacon Hill

On September 30, 1989, BBC Radio 4 aired as part of their Saturday Night Theatre The Witch of Beacon Hill by Paul M. Levitt. The radio drama featured the voices of John Woodvine at LeRoi Crandon, Shelley Thompson as Margery, Kerry Shale as J. Malcolm Bird, and Nigel Anthony (right) as Houdini.

You can listen to the full 1:25:52 program at Internet Archive.

Thanks to Mark Schwartz for this discovery.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Belle Isle Bridge jump

On Tuesday, November 27, 1906, Houdini leapt manacled from the Belle Isle Bridge in Detroit, MI, freeing himself from two pairs of handcuff beneath the cold waters. The Belle Isle Bridge jump is one of Houdini's most well-known feats, largely because of a fiction created about this escape.

In later accounts, it was claimed that the Detroit river was frozen and a hole had to be cut in the ice. This provided Houdini with an additional horrifying dilemma when he found himself trapped under the ice. This dramatic version appeared in the first major Houdini biography, Houdini His Life Story by Harold Kellock, and passed as fact for many years.

When I was a young Houdini enthusiast in 1980, I did my first primary research on the Belle Isle Bridge jump. I wrote to The Detroit News and received this front page from November 27, 1906, which records the details of the actual escape. The first thing to notice is that while the weather report shows it was cold enough for snow flurries, it was not freezing, nor was the river frozen over. But this was still an especially chilly jump for Houdini, and while not the dramatic fiction, it still has several points of interest.

One piece of surprising information this newspaper account provides is that the jump was provoked by an encounter with a rival handcuff king identified only as "Grose" (possibly Russell P. Grose). Apparently, Grose boasted that he could escape from the Wayne Country Jail. Houdini, who was appearing at the Temple Theatre at the time, said the jail was "too strong and too perfectly locked for any man to get out without a confederate inasmuch as a man placed in the center cell is 20 feet from any possible lock." Houdini offered Grose $300 if he could free himself. The paper reported Grose was unable to secure permission to attempt the escape.*

Houdini then offered to demonstrate his own skills by making a jump from the Belle Isle Bridge, a 2193 foot span that connects the city of Detroit to Belle Isle Park. Houdini arrived at 1pm with the Secretary of Police, Charles A. Nichols; the Temple Theater Press Agent, John H. Finn; and several reporters. Houdini admitted that while he had made jumps like this before, he had never done one in such cold weather. He was then cuffed with "two of the best and most modern handcuffs" and tethered with a 113 foot safety line ("used solely to save Houdini's life should he get cramps"). Houdini then climbed over the railing, looked down at the water 25 feet below and said, "It's pretty far. Come what will", and jumped.

The paper reported that Houdini stayed near the surface and even came up for air once before freeing himself from the cuffs in just under a minute -- "in spite of the handicap of a cramp that paralyzed his left hand when he struck the icy water." Houdini then swam to a waiting life boat, "safe, but half frozen."

Curiously, the paper makes no mention of crowds of onlookers. It's possible this jump was performed solely for the newspapermen and not advertised in advance. The safety line is another curiosity as it is the only time I've ever heard of Houdini taking such a precaution during a bridge jump. Again, maybe the cold was the reason for this.

So why would Houdini do what appears to have been an impromptu bridge jump in poor conditions? This is only speculation, but it could be he wanted to avoid taking on the Wayne County Jail himself, but still wanted to give the Detroit press boys a story. He might have also wanted to do something that Grose would be reluctant to imitate. In both regards, it worked like a charm. Houdini received nice front page news coverage and Grose vanished from magic history.

As far as I know, there are no photos of Houdini's Belle Isle Bridge jump. Even the Detroit News elected to use a standard Houdini publicity shot. However, today the AP credits a photo of Houdini's 1912 overboard box escape in New York as being the Belle Isle Bridge, so that image repeatedly shows up online as such. But we know better.

The current Belle Isle Bridge (renamed the MacArthur Bridge in 1942) is not the same bridge Houdini jumped from in 1906. Houdini jumped from the first Belle Isle Bridge, which was constructed in 1889 and was a steel and wood bridge for pedestrians. That bridge burned down in 1915 and was replaced with a temporary structure. The current bridge, made of reinforced concrete, opened in 1923. It underwent a major restoration in 1986.

The original Belle Isle Bridge from which Houdini jumped in 1906.

The Belle Isle Bridge today.

*UPDATE: It looks like Grose did attempt an escape in a story not yet told. Stay tuned!

LINK: Houdini in Hollywood – in Marshall!

My upcoming talk at the Midwest Magic History Weekend in Marshall, MI got a nice mention on the Magicana blog today. For this event I'll be changing up my talk with some new clips, and I'm also working on something that I hope will make it especially enjoyable for magic collectors. Thanks for the mention, Magicana!

Details of the Midwest Magic History Weekend (May 28-30) can be found HERE.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Haversat & Ewing Galleries March auction

Haversat & Ewing Galleries’ next auction takes place March 7-14 and promises a nice mix of unique, rare and collectible items.

Topping the list is the original apparatus for Ade and True Duval’s Rhapsody in Silk. They debuted it at the 1928 I.B.M. convention and then toured with it coast-to-coast for the next five years. They performed it at the Palace Theater in New York, Radio City Music Hall (four times), The Palladium in London, The Wintergarten in Berlin, and many other places. Duval retired the act in 1939, and put the equipment away. Now it’s offered for sale to the discerning collector.

Another highlight is the rare Ramsey’s poster illustrated above. A one-of-a-kind handmade Society of Osiris program honoring Thurston on the 25th anniversary of taking over Kellar’s show will also be offered.

Consignments have been made from all over the country reflecting all the genres of magic. This auction features quite a bit of equipment, posters, paper ephemera, Houdini letters and a signed photograph, one of the coins Fred Kaps used in his Treasure Chest Miser’s Dream act and much more.

Items may be viewed in advance beginning March 2 at Lots will be open for bidding March 7-14.

UPDATE: Haversat & Ewing Galleries March auction now LIVE

Guild awards elude 'Houdini'

And the winners are...

While HISTORY's Houdini was nominated for several major Hollywood guild awards, it looks like the miniseries has come away empty handed. Here's a rundown:

  • Adrien Brody was nominated by the Screen Actors Guild for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries. Mark Ruffalo took home the award for his performance in HBO's The Normal Heart.
  • Director Uli Edel was nominated by the Directors Guild for Best Director TV Miniseries/Movie. Edel lost to Lisa Cholodenko for Olive Kitteridge.
  • Nicholas Meyer was nominated by the Writers Guild for outstanding achievement in television in the "Long Form Adapted" category. Meyer lost to Jane Anderson and Olive Kitteridge.
  • The Art Directors Guild nominated Production Designer Patricia Von Brandenstein for Excellence in Production Design in Television 2014: Television Movie or Mini-Series. Houdini lost to American Horror Story: Freak Show.
  • The Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild has nominated Gregor Eckstein in three categories: Best Period Character Make-up, Best Special Make-up Effect, and Best Period Character Hair Styling. American Horror Story: Freak Show swept all three categories.
  • Costume designer Birgit Hutter was nominated for Outstanding Made for Television Movie or Mini Series by The Costume Designers Guild. Once again, American Horror Story: Freak Show took home the award.

The miniseries did not receive nominations for editing, music, or cinematography.

Interestingly, the hot rumor at the moment is that the next season of American Horror Story, which took so many of the awards from Houdini, will be set in the world of magic and magicians. Also, the season 4 finale featured a murder via Houdini's Water Torture Cell.


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Fire at the HOUDINI cinema in Zürich

A fire broke out at the well-named HOUDINI cinema complex in Zürich, Switzerland this morning. Emergency services were called at around 7.30am after a passer-by reported smoke pouring from the building.

Firemen evacuated 40 people. No one was injured. The cause of the fire remains unknown, though it is thought to have started in the bar on the ground floor of the building.

The HOUDINI cinema opened last August and occupies the first three floors of a seven-storey building which also comprises apartments, shops and restaurants. You can check out the official website at

Source: The Local Switzerland. Photo: Marcel Haertlein.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Houdini and the Presidents

In honor of this Presidents' Day, I thought I'd repost this original photo of Houdini and Theodore Roosevelt taken aboard the ocean liner Imperator on June 23, 1914.

It was aboard this "last boat out of Germany" (before the outbreak WWI) that Houdini would amaze the former President with a demonstration of Spirit Slates -- accurately pinpointing where Roosevelt had just spent his Christmas holiday. The next day it was said that Roosevelt took Houdini aside on deck and asked him, "man to man," if what he did was genuine Spiritualism.

"No, Colonel," Houdini is said to have answered. "It was just hocus pocus."

The above photo is from my own collection and is glued into an inscribed copy of The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin (those ink flecks are from Houdini's signature). I've seen other copies of Unmasking with this same photo glued inside. I'm not sure when Houdini did these or how many exist, but it makes for a nice presentation copy.

The original version of this photo (right) shows Houdini and Roosevelt standing amid a group of other passengers. Houdini had the other men cropped out. This wouldn't be the only controversy related to this photo, as David Saltman explored at The Houdini File.

In his book Shots At Sea, Tom Lalicki had some fun with Houdini and Roosevelt's ocean-bound adventures, although he set his action aboard the Lusitania and worked in his fictional young hero Nate Fuller. In 2011 a remarkable artifact from this voyage sold on eBay.

While fiercely patriotic, Houdini was largely apolitical. He didn't belong to any political party and was said to have voted only once in his life for Warren G. Harding in 1920. In 1914 he met with President Woodrow Wilson, who told the magician: "Sir, I envy you your ability of escaping from tight places. Sometimes I wish I were able to do the same."

Of course, Houdini was also photographed with his favorite President, Abraham Lincoln...via the spirit world!


Sunday, February 15, 2015

Houdini's open grave

File this one under macabre, but while watching The Miracle Factory's new Houdini Captured on Film DVD compilation the other night, I spotted this among the footage of his funeral. As you can see, the camera affords a quick but clear shot of Houdini's open grave in the family plot at Machpelah Cemetery. This is moments before the casket arrives. Wild.

The footage also gives us a good look at the exedra on the day of the funeral. What's interesting is it doesn't yet have the Houdini bust, nor does it have the Society of American Magicians mosaic emblem. The bust I understand; it needed to be cast. But one wonders exactly when the S.A.M. symbol was added and whether it was Houdini's idea?

Maybe the origin of the mosaic -- which is beautiful work -- is something the S.A.M. will investigate as part of their upcoming restoration of the grave site.


Friday, February 13, 2015

Meet the amazing Chickie Lee

Here's a performer who has been lost to time, but might actually hold an important place in the history of women in magic and escapology. Charlotte "Chickie Lee" performed as an escape artist and stunt performer in circuses and vaudeville during the 1930s. Even though she was only 4'11" and weighed a mere 94 pounds, she allowed blocks of cement to be cracked on top of her, and also acted as a target for a blind-folded knife thrower.

In October 1935 Chickie performed a suspended straitjacket escape from the Palace Theater in Albany, New York. She did the stunt as a tie-in with the film, Charlie Chan in Shanghai, which was paying at the Palace and in which Chickie appeared in a small role.

Chickie told reporters she had worked as Houdini's assistant and learned how to do the escape from the master himself. That claim is questionable as she would have only been 14 when Houdini died. However, she might indeed have a place in magic history as the first woman to perform a suspended straitjacket escape. The papers also claimed Chickie performed the stunt while hanging from an airplane, "but that's against the law now."

These amazing photos and info comes from Lore Disalvo who is working to uncover the story of the elusive Charlotte Chickie Lee. If you have any information on Chickie, please feel free to share it in the Comments below, or contact me and I will forward it onto Lore.

Chickie flying high!

Thank you Lore Disalvo.


Thursday, February 12, 2015

NY FRIGID Festival unlocks KEYS

A new Houdini-themed play will be part of the 9th Annual FRIGID Festival at The Kraine Theater in New York starting February 19. Keys is written by Margot Connolly and directed by Alex Keegan. Here's a description:

Struggling with her father's death and her mother's re-entry into the dating scene, Thea seeks comfort in her hero, Harry Houdini. When unexpected events traps Thea in Houdini's world, she must focus all her energy and escape - with history's greatest escapist on her side, why is that so difficult?

Keys will play five performance from February 19 through March 5. Click for more information and to purchase tickets.

UPDATE: REVIEW: The Key to Escaping Grief.

Houdini The Myth Maker on Lulu

Houdini The Myth Maker by Roger Woods and Brian Lead is now available for purchase at First published in 1987, this is the 2013 edition, which contains a new preface. Here's a description:

This book examines some of Houdini’s escapades in Lancashire, England and explodes some of the myths that the world famous escapologist built up around himself. 
It draws on contemporary newspaper accounts and sources. Amongst other stories it relates closely the controversy surrounding Houdini’s appearance at the Palace Theatre, Blackburn in October 1902 when he faced one of his severest challenges from William Hope Hodgson, who was to go on to be a writer of fantasy literature before his death in the First World War. Houdini, a master of showmanship and publicity, was able to exploit the ordeal for many years afterwards.

Click here to purchase Houdini The Myth Maker on Lulu.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Bess makes her final journey

Bess Houdini died 72 years ago today on February 11, 1943 aboard a train bound for her family's home in New York. While details of her final illness have always been vague, her niece told me that both she and Ed Saint died from tuberculosis. Here is an account of her passing from The Daily Times the next day.

An irony not pointed out here was that Bess died in the town of Needles, CA which was what Houdini always called his East Indian Needle trick -- "Needles." The original Needles train station and the adjoining El Garces Hotel were restored in 2014.

Needles train station (far right) and El Garces Hotel.

You can listen to Marie Hinson tell the full story of her sister's death in this remarkable audio clip which I first shared on WILD ABOUT HARRY in 2013.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Miracle Factory manifests 'Spirit Frauds on Film'

Here's another new DVD release from Todd Karr's The Miracle Factory that will be of interest to Houdini buffs. Spirit Frauds on Film: Phony Mediums in the Cinema 1933-1948 features three movies about spiritualist fakers, including Religious Racketeers (aka Mystic Circle Murder) which contains a rare sound appearance by Bess Houdini. Here's what's on the disc:

Sucker Money (1933): A fraudulent spiritualist casts a spell over a rich banker’s daughter to steal his money.

The Mystic Circle Murder (1938): Featuring scenes with Mrs. Bess Houdini, this film tells the tale of a phony medium who takes advanatge of a berieved woman, but is exposed by a helpful reporter.

The Amazing Mr. X (1948): A rich woman tries to contact her dead husband through an unscrupulous medium, but the man turns out to still be alive.

Once again, Todd is offering readers of WILD ABOUT HARRY a $10 discount by using the promo code FEB10 at checkout. The offer is good through February 15, 2015.


LINK: NYU helps recover Houdini film

The Washington Square student newspaper has a nice article about NYU's involvement with the restoration of Houdini's The Grim Game. The article includes photos of the actual 16mm film print and some information about the new score by Brane Živković. Click the headline to have a read.

Photo: Kimberly Tarr.
“For several months, the restored film was guarded like a secret inside NYU.”

The restored The Grim Game will have it's world premiere at the TCM Film Festival in Los Angeles in March.


McCord Museum receives magic and Houdini collection

The McCord Museum in Montreal, Canada--which is housed in the former McGill University Student Union building where Houdini lectured during his ill-fated visit to the city in October 1926--has received a large bequest of magic memorabilia, including many items related to Houdini.

"It’s the second-largest collection of Houdini material held in a public institution," said David Ben, artistic director of Magicana. Ben served as an adviser to the museum and was there on Monday as journalists were invited to view some of the artifacts. Among the McCord's new treasures is a Houdini 8-sheet "Buried Alive!" poster.

The $3-million collection, gathered over 50 years by a magic buff who preferred to remain anonymous, includes 600 posters, 200 rare books and 200 documents relating to the golden age of magic. The Houdini items are said to include personal correspondence and scrapbooks.

The collection will be available to scholars and will be used in future exhibitions, including one slated for 2017, museum spokesperson Catherine Guex said.

Houdini spoke at the McGill University student union on October 19, 1926. It was here he received what's come to be known as "the Pickleman punch."

For more, check out the report in the Montreal Gazette. You can also watch video of David Ben showing and explaining the Houdini items at CBC News.

UPDATE: Chat on the various magic boards are saying that news reports have downplayed the significance and extent of the Houdini items -- that the McCord has acquired a MAJOR Houdini collection (over 1000 individual items) from a MAJOR Houdini collector whose identity has not yet been revealed. Intriguing.


Sunday, February 8, 2015

Guest blog: Mr. Houdini Goes to Washington, Part I

Today I have a very special treat. Neil McNally, a professional writer and Houdini buff--who recently penned a fine piece about Houdini for Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine--shares with us an exclusive examination of Houdini's testimony before Congress in 1926. This is Houdini in his own words, and it's fascinating stuff. I'll let Neil take it from here.

Act One: Arguments and Accusations

The daring feats of Harry Houdini’s life read like the chapters of a well-read book: Metamorphosis, The Mirror Handcuffs, The Milk Can Escape, The Chinese Water Torture Cell, and…Congressional Hearings? In our modern digital age where the nation’s political comings and goings are now instantly accessible, this obscure and largely overshadowed incident in Houdini’s career exists in scant remaining pictures and a lengthy written account of the event. In 2013, this rare transcript was finally made available for purchase giving scholars and casual Houdini fans alike the unique opportunity to hear Houdini’s thoughts and opinions on fortune telling and spiritualism unfiltered and, similar to the man himself, to the point.

In a way, Houdini’s life and spiritualist crusading had been leading up to February 26, 1926. So, when a bill was up for debate that would have outlawed fortune tellers in the District of Columbia, he found himself asked by venerable New York Representative Sol Bloom to give his expertise on the matter before a Congressional committee. After arriving hastily by train, Harry Houdini made his way to the House of Representatives, and found himself going head to head with his greatest challenge ever: DC politicians.

The Honorable Clarence J. McLeod led the questioning:

McLeod: What is your full name?
Houdini: My name is Harry Houdini.
McLeod: What is your business?
Houdini: I am an author; I am a psychic investigator for the scientific magazines of the world; and then I am a mysterious entertainer…
McLeod: Do you care to make a general statement? I understand you are a proponent of this bill, 8989.
Houdini: Yes, sir…This is positively no attack upon a religion. Please understand that, emphatically…I respect every genuine believer or any other religion, as long as it does not conflict with the laws of the country or the laws of humanity…But this thing they call “spiritualism,” wherein a medium intercommunicates with the dead, is a fraud from start to finish. There are only two kinds of medium, those who are mental degenerates and who ought to be under observation, and those who are deliberate cheats and frauds. I would not believe a fraudulent medium under oath; perjury means nothing to them…

In his first few minutes of testimony, it is more than apparent that Houdini wasn’t going to pull any punches. While it is left to our imaginations what a “mysterious entertainer” exactly is, as a reader you really have to put yourself into the mindset of the post-World War I era to fully grasp how damning and inflammatory Houdini’s words and actions were. Frank R. Reid of Illinois joined Judge McCleod in further questioning of Houdini.

McCleod: It is possible to have a general clairvoyant, is it not?
Houdini: It is impossible, I claim. I will give $10,000 to any clairvoyant in the world that will do one test.
Reid: What test is that?
Houdini: Any test I want them to do…
Reid: How long have you been fighting them?
Houdini: About 35 years.
Reid: Have you been fairly successful?
Houdini: I have had more mediums arrested in two years than have been arrested in 70, because I know their tricks. I know how to catch them.

It’s worth noting that during his testimony various groups of mediums and spiritualists sat in the audience of the hearings in protest of Houdini, and desperate for the proceedings to go their way. It is here that Houdini’s antagonistic and no-holds-barred approach towards them comes to the forefront as he acknowledges their presence in a very unique way.

Robert G. Houston (Delaware): You have never tried to catch them on a test, have you?
Houdini: On a test? (Turning to the audience) Tell me the name my mother called me when I was born?
(No response)
Tell me the pet name my father used to call me…
(No response) 

To up the ante, as well as the tension, Houdini threw down a crumpled piece of paper onto the committee table.

Houdini: You asked for a test?
Houston: Sure.
Houdini: Here is a telegram (turning to the audience). Read that, you clairvoyant mediums and show me up. Tell the contents of that telegram.
(No response)

While the tension of the moment still crackles off the page, Houdini’s theatrics seemed to ruffle some political feathers as Ralph Gilbert of Kentucky testily began to question the validity of the bill and the amount of time allotted to Houdini.

Gilbert: I believe in Santa Claus and I believe in faeries, in a way, and the gentlemen is taking the matter way to seriously…Would you be so cruel as to deprive a young country fellow of the pleasure of getting a picture of his sweetheart or being told he is “going on a long journey” and all that frivolous stuff?
Houdini: You are wrong in your statement. Pardon me…You are preventing blackmail; you are not stopping little children from enjoying themselves with innocent pastime.

It’s no secret politicians like to talk and this transcript is no exception. Pages are taken up with various state representatives questioning and arguing amongst themselves while Houdini continues to present his evidence against fortune tellers and con artists. Eventually, the spotlight is directed on Houdini’s own spiritual background. The dialogue that follows gives us a window into Houdini the man, as opposed to the mythical “Houdini the Great!”

William C. Hammer (North Carolina): You don’t claim to do anything by divine power?
Houdini: No sir, I am human. But, mediums are trying to say I am psychic. This is not true.
Hammer: Have you any religious views?
Houdini: Yes sir. I am the son of a rabbi. For hundreds of years my forbears were rabbi.
Hammer: Where were you born?
Houdini: I was born in Wisconsin in 1874.
Sol Bloom (New York): Everything you do is just as a magician?
Houdini: Yes sir. I call it “mystification.” But, I do tricks no one can explain.
Hammer: You do not claim divine power?
Houdini: No sir.
Hammer: But, these mediums do?
Judge McLeod (interrupting): You claim you have psychic power?
Houdini: They say I have. No one has. We are all born alike.
Hammer: These people claim they have divine power. Don’t you think it is very difficult to do anything along the line of stopping them? I am talking to you (Houdini). You have a religion, and I ask you under our form of government, if we ought not to go very slowly before we enact legislation along this line?... I want some sort of a bill…although you are rather severe in your strictures of those who disagree with you.

The verbal dueling continues on at a rapid pace as the politicians of the time challenge Houdini’s views just as much as he was challenging theirs. However, Houdini, true to form, had much more up his proverbial magician’s sleeves. In the end, would the bill get passed or would spiritualism reign supreme? As the saying goes…


A very big thank you to Neil McNally. Visit his website at


Saturday, February 7, 2015

Perks of accepting Houdini's challenge

Here's an account of a Pittsburgh medium, The Rev. Dr. Alice S. Dooley, who took Houdini up on his $10,000 challenge for proof of genuine psychic ability. Not surprisingly, it didn't go well for the medium. However, Dooley did manage to get an all expense paid to trip to New York for herself and her husband, courtesy of Houdini, so maybe she knew exactly what she was doing (and maybe Houdini did as well). This is from the September 18, 1925 Oakland Tribune:

Clipping source:


Friday, February 6, 2015

February MAGIC treat

There's a treat waiting for Houdini buffs in the February 2015 issue of MAGIC Magazine. On the final page you'll find a terrific unpublished photo of Houdini holding Frances J. Werner in his arms as Harry Blackstone looks on. Caption: "I now pronounce you man and Weiss."

You can buy or subscribe to MAGIC at

Thanks to Joe Fox.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Miracle Factory releases 3 new Houdini DVDs

Here's something we've all been waiting for! Todd Karr's The Miracle Factory has released three new DVDs that collect as much of the existing Houdini film footage that could be found (over 8 hours worth).

Houdini: Captured on Film features over 45 minutes of Houdini film footage, including an extensive reconstruction of the surviving fragments of The Marvelous Exploits of Houdini in Paris (1909); footage of his pioneer aviation feats and his first flight over Australia; various escapes, including a bridge jump, overboard box escape, and several upside-down straitjacket escapes; casual footage of Houdini with Harry Kellar, Bess Houdini, and others; news coverage of his 1926 funeral; film of Hardeen and audio from a 1939 radio interview.

The Houdini Picture Show includes Houdini's silent features Terror Island (1920); The Man from Beyond (1922); Haldane of the Secret Service (1923); previously unseen outtakes filmed in Paris from Haldane of the Secret Service; and the plane crash excerpt from The Grim Game (1919).

Houdini: The Master Mystery includes Houdini's 1918 serial, and also a special "Escapes-Only" feature which gathers the escape footage from the serial into an introductory section for the viewing convenience of magicians and historians.

SPECIAL OFFER: Readers of WILD ABOUT HARRY get $10 off each DVD by using the promo code HOUDINI10 at check out. This offer is only good until February 10th, so act now!

With the Kino DVD set now out of print, this is a great way to get Houdini's film work on DVD, and I'm especially excited to see a partial restoration of his Paris short. Below are promotional clips for all three DVDs.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Mrs. Houdini on making coffee

We know Houdini and Hardeen did advertising (notably for Zam-Buk). But did you know that Bess also entered the advertising arena? Here's an ad for Hills Bros Coffee from The Evening Herald, October 25, 1940, with some helpful hints from the "Queen of Magic" on how to prepare your java.

By the way, the Houdini handcuff board behind Bess was one of the displays she and Ed Saint made for the Final Houdini Seance. That particular board contains the Russian Manacle and survives to this day. It was recently displayed at an S.A.M. exhibit in Whittier.

Clipping source:


Sunday, February 1, 2015

Houdini returns to Austin a hologram

Harry Houdini appeared on the stage of the Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas last week, telling the assembled audience that it was a great pleasure to be back at the Paramount after a 99-year absence to help celebrate the theater's 100th anniversary.

Of course, this wasn't the real Houdini, nor was it an actor or even his ghost! It was a Houdini hologram. While I've heard of this technology being used to revive the likes of Tupac Shakur and Michael Jackson, this is the first I've heard of a holographic Houdini.

The real Houdini appeared at the Paramount in 1916 (when it was the Majestic). It's reported that 20% of the city population saw his act during his 8-day run. Legend has it that Houdini drilled a hole above the proscenium for a trick. The hole was never fixed and today it is called the “Houdini Hole.”

The "Houdini Hole."

The Paramount's official birthday won't be until Oct 11, but the staff are already gearing up for a full year. That begins on April 1 with a special free screening of A Night at the Opera starring Paramount veterans The Marx Brothers.

You can read more about the Paramount and its centenary celebration at their official website.

Also read: Houdini tours Texas.