Friday, July 7, 2017

Kenneth Silverman, 1936 - 2017

Friends Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz have just delivered some sad news. Kenneth Silverman, author of the seminal Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss, passed away tonight at age 81. He had been ill for some time.

© Nancy Crampton

Kenneth Silverman was born on February 5, 1936 in Manhattan. He grew up on East Seventy-Fifth Street, directly across from the tenement building where Houdini lived as a boy. As a teen in the early 1950s he performed magic as Ken Silvers. He even once appeared in a TV commercial for M&Ms. He was later educated at Columbia University, and became a professor emeritus of English at New York University.

As a biographer, Silverman won a Pulitzer Prize, an Edgar Award, and the Bancroft Prize for American History. He was also a "card-carrying" member of the Society of American Magicians.

In 1996 Harper Collins published Silverman’s Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss, which remains the finest biography of Houdini yet written. I had the honor of meeting Professor Silverman in 2011 when he gave a talk on Houdini at the Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

Ken is survived by his partner Jane Mallison, by his two children, Willa and Ethan, daughter-in-law Ronit, and three grandchildren: Benjamin, Eve and Isaac.

UPDATE: Ken Silverman's New York Times obituary contains the following, which is wonderful tribute to his work on Houdini and devotion to his subject:

In the frantically titled “Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss, American Self-Liberator, Europe’s Eclipsing Sensation, World’s Handcuff King and Prison Breaker — Nothing on Earth Can Hold Houdini a Prisoner!!!,” published in 1997 [sic], he outdid himself in wringing every last fact and facticule from the historical record. 
“He has sifted through scrapbooks, diaries, letters, playbills, census reports, court transcripts, thousands of press clippings in half a dozen languages and even the minutes of the Hebrew Relief Society,” the magician Teller wrote in The New York Times. The research was so exhaustive that Professor Silverman published his sources in a separate volume, “Notes to Houdini.” 
“As part of the research,” Ms. Mallison said, “he had me strap him into a straitjacket, and one New Year’s Eve he asked me to lock him into a canvas mailbag to see if he could get out.” 
On certain matters, Professor Silverman nevertheless maintained strict silence. Adhering to the magician’s unwritten code, he refused to reveal the secrets behind Houdini’s most famous tricks. Historian and magician struggled. In the end, Pulitzer or no Pulitzer, the magician won.



  1. So sorry to hear about Ken! Got to meet him In SF at Houdini Art and Magic exhibit where he lectured and signed his book and notes for me. Just the other day, I was watching him being interviewed on the many HH documentaries he did. What an amazing person!!!  He will be missed but not forgotten.
    Joe M. Notaro

  2. Thanks for sharing this, but it should be noted that he is also survived by his two children, Willa and Ethan, daughter-in-law Ronit, and three grandchildren: Benjamin, Eve and Isaac.

    1. Thank you very much. I've added to the above.

  3. John Hinson great nephew of Bess and Harry HoudiniJuly 8, 2017 at 4:59 AM

    Sad news he was a great man.

  4. A fine and generous man, an excellent historian. He helped me a lot getting started on HOUDINI UNBOUND. Eternally grateful. RIP.

  5. This is sad news. Farewell and rest in piece.


  6. What a great man. Without him my understanding of Houdini would have been greatly diminished. Without question he wrote the Bible of Houdini biographies. That book may be equalled someday--but never surpassed.

    Silverman also wrote a bio of Edgar Allen Poe and Cotton Mather. Both worth seeking out.

  7. His Cotton Mather bio won the Pulitzer Prize.

  8. I always recommend Ken Silverman's 'Houdini!!!' as one of the best magic biographies ever written. His depth of research is amazing and he comprehensively covers the life of Houdini in one volume. R.I.P Ken Silverman

  9. By the way I totally agree with John's review of 'Houdini!!!' on Amazon :-)

  10. houdinifamily@aol.comJuly 8, 2017 at 4:17 PM

    We are sorry to hear about Ken's passing. My parents Marie and Forrest Blood always spoke so highly and fondly of him. Ken's biography on Houdini is the one we recommend to everyone interested in learning about Houdini. He will be missed.
    Jeffrey Blood, Grand Nephew of Bess & Harry Houdini

  11. A terrible loss to all who knew and loved him, most especially his beloved and devoted Jane Mallison, who cared for him so tenderly and lovingly. Farewell, my dear Ken. I will miss you so much!
    Mary Bevilacqua

  12. Richard Kaufman noted in the August 2017 issue of Genii that Houdini!!! will never be reprinted again. It has something to do with a rights issue spread throughout the book. Silverman would not elaborate what that was.

    1. Mr. Silverman told me essentially the same thing, but was not specific. Some untold story here. Could have something to do with Houdini's diaries, which are quoted throughout.

    2. That's strange given that the owner or owners of HH' s diaries understood that Silverman would use the contents as information for his books.


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