Friday, March 30, 2018

The wild story of Abb Dickson's Water Torture Cell

Magician and collector Abb Dickson, who passed away last year, owned a Water Torture Cell that he claimed had belonged to Houdini himself. Abb's cell most famously appeared in the TV movie The Great Houdinis with a false front to hide an extension added to accommodate the stuntman's height. But why did Abb believe his cell was a genuine Houdini USD?

In 2003, Abb shared the full story of how he discovered his cell with Water Torture Cell historian and enthusiast James Criswell. Now James graciously shares with us the story in Abb's own words.

Here's the "Torture Cell Story"...
I was involved with the Houdini Collection at the University of Texas at Austin, I had 'volunteered at my own expense' to go to Texas and open all the boxes that had once been packed away at the old Texas Tower. There had been a fire there, and nothing had been opened since the water damage, etc. The Rare Books section had just moved into a new building, and the collection was still packed I went down and spent almost two months opening boxes and working with their conservatory team to keep the old paper from turning to mush.
One of the 'benefits' I got for my services...was the ability to make a Xerox copy of any paper that I wished. The originals, of course stayed with the Library.
One of the pieces, was a Storage Warehouse receipt in England, where certain crates had been placed into storage...around the same time that Houdini and Hardeen were going around trying to squelch the "Miss Undina" person who was also performing a torture cell.
The next year, while packing for a trip to England, I remembered the receipt...and took it with me. In London, I looked up the company...and they were still in business, so I thought I'd pay them a visit - hoping to see if they had ledgers which might show either Houdini's or Collins' signatures, and information as to what might be in the 'mystery crates.'
When I went in and showed the copy of the receipt, the present owner of the warehouse said, "Are you here to claim the crates?....we still have them, but they are in one of the corners
We discussed 'British Salvage Rights,' and I agreed to 'claim/purchase' three of the crates, that might be easiest accessible. I waited for about two hours, and they brought three huge wooden crates up to the loading dock. The first one he opened, he peered inside and said, "It's an Aquarium, isn't it??" Lo and behold, it was the glass front, sides and bottom of a WTC. The second crate contained the foot stocks, the last was just filled with rags and tools. Those three crates were all I could afford at the time, so I had to leave the others in place - they WERE holding up the beams!
Best as we can figure out, and from photographs showing Houdini in a WTC not filled with water, and pieces of other Cells in the background...that the crates were the contents of the Houdini/Collins shop...which was packed up and put into storage prior to the tour through Germany, etc. Rather than just pay rent on an unused shop, they must have just put everything in storage.
The Cell that I have was evidently the "Shop Model" or there were several places in which a hole had been drilled, and then re-plugged, etc. Also, only the 'front' was encased in metal....the rest was just mahogany boards, etc. It is a 'rough' version...but exactly the same stocks and release that Sid Radner has.
Evidently, it was from this 'prototype' that 4 other WTC were built - 2 for Houdini, and 2 for Hardeen. As it was impossible to fix or repair illusions on the road, they had decided to just carry two - in that way, if one were damaged, the other could be used until the first one was repaired. Mine was evidently packed up as a 'pattern,' should others need to be constructed.
The 'shop' was never again opened in England, and my guess was that the warehouse receipt was just 'lost amongst the papers' of Houdini's affairs....and why should THEY pay for retrieving just a bunch of tools, etc.
When I presented the results of my trip years ago at the Chicago Magic Collector's Convention, Sid Radner and I had quite a discussion as to where the 'other' completed cells might be. We both agreed that yes, Sid's was the last one that Houdini himself had used...but no one knows where the other 3 might be.

A few points. The gaff on this cell and Houdini's cell are by no means the same. So Abb has that part incorrect. I've also never heard of Hardeen doing the Water Torture Cell. In fact, Milbourne Christopher explicitly states in Houdini The Untold Story that Dash never did the USD because he could not fit inside. And that's another thing; this cell is larger than Houdini's final cell. This cell is reported to stand 68" tall on a 30" square while Houdini's stood only 59" tall on a 26-1/2 square. So it is by no means a "pattern."

But if we are to accept Abb's story as told, there are a couple of other possibilities that come to my mind as to why this cell would be warehoused by Houdini in London. The first is that it could have been the prototype he used in his 1911 stage-play, Challenged or Houdini Upside Down, which he performed once in London in order to copyright the effect. Another possibility is that this was the cell Houdini made for "Miss Trixy" (Wanda Timm), whom he set up as a rival act to undermine the infringing Miss Undina in 1912. But neither would require a larger cell.

It should be noted that Abb owned a Milk Can that he also claimed as being original to Houdini. I don't know the story behind that one, but I took a good look at that Can in this 2015 post.

So what do we think? Is this a genuine Houdini Water Torture Cell? I never knew Abb Dickson, so I don't know if he was prone to mythmaking about his collectibles. But this is the kind of experience that all collectors dream of having, so wouldn't it be wonderful if this story were true?

In 2011 the cell was put up for sale on eBay (auction pic below). Today Abb's Milk Can and Water Torture Cell are owned by escape artist Troy Milligan.

Thanks to James Criswell for allowing me to share this strange tale here on WAH. James is making a study of Houdini's USD and is currently seeking any and all photos of the original cell and the current reproductions. He's especially interested in photos of the original cell after its first restoration in 1991 (before its destruction by fire). If you have any photos you think might help James in his research, please feel free to send them to me and I will forward them on. Thanks!

UPDATE: I'm now hearing from several people in the know that this story is as bogus as the cell itself. It's believed Abb created his "authentic" props for a traveling exhibition that he booked into shopping malls, etc. While he maintained the fiction within collector circles (even sharing this story at a Magic Collectors Weekend), most understood Abb to be a bit of a con-man. But like all good con-men, he tells a good story!


Thursday, March 29, 2018

Russian Houdini puzzle book

The mighty Arthur Moses alerts us to a new Russian publication, Гарри Гудини: лучшие логич. задачи и головомки. This appears to be a puzzle book similar to the English publication The Great Houdini's Puzzle Vault from last year.

You can purchase the book from Vasha Kniga.

Arthur owns the world's largest collection of foreign language Houdini books. As you can see from this and the links below, nothing gets past him!


Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The harbinger

When doing a search for Houdini in 1926, this article from The Baltimore Sun dated January 3 is among the first to pop up. It's likely this actually happened during the last days of 1925, which is when Houdini moved his 3 Shows in One to the National Theater. Nevertheless, it was a bad start to a bad year, and an eerie harbinger of events to come.

I'm wondering if this was the same ankle that he later fractured in the Water Torture Cell in October? That is generally considered the first link in the chain of events that led to Houdini's death on Halloween. But maybe the ankle was in a weakened condition, so the chain actually started here with his accident outside the National.

The theater still stands today at 208 W. 41st St. as the Nederlander. Watch out for pipes!


Tuesday, March 27, 2018

????? (Mystifier), Second Quarter, 1992

Continuing my look back at the Mystifier, the quarterly newsletter of the Houdini Historical Center that ran from 1991-2003.

The Houdini Historical Center newsletter was looking for a new name when this third issue was released in 1992. The newsletter asked members to choose from the choices: The Mystifier, Escape, Metamorphosis, Off the Cuff, Houdiniana, On Stage, Stage, Cuff and Key, Houdini Unlocked, or The Challenge. Which did they choose? You'll have to wait until the next issue or find out!

But the real focus of this issue was "Houdini's Trunk No. 8." This was the trunk that traveled with Houdini and contained all his tools and "wherewithal for any sort of escape." The contents of the trunk were donated to the museum by Dr. Morris N. Young, and the newsletter contains a lengthy  article by Young penned for the December 1951 MUM describing in detail how he acquired the trunk from Hardeen's widow and its contents.

A search through the drawers revealed in orderly placement what proved to be mainly hardware supplies. No doubt the assemblage of materials represented years of trial and experience in being prepared for any contingency anywhere, anytime. There had to be no dependency on local shops or fancies, and secrets could not be revealed indirectly through purchase of specific supplies.

A second article by Ken Silverman called "More Houdini Trunks" discusses a written inventory of what Houdini's other traveling trunks contained, including a breakdown of Milk Cans he was using in  England in February 1911:

He had with him in England no fewer than four cans, described in the inventory as one "1910 New York Can," one "Dunston Challenge Can," one "Gamage Can," and one "Can 1910 unprepaired [sic]."

New items added to the HHC gift shop are discussed, including a glass etched Houdini portrait set on a walnut base with back lighting. Houdini's 1925 Christmas card is also reproduced.

In his "Backstage with Sid Radner" column, Sid discusses the upcoming first board meeting of the HHC and the new temporary exhibit, Houdini on Tour: The Traveling Magic Show, which featured the contents of Trunk No. 8. He again mentions a proposed Houdini stage musical, and that production of a new Houdini movie is "delayed for the couple of months." (This was the Ray Stark film which would never go before cameras.)

The newsletter concludes with a pitch for donations.

Volume 2, Number 2
Second Quarter, 1992
6 pages

Houdini's Tools on Display
Trunk No. 8
More on Trunks
Magic Items for Sale
Backstage with Sid Radner
Window Open for Donations


    Monday, March 26, 2018

    Strange Bedfellows for $1600

    Houdini once again showed up on Jeopardy! Under the category "Strange Bedfellows" was this $1600 question, answered correctly by contestant Zach Dark from Hoover, Alabama.

    To see the full board, check out the amazing J! Archive website, where you can also see all mentions of Houdini on the show going back to 1986.

    Thanks to Kevin Connelly for the alert.


    Sunday, March 25, 2018

    Unmasking of Robert-Houdin - "Houdini's Copy"

    David Haversat's 1878 Press Co. has announced a very special Limited Edition of Houdini's The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin. Description below:

    The Unmasking Of Robert-Houdin
    Published 110 years ago 
    Houdini's personal copy of his book with annotated pages written in his hand. 
    For the first time since Houdini himself made these unseen additions and changes - this book has been published by David Haversat's 1878 Press Co. The original copy is in the collection of Jon Oliver who has decided to share this historic publication! 
    Deluxe bound copy - limited production. Ships in early April until Sold Out.  

    You can pre-order The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin ("Houdini's Copy" - Deluxe) from the 1878 Press Co. website.


    Saturday, March 24, 2018

    The New Houdini Chronology is complete

    What better day than today, HOUDINI'S BIRTHDAY, to announce the completion of my New Houdini Chronology. The chronology covers 144 years from the birth of Ehrich Weiss to today, with the years of Houdini's professional life broken down into every week. When I started this, I was simply thinking I could fill in some of the gaps left behind by Frank Koval in his own Illustrated Houdini Research Diary. But I now feel like I've gone way beyond what Koval was able to offer. I also feel like I've learned more about Houdini in the past four months than I have in the past 40 years. This has been a Wild project indeed.

    So what now? Well, I will continue to work on chronology, adding more appearances and significant events, and no doubt making corrections to what I have. But eventually I will offer some kind of printed version. I'm also toying with the idea of moving the entire thing into its own dedicated website where I can make it more searchable. But for the moment, I'm just happy  to have all the years completed to the best of my ability.

    You can access the Chronology via the drop down menu above. You'll also see a timeline across the top of each page so you can jump to a specific year. One thing I'd recommend for collectors is to look up the dates on your signed photos and letters. It's fun to discover exactly where Houdini was when he signed your item.

    Hope you all find this a useful tool. Enjoy!

    UPDATE: I've decided to go back under the hood and change my weeks to conform with ISO 8601 and run Monday to Sunday (instead of Sun. to Sat.). Thanks to everyone who gave me feedback on this.


    Friday, March 23, 2018

    Houdini playbill nabs $821 on eBay (UPDATE)

    This terrific original (?) playbill for Houdini's appearance at the Los Angeles Orpheum in 1923 sold on eBay today for $821.

    There's a lot to like here. Not only does it feature a great photo, but I love the inclusion of "In Person" below Houdini's name. This is because, at this time, four Houdini movies were playing in various theaters around the country, so the Orpheum wanted to make it clear you were seeing the real thing.

    This playbill is actually cut in half. You can see the full image on page 160 of The Original Houdini Scrapbook by Walter B. Gibson. However, the seller says he has never removed this from the frame, so maybe there's a chance the playbill is just folded?

    UPDATE: So it appears this was returned by the buyer as it proved to be a picture of the playbill, not an original playbill itself. It's back up for auction for $25.


    The death of Chung Ling Soo

    It was 100 years ago today that magician Chung Ling Soo was shot on stage at the Wood Green Empire Theater in London during his famous bullet catch routine. He died the following day (Houdini's birthday).

    Ching Ling Soo was actually William Ellsworth Robinson, an American who performed under the guise of a Chinese conjurer. Amazingly, he kept his real identity and nationality a secret from the public. He was also good friends with Houdini. In fact, Chung Ling Soo was on the same bill as Houdini during his first historic week at the London Alhambra in 1900.

    In 2005 Jim Steinmeyer published the excellent biography, The Glorious Deception: The Double Life of William Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo, the Marvelous Chinese Conjurer, probably the best non-Houdini magician's biography I've ever read. Today David Copperfield owns one of the rifles used in Soo's tragic act 100 years ago.

    Below is a clip from YouTube that purports to be the only known footage of "Chung Ling Soo."


    Thursday, March 22, 2018

    Houdini's madcap Hollywood lunch

    This photo of Houdini and comedy great Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle is well-known, but few know the story behind it. This photo was taken on July 27, 1919 at the Comique Studio in Edendale, CA during the production of Back Stage, a short directed by Arbuckle co-starring Buster Keaton. Houdini is using his hat to conceal a cast on his broken wrist.

    Below is a newspaper account of a luncheon that followed. I'm pretty sure this oh-so-zany lunch only happened in the mind of the publicist who wrote this. Nevertheless, it's vintage silent era Hollywood hi-jinks, so enjoy.

    Sake Lake Herald Republican Sun, Aug. 10, 1919.

    Back Stage is available on YouTube. The Taylor (?) trunk and weights that can seen in the photo come into play around the 19 minute mark. Shame there's no cameo by Houdini!

    Houdini and Arbuckle seemed to enjoy each other's company as Houdini visited the comedian again at the Henry Lehrman studio in Culver City later that same year, and Arbuckle was one of the guests at Harry and Bess's 25th Anniversary dinner at the Alexandra Hotel on June 22. And, of course, there was that Bebe Daniels gag.


    Tuesday, March 20, 2018

    Huggies Houdini commercial from 1992

    I feel like I can remember all the Houdini-themed TV commercials during my lifetime. However, I recently found this on YouTube and realized I had completely blocked this one out. Can't understand why.

    Below are a few links to more Houdini TV forgotten?


    Monday, March 19, 2018

    Houdini returned to Los Angeles in 1924

    I love making Houdini discoveries having to do with my hometown of Los Angeles, and while working on my 1924 chronology, I made a whopper! Conventional wisdom had been that Houdini last appeared in Los Angeles in 1923 when he played the Orpheum and Hillstreet theaters as part of his nationwide vaudeville tour that year. But it turns out that is not the case. Houdini came back to L.A. in 1924!

    Los Angeles Times, Oct. 22, 1924

    Houdini returned to Los Angeles as part of his Lyceum and Affiliated Bureau lecture tour in which he exposed the methods of fraudulent spirit mediums. His talk was called, "Can the Dead Speak to the Living?" Houdini gave two lectures on October 27 & 28 at the Philharmonic Auditorium located at 5th and Olive Street across from Pershing Square (where Houdini was once roped to a cannon). Los Angeles was one of four cities on the tour in which Houdini received 50% of the net profits.

    By this time, Houdini's friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was at an end, so the gloves were off when he told the Los Angeles Times: "Doyle thinks he is a Messiah who has come to save mankind by instructing them in the mysteries of occultism but instead of that he is misleading then public and his teachings are a menace to sanity and health. I have investigated his work and know whereof I speak."

    While in Los Angeles, Houdini stayed at the Biltmore Hotel, also in Pershing Square. While the Philharmonic was demolished in 1982, the Biltmore still stands as the Millennium Biltmore and is a downtown landmark. I was especially excited to discover that Houdini had stayed here. The Black Dahlia murder has always fascinated me, and the Biltmore is famous for being the last place Elizabeth Short (a.k.a. "The Black Dahlia") was seen in 1947. I've been to the Biltmore several times on Dahlia pilgrimages. Little did I know I was also walking in Houdini's footsteps!

    Below is a period postcard that shows the Biltmore (large red building on the left) and the Philharmonic Auditorium (red roofed building in center of the image). Also the same location today showing the unchanged Biltmore and a modern apartment building now standing on the site of the Philharmonic Auditorium.

    So for those keeping score, this puts Houdini in Los Angeles in 1899, 1907, 1915, 1919 (twice), 1923 and 1924.

    I used to think Houdini's movies were the most under-reported aspect of his career. But I now believe it to be his 1924 lecture tours. This was a major change in direction for Houdini, and he appeared in many cities and venues that have never been properly recorded. Looks like Houdini's "year of the ghost" will be a topic to tackle in a future post.


    Sunday, March 18, 2018

    Another Russian Houdini advert sells on eBay

    An advertisement for Houdini in Russia in 1903 sold on eBay today for $797.93. The seller writes that it was "obtained by my client from an LA collector of magic & Houdini memorabilia." Artifacts from Houdini's one and only tour of Russia are exceedingly rare, but this is the second Russian advert to appear on eBay within a year.

    Thanks to Kevin Connolly at Conjuring History on Facebook for the alert.


    Saturday, March 17, 2018

    Center Stage (Mystifier), First Quarter 1992

    Continuing my look back at the Mystifier, the quarterly newsletter of the Houdini Historical Center that ran from 1991-2003.

    The second issue of what would eventually become known as the Mystifier is devoted largely to Houdini's first scrapbook. The scrapbook was donated to the Houdini Historical Center by Sidney Radner under the condition that is undergo professional preservation (at a cost of between $5000-$10,000). The book is described as thus:

    The scrapbook appears to be sub-divided into two sections. The front 116 pages are a collection of clippings chronicling performances between June 22, 1894 and April 24, 1900, telling the story of the Houdinis two runs with the Welsh Brothers Circus and other shows. The rear 31 pages are a hodgepodge of miscellaneous clippings in memorabilia some mold at a later date. This latter portion include such items as the April 10, 1894 letter from Jacob Hyman to Houdini dissolving their partnership, an 1890 letter from the U.S. Amateur Athletic Union reinstating Ehrich Weiss' victory in a race, and a photograph portion of Houdini's plane packed in a crate.

    Some clippings from the scrapbook are reproduced along with a transcription of the "Risey in the Box" article from the Coney Island Clipper, June 22, 1894, the day Harry and Bess were married. This is oldest news-clipping from the scrapbook.

    In "Queries", Christopher Miller is still seeking info on Houdini's Milk Cans; Diane Kromm of Milwaukee seeks information on Houdini's posters; and Moira Thomas of Appleton seeks "references, stories, anecdotes, legends, etc., about Houdini's life on the vaudeville circuit."

    In his "Backstage with Sid Radner" column, Sid tells a story about Houdini and Arthur Lloyd, "The Human Card Index", related to him by Walter B. Gibson. He recommends Patrick Culliton's article about Jack Hayman in the October issues of Genii. He notes that Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Ken Silverman recently visited the HHC "researching a book on Houdini." He concludes with this:

    My wife Helen and I recently attended a workshop which presented the beginning of a Houdini musical–hopefully for Broadway. Finally, I have also seen stories in the press about a new Houdini movie. HOUDINI LIVES!

    The play Sid is talking about is likely the musical that ultimately appeared at the Goodspeed Opera House in 1997 (it didn't make it to Broadway). The movie was almost certainly the on-again off-again Ray Stark project, which was in the news at this time as on-again.

    The newsletter concludes with the news that the 1992 Magic Collectors Association convention will be held in Appleton May 7-9, the first time the convention was to be held outside Chicago, and that a special expanded Houdini exhibit would be created especially for the weekend.

    Center Stage
    Volume 2, Number 1
    First Quarter, 1992
    6 pages

    Scrapbook Presented to Center
    Clipping from the Scrapbook
    Membership Form
    Backstage with Sid Radner
    Magic Collectors Coming to Appleton


      Friday, March 16, 2018

      Houdini exhibition opens in Buenos Aires

      A Houdini and magic exhibition called Houdini Las leyes del asombro (Houdini The Laws of Astonishment) is now showing at the Fundación Telefónica in Buenos Aires, Argentina through June 2, 2018. This is the same exhibition curatored by Miguel Delgado and Maria Santoyo that was shown last year in Madrid.

      Among the planned special events will be a talk about Houdini in cinema (Houdini encadenado al cine) by Mario Rulloni on Thursday, April 12.

      For more information and to see photos from the exhibition check out the Fundación Telefónica website, Twitter and Instagram.


      Thursday, March 15, 2018

      Do we only know half of what's on the Houdini voice recordings?

      On October 29, 1914, Houdini recorded his voice to six wax cylinders using an early Edison recording machine. Those cylinders wound up in the collection of magician John Mulholland. But according to Milbourne Christopher, Mulholland misplaced them and had no idea where they were. It wasn't until after Mulholland's death in 1970 that they were discovered in a carton of odds and ends, hidden in a large rolled up photograph.

      Christopher and a group of three other Houdini enthusiasts brought the cylinders to the Edison National Historical Site in West Orange, NJ. After failing to play on two machines, they found success with a third. For those in the room, it was a remarkable historic moment to be the first men to hear Houdini's voice in 44 years.

      Two of the cylinders contained Houdini reciting the stage patter for his Water Torture Cell with slight differences. In one he offers his $1000 challenge "to anyone who can prove it is possible to obtain air inside the Torture Cell." An edited and greatly condensed combination of these two recordings is all that is publicly available. (Arthur Moses played both recordings in full at the Magic Collectors Weekend in Chicago in 2012.)

      But newspapers at the time also reported what was heard on a third cylinder, which has never been released to the public and is little discussed. The full AP story by Henrietta Leith even provided a few tantalizing excerpts.

      I have seen the original reel to reel master transfers of the Houdini voice recordings along with transcriptions of what they contain. The transcriptions show only the two Water Torture Cell speeches. This suggests the poetry cylinder was never transferred. In fact, if it weren't for the mention in the AP article, I don't think we'd even know about it! (Some papers, including the Los Angeles Times, cut the paragraph about the third recording.)

      That brings me to an even bigger point. There were six cylinders total. We know what's on three of them. So what about those other three? Are they copies? Or is it possible we only know half of what Houdini recorded that day in 1914?

      David Copperfield owns all six original cylinders and says he has not yet transferred them. But it is something he intends to do. Even if we were just able to hear the poem (which I don't believe even David has heard), that would be incredible. It's now been 48 years since Christopher and the others first heard Houdini's voice in that room in West Orange. Maybe there is another historic moment just waiting to happen.

      Wednesday, March 14, 2018

      Finding Houdini in Austin

      I've just completed my 1923 chronology and was rewarded with the discovery of a photo I've not seen before. This is from Houdini's two day engagement (Nov. 16-17) at the Hancock Opera House in Austin, Texas. A challenge packing crate escape was the big attraction. Did he make it? What do you think.

      While in Austin, Houdini spoke to the Young Men's Business League at the Driskill Hotel (before heading out to do a suspended straitjacket escape from the Littlefield bldg.). He told them, "I have almost come to the point of adopting Texas for my home. Here in Texas you have not yet got the big-town heartlessness and hurry and mistrust of your neighbor. You are quite friendly and make one feel you are glad to see him."


      Tuesday, March 13, 2018

      Coffeyville by C.E.L. Welsh released in paperback

      C.E.L. Welsh's Houdini novella Coffeyville is now available in a paperback edition. Coffeyville is a clever fusion of fact and fiction which had previously only been available as an eBook.

      Coffeyville, Kansas, is known as the “Town that stopped the Dalton Gang.” Many shots were fired in the early days of Coffeyville…but there was one lone bullet, fired some years after the Daltons were laid low, that passed unnoticed by most. One man, however, would never forget; a young Harry Houdini, still some years before fame would find him. The events of Coffeyville would ricochet down through the years, giving Houdini the ammunition he would need to pull off the greatest illusion of his epic career. Can you keep up with Houdini’s misdirection?

      C.E.L. Welsh is a card-carrying Houdini nut and the author of the superb 2009 Harry Houdini graphic novel from Campfire. I read Coffeyville as an eBook and loved it, so I'm very happy to now be able to add this to my shelf of Houdini fiction.

      Purchase Coffeyville at (U.S.) and (UK).


      Monday, March 12, 2018

      Houdini among "Windows on the Bowery"

      The Bowery Alliance of Neighbors in New York has launched a special exhibition, "Windows on the Bowery" which features individual street posters displayed at 64 historic Bowery locations. Three of the posters include Houdini. Two mark the locations of Dime Museums he played early in his career (the Globe and Miners). The third marks the location of Otto Maurer's Magical Bazaar.

      You can see all the posters and find their street locations at the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors website. The entire exhibition is also displayed inside the majestic HSBC Bank at 58 Bowery.

      The Bowery Alliance of Neighbors is a nonprofit grassroots organization working to protect residents, small businesses, the neighborhood and the historic character of the Bowery.

      Thanks to Colleen Bak and Da Mc.


      Sunday, March 11, 2018

      Restoring Terror Island (Reel 4)

      In 2016, Joe Notaro at Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence offered a "restoration" of the missing Reel 3 of Terror Island using photos and script excerpts from the Margaret Herrick Academy Library in Los Angeles. Now Joe is back to do the same with the missing Reel 4, which contains two Houdini escapes. Enjoy.

      While a few photos from the warehouse fire escape do exist, there are no photos from the overboard box escape. Because of this, most people don't even know that Terror Island contained this iconic Houdini feat!

      Thanks to Joe for taking on this important work. Here's hoping one day we might see the film itself restored.


      Houdini double feature tonight in Somerville, MA

      The Aeronaut Brewing Co. in Somerville, MA will screen Houdini's Terror Island (1920) and The Man From Beyond (1922) tonight, March 11, starting at 7:30 PM.

      Both films will be shown with live musical accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based performer regarded as one of the nation's leading silent film musicians.

      The Aeronaut Brewing Co. is located at 14 Tyler St., Somerville, MA. Tickets and more information can be found HERE.


      Saturday, March 10, 2018

      The Great Illusionists by Derek Tait released in UK

      Derek Tait's new book The Great Illusionists has been released in the UK by Pen & Sword. You'll recall Derek's last book was about Houdini in the UK. Now he expands the story of Golden Age magic in Great Britain.

      In a time before television, radio and cinema, entertainment was found at the many music halls and theatres up and down Great Britain. Acts were varied and included singers, comedians, acrobats, dance acts, animal acts, magicians and escapologists as well as male and female impersonators. Shows played to packed audiences.

      Many people escaped their hum-drum lives, working in cotton mills, coal mines or factories up and down the country, by visiting the local theatre or music hall. Magicians and illusionists attracted huge crowds all over the country. This book includes the stories of some of the best illusionists as well as speciality acts such as Datas and The Human Fly. Some are still well-known names today, while others will be unheard of by many. Marvel at the feats and lives of the Davenport Brothers, the Great Raymond, David Devant, Carl Hertz and Harry Kellar. Relive the tragedies such as the deaths on stage of Chung Ling Soo and the Great Lafayette.

      The performers of the late 1800s and early 1900s made way for the many great illusionists and stage artists that we have today. Acts such as David Copperfield, Siegfried and Roy and David Blaine are all influenced by the likes of Houdini, The Great Lafayette and Robert-Houdin and without the innovations of the early artists, the modern performers might not exist - how different would entertainment be to this day?

       Purchase The Great Illusionists now at (UK) and pre-order at (U.S.).


      Friday, March 9, 2018

      Center Stage (Mystifier), First Issue, April 1991

      Today we kick off our look back at the Mystifier, the newsletter of the Houdini Historical Center that ran from 1991-2003. In many ways, this was the forerunner of blogs like WILD ABOUT HARRY.

      The Houdini Historical Center's Mystifier newsletter began life as "Center Stage." Volume 1, Number 1 was published in April 1991. On it's front page was an introduction, "Welcome to Center Stage", which laid out its mission statement:

      What is Center Stage all about? It is a forum. It's one of the ways the HHC hopes to facilitate the fair and open exchange of information between people from a variety of backgrounds who are interested in Houdini. Academic historians and magic collectors, magicians and magic buffs, escape artists and locksmiths, antique dealers, and folks who just plain find Houdini interesting will all find something for them in Center Stage.

      True to their word, the first feature article by Dr. Morris N. Young is a rare treat. Young gives "An Eye Witness Account" of seeing Houdini in Boston when he was a youth. Young notes that while he went in expecting to be dazzled by Houdini's escape feats, he came away most impressed with his magic, notably what Young called his "card acrobatics." This eyewitness assessment of Houdini's magic led to a special editor's note:

      His unique account and testimonial challenges the common assumption that Houdini was a great escape artist and publicity manager but only a mediocre magician. Dr. Young's account, along with other evidence that had been brought forward in recent years, force us to reconsider this assumption.

      The second feature, "From The Sidney H. Radner Collection", showcases a newspaper clipping from 1899 about Houdini's escape from handcuffs in a San Fransisco police station. The article contains a terrific illustration of Houdini standing on a table surrounded by officers.

      In "Sid's Notes", Radner explains how his collection came to find its new home in Appleton in 1988.

      When then-Outagamie Museum Curator Christopher Miller arrived at my home to examine my collection, I knew immediately that I had made a sensible decision. Chris arrived with white cotton gloves–-explaining to me why these artifacts should not be touched by human hands. I was thoroughly impressed. Only gloved hands have touched the collection since.

      Finally, in "Queries", Thomas J. Bolt writes that he's looking for "stories, anecdotes, legends, etc., about Houdini's life in Appleton", and Christopher Miller of the Minnesota Historical Society seeks information on Houdini's Milk Can Escape.

      Center Stage
      Volume 1, Number 1
      April 1991
      4 pages

      An Eye Witness Account
      San Francisco, 1899
      Sid's Notes
      Houdini Historical Center Membership Form


      Thursday, March 8, 2018

      Houdini's 278 parlor revealed

      Here's an extraordinary new (old) photo of the inside of Houdini's 278 during his lifetime. This is the 2nd floor parlor looking towards the street. This comes from the John C. Hinson Collection and was part of our 2013 Hinson Endowment. At the time, I did not recognize this as 278. But now having been there, I can see it's unmistakably Houdini's house (and the clock on the left is the clincher that it's Houdini era).

      You'll notice this photo shows Houdini's piano (referred to as a "player piano" in a 1919 inventory). This is clearly not the same piano that was inside 278 last year. That piano was said to have been original to the house, so I suspect it actually belonged to the Bonannos. The piano was not among the items purchased by David Copperfield for his International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts in Las Vegas. Looks like that was the right call!

      Below is the same room in 2017.

      And before you ask, no, I don't yet know who bought Houdini's house. The house went under contract in January. We'll need to wait for the deal to close before we'll have a shot at finding out who the next owner of 278 will be. But the suspense is killing me!

      Thanks to John Hinson.


      Wednesday, March 7, 2018

      High schoolers perform Watson and The Dark Art of Harry Houdini

      The drama department at the La Junta Jr. & Sr. High School in La Junta, Colorado is performing Watson and The Dark Art of Harry Houdini March 7-10.

      Christian Montano plays Houdini with Alex Whitfield as Sherlock Holmes and Austin Kurtz as Dr. Watson. Says Montano, "It’s a good time! The cast works really well together since we’ve been doing this for so long... it’s like a family."

      Tickets are $5.00 and performances are held at 1817 Smithland Ave, La Junta, Colorado. The house opens at 6:30 with a 7:00 PM curtain.

      Watson and The Dark Art of Harry Houdini was written and directed by Jaime Robledo and had its debut at the Sacred Fools in Hollywood in 2013. (I reviewed it here.)

      The La Junta Tribune Democrat has a nice profile of the play and students. Oh why didn't my High School drama class do this kind of thing!?


      Tuesday, March 6, 2018

      Brad Meltzer is out peddling the myth that Houdini was a spy

      The last time we heard from Brad Meltzer was when he "investigated" whether Houdini was murdered on his show Decoded. Among the many, many untruths perpetuated in that episode was the allegation that Bess Houdini murdered her husband because he suppressed her own show business ambitions. It was preposterous and offensive, but typical of the conspiracy-laden pseudo-scholarship of "reality" TV which is Meltzer's specialty.

      Now Meltzer is back with a new novel, The Escape Artist, in which he once again wraps Houdini with conspiracy. This time he's reviving the idea that the great magician worked as a spy. Now, I don't mind having Houdini doing spy work or even fighting vampires in fiction. And as with David Saltman's recent Houdini Unbound, which also features Houdini as a spy, I was going to do a post today recommending Meltzer's book as a fun new bit of Houdini fiction.

      However, on Late Night with Seth Meyer, Meltzer said "it's true" that Houdini was a spy, and even trotted out the specific details that he was recruited into the Secret Service by John E. Wilkie in 1898. I expect he will continue to say this in promotional appearances, so I now feel compelled to a write a different kind of post to help clear the air about where this whole spy idea came from and why people like Meltzer continue to perpetuate it. I really hope this doesn't offend people I respect, but it's time I say here what I've been saying in private when this topic arises, so here it goes.

      The notion that Houdini worked as a spy comes entirely from the 2006 biography The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero by William Kalush and Larry Sloman. Among some excellent new research, the book also resurrects long ago discarded Houdini mythology (ringing the bells of the Kremlin) and conspiracy theories (Houdini poisoned by his doctors). But the spy angle was new and was touted as the sensational revelation of the book. So was it?

      It is true that Houdini was friendly with law enforcement and took a great interest in the methods and practises of criminals and con-men. He even penned a book on the subject in 1906 called The Right Way To Do Wrong. It's also true that he had a relationship with Superintendent William Melville of Scotland Yard, who did operate an early version of British Intelligence (formal intelligence agencies as we know them did not exist at this time). Houdini appears to have written Melville on two occasions when he was performing in Germany in 1900 and 1902, which Melville called "reports." If Houdini was indeed providing intelligence information, even just gossip, then technically this would classify him as a "spy." But two vague mentions of "reports" by someone with the initials "HH" isn't much, yet that's the entire factual foundation of the Houdini spy theory and industry.

      Now, I don't know the authors hearts and minds, but I do know that the economics of writing non-fiction are not great (it's one of the reasons I've yet to produce a Houdini book myself). A sale to Hollywood is pretty much the only way a non-fiction work makes money for the author and publisher. So tickling Hollywood's buying bone can become a corrupting influence. There can be pressure to showcase a sensationalistic and cinematic angle, and turning Houdini into 007 certainly fit that bill, even if the facts were not really there to support it

      So it's possible the authors felt compelled to enhanced the spy idea using broad speculation and generate fanciful scenarios in which Houdini interfaces with famous figures in intelligence, like Wilkie. Upon publication, most Houdini buffs largely rejected the spy theory as unfounded, and felt it undermined what should have been a great new Houdini biography. At the time, the authors said more evidence would come forward. It never did. But in 2009, the book sold to Summit Entertainment and a franchise of movies featuring Houdini as "part Indiana Jones and part Sherlock Holmes" were announced (they've yet to appear). So the publisher achieved their economic goal, but the Houdini world was left with a gigantic new piece of mythology to contend with.

      Okay, I should stop here and say that I know and greatly respect Secret Life author Bill Kalush, as does everyone in the magic world. With his Conjuring Arts Research Center and Ask Alexander online archive, he has done extraordinary things for magic history and researchers. My own conspiracy theory is that he was led down this path by his writing partner and publisher Simon & Schuster. I also have a mad dream that one day Bill will write a wholly fact-based Houdini biography for a specialty magic publisher like Mike Caveney's Magic Words. If he did, I have no doubt it could be the finest and most accurate Houdini biography of them all.

      Happily, the Houdini spy theory hasn't had the same traction as other myths. Yes, Hollywood now has their teeth into it, and even the 2010 Houdini Miniseries with Adrien Brody featured Houdini doing spy work. But reviews uniformly qualified this as speculative, and even the filmmakers admitted the spy portion of the story was dramatic fiction.

      But now here comes Brad Meltzer, reviving this idea in his own work which, again, I don't object to in itself. But to go on Late Night and state unblinkingly that it is "true" shows Meltzer has not done his research or facts don't matter to him. And after what he did on Decoded, I suspect it's the latter. Meltzer trades in the world of pseudo-history and "fake news" -- a conspiracy theorist historian peddling half-truths and titillation. I'm sure the goal here, once again, is to sell a book to Hollywood, and I'm sure he will.

      But that doesn't mean we have to buy any of it.


      Monday, March 5, 2018

      Delving into The Mystifier file

      From 1991 to 2003, the Houdini Historical Center in Appleton published a quarterly newsletter called the Mystifier. The newsletter ran 4 to 6 pages and provided news on current events, reviews, as well as deep dives into Houdini history. Every issue also contained a column by Sidney Radner, who had his finger on the pulse of all that was happening in the Houdini world. It was a treasure trove of information written by people with a passion for Houdini, and in many ways it was the forerunner of blogs like WILD ABOUT HARRY.

      Happily, I have a nearly complete set of Mystifiers, so I've decided to take a look back at each and every issue. I've largely forgotten myself what gems these newsletters contain, so I hope you enjoy rediscovering them along with me.

      *Missing issues (if anyone can help):
      Vol. 3 No. 2 Second Quarter 1993
      Vol. 3 No. 3 Third Quarter 1993

      Many thanks to Gary Hunt for recently providing me with three missing issues. Be sure and visit Gary's excellent new blog, Handcuff Queens.

      UPDATE: I've created an index page where you can see and jump to any specific issue.

      Saturday, March 3, 2018

      We're getting closer to putting Houdini in Laurel Canyon (for real)

      Did Houdini really live in Laurel Canyon? That's a question I get asked all the time. At the moment, we only know for certain that Bess and Ed Saint rented a guest house across the street from what is today called the "Houdini Estate" (Bess had parties at the larger estate, hence its reputation). Houdini may have rented that same guest house while he was in Hollywood in 1919 making The Grim Game and Terror Island. However, conclusive evidence for this remains elusive.

      But recently while working on the year 1919 for my New Houdini Chronology, I found two newspaper clippings that get us a step closer to putting Harry in that house!

      The following comes from the Los Angeles Daily Times, April 18, 1919. It announces Houdini's forthcoming arrival in the city and details about where he will stay.

      This is significant in that here we have firm evidence that Houdini rented a house in Hollywood. The exclusion of an apartment-house is particularly important. That's because in 1917 Jesse L. Lasky built the Hillview Apartments on Hollywood Blvd. where actors could live while working at the nearby Lasky Studio on Vine Street. This would have been the logical and practical place for Houdini to stay at this time, and it always hung out there as a possibility. But not anymore. Harry wanted a house.

      It's said Houdini came to rent the Laurel Canyon house because he was friendly with the owner of the connected estate across the street, Ralf M. Walker. But Walker did not cut Harry a friendly break on the rent, if we are to believe this second clipping from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette dated July 6, 1919:

      Again, we have mention of a rental "home." As far as it being "near the studio"... I guess that's relative. Certainly Houdini could have rented a house closer. But even in 1919, the drive to the studio would probably have only taken 15 minutes, and some location shooting on The Grim Game was done on Laurel Canyon's Lookout Mountain.

      I also discovered in the April 26, 1919 issue of Holly Leaves that Houdini, Bess, and Julie Karcher initially checked into the famous Hollywood Hotel upon their arrival in the city. Maybe the house wasn't ready yet?

      While not a smoking gun, this, combined with the description in Kellock of Houdini's Hollywood home being on a bluff visible from the road, takes us a bit closer to putting Houdini in 2435 Laurel Canyon. But the search for conclusive evidence continues.

      Click below for more on the "Houdini Estate", including my post from 2012 detailing the house history.

      UPDATE: I recently found a reference to Houdini and Bess "securing apartments near the Lasky studio in Hollywood" when they returned to L.A. in September to make Terror Island. So it looks like the house was just for The Grim Game stay. I'm thinking chances are good this was the Hillview.