Friday, February 15, 2019

Remembering Harry Houdini Hinson

Here's a rare photo of Bess with her nephew Harry Houdini Hinson. Harry was the oldest child of Bess's sister Marie Hinson. He was the brother of Vincent, Ruth, and Marie (Blood). Harry was following the footsteps of his famous uncle and namesake by practicing magic. By all accounts he was quite good. Tragically, Harry was killed at age 20 in a sleighing accident 85 years ago today on February 15, 1934.



This photo, which is the only photo I've ever seen of Harry, comes from the collection of John Hinson, who you'll remember shared many wonderful rare unpublished photos with us back in 2013. So on this sad day, here's remembering the brief life of the other Harry Houdini.

Thanks to John Hinson and Jon Oliver.

Related:

Thursday, February 14, 2019

New photos reveal Houdini's Voisin

While browsing the online archives of the National Library of Australia (via Trove), I discovered two terrific high resolution photos of Houdini and his Voisin biplane that I've not seen before. The photos reveal nice details of the plane with Houdini at the wheel. [Click all photos below to enlarge.]

This first photo shows the plane being tended to by a ground crew.


Here's a blowup of Houdini who appears to be calling out instructions from the cockpit. Notice how you can see the stitching on the plane.


This blowup shows nice details of the wheels and shock absorbers. Also notice the wheel blocks.


Below you can see Houdini's French mechanic Antonio Brassac inflating the wheel using a bicycle pump. I wonder who the man is with his hands with his pockets?


This next image shows Houdini either preparing for takeoff or taxing in his Voisin. This is credited to the Sydney Morning Herald and Sydney Mail and is captioned: "First controlled flight in Australia, made by Harry Houdini in a Voisin biplane at Diggers Rest, Victoria." Is this the historic moment itself?


I wonder what happened to the top of Harry's "H"? Also notice the Voisin's canvas was thin enough to be transparent in the sunlight.


You can view and zoom into the full resolution versions HERE (photo 1) and HERE (photo 2).

Related:

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Revisit my visit to the Copperfield Collection

It was one year ago today that I had the honor of meeting David Copperfield and touring his International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts in Las Vegas. It was an unforgettable experience. If you missed it the first time, below are links to my posts about the day and night I spent in "The Copperfield Zone."

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Harry Houdini Legend & Legacy available on Lulu

Harry Houdini Legend & Legacy by Roger Woods and Brian Lead is now available for purchase at Lulu.com. The book runs 62 pages and was first published in 1993.

More studies about Harry Houdini following on from the authors' first publication "Houdini The Myth Maker". This book includes accounts of the Mysto challenge, the Wilson challenge and other stories of imitators of Harry Houdini.

One thing I really enjoy in this book is the chapter devoted to the Wilson challenge in 1903. This was at the same Blackburn theater where Houdini suffered the torturous Hodgson challenge a year before. It's a strange story that includes first hand recollections from Jack Wilson himself.

Purchase Harry Houdini Legend & Legacy on Lulu.com.

Related:

New French edition of The Right Way to Do Wrong

A new French edition of Houdini's The Right Way to Do Wrong has been released by Fantaisium as Manuel du malfaiteur: Révélations sur les criminels qui gagnent. The translation is by François Montmirel.

The cover uses an image similar to what was seen on the new 2012 edition that included additional material from Houdini's other works and an introduction by Teller. So I'm not sure if this is that edition or the 1906 original. Maybe Arthur Moses will tell us because I think I hear him clicking Buy Now!

You can purchase Manuel du malfaiteur at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.fr.

Related:

Monday, February 11, 2019

The widows deaths


Today marks the 76th anniversary of the death of Bess Houdini on February 11, 1943. To mark the occasion, here's an article from Variety that ran shortly after her passing. I was not aware of this!

Variety, February 17, 1943.

Bess did know Paula Thurston, who was actually the magician's fourth wife. The widows had considered the idea of holding a joint seance in 1936 to contact both Houdini and Thurston (as well as Charles Carter). I'm shocked to learn Paula died at only age 33. But from what little is written about her in Jim Steinmeyer's excellent Thurston biography, The Last Greatest Magician in the World (where I nicked the above photo), I suspect it was related to alcoholism. 

With thanks to Rory Feldman.

Related:

Sunday, February 10, 2019

That pesky Parson's Theater program

Joe Notaro at Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence is using his regular Sunday post to provide a great service. Many have seen at auction--and may even own--a program for Houdini's 3 Shows in One at the Parson's Theatre in Hartford, Connecticut, during the week of December 1, 1925 (right). These are commercial reproductions created sometime in the 1970s. However, nowhere on them does it say it's a reproduction, and the age of the paper can now cause people to mistake it as the real thing and pay a price in line with that belief.

But now Joe has uncovered an original Parson's program at the McCord Museum in Montreal, and he shows how one can identify a reproduction, which actually has a notable printing error!

So click on over to HHCE and learn the secret of that pesky Parson's Theatre program and never be fooled again.

Related:

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Houdini's claim that he was building a "health house"

Recently Arthur Moses uncovered a remarkable interview with Houdini in the Dec/Jan 1923-24 issue of Back To Nature magazine (right). It contains lengthy quotations from Houdini about health and fitness and, most curiously, how he is building a special "health house."

The article kicks off with Houdini saying: "If we expect to have the health of the nation, we will have to make some radical changes in our present mode of civilization." He then describes his own health rituals.

"I believe that I owe my tremendous strength, health and success to 'CLEAN LIVING.' I have never used tobacco, alcohol, or liquors of any kind in my life. I drink all the water I can possibly take, and particularly in the morning upon arising and at night upon retiring. I have never eaten salt or pepper, and I have always considered it a matter of common sense that condiments of all kinds would irritate the delicate membrane and tissues inside the body. I always eat whole grain bread, never white, and I have found that the eating of raw bran is especially fine for the bowels. I never eat white bread or drink coffee and a large part of my diet consists of fruits of all kinds. I always carry oranges when traveling and for my lunch in rush hours I eat bananas. I find that raw foods give me greater strength than cooked foods.

In my home in New York, which is a four story building, I have my library and office on the top floor. I am quite a book-worm, and I do a great deal of studying. I have to walk down the four flights for my meals, and that gives me exercise which strengthens the muscles in my limbs and keeps my wind in shape. In  fact I never use and elevator when I can use the stairway. I have my desk built high so that I am obliged to stand while using it, and this prevents me from becoming stiff and sluggish from sitting down too much. I take a great deal of exercise in the form of hikes and swimming, and I am especially fond of tennis.  When I am on the road I always try and secure a room on the top floor, whenever possible, for the air is fresher and purer and I get away from the smoke and dirt. When sleeping, my windows are always wide open and I open them when I go out in order to ventilate the room while I'm away."

After expressing his belief that all children should be taught to swim (by law) and be trained to be ambidextrous (as he claims he is), Houdini turns his attention to health and architecture.

"Our present-day architecture is all wrong from a health standpoint. Most of the homes today get very little, if any, sunlight. The landlords of today build their houses in such a manner as to utilize every inch of space, making most, if not all rooms inside, so as to squeeze all the rent out of their tenants and the sunshine, air and health as well. If we are to have real health, we must make radical changes in the building of our homes. I am building an eight-room house for myself in the country near New York. It will be two stories, and the top of the house will be built so that it revolves, every room getting two hours of sunlight each day. The closets will be built in the center of the house on the first floor, making all rooms outside rooms. Sunlight kills microbes and germs. The Aborigines, or prehistoric savages, lived within the natural forces. They made their cures through nature's remedies--sunlight, air, water and foods in their natural state as God grew them, and I believe those things we must use if we hope to have health, strength, and I might add happiness, for one cannot be happy if he is in ill-health. When I have finished the building of my health house, I will be happy to have any of the Back To Nature readers come and see it, and if they like, pattern one after it for themselves."

There's so much to love here!

First, I've never heard anything about this "health house" before. I suspect it only existed in Houdini's mind. I've also seen many references to Houdini drinking coffee. His rejection of condiments seems a little wacky. But his swearing off of white bread in favor of whole grains is downright modern. So too his belief in the benefits of fruit and raw foods. One wonders how radical these ideas were back then?

But I do think Houdini is playing a bit to his audience here. In a 1907 letter to Bess, he describes a meal in Chicago that hardly sounds like the diet of a health nut:

"Had spaghetti dinner, roast beef and mashed potatoes, washed down with excellent coffee and lady fingers inserted in cream."

Thanks to Arthur Moses for sharing this healthy find.

Related:

    Friday, February 8, 2019

    Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man

    Recently I was watching a documentary about strongmen such as Eugene Sandow and I was reminded of this 2001 book, Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America by John F. Kasson. It offers a study of Houdini from a different perspective and is well worth adding to your library, if you haven't already.

    In his exciting new book, John F. Kasson examines the signs of crisis in American life a century ago, signs that new forces of modernity were affecting men's sense of who and what they really were. 
    When the Prussian-born Eugene Sandow, an international vaudeville star and bodybuilder, toured the United States in the 1890s, Florenz Ziegfeld cannily presented him as the "Perfect Man," representing both an ancient ideal of manhood and a modern commodity extolling self-development and self-fulfillment. Then, when Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan swung down a vine into the public eye in 1912, the fantasy of a perfect white Anglo-Saxon male was taken further, escaping the confines of civilization but reasserting its values, beating his chest and bellowing his triumph to the world. With Harry Houdini, the dream of escape was literally embodied in spectacular performances in which he triumphed over every kind of threat to masculine integrity -- bondage, imprisonment, insanity, and death. 
    Kasson's liberally illustrated and persuasively argued study analyzes the themes linking these figures and places them in their rich historical and cultural context. Concern with the white male body--with exhibiting it and with the perils to it--reached a climax in World War I, he suggests, and continues with us today.

    Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America can be purchased from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

    Speaking of Houdini as a specimen, this weekend I will post excerpts from a remarkable 1923 Back to Nature article in which Houdini shares his sometimes peculiar views on health and fitness. It's a good one!

    Related:

    Wednesday, February 6, 2019

    Whoa! Was there a Water Torture Cell movie?


    Film of Houdini doing his Chinese Water Torture Cell is high on the wish list of all Houdini nuts. But no footage is known to exist, and I've never thought it was very likely Houdini ever filmed his greatest stage escape. However, I recently found something that suggests there may have been some kind of film after all!

    The below is from a review of Houdini's show at the Palace Theater in the December 27, 1916 issue of The New York Clipper.


    "A moving picture explanatory of his Chinese water torture cell." Holy smokes! What could this have shown?

    This footage would have been silent, and because it's an "explanatory", it may have been entirely made up of text. It could be Houdini's familiar stage patter (as heard in his voice recordings) on individual text cards. But it's also possible film footage of the apparatus being explained might have been interspersed between the text. I doubt Houdini would have showed himself being raised above the cell or lowered inside, as that would spoil what was to come.

    Below is what might be a second mention when he was playing Keith's Theater in Boston in 1921.

    Variety, December 23, 1921

    Showing movies were a regular part of Houdini's act at this time. These were typically of an outdoor stunt or his 1909 short The Adventures of Houdini in Paris (or both). I've seen many mentions of these in reviews. But apart from the above, I've never read any mention of this Water Torture Cell movie. Did these reviewers get their notes scrambled? Or did other reviewers feel it not necessary to mention what was just an explanatory film?

    The possibility of any kind of Water Torture Cell film footage is exciting, so this is one to hold out hope for, if only to see it in our minds.

    Related:

    Tuesday, February 5, 2019

    Adolphe Menjou was almost the first Houdini


    In 1932, RKO was going to make a movie based on Houdini's life called Now You See It, written by Houdini's friend and fellow spirit buster Fulton Oursler. It was not strictly a biopic as the main character was called Harry Pinetti. But events in Pinetti's life, such as becoming trapped under the ice of frozen lake and exposing fake spirit mediums, would leave little doubt in anyone's mind that this was the story of Houdini.

    I covered the development of Now You See It at length in 2010. In fact, it was my first real research scoop here on WILD ABOUT HARRY. But recently I found the following item in the November 12, 1932 issue of Hollywood Filmgraph that shows the movie came even closer to being made than I had thought. In that year the studio signed actor Adolphe Menjou to play Pinetti/Houdini.


    It was later reported that Menjou was being coached in magic by Walter Baker, who had originated what became the famous Tarbell Course in Magic. When the Harrisburg Telegraph picked up the news on December 28, they recalled their days with the real Houdini.


    Now You See It was never made and marked the first of many Houdini projects developed and then abandoned by Hollywood. That finally changed in 1953 when Paramount released the classic Houdini with Tony Curtis in the lead.

    Adolphe Menjou had a long career, appearing in both silent and sound films such as Valentino's The Sheik, The Front Page (in which he was nominated for an Oscar), and the original A Star Is Born with Janet Gaynor. He was also a stanch Republican who cooperated with Senator Joseph McCarthy's House on Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s. Menjou died on October 29, 1963.

    For more on Now You See It check out my two-part posts below.

    Related:

    'Houdini Unlocking His Secrets' on Amazon Prime

    The 1995 television special Houdini: Unlocking His Secrets is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video. The only catch is that's dubbed in Spanish (but you can turn on English subtitles).

    The show featured modern magicians performing Houdini's feats intercut with biographical information. It's a well-done special with excellent performances and some nice Houdini photos and film footage. I covered the show in depth HERE.

    Houdini: Unlocking His Secrets was released on VHS in 1996, but it never made it to DVD. So this is one way to see this rare Houdini program.


    Related:

    Monday, February 4, 2019

    Mystifier, Second Quarter 1996

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


    The Second Quarter 1996 Mystifier is made up largely of a very fine article by Edwin A. Dawes about Houdini and The Magicians' Club in England. Houdini was president of the club from its founding in 1911 to his death. The article is a treasure trove of information about the various Magicians' Club events that Houdini attended, including this gem about a 1920 dinner honoring Houdini officiated by The Great Raymond.

    Will Goldston claimed in his book Sensational Tales of Mystery Men (1929) that Houdini detested Maurice Raymond and, when he learned that Raymond was the occupy the Chair at this particular function, at first refused to accept any presentation from him. It took Goldston's powers of persuasion to get Houdini to allow Raymond to officiate. Even then Goldston had to reprint the tickets to placate Houdini who insisted that "The Great Raymond" be replaced with "M.F. Raymond" because "he's not great at all."

    According to Milbourne Christopher in Houdini The Untold Story (1969), the antipathy had been aroused years previously when Raymond ordered a Water Can escape from Ornum, a British manufacture, without seeking Houdini's permission. However, Raymond apologized and at the dinner presumably made ample amends by declaiming in his speech, "Harry Houdini was born, as I was, under the Stars and Stripes. He saw them a little ahead of me and he had been ahead of me ever since."

    The newsletter continues with a photo of the newly installed "Harry Houdini Family" inscription on the Wall of Honor at Ellis Island in New York City. Getting Houdini's name on the wall was due to the efforts of HHC member Paul Rosen. Among the "New Members" are Lance Burton and Dean Gunnarson.

    The newsletter only runs four pages this time, but tipped into each member's issue was a letter from HHC Executive Director Steven M. Wilson announcing that the Mind Over Magic exhibition, announced in the previous issue, is being postponed (indefinitely, as it would turn out). Wilson explains that "concerns began to surface about the many directions the project could take, and whether the exhibit was right for our audiences needs."

    Sid Radner starts off his "Backstage" column with an amusing look at people he has encountered who have legally changed their names to "Harry Houdini." [We have a regular reader here named "Harry Houdini." Is he one of the folks Sid mentions?] Sid then announces that Houdini Comes To America by Ronald J. Hilgert will be the first HHC publication and will be limited to 300 signed copies.

    Sid finishes with a promise to reveal details on Ken Silverman's upcoming book and the recently completed Houdini documentary in the next issues. He signs off with: "Houdini Lives!"

    Mystifier
    Volume 6, Number 2
    Second Quarter, 1996
    4 pages

    Contents:
    Houdini and the Magicians' Club
    Houdini Family Named on Wall of Honor
    Backstage with Sid Radner

    PREVIOUS ISSUE | INDEX | NEXT ISSUE

    Related:

    Sunday, February 3, 2019

    Houdini's last lecture

    Joe Notaro at Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence has a taken a deep dive into Houdini's final lecture at the McGill University Student Union. The topic was spiritualism and these are his last recorded words on the subject (spoiler alert: he was still a skeptic). Below are Joe's posts.


    Joe recently visited the former student union building in Montreal, which today is the McCord Museum. Coincidentally, the McCord received a large donation of Houdini material in 2015. So Houdini is still speaking to us from that space! Believe.

    Related:

    Saturday, February 2, 2019

    This is Houdini on October 14, 1926

    We are all familiar with these photos of Houdini giving a radio address. To my knowledge, the location and date has never been identified. But while browsing the New York Heritage Digital Collections, I discovered these high res versions with full identification, and it's kind of a big deal!

    This is Houdini doing a radio broadcast at WGY in Schenectady, New York, on October 14, 1926. You'll even note "WGY" in the right corner, which has always been cropped out of printed versions. This is a mere 17 days before his death. That suddenly puts these images in the running as being the last photos of Houdini.


    This was the middle of a split week for Houdini. He has just completed a four day engagement at the Capitol Theater in Albany, where he had broken his ankle in the Water Torture Cell (so we can assume he's wearing a splint under the table). October 14 was the first of three days at the Van Curler Theater in Schenectady. He was then off to Montreal and his encounter with J. Gordon Whitehead, which would occur just 8 days after these photos were taken.

    The current generally accepted "last photo" of Houdini appears on page 179 of NOTES to Houdini!!! by Ken Silverman. It shows Houdini flagging the start of an auto race in Worcester, MA. But he was in Worcester a full two weeks before these photos. There's also this recent candidate [click for update], but unless this turns out to be Montreal instead of New York (as it's credited), these Schenectady photos beat that as well.

    So what do we think? With all our searching and obsessing on what could be Houdini's last photo, has it been right in front of our eyes this whole time?

    The publisher of these images is miSci - Museum of Innovation and Science and are used here for educational purposes.

    UPDATE: Here's something I just came across. In the February 23, 1942 issue of Broadcasting, WGY took out this full page ad celebrating 20 years in business. Spot a familiar photo here?

    Click to enlarge.

    Related:

    Friday, February 1, 2019

    WILD ABOUT HARRY January 2019 in review

    I'm always concerned that the volume and speed of posts here on WILD ABOUT HARRY causes people to miss something they might have otherwise enjoyed. I post (almost) daily, but I certainly can't expect people to visit daily. So here's a rundown of posts by category that I've shared during this first month of 2019. As you can see, we're off to a WILD year!

    Houdini History
    Houdini in 1919
    Holy smokes! Thirty minutes of largely unseen Houdini film surfaces
    Houdini hangs at the Palace
    Bill Rauscher on Arthur Ford and the Houdini Code
    Hanging with Houdini
    A gift between Circumnavigators
    A new photo from Hardeen's Medium Well Done
    Houdini's Berlin bridge jump footage described
    Was Houdini a chauvinist?
    Bess leaves the act in 1908
    Houdini arrives in Los Angeles
    Here's Houdini's rarely seen aviation trophy today
    Houdini said he first did Buried Alive in 1908
    The Landrah Corporation?

    Houdini's Last Secrets
    Houdini's Last Secrets premieres tonight
    No, that's NOT the secret of Houdini's Water Torture Cell (review)
    Houdini's Last Secrets available for purchase online
    Houdini's Last Secrets episode 2 hits the mark (review)
    Facebook Live chat with George Hardeen today
    George Hardeen talks Houdini and television
    Houdini's Last Secrets episode 3 unlocks the Carette (review)
    Houdini's Last Secrets episode 4 unearths Buried Alive (review)
    Houdini's Last Secrets airs in the UK starting Feb. 6

    Media
    "Howlin' from the Houdini Hole" in Austin, Jan. 19
    Wait, Houdini is in Holmes & Watson???
    Listen to me on Dark Sun Rising tonight at 10 EST
    Minerva vs. Houdini in new play
    Prince Ea on Houdini and the prison of the mind

    Books
    Joe Posnanski has finished his Houdini book

    Exhibitions
    Houdini plays Atlanta in 1912...and 2019!
    Jewish Museum of Maryland's farewell to Houdini

    Mystifier File
    Mystifier, First Quarter 1996

    Auctions
    What's wrong with this picture?
    There's a skilled Houdini forger out there

    Links
    LINK: Houdini’s great-nephew seeks secrets to the magic in new TV show
    LINK: Unknown Houdini Illusion for the 1927 tour
    LINK: How Harry Houdini might have pulled off his most daring trick

    Other
    4000 posts
    Houdini's Last Secrets Episode Guide (new page)

    If people like this idea of a monthly review post, let me know in the Comments and I will make it a regular feature.

    Thursday, January 31, 2019

    The Landrah Corporation?

    Here's a mystery for the end of the month. This appeared in the November 12, 1924 issue of The Film Daily and shows Houdini formed something called the "Landrah Corporation" that year. I have no idea what this was!


    The only other reference I can find is a similar incorporation notice in the October 29, 1924 issue of Variety. This one is harder to read, but it does give a touch more information, including that the business is related to "pictures."


    By 1924 Houdini was putting movies behind him, so it seems odd for him to be starting any new "picture" enterprise. Or maybe this has something to do with the dissolution of his various movie companies?

    This is as deep as I've gone, so I figured I'd throw it out to the research wolves. Another Houdini mystery to chew on!

    Related:

    Wednesday, January 30, 2019

    Houdini's Last Secrets airs in the UK starting Feb. 6

    The 4-part series Houdini's Last Secrets will air on the Discovery Channel in the UK starting next Wednesday, February 6, 2019. Discovery can be found on Sky 125, Virgin 250, and BT TV 322.


    The series, which just completed airing in the U.S., investigates Houdini's Water Torture Cell, Bullet Catch, Carette escape, and Buried Alive.

    Thanks to Allan Taylor (who can be seen in episode 3) for the alert.

    Related:

    Tuesday, January 29, 2019

    Houdini said he first did Buried Alive in 1908


    On February 23, Potter & Potter will auction the first part of The Magic Collection of Jim Rawlins. Jim is a very nice guy who has a formidable collection, including some very nice Houdini items. Jim recently shared selections from his collection in two videos on his YouTube channel.

    While I encourage you to watch both videos in full, what will be of special interest to Houdini nuts is what Jim shares at 15:30 in the below video. It's a signed copy of Miracle Mongers and Their Methods in which Houdini states he first performed the Buried Alive in Berlin in 1908! [Jim also blogged about this last year.]


    I'm always leery of accepting any date from Houdini, especially when written from a distance (this was written in May 1926). However, 1908 makes sense as Houdini spent two months at the Circus Busch in Berlin. Saying that he rebuilt the apparatus in 1916 gives me some pause as it seems logical the rebuild would have happened in conjunction with the poster he had made in 1914. But I don't think we have any reason to doubt Houdini here. He performed the Buried Alive much earlier than anyone thought.

    Houdini saying that he still has the apparatus changes how I think we should perceive his 1926 Buried Alive. Far from being a "new" effect developed for his new season, it appears it was an old effect he was dusting off. This is likely because the publicity windfall he received for the Shelton Pool Test suddenly made adding Buried Alive to the 3 Shows In One a great idea. In fact, you can almost imagine him getting that idea right after he writes this inscription.

    This find also illustrates something I've been thinking about lately. Houdini's performances in Germany are a historical blind spot. Houdini spent a lot of time in Germany, and his engagements would last for months in a single theater. This gave him time to build apparatus and try out new ideas. But we know almost nothing about these German performances, probably because the newspaper accounts and playbills are all in German! But here's an indication of what we've been missing.

    This particular book is not part of this first Potter auction of Jim's collection. For more information and to view the catalog visit Potter & Potter Auctions. Jim also sells items direct at his website Magic Collectibles.

    Thanks to Joe Fox for this tip.

    Related:

    Monday, January 28, 2019

    Houdini's Last Secrets ep. 4 unearths Buried Alive


    Houdini's Last Secrets goes out on a positive note with an investigation of Buried Alive. This was a good choice of subject for the final episode. Apart from two posters, very little is known about this feat, so it was not only interesting to see how Houdini might have accomplished the escape, but it was interesting just to see how he might have presented it in the first place!

    One can easily get buried in the history of Buried Alive as there were multiple versions. The show does a nice job of separating Houdini ill-fated outside buried alive stunt and his later stage-bound version. (They avoid the Shelton Pool Test.) The episode sticks with the conventional wisdom that Houdini never performed his stage-bound version. But in recent years, evidence has surfaced that shows he actually did perform it at least twice at the start of his 1926-27 season.

    Interviews are again a highlight. This time George Hardeen visits Antony Britton in England, who attempted the outdoor casket-free buried alive and, like Houdini, nearly died. Roger Dryer shows us his magnificent Houdini Museum of New York which holds a casket Houdini escaped from in 1907 (unburied). It's a treat to see David Merlini and his own House of Houdini museum in Budapest, Hungary. I don't believe David has appeared in a Houdini documentary before, but his knowledge of Houdini history and his first hand experience with escapes--including being buried alive--make him an ideal interview subject. Finally, we get to see the mighty Arthur Moses in his own temple of Houdiniana in Fort Worth. Arthur handles his Houdini history with great authority.

    In fact, this episode is probably the best yet as far as Houdini history is concerned, expanding it with mentions of his movie career and crusade against fraudulent spirit mediums. The idea that George is uncovering the story of his great uncle for himself and the audience is best realized in this episode. Of course, it wouldn't be "reality" TV without talk of a murder conspiracy! But the episode doesn't go too deeply into this and is not significantly derailed by it.

    But the meat of the episode is the Buried Alive itself. Steve Wolf at Stunt Ranch constructs a theoretical version of Houdini's stage apparatus for magician Lee Terbosic to attempt. Both the conception and method is ingenious, and because we don't even know exactly how Houdini presented it, there's no danger of exposure. But in bringing the escape to life, one can appreciate how it was an effective stunt, and maybe even a lost Houdini masterpiece. So the episode has provided a real service to Houdini history by showing us what may have been.


    Overall, this series turned out to be a mixed bag. It contained a disappointing amount of speculative hokum about Houdini being a spy at the expense of a more fact based exploration of his life. But the team's investigations and recreations of Houdini's feats were all very well done, and the series provided great interviews with fresh faces. And above all, it was respectful to Houdini and made him ever more fascinating!

    It also did not turn out to be an exposure show as many had feared. They did indeed successfully ride the line between exposure and investigation, and in the case of a few genuine secrets, such as the Water Torture Cell, they went out of their way to protect the real method. So I'd say this series was a cut above and a worthy addition to the growing list of Houdini documentaries. I would be happy to see a second season.

    The complete Season One of Houdini's Last Secrets is available for purchase at Amazon and iTunes.

    If you're interested in more information on Buried Alive, check out the below links:

      Sunday, January 27, 2019

      LINK: How Harry Houdini might have pulled off his most daring trick

      This is a bit of a spoiler for tonight's fourth and final episode of Houdini's Last Secrets, but it's a good article by Mental Floss (an excellent website) with some nice details about the team's Buried Alive build. Click the headline to have a read.

      Stunt expert Steve Wolf considers the buried alive illusion Houdini's most daring trick. "The margin for failure on that is zero," Wolf tells Mental Floss.

      Houdini's Last Secrets airs on the Science Channel and the SciGO app. You can also stream episodes at their website or purchase the series at Amazon and iTunes.

      I'll share my review of episode 4 tomorrow.

      Related:

      Saturday, January 26, 2019

      Here's Houdini's rarely seen aviation trophy today

      Last Sunday I had the great pleasure of spending the morning with Eric Colleary who curates the Houdini Collections (and more) at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Eric and his team recently spent two years cataloging their massive Houdini holdings, making many discoveries in the process.

      While returning from brunch at The Magic Castle, Eric mentioned that the Center has an aviation award that Houdini received. I instantly thought of the photo in Houdini's pitchbook of the trophy he received from The Aerial League of Australia for being the first man to fly on that continent (right). I've never seen this trophy outside of that one photo, and I've always believed it to be a lost piece of Houdini memorabilia, so this was exciting! But Eric said theirs was not a standup trophy, it was a wall hanging plaque, and that it mentions the Wright Bros. (?) So it didn't sound like we were talking about the same thing. But I was still intrigued to know what this could be, and so was Eric.

      So before we said goodbye, we both pulled out our phones and started searching. I brought up the familiar pic from the pitchbook while Eric pulled up a photo from their database.

      And my jaw hit the floor!


      This is indeed Houdini's Australian Aviation Award, which is not so lost and quite different from what I've always thought it to be. As you can see, it's not a standup trophy as the pitchbook photo makes it appear. What's even more interesting is Houdini appears to have mounted it inside a frame with a label noting that "In the Competition to win this Trophy HOUDINI had to defeat a Wright Bros. Flier & Bleriot Monoplane."

      I believe this was used as part of a theater display as the typography on the label matches others I have seen (notably in a photo of a Houdini window display in Silverman, credited to the Ransom Center). It's also interesting that Houdini felt the need to enhance his accomplishment by making it clear that he had beat others for the prize.

      Making this discovery was a great way to end our morning. I told Eric if we could accomplish this sitting in my car in Los Angeles, just imagine the damage we could do at the Ransom Center itself! We're both hoping that day will come sooner than later.


      Thank you to Eric and the Harry Ransom Center for letting me share this photo of Houdini's rarely seen Australian Aviation Award. The Houdini Collections are open to the public and available via finding aids at the Ransom Center website.

      Related:

      Friday, January 25, 2019

      Houdini arrives in Los Angeles

      Arthur Moses sends over this gem of photo that I've never seen before. This shows Houdini arriving in Los Angeles on April 20, 1919 to begin work on The Grim Game.


      This comes from the Exhibitors Trade Review, May 17, 1919, which also contains the following report.

      Houdini in California 
      Harry Houdini, monarch of mystery, has arrived in Hollywood, CAL., where he started work immediately at the Lasky studio under the direction of Irvin Willat in the big six-reel mystery picture written specially for him by Arthur B. Reeve, author of the "Craig Kennedy" stories, and John Grey. 
      Houdini was met at the Santa Fe station in Los Angeles by Studio Manager Fred Kley and others, including a number of newspaper and publicity men who had been lying in wait for him with a number of stunts of extrication which they figured he would be unable to perform. They wasted no time in setting the famous escape artist to work, but he managed to wriggle out of every single one of the schemes they had prepared for him.

      What I especially like is this tells us the train station where Houdini arrived. The Santa Fe station (or La Grande Station) was located on 2nd Avenue and Santa Fe and was the main passenger terminal in Los Angeles before Union Station opened in 1939. It was demolished in 1946.


      Thank you Arthur.

      Related:

      Joe Posnanski has finished his Houdini book

      Joe Posnanski has officially completed his Houdini book. Joe shared the news today on Twitter.


      You can pre-order The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. This promises to be the Houdini book event of 2019.

      Related:

      Thursday, January 24, 2019

      Prince Ea on Houdini and the prison of the mind

      Here's a well done motivational meme by spoken word artist Prince Ea that uses Houdini as a way to illustrate the hazard of "overthinking" a situation. In the clip reenactments, Houdini is played by Andrew Morrison.



      Ea adds some embellishments, such as locating this in the South and saying a condition of Houdini's jail breaks was that he had be dressed in his street clothes. But that is not correct. Houdini would famously allow himself to be strip searched and do his jail escapes in the nude, as he would have been here.

      So did this really happen? That's not clear. This was a story Houdini would tell himself, but sometimes the context would be a safe, not a jail cell. So like Ea, it appears Houdini might have used the story of the lock that was never locked as a parable. I do like how the video subtly implies that the jailer purposely left the door unlocked, perhaps to deliver the boastful Houdini this important life lesson.

      As to the message itself... In general, I'm not a fan of motivation speaking and its tendency to eschew practical advice in favor of magical thinking. The fact is 99% of the doors Houdini encountered were locked, and he opened those with hard work and study. "My brain is the key that sets me free," he was fond of saying.

      However, as I watched this, I remembered a clipping from the April 11, 1924 Asbury Park Press, which suggests Houdini did share a belief in the power of thought, so...


      Below are a few more links to Houdini-themed motivational works.

      Related:

      Wednesday, January 23, 2019

      Bess leaves the act in 1908

      Today is Bess Houdini's birthday. She was born January 23, 1876 in Brooklyn, New York. For the occasion, I thought I'd share a piece of information I only recently discovered. I've always wondered when Bess officially left the act. This clipping from the June 13, 1908 issue of Variety finally provided the answer.

      Variety June 13, 1908

      Bess made a brief comeback in 1914 doing Metamorphosis in the short-lived Grand Magical Revue. Houdini wrote in his diary that she was "magnificent" and "working as though she never retired." Bess would then periodically return to assist her husband on special occasions, such as a 1922 S.A.M. banquet attended by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle where the Houdinis used his coat during Metamorphosis.

      In 1925, Bess returned and became a full-time part of Houdini's 3 Shows in One. In fact, she was so much a part of the show, she even had her own poster.


      Happy birthday Bess!

      Related:

      Tuesday, January 22, 2019

      Was Houdini a chauvinist?

      In the new play, Minerva–Queen of the Handcuffs, Houdini, played by Richard Lee Hsi (right), is portrayed as the villain; representative of the chauvinistic attitudes toward women at the time. Playwright Ron Pearson says: "It gave me an opportunity to cast him as the symbol for all of the barriers and inequality that women had to endure at the turn of the twentieth century, particularly female performers."

      The play has received positive reviews, and I think Minerva is an inspired choice of subject and a great symbol for the ongoing struggle for women's equality in all fields. But is it fair to characterize the real Houdini as an impediment in this struggle?

      Houdini was a man of his time and I think we can assume he possessed a certain level of male chauvinism that was endemic in society. And there was the crack he made at the male only Circumnavigators Club that he gave up aviation "when women took it up." So he's not without fault.

      But Houdini also worked alongside women his entire career. Vaudeville had as many female performers as male. And remember that Bess was an equal part of the act for many years. In fact, it was Bess who suggested they change the name from "The Houdinis" to just "Houdini" because she felt they'd do better. And far from being aghast at the idea of a female escape artist, in reality, Houdini backed his own, Miss Trixy (Wanda Timm). Of course, this was done to undermine another female escapist, Miss Undina, who was doing an imitation of his Water Torture Cell. But women in magic did not surprise or offend him. In fact, he revered the reigning female magician of the day, Adelaide Herrmann.

      Coincidentally, here's something I discovered just this week that suggests Houdini may have been very progressive in how his saw women in business. He had a female agent. It was the trailblazing Jenie Jacobs, said to have been one of only two female vaudeville booking agents in the world at that time (the other being in Russia). Heck, Jenie Jacobs might make an interesting subject of a play herself! (I'll have more on Jenie and Houdini in a future post.)

      Finally, I'm always drawn to Houdini accepting a challenge from Suffragettes in England in 1908 (the playbill to the right is from my own collection). Make no mistake, this was a political statement at this time. There were street battles with police and bombings in the name of women's suffrage (the right to vote). Many characterized the Suffragettes as dangerous radicals. Houdini accepting their challenge, advertising them, and bringing them on stage, along with a committee of 30 women, was showing a measure of solidarity. He was presenting them as equals to the police, military officers, or tradesmen who normally stepped onto his stage to challenge him. It's maybe telling that Variety warned, "This portion of the show would not be enjoyed by a New York audience."

      Now, I think it fine for playwrights to employ dramatic license and use Houdini in whatever symbolic way they want. Houdini has even been portrayed as a serial killer! But we're in an era when people take their facts from fiction, and we've seen how fictions can catch fire. So I think it's worth pointing out that the real Houdini was no enemy or barrier to women. And in the cases of Jenie Jacobs and the Suffragettes, it could be said he was an aid to their empowerment.

      As for his hostility toward Minerva... Hey, he was treating her just as he did the many male escape artists that infringed on his act. An equal offender.


      Minerva–Queen of the Handcuffs is now playing at Theatre Network in Edmonton, Canada, through January 27. For more information and to buy tickets visit the Theatre Network website.

      Photos by Marc J. Chalifoux.

      Related:

        Monday, January 21, 2019

        4000 posts

        Just a quick time out to say that I've now clocked 4000 posts here on WILD ABOUT HARRY (well, 4001 with this). You might think I'd be tired? Nope! At the moment, I'm working on so many cool posts (43 in draft form) and have so many avenues of research I've yet to explore, I'm actually overwhelmed. I truly feel that I'm still just at the beginning of this amazing journey through Houdini history.

         Thanks to everyone for the support!

        Houdini's Last Secrets episode 3 unlocks the Carette


        The third episode of Houdini's Last Secrets investigates the Siberian Transport Prison Van escape in Moscow in 1903. This is an ideal subject for this type of series, and it was the episode I was most looking forward to.

        Unfortunately, the history in this episode is as misleading as its title: "Siberian Prison Conspiracy." It's a jumble of fact, fiction, and speculation, all twisted together in support of the central idea that Houdini was in Russia working as a spy. Yes, we're back to that. This is a heart breaker after the very good episode 2 which stuck to the facts and showed what this series can be.

        But if we set the pseudohistory aside, there are aspects of this episode that are very enjoyable, and it may have even helped settle a controversy about the carette escape that has lingered for decades.

        Once again, a highlight are several fine interviews with fresh faces. We get to visit Ken Trombly who shares a rare original Russian playbill from his incredible collection. David Saltman talks about Houdini in Russia and offers some speculation about spy work. It's especially nice to see Rebecca Taylor, whose father, David De-Val, repeated many of Houdini's jail breaks. I love how they teased but didn't show her father's all-important "Gimmick X". And master locksmith Steve Sharp provides some interesting insight into lock picking. Getting into the mechanics of lock picking was one of the aspects of this episode I enjoyed the most.

        Meanwhile, Steve Wolf at Stunt Ranch reconstructs a carette for Lee Terbosic to attempt an escape. It's exciting to see this legendary vehicle take form, although I would have expected there to have been some debate about the window size, which is key to the escape and a controversial aspect of the famous poster. In fact, there are a several things the show sidesteps to make their theories work, but that's fine.

        In the end, Lee attempts the escape, and here's where the show might have provided a service to Houdini history. Houdini himself admitted that he picked the lock on the carette door. But the 1931 book, The Secrets of Houdini, claimed he actually cut through the zinc floor. This dramatic escape method became popular with biographers and appears in many books, although it was always doubted by the best, such as Milbourne Christopher, Ken Silverman, and Pat Culliton.

        Now here we get to see the theory put to the test as Lee attempts to cut through the same zinc floor with his smuggled tool. He quickly discovers it's impossible in the allotted time. It would take hours or maybe days to accomplish. So at least this episode puts one myth to rest. Houdini did not cut his way out of the carette.

        But how then does Lee escape? Or did he escape? I will leave that for you to discover.


        Houdini's Last Secrets airs on the Science Channel and the SciGO app. You can also stream episodes at their website or purchase the series at Amazon and iTunes.

        If you're interested in more information on Houdini's Siberian Transport Van escape and other topics touched on in this episode, check out the below links:

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