Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Preparations are being made

Captain George K. Home of the Los Angeles Police Department is "testing Houdini's ribs" to make sure he is fit to begin another WILD year. Will he pass the test? Come back tomorrow and find out!


Monday, December 16, 2019

Wrapping up 2019

It's time for me to take my end of year break and wrap up the first decade of WILD ABOUT HARRY. What a year 2019 has been! It all started with Houdini Last Secrets, moved into some wonderful Grim Game centennial celebrations, and ended with Joe Posnanski's new book. I also had a blast doing some historical deep dives, and my New Houdini Chronology is coming along nicely. And let's not forgot how we all got a shot at owning a piece of 278.

Have a safe and happy holiday season. I will see you all in 2020 for what will be WILD ABOUT HARRY's 10th year online!

2019 in Review:
May 2019 in review (30 posts)
June 2019 in review (26 posts)
July 2019 in review (28 posts)

December 2019 in review

Here's a rundown of posts by category that appeared on WILD ABOUT HARRY in December.

Most Viewed Post
Guest Blog: A modern day Transport Cell challenge

Houdini History
Houdini KOs Willard in the Record
Houdini at Chapel Hill (and in my home)
Houdini's troupe seeks new work in 1926
The Chattanooga debacle

ETHER at the iRT in New York, December 19-22
Houdini and his collection are reunited at the Harry Ransom Center
Joe Posnanski talks Houdini at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, Dec. 12
Talking Houdini in Boston with Bradley Jay, Dec. 19
Christmas screening of Houdini (1953) at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee

Houdini and the Doctor reunite in STAR TALES

The Houdinis 1902 Christmas card rings in $3,120
Vintage police whistle found inside 278

Mystifier File
Mystifier, Second Quarter 2000

The great debate
The New Houdini Chronology year end update
Preparations are being made

Sunday, December 15, 2019

The New Houdini Chronology year end update

Here's a year end update on my chronology project. While I no longer offer the chronology online, know that I'm continuing the work and it's growing into something truly spectacular. My plan remains to eventually publish it in a book, the exact form of which I've not yet entirely figured out. But it will be the Houdini book of my dreams.

However, to make this chronology as complete as possible, there's still work to be done. I hoping to mine some key archives and collections in the course of the new year. I really believe I'm building a monumental resource for historians, collectors, libraries, museums, and more. So rest assured, The New Houdini Chronology continues to grow and one day it will be in everyone's hands.

And in the meantime, I'm always happy to provide an assist to serious researchers who are looking to locate Houdini in a specific time and place. Chances are I have what you need. Contact me.

Vintage police whistle found inside 278

Today I planned on posting my 2019 wrap up and begin my year end break, but then the owners of Houdini's 278 sent me this photo of a mystery artifact discovered by their contractor. While the words "Regulation Police" would make one hope this could be part of a lock or handcuff, it actually appears this is half of an old police whistle.

Below are examples of some intact police whistles. Interestingly, in searching vintage whistles on eBay, I see the words "Regulation Police" appeared on many German whistles.

Why would Houdini (or the Bonannos) have a police whistle in their home? Might it have been for protection -- an early form of 911? But why is this one cut in half? Could it have been used as part of some spiritualist chicanery?

Please share any ideas or insights you might have in the comments below. One last mystery for 2019!


Saturday, December 14, 2019

The Houdinis 1902 Christmas card rings in $3,120

The Houdinis 1902 Christmas card--the earliest card that I'm aware of--sold today in Potter and Potter's "Winter Magic Auction" auction for a jolly $3,120 (including buyers premium). It's a beautiful and uncommon card with a terrific photo of the young Harry and Bess. It handily beat the auction estimate of $800 - $1,200.

Notice that Bess is wearing her famous Royal Crown Brooch in this photo. This pretty much closes the door on the idea that she received this as a gift from Russian royalty as the Houdinis sent out this card four months before they ever traveled to Russia.

The auction also included a few very nice Houdini movie related lots. One was comprised of a letter on Houdini Picture Corporation stationary and a terrific unpublished photo from The Man From Beyond from the Milbourne Christopher collection. It sold for $2,280. The other was a letter and stock certificate framed with a photo of Houdini and Bess with director Scott Sidney at Inceville in Los Angeles in 1915. It took $3,840.

But the big ticket Houdini item was a locked book that Remigius Weiss used to expose the medium Henry Slade in 1882. Weiss later presented the book to Houdini who wrote about it in A Magician Among the Spirits. The auction lot included letters of provenance from Oscar Teale and Jack Flosso, whose father acquired the book from Joe Dunninger. The Houdini-Slade-Weiss Locked Book unlocked $12,000 (including premium).

Congrats to the buyers.


The great debate

As I wind down 2019, I couldn't resist offering up my own version of this viral meme. One only a Houdini nut might appreciate.


Friday, December 13, 2019

Christmas screening of Houdini (1953) at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee

As part of their Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini programing, the Jewish Museum Milwaukee will screen Paramount's classic 1953 biopic Houdini starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh on Christmas Day.

Looking for something fun to do Christmas Day? Come to Jewish Museum Milwaukee to enjoy Houdini, the 1953 biopic starring then husband-and-wife Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh as Harry and Bess Houdini.

The film’s storyline is a fictionalized account of Houdini’s life. It details his beginnings as a locksmith, up through his international success as a world-renowned escape artist and stage magician. Following the death of his mother, he exposes various fraudulent Mediums in the spiritualist movement, while always hoping to make contact with her. The film also follows his love for his wife Bess Houdini and his most dangerous stunts and stage illusions.

We will begin screening the film at 1:00 pm and should end before 3:00 pm, giving you enough time to view permanent and special exhibits before or after the film.

Regular Museum Admission Applies | Members FREE

For more information visit the museum's official website. Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini runs through January 5, 2020.


    Wednesday, December 11, 2019

    The Chattanooga debacle

    My last historical post of 2019 is a story never before told. Enjoy.

    In the Fall of 1924, Houdini embarked on an eight-week lecture tour exposing the methods of fraudulent spirit mediums. His schedule was tightly packed with single nights in many cities where he had never appeared before. This caused great excitement in those communities. But it also sometimes caused confusion as to what kind of "show" Houdini was going to present. Nowhere was this confusion more pronounced than in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on November 17.

    Houdini's tour was booked by the Affiliated Lyceum circuit who arranged his accommodations and fees. Many of his appearances where co-sponsored by a local civic organization or charity who would promote the talk, arrange the venue, and sell tickets. In Chattanooga, the Optimists Club took up that task.

    At their October 28th meeting, Optimist chairman Prof. John H. Sherman said he was a personal friend of Houdini's and had recently visited the magician at his New York home. He noted Houdini had a "deep sense of obligation to the general public in preventing the growth of spiritualism." The newly constructed Memorial Auditorium, capable of holding up to 5000 people, was selected as the venue. Two members, D.S. Riddle ad A.B. Adams, were appointed "captains of two opposing teams" in charge of securing a large turnout. Proceeds would go toward improvements to the Bonny Oaks Arboretum and the building of wading pools in the cities playgrounds.

    On November 11 the Chattanooga Daily Times ran the first of several ads promising something that sounded more akin to a spook show than a lecture:

    H O U D I N I
    Will produce the spirits of the dead; bring messages from them; materialize and dematerialize their ghosts; cause them to speak and play musical instruments and write messages in mid-air; cause tables to lose weight and flat about in the air over the audience without visible support; and do all other feats usually ascribed to occult power;––and then will frankly show and explain exactly how these things are done.

    More that 1,500 tickets sold in the first four hours. For days the papers ran ads promising "Thrills Galore!" and "The Greatest Event of the Season." Still being the segregated south, the ads also promised "a large section reserved for the colored people." The Optimists came up with the novel idea of placing boxes on the streets where people could drop questions for Houdini to answer during his open Q&A session.

    Even the custodian of the Memorial Auditorium, W. J. Patterson, was swept up in the hype, telling the papers that he had once seen Houdini escape from a riveted boiler in Youngstown, and the magician was "sure to do such marvelous things" at his Hall.

    Meanwhile, Prof. Sherman continued to be Houdini's greatest booster. He announced Houdini would "summon the same ghost which nearly converted famous Teddy [Roosevelt] to spiritualism." He also prepared his fellow Optimists for the sheer force of Houdini's physical presence:

    Prof. Sherman stated yesterday Houdini possess a magnetic personality, and that his head is the largest he has ever seen atop a human body. He has large black eyes, which seem to look right through any one he is addressing and Prof. Sherman is of the opinion he hypnotizes more than half of the people he meets.

    Bess was ill when the Houdinis arrived in Chattanooga on November 16th. Because of this, several "social courtesies which had been planned for the entertainment of the distinguished visitors" were cancelled. But she was well enough to attend a luncheon the following day at the Optimists clubhouse and join Houdini and Prof. Sherman for an automobile tour of the city.

    The night of November 17 found the Memorial Auditorium filled to capacity with 5000 Chattanoogans expecting what had been hyped for days as a supernatural wonderama of thrills. Instead what they got was Houdini's standard spiritualism lecture in which he spoke at length about the history of spiritualism, showed slides, demonstrated spiritualist trickery, and answered questions. Apart from some sleight of hand "for the children", the evening was devoid of magic or escapes.

    Reviews the next day give a good sense of just how badly it went. Under the headline, HOUDINI'S SHOW DISAPPOINTMENT, the Chattanooga Daily Times wrote: "Houdini's performance is interesting and of value to those who seek the truth for a scientific viewpoint, but those who enjoyed it from that angle were in woeful minority last night." The Chattanooga News reported that Houdini "did not appear to understand the temper of his audience and was slightly resentful of the voice from the gallery that demanded, 'Where is my watch.'"

    The much ballyhooed public question box was not part of the evening. But by that time, Houdini appears to have all but lost his audience. "His open forum proved a dismal failure as so many people were leaving that nothing could be heard," reported the News.

    But it wasn't all bad. Houdini's demonstration of how a medium rings bells under a table using a popular local man named Jo Anderson as his "goat" drew laughs and "the one genuine bit of applause from his audience." Still, the Times complained that this demonstration was "hardly spooky." The evening had been a debacle.

    Professor Sherman went into damage control, offering the papers a hasty explanation:

    The illness of Mrs. Houdini necessitated the elimination of some of the stunts. The size of the hall caused Houdini to drop the usual practice of doing his tricks in the dark first and then exposing them; while the distance and inadequate spot-lighting facilities necessitated dropping the needle-swallowing tricks and the shots of W.T. Stead, both of which had been specially promised and both of which he gives in smaller houses.

    Ironically, Houdini had included a selection of magic and escapes, including the Milk Can, in his earliest lectures. But he found this too caused confusion and bad reviews for a "show" that seemed to included far too much talk about spiritualism. Nevertheless, Houdini was well aware of the disappointment in Chattanooga. He wrote in his diary: "Times panned me. Expected escapes." At his Johnson City lecture two nights later, he included a challenge straitjacket escape from the local police.

    Meanwhile, the controversy in Chattanooga was growing into a mini scandal. The Optimists felt they were receiving the blame and cried foul. They announced that all the money collected would be given to charity and an investigation would be launched. Prof. Sherman defended himself by saying he had traveled to Atlanta and Boston to review Houdini's act before recommending it. (Of course, what he would have seen was Houdini's vaudeville act, not his lecture.)

    The Times sided with the club in a tone that was becoming increasingly hostile toward the magician.

    Click to enlarge.

    Houdini himself finally felt compelled to answer in a letter to the Times on December 4. It reads in part:

    Having been a newspaper man almost all my life, and at the present time being on the staff of the New York World, I know that it is not a newspaper's policy to be unjust to anyone, but you evidently do not know you are committing a wrong when you are continuously lampooning my entertainment, which was incorrectly advertised by the Optimist club, who brought me there.
    There is no truth to the fact as given out that Mrs. Houdini's illness caused a change in my program. She positively has never appeared in any of my lectures and I will forfeit the $250 to the Community Chest, who are the ones that benefited by my appearance in Chattanooga, if anyone can show that I did not give the entertainment for which I was contracted and booked.
    Had I known that escape material was expected of me, I would have presented some in my performance, but not a soul told me and from what I was given to understand the audience was disappointed because a lecture was presented when they had been led to believe by misleading announcements, which were made without my authority, that there was to be a magical show–therefore you certainly can't blame me.

    So who was to blame for the Chattanooga debacle? While it's tempting to blame Prof. Sherman for his hyperbole, the real blame might fall on the Lyceum circuit. The Optimists claimed the description in their advertisements was provided by the circuit. Could they have felt Houdini's highbrow lecture, which went over well in big cities, needed a more sensationalistic sell in the Tennessee valley? There is evidence to support this. The advertisements in Johnson City featured the same ad copy, and even added the blatantly misleading: "This is not a lecture but a big city show."

    Houdini's letter seemed to have quelled the controversy, and what happened in Chattanooga appears to have been an anomaly. Houdini's lectures were generally well received. A week later in North Carolina the students at Chapel Hill University gave him the college yell. 

    But the Chattanooga Times did not seem to forgive, and on December 22 they gave two columns over to a diatribe by an anonymous reader attacking "self confessed fake medium Harry Weiss" for being anti-religious. Calling Houdini by his real name, and in doing so drawing attention his Judaism, was a well-known dog whistle employed by pro-spiritualists, suggesting the hostility towards Houdini might have actually been about the nature of his exposures than any failure to entertain with magic.

    But perhaps the most stinging legacy of the Chattanooga debacle appeared in a review Houdini likely never read. When Harry Blackstone brought his full evening magic show to Johnson City, the local paper gave him a rave review, ending with:

    Yes, Blackstone has a show that any theatre manager can personally guarantee with no fear that it will be a "Houdini-like" disappointment.



    Tuesday, December 10, 2019

    ETHER at the iRT in New York, December 19-22

    ETHER: The Strange Afterlife of Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by Susan I. Weinstein will make its debut at the iRT Theatre in New York City December 19-22, 2019. Below are details.

    ETHER is a play within a play, a story told with the aid of projections, puppetry, and stage magic. Doyle and Houdini’s afterlife is a continuation of a passionate personal war about the nature of life and death. Yet their worlds are contained within the afterlife–our present in abstracted media. Their wives, Bess and Lady Doyle, are aware of this, yet tethered to their husband’s worlds. They join forces to resolve the bitter conflict so all can move on. The journey starts with the origins of Houdini’s persona, his escapes and Doyle’s vocation and revelations. Together they investigate mediums, famous and infamous; Mr. Powell, Margery, Eva C and even Lady Doyle. Each instance they emerge with dramatically opposite narratives. As evidence mounts up. Subjective and objective truths erupt in a transcendent conclusion.

    For tickets and more information visit the iRT Theatre website.


    Monday, December 9, 2019

    Talking Houdini in Boston with Bradley Jay, Dec. 19

    On Wednesday, December 19, I will be a call in guest on "Jay Talking" with Bradley Jay on WBZ Newsradio 1030 AM / iHeart Radio, Boston. We'll be talking about Houdini and his connections to Boston.

    The show airs live in 38 states, M-F, 12A-5A (ET), and streams on the web via iHeart Radio and the iHeart Radio App.

    Give a listen!

    Sunday, December 8, 2019

    Houdini's troupe seeks new work in 1926

    Here is a remarkable article form the New York Daily News that ran on December 5, 1926. The article details the disbanding of Houdini's show after the magician's death and includes quotes from many members of Houdini's inner circle that we rarely see quoted, such as Jim Collins and Julia Sawyer (spelled here as Sauer). There's also mention of an assistant named Jack Arden who I've not heard of before.

    I've been struggling with how to best present this in a blog post because it's just so jam-packed with great information. I finally decided the best was just to give you the full article to read for yourselves. So click to enlarge, then right click to save to your desktop where you should be able to open it full size. Enjoy!

    Click to enlarge.

    James Collins and Jim Vickery went on to work for Hardeen in January 1927. I don't know what became of Julia Sawyer. Some assistants unnamed in this piece, such as Elliot Sanford, stayed on and helped Bess deal with Houdini's collections. But once Bess sold 278 in June 1927, the Houdini troupe appears to have disbanded for good.


    Saturday, December 7, 2019

    Houdini and his collection are reunited at the Harry Ransom Center

    Eric Colleary, Cline Curator of Theatre & Performing Arts collections at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin, gave a lecture on "Houdini the Collector" last Wednesday. Below is a shot of the stage a very nice tweet from Eric. I'm honored.

    The Houdini Collections are open to the public and available to search via finding aids at the Ransom Center website.


    Friday, December 6, 2019

    Mystifier, Second Quarter 2000

    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 2000 Mystifier kicks off with an article by curator Kimberly Louagie about Dai Vernon. Louagie states that "by far the most popular question asked in the last few years is––who fooled Houdini?" (Really?) That man was, of course, Dai Vernon, "The Professor", who never had a good thing to say about Houdini himself. So we'll leave it at that!

    The second major article of the newsletter is about the history of 278 by Dr. Morris Young. Young recalls his own visits to Houdini's brownstone, including being the participant in a Houdini radio seance broadcast from 278 by Long John Nebel. (Young dates this as 1944, but from what I find, the Nebel seance happened in 1971.)

    In his time, Dr. Young was also a recognized expert in the use of mnemonics and codes, and he closes his article with this curious application of mnemonics to Houdini's address:

    So motivated by Houdini's often expressed interest in mentalism, codes, cypher and coincidence, I became impelled to submit "278" to its phonetic numeral mnemonic implications. Suddenly, "278" resounded in my ears as "han(d)cuff" or alternatively, uncuff. In the system, numerals are given the sound of consonants. 2 equals N; 7 equals hard C or K; 8 equals F or PH, Trying out the system on "113" (the street number), I equals T or D or TH; 3 equals M. In making up words, vowels have no mnemonic value and may be used liberally. W, H and Y are "neuters". Accordingly, "278 W. 113" becomes "Uncuff We Tie Them", the address of the house.

    In "Backstage with Sid Radner", Sid reports that S.A.M. president Harry Monti and past presidents George Schindler and Frank Daily visited the HHC following that year's S.A.M. national convention in Milwaukee. He then plugs the HHC website and museum shop. Sid also announces that the new Houdini Museum at the Venetian Casino in Las Vegas will be open by the time this newsletter arrives.

    Sid closes with the story of how he fooled Dai Vernon twice in 1942 with a left-handed peek and one-handed bottom deal. Sid says, "Perhaps I should have billed myself as the 'gambling expert who fooled Vernon', but much of the general public didn't know who Vernon was." Mic drop.

    Volume 10, Number 2
    Second Quarter, 2000
    6 pages

    Who Fooled Houdini?
    New Members
    History, Numbering Coincidence Surrounds Houdini's "278"
    Special Thanks
    Backstage with Sid Radner


    Thursday, December 5, 2019

    Houdini and the Doctor reunite in STAR TALES

    In the first season of Jodie Whittaker's Doctor Who, the Doctor name-checked Houdini, saying how she once spent a "wet weekend" with the escapist. Now Houdini and the Doctor are reunited in this clever collection of adventures pairing the Doctor with famous personalities.

    ‘Even though they’re gone from the world, they’re never gone from me.’ 
    The Doctor is many things – curious, funny, brave, protective of her friends...and a shameless namedropper. While she and her companions battled aliens and travelled across the universe, the Doctor hinted at a host of previous, untold adventures with the great and the good: we discovered she got her sunglasses from Pythagoras (or was it Audrey Hepburn?); lent a mobile phone to Elvis; had an encounter with Amelia Earhart where she discovered that a pencil-thick spider web can stop a plane; had a 'wet weekend' with Harry Houdini, learning how to escape from chains underwater; and more. 
    In this collection of new stories, Star Tales takes you on a rip-roaring ride through history, from 500BC to the swinging 60s, going deeper into the Doctor's notorious name-dropping and revealing the truth behind these anecdotes.

    The Houdini story is by Steve Cole and is called "Who-Dini?" It's narrated in part by a thinly disguised Dorothy Young ("Dorothy Smith"). While the story doesn't actually chronicle the aforementioned "wet weekend", it's a fun romp set in Chicago in 1926 and finds Harry and Bess interacting with two different Doctors. And it has a nice surprise ending.

    Doctor Who: Star Tales is released today in the UK in hardcover and can be purchased at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.


    Wednesday, December 4, 2019

    Houdini at Chapel Hill (and in my home)

    Here's my "Moses Buy" for 2019. This is an original 4-page flyer for Houdini's spirit lecture at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill on November 21, 1924. There's a lot to love here.

    This Chapel Hill appearance was part of Houdini's second lecture tour of 1924. While I've seen a similar flyer for his first tour, I've never seen one from his second. This one has the new name for his talk, "Can the Dead Speak to the Living?", which was an improvement over "Fraudulent Spiritualistic Phenomena." This also has the address for the Alkahest Lyceum System in Atlanta on the back, so I'm wondering if this might have been unique to the South?

    But what really thrills me is I know the identity of the Chapel Hill student who saved this. The eBay seller (blueridgeheritage) was kind enough to provide me with these details:

    The name of the original owner was Joseph Franklin Neal (1903-1965). He was from Jefferson, NC and was a student at UNC Chapel Hill in the early-mid 1920s. The Houdini program was found in the attic of the old family house built in 1880. There were 2 UNC yearbooks from '24 and '25 and a few other UNC items. Most certainly Joseph went to the show and saved the program and brought it home. The folds looks like it was put in a back pocket. This is the ONLY one I have or have seen.

    As to the lecture itself, it attracted a sell-out crowd of 1,500, and appears to have gone over very well. Houdini recorded in his diary: "College boys. Great audience. Gave me the college yell." Houdini also seemed to be in true form this night, as evidenced by the below account from The Daily Tar Heel:

    The Daily Tar Heel, November 26, 1924

    Next week I will be wrapping up the blog for 2019 with a major historical post having to do with this same lecture tour. It's a story never before told, and it was no Chapel Hill! So watch for: The Chattanooga debacle.


    Tuesday, December 3, 2019

    Houdini KOs Willard in the Record

    Following up on my recent post about re-dating the Houdini-Jess Willard encounter (to Nov. 29), Roger Dreyer of the Houdini Museum of New York sends over the pic of the original front page of the Los Angeles Record from his collection. I could not locate this issue while doing my research at the LA library, so this is a real treat. Look at that banner headline!

    The Houdini Museum of New York has received a lot of media attention lately, due largely to their youthful new Director Rajon Lynch (RJ the Magician) who hails from Houdini's own Wisconsin. Check out the impressive profile of RJ and the museum in The New York Times. The story also includes an account of some strangeness that occurred during their own Halloween Houdini Seance.

    Thanks to Roger and RJ.


    Monday, December 2, 2019

    Joe Posnanski talks Houdini at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, Dec. 12

    Author Joe Posnanski will be speaking and signing his new book The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee on Thursday, December 12 at 5:30pm.

    Award-winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author Joe Posnanski enters the world of Harry Houdini and his legions of devoted fans in an immersive, entertaining, and magical work on the illusionist’s impact on American culture—and why his legacy endures to this day. 
    Thursday, December 12th
    5:30 pm - 7:00 pm

    Museum Members $6 | Nonmembers $9 
    Program admission includes admission into the Museum and one complimentary Broken Wand Cocktail.

    Click for more details.

    The exhibition Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini is currently in view at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee through January 5, 2020. For more information visit their official website.

    The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini by Joe Posnanski can be purchased at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.


      Sunday, December 1, 2019

      Guest Blog: A modern day Transport Cell challenge

      Today I'm excited to share a UKEA Guest Blog about Tim Houlton's modern day attempt of one of Houdini's most famous challenge escapes: the Transport Prison Van.

      by Tim Houlton, Allan Taylor & Chris Gower

      So where on earth do you get a Transport cell from I hear you ask? Well, it’s a funny story but the prisoner transport unit was originally sold at a motor auction and purchased by a vehicle recovery company. They bought it for its chassis cab with the intention of converting it into a new recovery truck for their fleet. The prison truck body was then removed and put up for sale on E-Bay. Before the truck was sold the usable electronics had been removed and kept for spares and when they did, the looms were cut through causing further damage. On the positive side the mechanics of the security systems on the truck where intact as were all the internal fixtures.

      The Challenge

      The concept of a cell escape in terms of my escapology performances isn’t one I had previously considered; I enjoy the audience participation aspect of performance. The idea of adding a cell escape to my range of performances came from Andy Robertson’s Escape from a cell at Peterhead Prison on 31st October 2017 along with David De-Val’s book Cell Escape – The Real Secret presented to me by Rebecca as a thank you for assisting with an escape that she and Allan performed. The prison truck escape idea actually came about during a conversation with Allan Taylor whilst replacing his kitchen floor, we were talking about the Discovery channel series Houdini’s Last Secrets Allan and his Wife Rebecca featured on the show and had been involved in the episode that spoke about the Siberian Cell escape.

      So taking this discussion one step further, we knew the many rumours about how Harry had succeeded and defeated the technology of his day but could we do it again in the modern age?

      First step was to make this beleaguered prison transport unit actually work and that was quite a project. Getting a Haynes manual for this truck basically isn’t happening, I’ve never seen the inside of one of these trucks and the equipment that remains was largely approaching the end of its life. I started with the wiring that didn’t go anywhere and with the display from the main panel and worked from there. Originally the truck would have had a central panel running down the ceiling down the truck from one end to the other. This panel had the main lighting, Fire detection, CCTV, speakers for the sound system (yes it had a sound system) and some form of indication of the status for the locking systems on the cell doors. The status indicator was critical as the signals from the locks went into it and emerged in another format to communicate with the main panel. So in short I had a puzzle and people who know me will tell you I love a good puzzle. Many hours and days later the systems were in working order and that’s when the real challenge begins on how to defeat this thing. The obvious solution is the escape trap hatches on the roof.

      The locking mechanism release involves operating a lever inside the truck body and another one that would have been inside the cab. The lever that would have been inside the cab is badly rusted and seized, even if I could operate both at the same time from inside a cell the one outside cannot be released. The trap hatches and the locking mechanism for them have sensors on them that will trip the alarm system. The cell doors don’t have a hatch so that option isn’t viable. I have a 50mm gap under the door that is a metre away from the main lock on the outside of the cell and the auxiliary lock and both of those mechanisms are also monitored by the alarm. The cell door is in a solid steel structure and the 3 stage locking system goes 40mm into the door in the centre and at the top and bottom. I’m sure you agree it’s an interesting challenge.

      The Escape

      Saturday 23rd November 2019, a day to remember. After our tour of Hull to view some historical Houdini locations, we all met back at the Hotel and set off in the rain in convoy. The first sight of the Prison Van was when we travelled down a small country road and looked over to a disused gravel pit where the Transport Unit was parked.

      The main door was secured with a high security DOM lock and had a three point locking mechanism. On entering the unit there were six cells each one having a triple locking system. Firstly when the door is slammed it is locked like a night latch, turning the key deadlocks the latch and finally another key is used to secure the door top and bottom and also sets the alarm. Needless to say there are no keyholes inside the cell. Each Cell has a hatch in the ceiling used in cases of emergency. These hatches can only be opened using two independent levers.

      These levers are located at the front and back of the van and need to be operated at the same time. Tim had rebuilt all the electronics and basically a guard would travel with the prisoners. An alarm would sound if any of the doors were opened or if the escape hatch was opened. Furthermore another alarm unit was wired into the main cab to alert the driver if any problems occurred.

      After changing into his ‘Lucky’ shorts, T shirt and heavy motorcycle boots, Tim was checked by our volunteer Police Officer using a metal detector to ensure he did not have hidden tools. Two large D padlocks were locked onto his ankles and were connected by a chain and secured with two Abloy high security padlocks. His wrists were handcuffed with a pair of single linked Chubb Arrest Handcuffs which were double locked. The chain from the legs was then attached to the link in the handcuffs using another Abloy padlock.

      Tim was then escorted into the cell and yet another lock secured the chain to the floor. Several of us checked the cell to make sure there were no tools hidden. The Cell Door was then slammed shut and the key turned to deadlock the door. The second key was then used to set the alarm and throw the bolts top and bottom. The outer door was closed, locked and the timer started. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 minutes passed then at 7 mins 40 seconds the panic alarm sounded! Next thing we know the Prisoner Tim was on the roof drinking a bottle of milk completely free from the cell and all his shackles! He took his bow and climbed down with huge applause. The Milk was dedicated to David De-Val who famously escaped from York Prison and was found outside drinking a bottle of Milk.

      The main door was opened and the Cell Door was still closed. When the Cell door was opened everything was still in place and the escape hatch secure. Well done Tim, really looking forward to our next UKEA meeting when we might have an idea on how you accomplished this remarkable escape. This is a first in the history of escapes and will go down as one of the great escapes in the 21st century.

      You can watch a video of the escape at the De-Val Escapology YouTube Channel.


      Saturday, November 30, 2019

      November 2019 in review

      Here's a rundown of posts by category that appeared on WILD ABOUT HARRY in November.

      Most Viewed Post
      Here is that remarkable Houdini mystery footage

      Houdini History
      Bess appears on Halloween
      In 1919 Houdini was tied to a cannon for veterans (twice)
      Mysterious Houdini footage now mysteriously gone
      My first look at the real Houdini
      LINK: Harry Houdini made history right here in Kansas City
      Houdini is a Historical Hottie
      Houdini and the Mandela Effect
      Houdini was to speak at spiritualism symposium in late 1926
      Finding Houdini in Hull
      Houdini's close call on Catalina Island 100 years ago today
      The true date of the Jess Willard encounter

      Houdini's Day of the Dead on Catalina Island
      Photos from The Official Houdini Seance 2019
      Discover Houdini the Collector at the Harry Ransom Center, Dec. 5

      The Fens - Xmas in November (Official Video)
      Once Upon A Time in Laurel Canyon
      'Man of Magic' to be released as limited edition CD

      Sneak Peek: The Brave Harry Houdini

      Books & Merch
      The Phantom Files: Houdini's Curse
      Harry Houdini's War is at peace with the facts
      The scent of Houdini

      Houdini's Magicians Club portrait to be auctioned
      The Master Mystery episode 3 poster at auction

      Hidden Houdini in the "Cursed Temple"
      "Houdini & Hardeen" is back online
      Barcelona's Museum of Chocolate holds Houdini
      SPECTATE brought Houdini to Brisbane in 2017

      Mystifier File
      Mystifier, First Quarter 2000

      Friday, November 29, 2019

      The true date of the Jess Willard encounter

      Every biography tells the story of Houdini's contentious encounter with heavyweight champion Jess Willard at the Los Angeles Orpheum in 1915. The incident even opens the newest book, The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini by Joe Posnanski. And the date always given is November 30th.

      But I recently found evidence that this actually took place on November 29th (Houdini's opening night). First and foremost are two reports from the Los Angeles Daily Times and the Long Beach Press (below), which are the earliest accounts of the incident that I'm aware of. Both ran on November 30th and both state that it happened "last night", which would be Monday the 29th. The Los Angeles Herald also ran a small blurb about it on the 30th.

      Heck, just the existence of these disproves the November 30th date as these stories appeared before Houdini even took the stage that night.

      Los Angeles Times and the Long Beach Press, Nov. 30, 1915.

      There is also corroborating evidence from Willard himself. In a letter to the editor that the boxer penned to the Los Angeles Examiner giving his side of the story, Willard writes that it happened "Monday night." An account in the New York Tribune also identified it has having happened "Monday night."

      So why does everyone cite Tuesday, November 30? I believe it's because everyone uses the Los Angeles Record as their source. This is the account that was widely syndicated and used in Variety. It also appears in Houdini's pitchbooks (below). As with the other stories, the Record states that it happened "last night." But the Record was late to the game, or maybe it took them a day to work up their more detailed account (likely with Houdini's input), and they did not publish until December 1st. This turned "last night" into November 30th and history was forever altered.

      This wouldn't be the first time we've been fooled by a syndication dateline. I've discovered some papers would alter them, presumably to makes their reporting appear more current. One paper pushed the encounter to December 1st!

      I'm continuing to seek evidence for and against this new date, but I feel confident enough to begin to using November 29, 1915 as the true date of the Houdini-Jess Willard encounter.

      And if you don't like it, take it up with Jess!

      The poster artwork at the top of this post comes from The Pottawatomie Giant and Other Stories by Andy Duncan. 


      Thursday, November 28, 2019

      The Master Mystery episode 3 poster at auction

      Bruce Hershenson's eMoviePoster.com is offering a Master Mystery episode 3 poster in their current auction that runs through December 5th. You can view the auction lot HERE.

      It appears this is not the same episode 3 poster that Haversat & Ewing sold in 2016, but the auction listing does not provide provenance. Last June eMoviePoster.com sold an episode 9 poster for $28,500.

      UPDATE: The poster sold for $23,956.00.


      Wednesday, November 27, 2019

      Houdini's close call on Catalina 100 years ago today

      It was on Thanksgiving day exactly 100 years ago that Houdini tried to play a real life action hero on Catalina Island. Houdini was there filming Terror Island and staying at the Hotel St. Catherine. The production was using the Catalina Flyer to shuttle crew and equipment between Avalon and the native village set at Banning's Beach (today Toyon Bay). But this day was stormy and the seas were rough, and a drama would unfold in front of the hotel that would call Houdini into somewhat fool-hearted action.

      The Los Angeles Examiner on November 29, 1919 reported what happened:

      A note about the date of this incident. The Examiner's dateline indicates this happened the morning of November 28, which was a Friday. But in preparing their 2018 Terror Island exhibition, the Catalina Island Museum discovered an account of the incident in the local Catalina Islander newspaper. That article and a letter to the editor by Captain McAfee thanking everyone for their help both state that it happened on Thursday, which was November 27 and Thanksgiving. Just think, had Houdini perished, he would have been known for dying on Thanksgiving! (Somehow not as good as Halloween.)

      Intriguingly, both papers report that the incident was filmed. Perhaps if Houdini had been successful in his rescue attempt it would have been worked into the plot of the film as airplane accident was worked into The Grim Game. Unfortunately, this 300 feet of footage has never surfaced. But the Examiner did run a spectacular photo of the action on their front page.

      Click to enlarge.

      The Hotel St. Catherine was demolished in 1966 and today is know as Descanso Beach. The rocky outcrop where Houdini attempted his rescue remains. There's even talk of renaming it "Houdini Point"! Below are photos I took during my visit to Catalina earlier this year. As you can see, the low tide reveals the real danger both the Catalina Flyer and Houdini faced on that stormy Thanksgiving day 100 years ago.

      Wishing everyone a happy and safe Thanksgiving.