Sunday, January 13, 2019

Houdini's Last Secrets episode 2 hits the mark

The Bullet Catch is the subject of the second episode of Houdini's Last Secrets. This might seem odd as the Bullet Catch is known as the one trick Houdini didn't do. (He announced he would in 1918 after the death of Chung Ling Soo, but was talked out of it by Harry Kellar.) However, there is some evidence that he might have done the trick very early in his career, and that leads the team into their investigation.

I think this second episode, "To Catch A Bullet", is a big improvement over episode one. This time the focus remains on the Bullet Catch--no nonsense about Houdini being a spy--and the show does a nice job investigating its history in interviews with Ben Robinson, author of Twelve Have Died, and Stephen Fenton, a Chung Ling Soo collector and expert. We also get to see the great Kevin Connolly surrounded by his magnificent Houdini collection.

I also pop up again (last time, I promise!) to "reveal" Houdini's own account of doing the Bullet Catch in the October 1936 issue of The Sphinx. This appears to corroborate a mention by Jack Hyman as related by Edward Saint in the April 1937 Genii. And then there's that "horse pistol", just as Houdini describes, clearly visible in a famous early photo of him with his magic apparatus (right).

What didn't make the cut was me saying that I wouldn't conclude Houdini did the Bullet Catch based on just this. I'd need to see something independent of Saint and Houdini, such as a newspaper account from the time. So we're not there yet.

But the show kinda used my interview to tip the scales toward the idea that Houdini did in fact do it, and that's fine. I think they did a good job of presenting the evidence and making it seem plausible. In this way, I think they've captured the real fun of investigating the puzzle that is Houdini's life, and it makes me look forward to upcoming episodes on the Carette and Buried Alive, of which there is much more to chew on.

Structurally the show is split between two investigative paths. As George Hardeen looks into the history of the Bullet Catch, Steve Wolf at Stunt Ranch tries to engineer his own version for magician Lee Terbosic to perform. It's all very Mythbusters-like. They even have their own Kari Byron in Salina Cram.

I confess I don't know how the Bullet Catch is done (apart from Chung Ling Soo's method, which the show does explain), so I'm not sure what lines if any they cross in regards to exposure. But this episode makes it clear they are engineering their own methods, and apart from the pig cadaver silliness, I found the these sections pretty captivating. I'm especially surprised to learn how deadly blanks can be even from a distance.

Everything about this episode works, including having genuine tension at the end when Lee does the deadly trick himself. Does he survive? I'll 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 via Amazon and iTunes.

If you're interested in more information on Houdini and the Bullet Catch, check out the below links:


  1. I'm surprised to see this is a topic that people seem to dig in on (on social media at least). "Houdini never did the bullet catch!” Where does such certainly come from? Even in the story of Houdini cutting the trick in 1918 it's never said he had not done the trick before. Just that he wouldn't do it then.

    Even then, I don't think he cut it because he believed the trick was too dangerous. I think it did it because Kellar asked him to, and he would do anything for Kellar. One would also hope he might have realized doing the trick after Soo's death was in poor taste.

    Houdini bios and many fine books on magic will tell you Houdini never did his stage bound Buried Alive escape. But he did. Until a few years ago I would have said he never did a levitation. He did. We really know very little about the menagerie of tricks he performed early in his career. For instance, there’s a trick in his Magic Made Easy pitchbook in which one walks up a stairway of swords. There’s no record of Houdini ever doing that, so he must have never done it, right? (He did.)

    So I'm not at all certain Houdini never did the Bullet Catch. Heck, when it comes Houdini, I think it's pretty dangerous to feel certain about anything! Except that he loved his mama. :)

    1. Just read your 2011 post, "Did Houdini do the bullet catch in the 1890s?" Sounds like pretty persuasive evidence to me. (But now I'm wondering -- did the miraculous "rising" powers of Fleischmann's Yeast play a part in Houdini's levitation trick? ;)

  2. By the same token, we can't be certain he did the Bullet Catch. So far the Russian Carette escape is the only effect that jibes with the title of this program. We still don't know exactly how Harry escaped from that paddywagon--if he ever did. Picked the lock? Can opener thru the floor?

    I thought this program would focus on his last secrets such as the Mirror Challenge, which is still debated. And his jail escapes remain a mystery. Much material here to discuss and speculate over, and instead the USD, and Bullet Catch? I suspect the gun on the table behind a young Harry is a silk pistol.

    1. The Carette and the Buried Alive, yeah, both very much worth investigation. And while I was skeptical of the Bullet Catch at first, I see how it turned out to be a worthy topic. Maybe there are others more worthy, but I think it worked.

      I think that gun is intriguing.

    2. Pistols were popular with magicians in the 19th and early 20th century as catalysts for the magic. You borrowed an object from the audience, made it disappear, and fired the pistol at some container that held the borrowed object to make it reappear inside that.

      Harry is doing the color changing silk in the photo. Silk effects were, and still are usually combined, so for example you made a silk disappear, reappear, then change its color. That gun could very well have been a silk pistol used to vanish a silk attached to the barrel hole.

      There's another pistol on top of the cone on the table.