Sunday, November 22, 2020

WORLD'S Eclipsing Sensation

Here's a nice series of photos from article about the collection of former magician Edward J. Miller. This appeared on the front page of the June 11, 1950 Chicago Sunday Tribune. The Hardeen poster immediately caught my eye as one I've not seen before. But then I noticed something different about the familiar Houdini poster above it. Can you spot it?

Click to enlarge.

This poster is normally headed "Europe's Eclipsing Sensation". But this one reads, "World's Eclipsing Sensation".


This famous poster was among a series of posters Houdini had made for his 1905-06 U.S. return tour that promoted him as "Europe's Eclipsing Sensation". But as time went on, I suspect this billing became less relevant. We know at least one poster was re-printed with "The World Famous" replacing "Europe's Eclipsing Sensation" as early as 1908. But here it appears to have been done somewhat crudely, possibly with a paste over on the original poster. But that's what makes it so unique and special as it nicely illustrates Houdini's evolving sense of his own success.


It's worth noting that, unlike many other Golden Age magicians, Houdini did not tour the world. Apart from one shot tours of Russia in 1903 and Australia in 1910, Houdini confined himself to North America and Europe. And even his European tours were somewhat confined. He never performed in Italy or Spain, for example. He was planning a world tour for 1915 that would have finally taken him to Japan and China. But his plans never came to fruition, probably due to the outbreak of World War I. But this did not stop him from claiming in his publicity that he had toured the world; nor, as we can see, that he was the "World's Eclipsing Sensation."

Before Edward Miller's death in 1986, his collection was purchased by Jay Marshall. Was this poster still part of the collection? Does it survive today? If you've ever seen it, please let us know in the comments below.

UPDATE: Chuck Romano of My Magic Uncle directs me to the March 1951 50th Anniversary issue of The Sphinx which reproduced several posters from Miller's collection, including his Houdini poster. Ironically, I own this issue, but haven't looked at it in years. Sure enough...


Chuck also provided a clipping from the September 2000 MAGIC magazine that says Norm Nielsen purchased an "Eclipsing Sensation" poster from Jay Marshall. It omits that all important first word, but could it have been this one?

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Nothing to do with Houdini

Here's another WILD ABOUT HARRY first; a post that has nothing to do with Houdini! But Brian Young at the "History Ramblings with Lauren and Brian" Facebook Group reminded me that today is the 89th anniversary of the release of the original Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff, which is my favorite of the Universal Horror movies (yes, even more than the much praised Bride of Frankenstein).

I've always been a huge Universal Horror buff (an interest that even pre-dates Houdini), and in 2009 I wrote a guest post for Pierre Fournier's Frankensteinia. Pierre's incredible blog covers all aspects of Frankenstein and was the inspiration and model for WILD ABOUT HARRY, which I launched a year later. So if you care to take a rare non-Houdini excursion and explore another obsession, click the link below and go.


Unfortunately, Pierre no longer updates Frankensteinia. But if you are a fellow Frankenstein fan, I recommend the podcast Frankenstein Minute with Thom Lange and Bill Evenson, who dissect the Universal Frankenstein movies one minute at a time. And for current Universal Horror news, I enjoy Universal Monsters Universe.

Related:

Friday, November 20, 2020

"Houdini cares not for showy clothes"


I love stories about Houdini the sloppy dresser, and there are no shortage of them! But I tend to associate this characteristic with the older Houdini of the 1920s. But here's an item from the May 24, 1908 Philadelphia Inquirer when Houdini was only 34 years old. There's a lot to like here, so enjoy.


For more on Houdini's fashion sense, check out the links below. 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Freeing Houdini

Here's a pretty cool YouTube video featuring "The INFAMOUS Water Torture Cell Puzzle." I would have never solved this.


Below are links to a few other Houdini puzzles and brain teasers.

Thanks to Man Too for the link.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

More magnificent Houdini images materialize

New images of Houdini just keep on appearing! Today David Haversat of David Haversat Magic shares news of a recently acquired unpublished photo that's pretty wild. I really don't know what the heck is going on here, but David does a nice job explaining his own thoughts below.

Click to enlarge.
Recently I discovered and purchased this unique image of Harry Houdini climbing a ladder of swords.

This effect was common in the side-show and with Fakirs. However, Houdini never performed this feat for the public.

Based on Houdini’s appearance and clothing, we could place this image around 1908, the time he was performing the Milk Can Escape. 

Perhaps this was a prop housed in the workshop of a magic builder, or backstage and Harry just needed to try it to rekindle the “old days” when he worked the sideshows.

Another item in my collection makes reference the very same effect. On October 5, 1927, Howard Thurston wrote to magic builder Rudolph Schlosser asking him to build the very same sword effect!

"Please let me know if you can make a sword ladder for me. An apparatus containing four swords that my Hindu can walk on. It is an old museum trick and let me know if you can understand "the" best construction and give me an idea how you can make and when you will have it finished and how much it will cost.... Howard Thurston" 
 
I can't find a reference of Schlosser every constructing the illusion for Thurston. However, Schlosser did build a number of effects for Houdini, including two Blooming Flower Growth effects and two sizes of Houdini's last illusion known as The Flight of Time. It's also though that Schlosser constructed Houdini's Whirlwind of Colors. 

-David Haversat 

When I first saw this photo I instantly thought of this famous shot of Houdini standing beside his Milk Can, taken in Atlantic City in 1908. He's in the same bathing suit (which is red, btw), and looks very much the same age. Could this be a playful behind-the-scenes pic from that same shoot?

But there's more! These two photos credited to the Brown Brothers in New York City sold on eBay over the weekend for $515.00 (front facing) and $433.89 (profile). They show Houdini in the backyard of 278, likely in 1925-26, demonstrating a rope tie and paper tear. I believe these images were taken for a magazine article (but I can't seem to find it at the moment). I'm especially wild about that profile shot, which I think is a beautiful study of the older Houdini.

Click to enlarge.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Houdini's Flower Table blooms at Yankee Gathering

One of the highlights of this weekend's virtual NEMCA Yankee Gathering was a video from 1985 in which Ray Goulet and Charlie Cambra discuss, disassemble, assemble, set, and perform Houdini's original Flower Table. It's a rare opportunity to get an intimate look at a piece of original Houdini magic apparatus, and it testifies to Houdini's taste in mechanically complex and extremely well-made equipment (it's really more akin to an automata).


Houdini used two of these tables in his full evening show. Both tables survive today. One is in the collection of John Gaughan, which I've had the great pleasuring of seeing in person (below). The table in this video eventually found its way into the collection of Ken Klosterman (who passed away in October).

In the video, Ray and Charlie say the table was made by Conradi in 1903. But in the October 2014 issue of Genii, John Gaughan identifies the tables as being made by R.S. "Rudy" Schlosser, circa 1925, and sold through Hommann's in New York City. According to John, Houdini had the two tables placed at each end of the stage and "because the growing took several minutes, Houdini made a gag of continually going back and forth to the tables to water the plants."


The 2020 Virtual Yankee Gathering was a big success that featured many riches for the Houdini fan. For more about the Houdini highlights, check out Joe Notaro's report at Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence. Registrants can also rewatch all the presentations, including this amazing video, on the official website until November 20, 2020.

Related:

Sunday, November 15, 2020

LINK: When Houdini escaped in Cincinnati

I love it when cities drill down into their own Houdini history. I typically link to these stories, but here's one I missed from the January 2017 Cincinnati Enquirer. So let's fix that today, which just happens to be the anniversary of Houdini's suspended straitjacket escape in downtown Cincinnati on November 15, 1916.

Click the headline and read all about Houdini in "The Queen City."

Related:

Saturday, November 14, 2020

No Such Thing As A Fish hooks Houdini

Houdini is one of the topics on the popular UK podcast, No Such Thing As A Fish, hosted by Dan Schreiber, James Harkin, Andrew Hunter Murray, and Anna Ptaszynski. I was thrilled to hear WAH get a very nice shout-out, and their Houdini segment is a lot of fun. However, I have no idea where they got the information that you enter David Copperfield's Las Vegas museum through a "sex shop." You enter through a re-creation of his father's tailor shop (as we know). But maybe they fell prey to a Wikipedia prankster.

You can listen to Episode 347 "No Such Thing as a Bacon Scented Mask" at Apple Podcasts or the No Such Thing as a Fish website.

Thanks to Adam Cole for the alert.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Houdini happenings at the first virtual Yankee Gathering


This weekend sees the first virtual "Yankee Gathering" from the New England Magic Collectors Association (NEMCA). Houdini will be part of the annual conference with four Houdini-centric presentations (details below). So if you're like me and have never been able to attend one of these storied Gatherings, here's your chance to do it from home! 

Saturday 14 Nov 
10:30 AM EST / 7:30 AM PST 
Lecture #2: Houdini Deltiology 
Kevin and Susan Connolly, Houdini Collector/Historian 
Deltiology is defined as the hobby of collecting postcards, especially picture postcards Like most collectors, Kevin collects items that he enjoys. This was his initial incentive to start collecting postcards. Kevin's presentation will focus on his Houdini-related postcard collection which he has compiled over many years. He hopes that you enjoy viewing them as much as he has enjoyed collecting them. 

Saturday 14 Nov 
1:55 PM EST / 10:55 AM PST 
Lecture #6: Dazzled By Diamonds: Evanion and Houdini 
Jim Hagy, Magic Historian/Author 
Of the many legends concerning collections of conjuring material, none may be as renowned as the acquisition by Harry Houdini of playbills and ephemera from Henry Evanion. Houdini’s published recollections told only a small part of Evanion’s story as Harry unquestionably knew it. This presentation, based on the upcoming new and enlarged edition of Jim Hagy’s groundbreaking 1985 Early English Conjuring Collectors, will trace how Evanion fits into the Houdini narrative, the Evanion legend crafted by Houdini himself, and the broader reality of the life, performing career, and collecting habits of Evanion and fellow magician, collector, and friend, James Savren. 

Saturday 14 Nov 
3:20 PM  EST / 12:20 PM PST 
Gallery of Collections #2: Arthur Moses shares his Houdini Collection with a Video Tour 
Arthur Moses, Houdini Collector/Historian 
Harry Houdini became famous for his stage illusions: vanishing an elephant, walking through a brick wall, metamorphosis, escaping from a milk can, and of course the water torture cell. Can you hold your breath for four minutes; Houdini could. He was fearless to accept the unknown and belief in his own abilities to overcome: ''my brain is the key that sets me free'' was his favorite truism. A magician – an escape artist – a silent movie actor – first man to fly a plane in Australia (1910) – spiritualism debunker – basically one tough fella! Here was an amazing individual who defied all to try to bind him with ropes or chains or handcuffs or straitjackets or in wooden boxes ---he never lost a challenge to escape or to let his audiences down. 
 
Sunday 15 Nov 
3:20 PM EST / 12:20 PM PST
Special Bonus Presentation - Houdini's Blooming Rose Bush
Take a step back in time and enjoy a candid conversation between Ray Goulet and Charlie Cambra. Charlie and Ray talk about the history of the apparatus, how Charlie came into possession of it and ultimately how it was passed on to Ray’s Mini Museum of Magic in Watertown, MA. They also discuss the inner workings of piece by breaking it down and then ultimately setting it up and walking through a presentation of the piece. It is something amazing and has to been seen!!!

For more information, including the full schedule, visit the official Yankee Gathering 2020 website. All presentations will remain available for viewing until November 22, 2020. 


Thursday, November 12, 2020

S.A.M. wand breaking ceremony 2020

The Society of American Magicians held their annual wand breaking ceremony Tuesday at Houdini's grave in Queens. The members wore masks due to Covid. This year one of Barry Spector's wands made of wood lath from Houdini's 278 was used for the ceremonial breaking. The broken wand will be sent to the Houdini Museum in Scranton.


This year the assembly also paid respects at the nearby grave of Larry Weeks.


Thanks to Rene Clement for the photos.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

R.I.P. Alex Trebek

By now I'm sure everyone has heard the sad news that long-time Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek passed away at age 80. Houdini always made for a good question during Trebek's 36 years, and he did again last night. The category was MAGIC and this was for $800. Don't forget to answer in the form of a question.


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

Thanks to Janet Davis for the alert and pic.

Related: 

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

10th Anniversary: Launch day!

It was 10 years ago on November 10, 2010 at 10AM that I launched WILD ABOUT HARRY. I had already launched a Houdini website called Houdini Lives! in 2006. My original plan was to use Blogger to create a news aggregator for Houdini Lives and other magic websites. In fact, I originally called this new site HOUDINI HEADLINES. But it quickly became clear to me that I could do so much more with the Blogger interface, so I changed the name and began migrating all my Houdini Lives content to this new site and writing new posts. And I've never stopped!

Monday, November 9, 2020

Houdini breaks his wrist (the first time)


It's well-known that Houdini broke his wrist while filming The Grim Game in Hollywood in 1919. But what isn't as well-known is that Houdini fractured that same wrist a year earlier while making The Master Mystery in Yonkers. Below is an article from the August 13, 1918 Yonkers Statesman reporting the accident.


This offers some interesting new details. First off, it identifies the film as The Master Mystery long before the title was officially announced in October. It reveals the location of the shoot as the Unexcelled Film Company (which I covered in more detail here). And it pegs the date of the accident as Saturday, August 10, 1918. I also don't believe I've ever heard that it happened while Houdini was doing a stunt on a chandelier. I'm assuming this was the stunt we see in Episode One (below).


The fracture was a bad one. According to Ken Silverman in Houdini The Career of Ehrich Weiss:

Broken in three places, the wrist had to be set in a plaster cast, and remained weak and painful when the cast was removed. Adhesions developed in the joint, which had to be rebroken by a physician, then subjected to a "new baking electrical treatment." After six months the wrist seemed him stronger than before, "as a ring has grown around the break," but still have not regained flexibility.

As the article mentions, Houdini was a week away from making his debut in the new Hippodrome revue show Everything (Charles Dillingham's follow-up to Cheer Up!). He would go ahead with the show as on August 22 as planned. Except he would feature a suspended straitjacket escape instead of an announced buried alive escape.


Related:

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Yonkers studio where Houdini filmed The Master Mystery found


We know Houdini filmed interiors for The Master Mystery at a studio in Yonkers. But exactly which studio has never been identified (to my knowledge). That's why I was so excited yesterday when I found an article in the August 13, 1918 Yonkers Statesman about Houdini breaking his wrist while filming the serial. The article provides several unknown details, including the location! It says the film was being shot at the "Unexcelled Film Company at 120 School Street, Yonkers."

Below is a 1918 advertisement for the Unexcelled Film Laboratories and Studios ("For Rent by Week, Month or Yearly Leases"). As The Master Mystery was an independent production, it makes sense they would be renting studio space.


The Unexcelled Film Laboratories and Studios started business in March 1918. Its directors where Joseph E. Cavanaugh, John B. Brown, Charlies J. Volpe, Inez M. Collins, and William E. Murphy. They purchased and renovated a building at the intersection of School Street and Herriot Street, which at one time had been Canepi’s Skating Rink. The building spanned the addresses 120, 122, 124 School Street, and included a working film lab, fire-proof vaults, and studio rental space. It was described as being a three story frame structure with a stone base.

It's not known how long The Master Mystery used the studio space. But the 15-part serial filmed intermittently from mid July to the end of November 1918, so it's conceivable they may have been there for some time. Houdini would commute between the studio and Manhattan where he was appearing at the Hippodrome.

The Unexcelled Film company caused fiction with its neighbors as fire insurance rates for the residential buildings on the block soared. And for good reason. On the night of June 27, 1919, lightening struck the building and ignited a spectacular fire. Despite a downpour of rain, by the time fire fighters arrived the building was lost. They instead concentrated on saving other buildings on the block.

The fire marked an end to the Unexcelled Film company after only a little more than a year in business. One wonders if any props from The Master Mystery had remained behind and were destroyed?


Today an empty lot marks the site of where Quentin Locke battled the Automaton 102 years ago. However, remains of the "stone base" appear to survive. (The white structure, which I do not believe was there in 1918, today carries the address 118-122 School Street.) Below you can explore the site and street via Google Maps.


Stay tuned for more details about Houdini's accident while filming The Master Mystery at the Unexcelled Film Company in Yonkers.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Growing Up With Houdini by David J. Muller

David Muller, son of the late Henry Muller, has written a new book called Growing Up With Houdini. It's a wonderful work that tells the story of the Muller family and, of course, his father's Houdini Magical Hall of Fame. 


The first part of the book relates the incredible story of how the Muller family fled the Nazis and their native Slovakia to settle in Niagara Falls, Canada, where they established a successful meat selling business. The book then covers in detail the founding and formation of the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in 1968, along with many photographs and documents. A true highlight is a reproduction of the original inventory of artifacts in the Dunninger collection that made up the bulk of the museum. David also shares a wild early connection between the museum and Doug Henning.

David is taking a unique and generous approach in offering this book. It is not for sale. David gives them away and in exchange asks people to give a donation to their favorite charity in his father's memory.

You can contact David Muller via the website: www.growingupwithhoudini.com.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Breedlove vs. Houdini trial photo fetches $400

An original glass slide from the 1926 Breedlove vs. Houdini trial in Chicago sold on eBay last week for $400.75. Several other slides from noted press photographer Henryk Schafer sold back in July, but this image may be my favorite. It shows medium Herbert O.  Breedlove pleading his case before the judge with Houdini glaring at him with arms folded. So good.

Click to enlarge.
This is an original, one-of-a-kind glass plate photographic negative which depicts an intense courtroom scene, whereby Houdini denounces Herbert O. Breedlove, a Chicago medium and mindreader, as being a fake. Judge Francis Borelli is hearing argument from Breedlove, with Houdini standing just to the left. Breedlove was suing Houdini for criminal libel, claiming that Houdini's criticisms made it impossible for Breedlove to conduct his mindreading business. Witnessed accounts say the atmosphere was so intense that one man fainted and Breedlove himself collapsed in his chair. When Houdini asked Breedlove to tell him the nickname which his father had given him, Breedlove could not come up with the answer, and the charges were dropped. Houdini had long waged a vigorous campaign to expose unscrupulous mediums and spiritualists.

According to Milbourne Christopher (Houdini The Untold Story), Houdini escaped the libel charge.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Houdini's 278 Project

The wood from Houdini's 278 continues to inspire artists and entrepreneurs. We're all aware of Barry Spector's marvelous creations. Now Louis Grande and Nathan Landi have entered the scene with their Houdini's 278 Project. Louis and Nathan are offering pens, cufflinks, knives, and magic wands, all made with hand-crafted wood from Houdini's house. (I especially like those cufflinks.) Check out their sell sheet and website below.


Louis and Nathan's Houdini's 278 Project received a nice write up in the October 2020 Pen World Magazine. You can read the full article on their site.


Related:

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Ultra rare Houdini poster found at yard sale (update)

Over the Halloween weekend David Haversat of David Haversat Magic announced the incredible discovery of a rare Houdini 3-sheet by Russell-Morgan. Here's what David sent out via email blast.

In honor of Harry Houdini on this October 31st., I would like to announce the recent discovery of this three sheet Houdini lithograph!

In August I was contacted by friends Dorothy Dietrich & Dick Brooks, the premier Houdini Historians and proprietors of the long-standing Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Dick and Dorothy put me in touch with an antique dealer who made an amazing discovery of magic ephemera at a yard sale, this Houdini poster being one of the items!

I immediately made contact with the gentleman, and negotiated a deal to purchase this 3 sheet poster. 

The other known example of this image is in the collection of David Copperfield. 

This actual lithograph was used by two other performers besides Houdini. One of them being Houdini's Protege Leonard Hicks, and contained an overlay which covered Houdini's name.

Additional details on this discovery will follow. For now, on this Halloween, enjoy this image!
-David Haversat

It's just incredible that something like this can still be found at a yard sale!

David has a gift for discovering rare Houdini posters. Below are links to some of his other amazing finds.

UPDATE: It's worth noting that this poster is different from the poster in the David Copperfield collection. On the Copperfield poster the copy below Houdini's name reads, "The Original Jail Breaker". On this poster it says, "The World's Handcuff King & Prison Breaker". It's also interesting to note that both the Copperfield and Haversat posters differ from the poster that can be glimpsed in the 1906 Salem theater lobby photo. That poster is headed "Europes Eclipsing Sensation". These surviving posters read, "The World Famous".

UPDATE 2: David Haversat has now shared an image of how this poster looked when it first discovered at the yard sale. As you can see, Houdini's name had been pasted over, first by The Great Leonard and then Heller (Bruno Warnecke). When Houdini went to Europe in 1908 he licensed his act to the Western Burlesque Wheel and Leonard Hicks for $10,000 a year. Hicks later passed this poster to Heller who used it as his own. So this header is in itself a Houdini (or at least a Houdini-approved) poster. Very cool!

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

VOTE and be free

Normally on Presidential election days I like to highlight how Houdini's name was used (and misused) during the campaigns. But I think we've all had enough of this election. So I'll just remind everyone to go out VOTE today if you haven't already.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Houdini Seances go virtual for 2020

Due to Covid, The Official Houdini Seance and The Original Houdini Seance were both held virtually this Halloween. But this all-new stage seemed to finally rouse Harry with both seances claiming paranormal activity...if we Believe.

The first seance of the day was Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz' Original Houdini Seance. This was held via ZOOM at 1:26 PM (the time of Houdini's death). The seance was open to the public, hitting a high of 201 viewers by mid seance. The S.A.M. hosted the event with Dorothy and Dick conducting the seance from Scranton, PA.

But it's what happened at 1:29 PM that has us all scratching our heads. A printers block that was used by Houdini toppled over on the seance table in a way that seemed utterly inexplicable. I spoke with Dorothy and Dick afterwards, and they assured me there was no trickery involved. Luckily, it was all captured on video. Below is the moment. The printer's block is propped against the photograph of Harry, Mama, and Bess on the right. This is pretty weird!


Next came The Official Houdini Seance run annually by Bill Radner and Tom Boldt. This was also conducted via ZOOM, but was a private invitation only event. Always a class production, the seance featured a performance by Benjilini, brief talks by myself, Gay Blackstone, George Hardeen, and David Muller. Bill Radner showed the seances cuffs and Tom Boldt hosted. Teller was also among the virtual attendees. The Official Houdini Seance always invites a professional medium to conduct their seance. This time it was Robyn Fritz, a "certified past life regression specialist" and author.

Unlike recent Official seance mediums, Robyn had no problem instantly contacting "Mr. Houdini," whom she said she had been "working with" all week in preparation. She explained Houdini was trapped in a grey area of the afterlife (her version of purgatory) and was searching for his wife. Roybn was able to bring forth Bess and reunite the two, who then traveled off together into what Roybn calls the "party."

Roybn seemed nice and I think she believes in her abilities. But I was far from convinced. At one point she asked the group if we had any questions for Houdini, and I volunteered a few test questions to verify it really was Houdini we were speaking to. I explained Houdini himself would understand this and demand it of any seance. But Houdini was unable or unwilling to answer a single question. 

This was the first Official Seance I've attended in which the medium actually claimed clear and unequivocal contact. But I don't think she appreciated my test. Or was it Houdini who didn't like it? Either way, I'm convinced no one was convinced.


Finally, while it wasn't a seance, another virtual highlight of this Halloween weekend was the Magic Collector's Corner #29, which focused on Houdini for the third time. I thought this was the best of the three Houdini specials, with appearances by myself, Fred Pittella, Dorothy Dietrich, Mike Caveney, and, best of all, Houdini's Ghost himself, Patrick Culliton! If you saw it I know you enjoyed it as much as I did. If you want to watch a replay (or see the full video of Fred Pittella's amazing collection), you can check it out by joining the Magic Collectors' Corner Facebook group.

Hope everyone had a Happy Halloween!

UPDATE: Dick and Dorothy have shared with me a photo of the phantom printer's block to show this was not a trick (not a Telekinetic Timber). This came out of 278 in 1980.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

October 2020 in review

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

Most Viewed Post

Houdini History

Saturday, October 31, 2020

The secret origins of the annual Houdini Seance

Today is the 94th anniversary of Houdini's death in 1926. To mark this occasion, let's take a deep dive into a Halloween Houdini tradition.


Halloween typically means Houdini seances galore! But due to the Covid pandemic, many of the annual Houdini seances are skipping this year. So does this break a chain that links all the way back to the first anniversary of Houdini's death? Not really. In fact, the origins of the annual Houdini seances as we've come to know them do not really link back to Houdini nor even Bess, but to a group of magicians in Detroit in 1946. But let's start from the top.

The general belief is that Bess Houdini held seances on the anniversary of her husband's death for 10 consecutive years. This was per an agreement made with Houdini on his deathbed. But even this "10 year compact" is not as clear cut as it seems. For starters, it does not appear Bess held her seances on Halloween at all! The only Bess seances I've been able to uncover were held on April 18, 1928, January 8, 1929 (the Arthur Ford seance), and July 25, 1935.

In fact, all the formality and traditions of the Halloween Houdini Seance really come into existence in the promotional material hyping the Final Houdini Seance of 1936, which in itself evolved from the original idea of being a seance that would try and contact Houdini, Thurston, and Carter with all three widows in attendance. So was there ever a 10 year compact? It's possible Bess elected to do these seances in private. But the public Halloween Houdini Seances as we've come to know them started with this "last" seance of 1936.

It should also be noted that the Final Houdini Seance was, for Bess, FINAL. She wasn't kidding when she announced, "It is finished." In the following years there where several attempts to interest Bess in another seance, one at the famous Winchester Mystery House. But Bess and Edward Saint turned them all down. They were done.

For the next ten years the world seems largely devoid of Houdini seances. Bess and Ed Saint passed away, as did others in Houdini's inner circle. Then in 1946 a group of magicians in Detroit decided to hold a seance to mark the 10 year anniversary of the Final Houdini Seance of 1936. The seance was the idea of Karrell Fox, a popular Detroit magician who would appear on the Ed Sullivan Show and became known as the King of Korn.

Fox told the papers, "Mrs. Houdini saw fit to select intelligent men, with above-average minds, who were not, however, magicians. We believe magicians, of which Houdini was one, will have a better chance of reaching him. For example, Mrs. Houdini had a lot of politicians in the audience. What ghost would want to talk to a politician?"

Fox's idea for a seance may have been prompted by another gathering in Toledo that same month. On October 16, the Rev. Howard Plummer told members of the Toledo Magician's Society that he had made contact with Houdini, and that the escapist had promised to return during a full moon. The Society announced they would make a new attempt in January.

Meanwhile, Fox's seance went forward on Halloween as planned. It was held in the basement of a downtown hotel where Fox operated his shop. His inner circle was made up of 13 men with a 14th chair left empty for Houdini. A pair of handcuffs said to have been used by Houdini and an autographed book and photo were placed on a table.

Exactly at midnight, the men joined hands and Robert Ungerwitter, another Detroit magician, called out to Houdini to show himself. After five minutes of silence, it was concluded the test was unsuccessful and Houdini had not come through. Only magician Al Monrie claimed to have seen something. But on reflection he concluded, "It must have been the flicker of the candle."


As with the announcement of the seance itself, news of the unsuccessful attempt, together with a photo of the 13 magicians, went national. As with the Final Seance of 1936, the Fox seance seemed to prove that Houdni seances, while unsuccessful in contacting Harry, where VERY successful in conjuring publicity.

This publicity did not go unnoticed by other magicians, and the following year, 1947, saw a boom in Houdini Seances. The Mystical Order of Magicians of the Orient (MOMO) held a seance in Japan that garnered news as far away as Massachusetts. A.L. Caroselli, a magic dealer who claimed to have been a close friend of Houdini, held a seance in his Detroit home and also captured headlines. But the two men who really embraced the Houdini seance idea (and publicity) were the two leading magicians of the day, Harry Blackstone and Joseph Dunninger.


Blackstone held his 1947 Houdini seance on the stage of the Nixon Theater in Pittsburgh with a group of magicians and newspaper men. In the center of the table was a lock that Blackstone said Houdini had given him as part of their own compact. If the lock opened, it was a sign that Houdini had returned. But the lock remained closed. As with the Fox seance the year before, the attempt began at midnight.

Meanwhile, in an office of a Manhattan skyscraper, Dunninger headed up what he called the "Waiting for Houdini" committee. The seance was also held at midnight. Dunninger possessed a 10 word code that Houdini had promised to communicate if he could. But the only manifestation during the seance was a telephone call from a man on the other end saying, "Hello this is Harry."

Both the Blackstone and Dunninger seances received press and both men vowed to try again the following year. The annual Houdini seance was on!

In 1948 a new group entered the scene with a seance held in the Greenwich Village apartment of Walter B. Gibson. The seance was sponsored by the recently revived Conjurer's Monthly Magazine, of which Gibson was editor. In attendance was collector Sidney Radner who brought along his "seance cuffs". These were yet another pair of handcuffs Houdini reportedly vowed to open in spirit form. Their attempt was unsuccessful, but the group vowed to make their seance an annual tradition. (This seance is generally seen as the genesis of what is today known as "The Official Houdini Seance".)


Dunninger was back in 1949 for a seance held in Houdini's Harlem home, which brought another dubious phone call from "Harry". Dunninger would continue his seances for the rest of his life, sometimes merging it with members of the 1948 group. Always the showman, Dunninger arrived in a hearse for what would prove to be his final seance at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in 1974. 

Blackstone continued his seances as well. But his enthusiasm for the ritual seems to have diminished along with the press. In 1951 he held his seance in a well lit room of the Omaha Herald Building. Sitting with his hands on his padlock and a deck of cards, Blackstone called out, "All right Harry, if you're around, let us know." After a minute and a half, Blackstone decreed the seance concluded. Blackstone entered the great beyond himself in 1965.


Today there are several annual Houdini Seances that have been around long enough to claim their own proud lineage and traditions. And while some claim to link back to Bess, Hardeen, and even Houdini himself, as far as I can tell, they ALL owe their start to the 1946 seance by the King of Korn, Karrell Fox. The secret origin of the annual Houdini Seance.

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