Tuesday, September 29, 2020

"Imprisoned with the Pharaohs" by HorrorBabble

Here's Houdini's short story "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs" read by Ian Gordon for HorrorBabble Productions. The story, which first appeared in the May-June-July issue of Weird Tales magazine in 1924, was ghost written for Houdini by H.P. Lovecraft.


Monday, September 28, 2020

Early illustrations reveal Houdini's "ghost house"

Here are some early illustrations from Houdini's prime "Handcuff King" days. What I really like about these is they give us a good look at his "Ghost House." This is the small tent-like enclosure where Houdini would do his handcuff escapes surrounded by a committee from the audience. These drawings give us a good idea of its scale. Newspapers reported that it was red.

Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, February 9, 1901.

Dramatic News, April 9, 1904.

The name "ghost house" can be seen as a nod to a medium's spirit cabinet, which shows how Houdini's handcuff act had roots in spiritualism. The only photo of the ghost house that I'm aware of is the famous shot of Houdini being locked in the Mirror Handcuffs on stage at the London Hippodrome in 1904. It's a little hidden among the committee. In fact, I bet some have never even noticed it!

I wonder what ever happened to Houdini's ghost house? How extraordinary would it be to see this piece of Houdini history today. Alas, the ghost house seems to have vanished...like a ghost!

If you enjoy Houdini artwork like this, check out my Facebook page Houdini Illustrated where I share images that don't always make it to the blog.


Sunday, September 27, 2020

First look at the Mirror Handcuffs?

This illustration appeared in the March 15, 1904 issue of the London Daily Illustrated Mirror and offers what may be the first public image of the famous Mirror Handcuffs. I don't think we can infer too much from it, but you will note that the hinge resembles the one on what we've come to call the Tatler Cuffs

The last public appearance of the Mirror Handcuffs was at the New York Historical Society's "Summer of Magic: Treasures from the David Copperfield Collection" exhibition in 2018.

Speaking of the Mirror Cuffs, Joe Notaro has added more evidence to his mounting case that the Tatler Cuffs survived and may still be around today. Read Joe's latest at Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

October Genii goes inside the Houdini Seance Room

Heads up that the October issue of Genii The Conjurors' Magazine contains a terrific 9-page article by Jim Steinmeyer and Rob Zabrecky about the history of the Magic Castle's Houdini Seance and the famous Houdini Seance room. The article also previews the new seance experience which will be ready to spook guests whenever the Castle is able to reopen (it is still closed due to Covid).

As you can see, the cover features a nice Halloween theme. But it's too bad the seance article wasn't featured as I think Genii is overdue for a Houdini cover. The last one was January 2011.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Fresh Daisies

Recently some new images from The Great Houdinis have appeared on the Getty Images website credited to the Walt Disney Television Photo Archive. Included are these two shots of the great Adrienne Barbeau as Daisy White that I've never seen before.

Adrienne was part of stellar cast and is so far the only actress to portray Houdini's rumored mistress. She included her experience shooting the movie in her 2007 autobiography There Are Worse Things I Could Do.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

LINK: Beer vat escape and other Houdini tricks in Buffalo, 1900-1925

The Buffalo News has a well-researched article today by Steve Cichon about Houdini's appearances in that city from 1900 to 1925. Click the headline to have a read.

Houdini actually did have some pre-1900 Buffalo engagements (1893, 1896, 1898). He even did a handcuff escape at Buffalo police headquarters on October 22, 1896. But Mr. Cichon does provide new details of his 1925 engagement, such as his lecture at Canisius College and his visit to the Meyer Motor Co. to see the "Talking Studebaker". Great stuff.

Below are links to some more adventures of Houdini in Buffalo, New York.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Another reason to question the 'convict in cuffs' story

We've all read the story of how young Ehrich Weiss apprenticed to a locksmith in Appleton, Wisconsin. One day the sheriff came in with a convict in handcuffs for which he had lost the key. It was left to Ehrich to file the cuffs off the scowling man as the sheriff and locksmith went to get a drink. After a several fruitless minutes of filing, Ehrich hit on the idea of picking the lock, which he did so successfully. Luckily, the locksmith and sheriff reappeared at that moment.

This is a story Houdini himself would tell when he began to flesh out his official biography in the 1900s. He like to add that the convict was the only man to ever witness his secret of opening handcuffs. The story found its way into the Kellock book and was most recently revived in The Secret Life of Houdini by Bill Kalush. While it may be true Ehrich apprenticed to a locksmith (Kalush believes he was named Mr. Hanauer), the "convict in cuffs" story has never passed the smell test for me. It just sounds too much like self-made mythology dished out to give reporters some compelling copy.

Now here's another reason to doubt the story. The below comes from the December 2, 1905 Walsall Advertiser. Yes, amazingly, Hardeen was also a locksmith's apprentice in Appleton and one day...well, read for yourself:

We know Houdini and Hardeen shared escapes, set dressing, and even stage patter. This shows they also shared the same tried and true publicity. (Hardeen also told a version of being trapped under the ice during a bridge jump.) So I think this just makes the convict in cuffs story all the more likely to be Houdini (and Hardeen) mythology.

Young Ehrich illustration is by Anne Reas from the book The Great Houdini by Monica Kulling (1999).


Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Q The Automaton to make you crazy

Yes, this is an actual Q The Automaton working toy from Houdini's The Master Mystery. Yes, these are made to be sold and even come in assorted colors. And, no, I have no idea how to buy one! And I need it! I need Q!!!!


Everything I know comes from a 2018 forum post at Alphadrome. So if builder Brian Hayes is reading this, let's put some money in your pocket and some Qs in the hands of Houdini fanatics!

"This is the model of a wonderful invention."

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

Monday, September 21, 2020

'Houdini the Great' street opera in Milan, Sept. 26

Houdini the Great, a street opera by Andy Pape, will be presented in the courtyard of Case Società Umanitaria, Via Solari 40, in Milan, Italy, on Saturday, September 26 at 8pm. From what I gather by running this page through Google Translate, Houdini the Great reimagines Houdini as an Italian immigrant and follows him on a fictional adventure in America. The play originated in Denmark in 1988. It was most recently staged in Alessandria.

For more information visit the Houdini the Great event page at Eventbrite.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd (and Houdini!) alley

Our great friend John Bengtson who runs the phenomenal blog Silent Locations has mounted an official campaign to name the the famous alley off Cahuenga near Hollywood Blvd. the "Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd Alley". This is in tribute to the three masters of silent comedy who each used the alley in their films. Of course, Houdini also used the alley for a quick shot in The Grim Game. It was actually John Bengtson who made this discovery. 

This video further explains the alley. You can help by leaving a thumbs up on YouTube.

Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921), Buster Keaton’s Cops (1922), and Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! (1923), were filmed in the heart of Hollywood at a humble alley south of Hollywood Boulevard. Each inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress as “works of enduring importance to American culture." This six-way constellation of timeless movies and iconic stars is absolutely unique in Hollywood history. The alley deserves a name - Chaplin Keaton Lloyd Alley. The north-south alley already has a great name, EaCa Alley, but the cross arm at the top deserves a name too. 
Download a pdf Chaplin Keaton Lloyd brochure HERE
Learn more at Silent Locations
Houdini in the Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd Alley in The Grim Game (1919).

Good luck John!

Saturday, September 19, 2020

A dog before Charlie?

Over the past several weeks I've been deep diving into The British Newspaper Archive seeking dates and data for my New Houdini Chronology. Along the way I've stumbled on some interesting tidbits, such as the below from the Manchester Evening News on November 22, 1902.

So does this mean the Houdinis had a dog--a Scotch Collie to be precise--before their famous dog Charlie? Or is Houdini is just helping someone find a lost dog? This is when Houdini was playing St. James Music Hall in Manchester. Note the address he gives is 91 Grosvenor Street. Today it looks like this. No Scotch Collies in sight.

Afraid that's all I have for this one. Just another Houdini mystery. Click below for more adventures of the Houdinis pets.


Friday, September 18, 2020

Houdini on HUNK

This week I had the great pleasure of being interviewed on the popular podcast HUNK with Mike Bridenstine. It's episode 38 and it's called, yep, HOUDINI! I'm especially excited to see myself animated alongside fellow guests Kenny DeForest, Kara Klenk, Johnny Pemberton, Joey Villagomez, and Liza Treyger.

You can listen on Spotify, Apple, the official HUNK website, or via your favorite podcatcher. If you join Mike's Pateron you can watch all the interviews on video.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

No sale for The House of Houdini in Budapest

David Merlini has turned down an offer of $18.6 million for his House of Houdini museum in Budapest and the rights to Houdini's name. The offer came from private investment fund CCV (Centurion Capital Ventures). David posted the news on The House of Houdini Facebook page, explaining in part: 

"The House of Houdini presents a private collection that took over 20 years to build, and it is currently the largest of its kind in Europe. Despite the fact that all of our exhibits, assets and trademarks are in private hands, we feel important to provide a publicly available update. 
As entering the agreement would have been resulted in the transfer of all usage, administrative and other rights to the new majority owner, there would have been no guarantee to keep the collection in Budapest long term. As this is a basic principle of our Statute, we have decided to withdraw from the deal. 
The House of Houdini has opened its gate in 2016 in the Buda Castle in Budapest aiming to pose a tribute to world famous Budapest born escape artist Harry Houdini through his original artefacts. We aim to fulfill our mission of preserving the heritage of one of our most famed compatriot for future generations with the same passion and enthusiasm. "

The House of Houdini is currently closed due to a Covid spike in Hungary, but has plans to reopen next week.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

d'ILLUSION- The Houdini Musical

d'ILLUSION- The Houdini Musical
is an "Audio Theater Experience" featuring Julian R. Decker as Houdini, Quiana Holmes as (the first black) Bess, Rico LeBron as Hardeen, and Ben Toomer as Martin Beck. Below is a description and trailer from the official website.

When we entered 2020, we couldn’t have predicted the challenges we were about to face. We were hopeful and felt the energy of the new decade. New ideas and hopes were the cornerstone of our future. When the pandemic broke out and disrupted the whole world, it wasn’t just a health problem; our social and emotional lives were also affected. We took our precious moments for granted, whether it would be our personal or professional lives. It left us in darkness. 

The Audio Theatre Experience was born during this incredible time. It is bound not only to give a much needed escape from the troubling realities that surround us, but its true intention is to keep theater alive, our community together, and be an example that no matter how difficult things get, we can overcome our obstacles and defy them. It just takes a shift in the mind. 

Over 50 exceptional artists worked tirelessly for four months. Our team, from all over the world, faced the trials of recording their parts remotely with different recording devices, time differences, and language barriers. Even though most of them have never met or been in the same room or continent- our passion, trust, and respect brought us together. 

Houdini is one of the most inspiring people in history. His commitment, drive, and belief has helped guide us through these past months and he has been indeed the lighthouse in this storm. So, here we are after thousands of hours of work, these prodigious actors, musicians, voice talents, and creative staff are honored to present: d’ILLUSION: The Houdini Musical. Welcome to the world of Houdini!

You can enjoy the full audio play at the d'ILLUSION- The Houdini Musical YouTube Channel.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Mystifier, Fall 2003 (final issue)

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

It seems fitting that the final issue of the Mystifier consists of a single article about Houdini's Last Will and Testament by Curator Kimberly Louagie. As with all of Louagie's work, it's well researched and thorough.

Sidney Radner did not provide his regular "Backstage" column this time. Instead, the back page contains a letter from Executive Director Terry Bergen explaining the current situation and future of the HHC.

I'm sure many of you have heard rumors about the changes at the Houdini Historical Center. It has been a most interesting and enlightening year! 
For fifteen years, we have been fortunate to be able to lease the Radner collection of Houdini artifacts. This opportunity has allowed the Outagamie Country Historical Society to develop the Houdini exhibit, as well as temporary exhibits, and the Houdini Historical Center. The original contract expires at the end of this year, and the economy has conspired to prevent us from extending the lease. Our county appropriation was cut 25% in 2003 and another 25% will be cut in 2004. The county funding is what has paid for the Houdini lease for the past 15 years.

Mr. Radner and other generous donors have provided the museum with a number of artifacts which will allow us to create a new exhibit about Houdini called "a.k.a. Houdini". The new exhibit will open in June 2004, and will be double the size of the current Houdini! exhibit. The Society plans an exhibit that will be a dynamic and exciting as the man Harry Houdini. The new exhibit will display fewer artifacts that the one which has featured Mr. Radner's extensive collection, but it will tell the story of Houdini's life images, interactives and artifacts.

Many of our HHC members have asked about the future of the Houdini Historical Center, now that the Radner Collection will be leaving the museum in Appleton. The Houdini Historical Center will continue, however, due to loss of staff caused by budget cuts, the Mystifier will be discontinued for 2004.

Bergen goes on to say that a new HHC website with a special "Members Only" section will be created. If this happened, it was only temporary. With the end of the Mystifier came the end of the Houdini Historical Center and the museum was renamed The History Museum at the Castle. And when the much touted new Houdini exhibit opened in 2004, magicians were shocked to see it exposed Houdini's Metamorphosis.

Despite criticism from magicians such as David Copperfield, the museum refused to change the exhibit, and any hope of the Radner collection ever returning to Appleton was dashed. (Sid said he was planning to bequeath his collection to the HHC.) Sid singled out Bergen for the turn of events, telling the New York Times, "She doesn't know Houdini from Liberace. She just knows dollars."

Sid's collection was auctioned in 2004. Terry Bergen remained director of The History Museum at the Castle until 2013. The a.k.a. Houdini exhibit can still be visited today.

I hope you enjoyed my look back at all 48 issues of the Mystifier. You can start all over or select an issue of your choice via the links below.

Monday, September 14, 2020

10th Anniversary: Randi at the Castle

It was 10 years ago that I reported on an event at the Magic Castle in Hollywood with James The Amazing Randi. This was my first time meeting Randi who remains one of my magic heroes.

TEN YEAR UPDATE: Randi did make his return appearance at the Castle in 2012, which I also covered HERE. Today Randi is still with us at age 92, and, boy, has my hair gone grey!

    Sunday, September 13, 2020

    Wait, what?

    These "Houdini handcuffs" recently sold at auction for a whopping $16,520. What makes this all the more remarkable is the auction provided no provenance whatsoever, and I'm not sure having been displayed at the America Circus Museum in Sarasota adds much. Even an authenticated pair of (ungaffed) Houdini handcuffs would not sell for anywhere near this price. Maybe the buyer knows something we don't?

    You can follow the discussion of this at Kevin Connolly's Conjuring History Facebook Group. Below are links to some more curious "Houdini handcuffs".

    Friday, September 11, 2020

    Did Hardeen really discover the full view straitjacket escape?

    It's an established part of Houdini lore that he originally performed his straitjacket escape inside a cabinet until Hardeen discovered the power of doing the escape in full view when challenged to do so one night by an audience that didn't believe his cabinet escape. After that, Houdini quickly adopted the full view presentation and the straitjacket became one of his most iconic and popular escapes.

    I've always found this perplexing. How could Houdini, who knew full well the power of rope escapes done in full view of the audience, fail to see this himself? Nevertheless, here's proof positive that as late as November 12, 1904, Houdini is still doing the straitjacket escape inside his "red velvet tent." This is from the Birmingham Daily Gazette:

    Click to enlarge.

    From this it appears the escape is still effective ("the applause was tremendous"), so maybe that's why Houdini never felt the need to experiment. I should add that I've found another cabinet straitjacket escape on December 2, 1904, at the Pavilion Theatre in Newcastle (with a carpet laid on the floor to ensure no traps), but the above clipping makes better reading.

    So if Hardeen really did make this seminal discovery, exactly when and where did this happen? Turns out that is NOT an easy question to answer. There are conflicting claims and not one of them commits to a date. But we know Houdini is still in his cabinet in November-December 1904, and it's said he did his first full view escape in Paris in March 1905. So we can assume Hardeen made his discovery sometime between those dates.

    Thanks to my recent deep dive into the British Newspaper Archive (which I've re-upped for another month), I have Hardeen's schedule at this time. So with this in hand, let's examine the major candidates:

    In Houdini The Untold Story, Milbourne Christopher says Hardeen made his discovery at the Swansea Empire in Wales. He does not provide a date, but Hardeen played Swansea the week of December 26, 1904, which is within the timeline. Christopher says Dash sent Houdini a newspaper clipping. That makes me suspect his source is a letter. I wish I knew for sure, because Christopher is also the sole source for Houdini doing his first full view escape in Paris in March 1905. (The first account I can find is April 14, 1905 in Cardiff.) This is two months after Swansea, so either Hardeen took his time telling him or Houdini took his time in adopting it. Or maybe there's a better candidate...

    The pitchbook:
    I believe everyone, including Christopher, uses Hardeen's pitchbook, The Life and History of Hardeen, as the primary source for the dramatics of this event. And why shouldn't they? The pitchbook contains what appears to be a detailed newspaper account (which, unfortunately, is undated and unattributed). It even has a photo of the theater announcing the re-challenge on a huge outside banner.

    The pitchbook identifies the events as having played out at the "London Empire." Now, when I hear "London Empire", I think of the Empire Theater in Leicester Square. But Hardeen never performed there. So this could be a reference to greater London, and Hardeen did play Empires in Hackney, Holloway, and New Cross in late November 1904, which are (just) within the timeline. [UPDATE: The photo is the Holloway Empire.]

    But here's the problem. Elsewhere this pitchbook photo is credited as being 1906. This is well after Houdini is doing the straitjacket in full view. In fact, I have found numerous accounts of Hardeen being called out of his cabinet to repeat his straitjacket escape all throughout 1906. It appears to have been a standard (staged) re-challenge, similar to how Houdini would be "re-challenged" to do his packing crate escape. In fact, Hardeen becomes so associated with this, the English press dubbed him "the straitjacket man." Here is one such account from the Empress Theater in Hartlepool on April 7, 1906:

    Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail.

    I now believe everything in the pitchbook is referencing one of these later staged escapes. It's also possible the story in the pitchbook is not even an actual newspaper clipping, which is why it is unattributed and suspiciously vague. So the pitchbook is pure misdirection.

    Does this mean the entire story of Hardeen discovering the full view straitjacket escape is manufactured mythology? Did the brothers discover it in some other way, maybe even seeing an imitator do it? When going down one of these Houdini rabbit holes the "it never happened" option always has to be considered. But before we jump to that conclusion, there's one more candidate to hear from...

    Hardeen (Himself):
    In the March 1941 issue of The Sphinx, Hardeen provided a lengthy article called "Houdini-Hardeen Strait-Jacket Escape". In it he states he made his full view discovery at the "Bedford Music Hall, Camdentown, London." He also says the escape took a full "grueling hour." He doesn't give a date (why make it easy on us?), but I've discovered Hardeen at the New Bedford Palace of Varieties in Camden Town on March 24, 1905. Presumably Dash played the full week which began on March 20.

    Music Hall and Theatre Review, March 24, 1905.

    This engagement fits like a glove! It is within the timeline and, better yet, it is while Houdini is in Paris. So Christopher's claim that Hardeen told Houdini about the escape via letter and that Houdini first tried it in Paris works beautifully. We also know Dash joined Houdini in Cardiff for his battles with Frank Hilbert during the week of April 12, and it's on April 14th that Houdini does the first documented full view escape that I can find.

    (By the way, Hardeen states in this same article that he and Houdini saw their first straitjacket in Berlin in 1900, which cannot be right. But that's a can of worms for another time.)

    While I'm still not sure we have this is 100% locked down, I do feel pretty good about the March 1905 New Bedford engagement as being the time and place Hardeen discovered the full view straitjacket escape. I also still believe the core claim; that it was Dash who made this discovery and not Houdini. The primary reason are the 1906 staged re-challenges. Only Dash did these, and that suggests he had some ownership over this particular twist on the act. Not to mention he was able to put the story in his pitchbook.

    So, yes, I think we are safe leaving this one in Hardeen's column. Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments.

    Thanks to Joe Fox for providing me with a copy of the original Hardeen Sphinx article. It is also reprinted in Pat Culliton's Houdini The Key and Hardeen: Monarch of Manacles by William V. Rauscher.

    Thursday, September 10, 2020

    Private investment fund circling David Merlini's House of Houdini

    A private investment fund, CCV (Centurion Capital Ventures), is offering David Merlini $18.6 million for his House of Houdini museum in Budapest and the rights to Houdini's name. David controls the use of "Houdini" in the EU. The news broke via a press release late last month.

    David has now confirmed for the Hungarian news outlet Blikk that the offer is legitimate. Says David, "I can’t comment on the details of the deal, but I have to make the difficult decision in days."

    David Merlini opened The House of Houdini in 2016. Is the only Houdini museum in Europe. The museum, which is located in Buda Castle on Castle Hill, had reopened for business. But due to a Covid spike in Hungary, the government is once again ordering all museums to close.

    UPDATENo sale for The House of Houdini in Budapest.


    Ghost burster

    The website lavanguardia.com has an article about Houdini and Margery by John William Wilkinson. It's in Spanish so I don't know if it's any good, but this animation by Martin Tognola that tops the story is terrific!

    Is it just me, or have things been a little quiet on the Margery front these days? Below are a few Margery goodies from the past.

    Wednesday, September 9, 2020

    Houdini flies again in 1926

    While Houdini never piloted an airplane after his historic Australian flights of 1910, he did occasionally board aircraft as a passenger. This was before passenger air travel was well established. He flew to Catalina Island during production of Terror Island in 1919. In 1920 he and Bess flew across the English Channel to France. But here's an airplane journey in the last year of his life that I was not aware of. This is from the February 19, 1926 York Daily Record.

    This wasn't the only talk of air travel for Houdini in 1926. While playing the Orpheum Theater in York, Pennsylvania, Houdini had to travel to Washington D.C. to appear before Congress at 2:00 PM on February 26. His plan was to take a train in the early morning and return by airplane in time for his show that evening. However, insurance forbade him to take the flight. But Houdini appears to have still made it back in time for his show. Might he have taken his flight anyway?

    One thing this tells us; had Houdini lived, he almost certainly would have become a frequent flyer.

    Tuesday, September 8, 2020

    Houdini is a Big Mouth

    The (very) adult Netflix animated series Big Mouth features an appearance by Houdini's ghost in season 3 episode 5, "How to Have an Orgasm." Houdini is voiced by Andrew Daly. He shows up around the 20 minute mark, although Houdini is name-checked throughout the episode. This first streamed October 5, 2019.

    Below are some more appearances of Houdini in animated comedy.

    Monday, September 7, 2020

    That meme you've seen

    This meme has been making the rounds on Facebook and I've received a few emails asking if it's real. Well, it is real in the sense that this is an image of Houdini in 1918 when the flu pandemic was raging. But it has nothing to do with the pandemic. This is a screen grab from Houdini's The Master Mystery. Houdini is wearing a mask here to protect himself from the dreaded "Madagascar Madness." I'm actually the one who first shared this image on Facebook. But then someone made it into this meme and it has taken on a life of its own. 

    So while it's a little misleading, the sentiment is certainly legit. Wear a mask!

    Here's wishing everyone a safe and Covid free Labor Day.

    Sunday, September 6, 2020

    Beat the heat with Hardeen

    Today is going to be a hot one in Southern California. It's forecast to be 114℉ in my own Burbank. Even Catalina "Terror" Island shows 107℉, which I didn't think was possible. Coincidently, yesterday I stumbled on this ad from almost exactly 114 years ago. Despite being "the hottest day of the summer" in the UK, people still packed the non-air conditioned Ealing Hippodrome to see Hardeen! Imagine what they would have endured for Houdini?

    Music Hall and Theatre Review, Sept. 7, 1906.

    Notice this ad shows Hardeen was also managed by Harry Day in the UK. I love the inclusion of "my pal." That seems very Dash.

    Stay cool.

    Saturday, September 5, 2020

    Watch the Houdini episode of The UnXplained

    Season 2 of the William Shatner series The UnXplained features a Houdini segment in episode 9, "The Greatest Escapes". I didn't see this when it first aired back in July, but I was finally able to check it out on Amazon. It's well done. It was respectful and I especially liked the colorized animated images of Houdini (below). It also did a nice job of mythologizing the Overboard Box as his most baffling escape. That might be debatable, but you'll need to take it up with Shatner!

    The episode features interviews with the great Jim Steinmeyer, Dean Gunnarson (who knows the danger of the Overboard Box firsthand), investigative journalist David Whitehead, and yours truly. The interviews were shot at the legendary Brookledge in a room frequented by Bess Houdini, so that was a thrill.

    Of course, it wouldn't be the "History" Channel without conspiracy, pseudoscience, or superstition, hence their conclusion that Houdini may have possessed supernatural powers. Even the filmmakers knew this was hokum, but that's the network. (If you're wondering what happened to the History Channel, check out this YouTube video.)

    You can purchase The UnXplained season 2, episode 9, The Greatest Escapes, at Amazon.com. If you have cable you can stream it on the The UnXplained website.


    Friday, September 4, 2020

    Selling The Master Mystery in the UK

    Today marks the 101st anniversary of the release of Houdini's The Mastery Mystery in the United Kingdom. As in the U.S., the serial was aggressively marketed to exhibitors via trade magazines. Below are several ads from The Bioscope pushing the serial. Did you know The Master Mystery was "The Greatest Money-Maker Ever Produced"? Now you do. I especially like how the trade screenings were promoted as "Houdini Days." Enjoy.

    Houdini had originally planned to be touring the UK while the serial rolled out across the country. But he changed his plans when it was decided to film his second Lasky feature, Terror Island, that Fall. When Houdini finally arrived in the UK in early 1920, The Master Mystery had done its work and England was ready to see Houdini (Himself).

    Thursday, September 3, 2020

    More trouble for Mysto

    Following up on Tuesday's post about Houdini's exposure of Carl Mysto's coffin escape in 1904, our friend Fred Pittella sends over these gems from his collection. This playbill predates the Salford exposure and is almost certainly the work of Houdini.

    Click to enlarge.

    Poor Mysto. Maybe it's his failed 1902 audition and Houdini calling him "a common bum and a dirty one at that", but I admit I feel sorry for him. I feel like he pulled himself together and came up with good idea with his coffin escape, especially the idea of his hands manacled through the top, and he didn't do anything to warrant its exposure.

    But as said on Tuesday, Mysto's skirmishes with Houdini actually brought him publicity and bookings that he wouldn't have otherwise received, and he did go on to have a long career in English Music Halls. In 1922 he even starred in a popular musical comedy show, O.K., in which he played a magician detective named "O.K." In 1930 he renamed himself The Great Neudini.

    Thanks to Fred Pittella for the share. Be sure and check out Fred's own website Houdini & Escapes Museum.

    Wednesday, September 2, 2020

    Blaine ascends

    This morning David Blaine presented his latest outdoor spectacle, Ascension, in which his floated nearly 25,000 feet into the air holding balloons. It was another beautifully conceived feat that was both awe inspiring and terrifying, and exactly what it must have been like to experience Houdini.

    You can rewatch the live stream of "David Blaine Ascension" on YouTube.

    Tuesday, September 1, 2020

    Opening Mysto's coffin

    Contrary to popular belief, Houdini did not go after each and every imitator of his act. Theaters were awash in Houdini wannabes, and to have tangled with them all would have left no time for his own act and just brought them publicity. So unless an imitator made false claims about Houdini or used his name in their advertising, he largely ignored them.

    In 1903 an escape artist who called himself Carl Mysto began performing challenge escapes in the UK. This was not typical of other Houdini imitators who largely confined themselves to the handcuff act. One of Mysto's feats was to escape from an "iron-bound coffin" with his hands manacled through holes in the top. The escape was a good one and it drew a fair amount of attention, even landing Mysto a photo spread in the Houdini friendly London Daily Illustrated Mirror (above and below).

    Houdini had first met Mysto in October 1902 when the budding magician wrote asking if Houdini could arrange an audition. Houdini remembered: "Carl Mysto at the time was working in pubs, doing magic and passing the hat. He was a tramp. I gave him a pair of pants and a few old shirts and half a dollar. He gave a trial show and did not make good. He was a common bum and a dirty one at that."

    In September of 1904, both Handcuff Kings found themselves playing opposite theaters in Salford near Manchester. Houdini was at the Regent Theatre of Varieties and Mysto at the Hippodrome. Mysto ran into trouble during his first week. On September 21 he was summons to the Salford police court on a charge of stealing a pair of handcuffs from a challenger, Thomas Skellington. The case was dismissed. 

    Did Houdini have a hand in this? If so, it could help explain why the Hippodrome's manager, Broadhead, felt compelled to take a swipe at Houdini during a manager's meeting, saying Mysto gave a better show and did not "talk endlessly of his triumphs." Furthermore, at £10 a week, Mysto made a better profit than Houdini at £150 a week. Houdini's hatred of imitators was matched only by his hatred of unscrupulous managers, and when he learned of Broadhead's words the gloves came off.

    Instead of challenging Mysto to a coffin breaking contest as one might expect, Houdini took an approach wholly bent on ruining his signature feat. He paid the man who made Mysto's coffin, Reuben Shaw, to make him a duplicate. He then exposed the escape on the stage of the Regent for two straight nights. The London Daily Illustrated Mirror ran a story complete with photos. Below are those two photos showing Franz Kukol and Hardeen (presumably standing in for Shaw) assisting in the exposure.

    Unlike the stories of Houdini undoing Kleppini with the French Letter Cuff or Frank Hilbert with a crafty disguise, the Mysto affair doesn't present Houdini in an especially heroic light. It's an out-and-out exposure of another magician's original invention and a clear breech of the Magician's Code. Local magicians were said to be "blazing with anger", and at least one reader of the Mirror found Houdini's behavior unsportsmanlike:

    Houdini portrayed his actions as providing a public service, saying the use of a coffin was "entirely out of place" and that after his exposure "no coffin will ever again be used as an accessory to a public amusement." Privately he told local magician Harry Whiteley that he regretted exposing the coffin trick, but his fight was with Broadhead, not Mysto. The incident did not hurt Mysto, who suddenly found himself in demand. But it also opened the door to exposure acts, many of which would target Houdini.

    Despite Houdini's claim to have made the theatrical world safe from coffins, in January 1907 he presented his own coffin challenge escape at the Boston Athletic Association. That coffin is on display today at the Houdini Museum of New York along with an original poster from the 1904 Mysto exposure.

    Thanks to Joe Fox for helping me uncover the Harry Whiteley letter and the name of manager Broadhead. For more on Mysto in Salford check out Harry Houdini Legend & Legacy by Brian Lead and Roger Woods, 1993.