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.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Magic Collectors' Corner Houdini Part 3, Sunday

We're heading into the Halloween weekend and the 94th anniversary of Houdini's death. Covid hasn't restrained the Handcuff King, and not only will tomorrow see Houdini seances, but on Sunday the incredible Magic Collectors' Corner weekly ZOOM gathering will highlight Houdini. Yes, it's the eagerly awaited "Houdini Partie Trois!" Below are details.

No Prison Could Hold Him! Plus, The Guy Was Pretty Good With A Deck Of Cards! 
This week's Magic Collectors' Corner features a return to the discussion of one of the biggest names in magic's history... HARRY HOUDINI! This will be our third time talking with experts about the world's greatest escape artist and undeniably one of the most iconic names in magic! Plus, we'll visit a portion of the Houdini collection as owned and cared for by Fred Pittella. Additionally, we're going to play more magic history-themed games, ask Adele Friel Rhindress some questions about life on the road with the Blackstone show, learn some magical trivia, share more about past topics when we Escape From The Mailbag, and we'll even have a few special surprises!

ZOOM Meeting ID: 823 2179 9558
Password: Dante

Join Zoom Meeting

This will be the 29th Collectors' Corner. David Sandy and Lance Rich have committed to doing these through November. If you haven't yet attended a Collectors' Corner, you are in for a real treat! These offer up a treasure trove of magic history. Their show on Richiardi ran for 4 fascinating hours! And the weekly attendees are a-listers of the magic and collecting world.

Participation on the ZOOM platform is limited to the first 100 people, but you can also watch a live simulcast on the Magic Collector's Corner Facebook Group. There you can also view past shows.

Hope to see you on Sunday!

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Join the virtual Houdini Seance on Halloween

Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz will hold their annual "Original Houdini Seance" as a virtual Zoom event this Saturday (Halloween). Their goal is to assemble the largest audience ever for a Houdini Seance. How could Houdini resist? Below are details.

YOU can attend the largest online seance ever held this Saturday October 31st on Zoom! 

Please attend the first virtual seance to try to communicate with Harry Houdini on the 94th Anniversary of his death. It will be conducted Saturday, October 31, 2020 at 1:26 PM (EST) by Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz the owners and curators of the Harry Houdini Museum in Scranton, PA.

Sign in at 1:00 PM EST for a discussion and explanation of this event. The actual Seance will take place at 1:26 PM, the exact time of Houdini's death 94 years ago on October 31, 1926. 

Come Join The Houdini Seance 
Meeting ID: 816 7803 6794 
Passcode: 642907

10th Anniversary: Houdini Art and Magic

It was 10 years ago today that the impressive Houdini Art & Magic touring exhibition opened at the Jewish Museum of New York. Relive the opening day post below:

TEN YEAR UPDATE: Houdini Art and Magic ran at the Jewish Museum of New York from October 29, 2010 to March 27, 2011. It then traveled to the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles from April 28 to September 4, 2011; the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from October 2, 2011 to January 16, 2012; and then wrapped up at at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art in Madison, Wisconsin from from February 11 to May 13, 2012.

I had the please of seeing the exhibition in Los Angeles and San Franscio which also hosted talks by Ken Silverman and William Kalush. The exhibition also saw an impressive companion book by Brooke Kamin Rapaport, which is still available on Amazon.


Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Transatlantic History Ramblings gets spooky

Recently had the pleasure of returning to the Transatlantic History Ramblings podcast hosted by Lauren Davies in Wales and Brian Young in Buffalo. This time I was part of a Halloween roundtable discussion that included Kurt from the excellent The Strange Sessions podcast and UK Ghost Hunter Neil Storey.

While my role was to talk about Houdini and represent the more skeptical take on things, I somehow ended up providing a ghost story that seemed to spook the spook chasers! It's not Houdini related. It has to do with the famous Amityville Horror house in New York. The video, which we discuss during the podcast, tells the story.

You can listen and subscribe to Transatlantic History Ramblings on SpotifyApple, Spotify, Google, Anchor, or your favorite podcatcher.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Michigan History is wild about Houdini in Detroit

Houdini is on the cover of the November/December Michigan History magazine with an article inside about "Houdini in Detroit" by Jeremy Dimick, director of collections at the Detroit Historical Society. 

The article doesn't appear to be available online, so this is one you'll need to read the old fashioned way. The colorized cover image appears to be the work of Dana R. Keller.

You can purchase Michigan History HERE.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Everyone's first Houdini poster

Recently I was going through boxes of posters in my garage and was delighted to discover my old "Harry Houdini - King of Cards" poster reproduction. This hung on my bedroom wall from around 1976. I suspect this was the first Houdini poster for many. It sure was mine!

This reproduction is now iconic in its own right. So what's the story behind it? To tell the story right, we should probably start with the original.

King of Cards is often said to be Houdini's first poster and leads some to conclude that he started his career as a card magician. Neither is correct. While it could be said this is his first known solo poster, there are posters for "The Houdinis" that pre-date this. Houdini actually had this printed around 1898, probably at the same time as his full color Metamorphosis poster. Both posters were printed by the National Printing and Engraving Company of Chicago and both were used during the Houdinis 1898 tour with the Welsh Bros Circus. But the following year Houdini received his big break via Martin Beck and forever became the King of Handcuffs, making his King of Cards poster obsolete. Ironically, this poster, which is today is seen so often, it probably the poster Houdini used the least of any during his career. But that could be why so many copies survive.

In 1941 an original King of Cards poster featured on the cover of Genii magazine. Editor William Larsen noted: "The poster which is reproduced on the cover was found in the Houdini files by Edward Saint, Houdini Archivist, and especially rephotographed, on his instructions, for our use." The poster became known in magic circles. A mockup King of Cards poster with the image of Tony Curtis can even be spotted in Houdini (1953).

An original King of Cards and the 1941 rediscovery.

In November 1961, magician Tommy Windsor created the first reproduction of the King of Cards poster. This was well before magic poster reproductions were common, and it may have even been the first? Windsor's reproduction was printed on heavy 80 pound book paper and sold for $2.00 (postage paid). In his adverting Windsor dated the poster as 1895 and began touting it as Houdini's first. He also promoted it as a great deal, seeing as originals were known to sell for $25 and up! It appears Windsor only sold his poster for a limited time as his advertising dries up after 1961.

In 1968 Lee Jacobs again offered "Tommy Windsor's Harry Houdini King of Cards Poster" along with his own magic poster reproductions. Jacobs was a magician and publisher who operated a mail order magic business out of Pomeroy, Ohio. Presumably Jacobs had acquired Windsor's unsold stock, or he was selling them on Windsor's behalf. But in 1973 Jacobs announced that he had acquired the rights to the poster from The Tommy Windsor Studio. In the August 1973 Linking Ring Jacobs stated: "This is our finest hour. We have just completed the most beautiful poster reproduction ever and at a price you won't believe."

It's probably no exaggeration to say the Lee Jacobs King of Cards poster sold in every magic shop in the country. (I believe I got mine at Hollywood Magic.) And it was just in time for the great Houdini renaissance of the 1970s. It may have even been a contributing factor. It frequently shows up as background art in film and television. In The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini, Las Vegas magician Jen Kramer is quoted as saying, "I'll bet ninety percent of the kids who dream of becoming a magician have that poster on the wall, and we stare at it endlessly."

Unlike some of Jacobs other reproductions, King of Cards is approximately the same dimensions as the original. The quality of the reproduction is also excellent and the book paper gives it a lithograph look and feel. Ironically, it's now old enough that it could be confused as being an original! But there are obvious tells. Original King of Cards posters have wider borders and a large empty space at the top where performance details would be placed. Also, "NATIONAL PR. & ENG. CO. CHICAGO" is omitted from the lower right border of the reproductions. Jacobs also stamped his name and address on the backs.

As for telling the difference between the Lee Jacobs and Tommy Windsor reproductions, I'm afraid I've not seen a confirmed Windsor poster, so I don't know the differences for sure. But it's possible Jacobs trimmed the borders tighter on his posters. I did spot a "vintage" repro on eBay that had larger borders and no Lee Jacobs stamp on the back. So maybe this was a Tommy Windsor? If anyone has a confirmed Windsor, I'd love to see it.

In 1980 Jacobs issued a "NEW" King of Cards reproduction. This new poster was done on 100 pound glossy enameled stock with the color being closer to the original. While the borders are still trimmed, the Chicago Printing Company credit is restored. On the back are reproductions of two Houdini photos and a letter along with an essay by Jacobs dated February 22, 1980. The essay furthers the myth that the poster "dates from before the days when Houdini began doing the escape feats."

Even though the paper quality on the 1980 poster is heavier and less susceptible to aging, to my eye the image is slightly inferior to the earlier poster. And it's a shame to loose the lithographic look and feel. In 1980 I was excited by the extras on the back and the restoration of the printing company's name. But today I prefer my pre 1980 poster. Below you can see the two reproductions side by side front and back (original on left and 1980 on the right).

Lee Jacobs would go on to release a reproduction Buried Alive poster in 1986 which featured material on the back related to "Harry Houdini, Motion Picture Star". Jacobs died in 2003. Of his magic poster reproductions, his widow Ramona Compton said, "This may have been Lee's greatest contribution to the field of magic. And he had always wanted to be remembered for this contribution."

In 2014 the original King of Cards poster that Tommy Windsor used for that first reproduction in 1961 sold at a Potter & Potter auction for $17,000.

Today you can get beautiful King of Cards poster reproductions with the full borders and accurate colors from Nielsen Magic and others. But for me there is something magical and, yes, collectible about these earliest King of Cards reproductions from Tommy Windsor and Lee Jacobs that started it all.

Did you have a King of Cards poster? Do you remember where you got it? Please feel free to share your own King of Cards memories in the comments below.

Thanks to Magic Castle librarian extraordinaire Joe Fox for all the information and great images that turned this post from a one paragraph quickie to a King of Cards deep dive!

UPDATE: Mark Horowitz has sent this image of his original Tommy Windsor King of Cards poster. As you can see, the borders are indeed a bit wider than the Jacobs repro. These were sent to buyers folded and with an "Insurance Poster Trick." Thank you Mark for providing this final piece of the puzzle!

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Dorothy and Dick join The Creepy Side of NEPA

Houdini is certainly receiving a lot of attention on podcasts this month! Here our friends Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz of the Houdini Museum in Scranton guest on The Creepy Side of NEPA podcast. They talk Houdini and tell stories of strange occurrences during their Original Houdini Seances and inside their Houdini museum.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Rob Zabrecky talks Houdini with Dana Gould

Rob Zabrecky is a guest on one my favorite podcasts, The Dana Gould Hour. On this Halloween special Rob and Dana talk about Houdini, the Houdini Seance, and the Magic Castle. I've been hoping Dana would tackle Houdini someday, and here we have it. Dana also devotes his "True Tales from Weirdsville" segment to the Fox sisters. Enjoy.

Friday, October 23, 2020

The Weed Chain rematch

Last weekend a challenge handbill sold at Haversat & Ewing Galleries latest magic auction for $1,404.00. This is more than three times what challenges typically fetch. But that could be because this is a very special challenge. This documents the second challenge from the Weed Chain Tire Grip Company in 1908. Houdini had beat a Weed Chain test in New York on April 10th. But the company felt they could do better and followed him to Philadelphia with more chains and new conditions, as you can read below.

While I knew Houdini had repeated the challenge in Philadelphia, I never knew the date nor details. But this provides both! This challenge was said to have created an even bigger sensation than in New York as it was reported via ticker tape "in the same manner as every great sporting event."

Below is a photo of Houdini confined in the Weed Chains taken at the White Studio around the time of his first test. This became one of Houdini's most widely used publicity images and it's likely the reason the Weed Chain challenge is so well-known today. But is there a photo of Houdini in the second test configuration? One wonders how more chains could be added to this!

Below are links to more Weed Chain challenge info and images.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Houdini and David Copperfield to be inducted into National Jewish Museum Hall of Fame

Houdini and David Copperfield will be simultaneously inducted into The National Museum of American Jewish History's Only in America Gallery/Hall of Fame in a special livestream event on Saturday, December 12, 2020. Below is the full press release.


Copperfield Will Accept the Honor from His International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts Which Houses the Largest Collection of Houdini Artifacts in the World 

The Philadelphia Museum’s Virtual Gala Will Take Place on December 12, 2020 

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (October 22, 2020) – The National Museum of American Jewish History announced today that the two most famous illusionists of all time, Harry Houdini and David Copperfield, will be simultaneously inducted into its Only in America® Gallery/Hall of Fame during the Museum’s annual gala—a virtual event scheduled for Saturday, December 12, 2020. 

An honor bestowed to just 21 prior inductees, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Steven Spielberg, Barbara Streisand, Emma Lazarus, and Irving Berlin, the award recognizes the achievements and contributions of American Jews who share and exemplify the ideals of the stories explored in the Museum. 

“We are thrilled and grateful to be able to induct Harry Houdini and David Copperfield into Only in America at the same time,” said NMAJH Trustee and Gala Chair, Sharon Tobin Kestenbaum. “The kinds of ‘Only in America’ stories we explore in the Museum are in great part about the legacies created for future generations. With this event, we are able to celebrate a cross-generational story. From immigrant Harry Houdini to first-generation American David Copperfield, this event clearly demonstrates what’s possible when individuals are simply given the chance to be great.” 

Both magicians share a passion for the history of magic. “David Copperfield cares deeply about the history of his craft—his desire to know and preserve that history is something that resonates strongly with us as a history Museum,” added NMAJH CEO, Dr. Misha Galperin. “Museums and magic actually have a lot in common—they are about storytelling at their core, and are designed to intrigue, inspire, and spark wonder.” 

Copperfield will accept the honor from his International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts in Las Vegas, Nevada which houses the world’s largest collection of historically significant magic memorabilia, posters, books, props, artifacts, and is home to the largest collection of Houdini artifacts including his Water Torture Cell, Metamorphosis Trunk, as well as the only known recording of Houdini’s voice—preserved on the original Edison wax cylinders. 

To date, David Copperfield has earned 21 Emmy Awards, 11 Guinness World Records, is a recipient of the Living Legend honor by The Library of Congress, and has sold more tickets than any solo performer in history. Born David Seth Kotkin in New Jersey, his mother came from Israel and his father’s parents were born in Russia. Copperfield was invited to join the Society of American Magicians at just 12 years old—its youngest member ever. One of David’s proudest achievements is Project Magic, a program that uses magic as therapy in 1,000 hospitals in 30 countries worldwide. This medically certified program motivates patients to regain their dexterity, coordination, and cognitive skills by learning simple magic and sleight of hand. 

During the virtual event, Copperfield will himself induct Harry Houdini. Born Erik Weisz in Hungary in 1874, Houdini came to America when he was just four years old. He toiled at odd jobs as a young man and son of a Rabbi who struggled to make ends meet for his family before becoming the legendary illusionist we know today, touring across America and Europe and drawing audiences of thousands. He had little in the way of formal education and self-educated himself on the history of magic, amassing a large collection, and confronting the scams of his day with historical evidence. His death-defying feats and daring work as an escape-artist set him apart from all other performers of his time. He continues to inspire generations of magicians. 

Last fall, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the 21st inductee into Only in America. She joined an iconic group of living and posthumous inductees which includes Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Louis Brandeis, Albert Einstein, Gertrude Elion, Mordecai Kaplan, Sandy Koufax, Estée Lauder, Emma Lazarus, Isaac Leeser, Golda Meir, Julius Rosenwald, Jonas Salk, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Rose Schneiderman, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand, Henrietta Szold, and Isaac Mayer Wise. 

The award recognizes the achievements and contributions of American Jews who have significantly impacted American society and culture, often despite facing antisemitism and prejudice. The inductees embody hard work and aspiration, courage and imagination, leadership and service. Located on the first floor of the Museum, the Ed Snider Only in America® Gallery/Hall of Fame brings these stories to life through a combination of original artifacts, original films, and multimedia elements. 

Virtual Gala
Tickets will go on sale later this month. The event is open to the public and will be a can’t-miss experience for anyone who loves the awe-inspiring wonder of magic. All are welcome to partake in a night of surprise and amazement at this once-in-a-lifetime event honoring the legacy of Harry Houdini and living legend, David Copperfield. Sponsorships with exclusive benefits available. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

James Randi passes away at 92

James Randi, a titan in the world of magic and a successor to Houdini in many regards, has passed away at age 92. The JREF website says Randi died yesterday due to age-related causes.

Randi was born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge on August 7, 1928 in Toronto, Canada. He took up magic after seeing Harry Blackstone Sr. He eventually entered the field of escapology as "The Amazing Randi", performing numerous escapes from jails, safes, and Houdini's Milk Can. On February 7, 1956, he recreated Houdini's Shelton Pool Test, remaining in his sealed casket for 104 minutes. He also escaped from a straitjacket while suspended over Niagara Falls. William Gresham dedicated his 1959 biography Houdini The Man Who Walked Through Walls to Randi.

Randi continued to follow in Houdini's footsteps as he devoted his later life to exposing frauds, famously bringing down Uri Geller on The Tonight Show and faith healer Peter Popoff. He also sponsored the One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge for evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event under test conditions. It was never claimed.

Randi authored ten books, among them the 1977 work Houdini His Life and Art with Bert Randolph Sugar. He also famously appeared on the TV sitcom Happy Days doing the Milk Can escape (well, helping "Fonzie" do the Milk Can). He appeared in numerous Houdini documentaries, including the very first, The Truth About Houdini, 1970. In 2014 a feature documentary was made of his life called An Honest Liar.

I had the pleasure of meeting Randi at two Magic Castle events, but I'm sorry I never got to know him personally. Growing up he was one of my magic heroes and remained so my entire life. I've often thought Randi is the model of what Houdini's would have become has he lived longer; a mentor to magicians, a champion of skepticism, and as close to a real-life wizard as one can get. I don't think the story of magic can be told without The Amazing Randi.

History Hyenas hackle Houdini

Houdini wild? I say these guys are WILD! This is a teaser for a Houdini episode of the History Hyenas podcast with comedians Yannis Pappas and Chris Distefano. It's good fun. And I'll never be able to get out of my head, "Houdini was a SQUEAK!"

Chris Distefano and Yannis Pappas of course discuss the dope tricks that Houdini performed, specifically his life-threatening ones that make no mistake were freaken WILD!!! Harry Houdini is a screwed in SQUEAK from Hungary that moved to The best city in the world, New York City!! He traveled the world doing tricks such as The Metamorphosis, Water Torture Cell, or the Milk Can Escape. He was no stranger to escaping locked handcuffs or jail cells, Cuzzie was talented!

You can listen to the full episode on iTunes, Spotify, or via your favorite podcatcher.


Monday, October 19, 2020

This is Houdini's seance busting flashlight!

Today I have something very exciting to share. This is the flashlight Houdini is said to have used to expose fake mediums during seances. This comes from the collection of our good friend Diego Domingo who has owned it for 50 years.

The flashlight is surprising in a few ways. It is certainly much smaller than expected. And while there is no maker's name on it, this is a commercially sold "vest flashlight" of the time. (I just bought an identical one on eBay.) The one modification Houdini appears to have made was to paint the bulb red. But this makes sense and helps further verify that this was for seance use. Red light was considered the only "safe" light for a seance. It's said white light would cause ectoplasm to vanish and harm the medium. And being small would make it easy for Houdini to conceal. So a palm sized flashlight with a red bulb is exactly what we should expect, and it's what we have!

But would this flashlight be bright enough to expose a medium across a room, as we see Houdini doing in various dramatic illustrations? That seems unlikely. But if one reads the newspaper accounts of Houdini's exposures--notably the famous Cecil Cook exposure--it states that Houdini "crept close" to the medium. In that case this flashlight would indeed reveal a medium in all their fraudulent glory. It's also likely Houdini used this just to catch a quick glance at any suspicious seance room activity without drawing attention.

The flashlight no longer has its battery, and exactly what kind of battery it took and how it worked is a bit of a mystery.

Okay, so how did Diego come to have this treasure?

As discussed in a recent post, the flashlight found its way into the collection of George Hippisley a.k.a. Karlin the Magician in 1946 (but we'll come back to this date). George eventually put the flashlight up for sale along with a large collection of Blackstone material in June 1970. Most of that material was purchased by Bob Lund and Dan Waldron. But Diego got the jump on the Houdini items.

I'll let Diego take it from here:

"In 1970(!), going thru the latest copy of The Linking Ring, I saw an ad by an George W. Hippisley, selling magic items, mostly Blackstone memorabilia and props. What caught my eye was that it included Houdini items as well. Back then, I was very fascinated with Houdini and escapes and sent my 50 cents for his list."  

Click to enlarge.
"The list was an amazing array of items, most/all previously owned by Harry Blackstone, Sr. I quickly scanned the Houdini items and eventually ordered: A spirit trumpet that was from Houdini. A small flashlight HH used to expose mediums in their dark seance rooms. A piece of paper with HH correct birthplace/birthday written by Blackstone on it. A small clipping from The Billboard Magazine regarding Houdini and Blackstone each claiming to have first performed the overboard packing case escape. AND, a typed and signed letter by Houdini, bad-mouthing Blackstone. (so what else is new?) I cannot recall if I didn’t order other items because they were already sold or because of my limited funds. I probably talked to Hippisley regarding what was available so I could be sure to get it."

Along with Diego's purchases came a letter from George Hippisley himself explaining exactly how he came to own these items:

July 14, 1970

Dear Mr. Domingo:

In 1936 I approached Mrs. Beatrice Houdini for some token from her late husband's effects. A letter came back requesting information about my connection with magic and magicians. This letter has since been lost.

However, I answered the letter and some time later a package and an envelope came from Edward Saint, Mrs. Houdini's manager. In the package were the trumpet, the flashlight, and the cuts as listed in my listings for sale.

In the envelope with the Houdini challenges and the movie stills and lobby photos. These were folded which wasn't a fortunate thing. I believe this envelope I enclosed with the items you purchased from me. 

That is how I came to have these items. There was no further word explanation about them. I wrote in return of the receipt and thanked both Mrs. Houdini and Mr. Saint for them. There was no reply. 

Sincerely yours,

George W. Hippisley

This is a different origin story from what appeared in that 1946 newspaper item, which implied George received the flashlight in a package from Bill Larsen Sr. that same year. I don't have an explanation for this, but it's possible George did receive a package from Bill Sr., but the reporter found his Houdini items more newsworthy and decided to work them into the story, even if it meant fudging the dates. I am more apt to believe Hippisley's own version of events.

So there we have it. Houdini's seance flashlight shines again! An old flashlight might not be too exciting to some. But I think this represents Houdini's spirit busting crusade better than just about any other artifact, so I consider this a major find. 

Congrats Diego for making one heck of a good buy 50 years ago. And thank you for allowing me to share it here today on WILD ABOUT HARRY.

Also thanks to Magic Castle librarian Joe Fox for helping us shine a light on this exciting magic history, and to Jim Klodzen for providing a copy of the original George Hippisley list.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Let there be light

Earlier this month I shared a news clipping from 1946 that mentioned the flashlight Houdini used to expose mediums during seances. I wondered if there was any chance it still survives today. Turns out it does! It belongs to a well-known collector and tomorrow I will post photos and share the full story. And if you are expecting it to look like the flashlight in the below pic, you might be surprised...

Saturday, October 17, 2020

The novelizations

Novelizations are movies written as novels and released as tie-in merchandise. Before home video, novelizations were the best way to "own" a movie and revisit it whenever they like. Novelizations date back to silent era and can be collectible. There are a rare novelizations of King Kong and Bride of Frankenstein, and the novelization of Star Wars was released six months before the movie, making that first edition desirable.

But what does this have to do with Houdini? Well, there have been some Houdini novelizations. Not as many as one might hope (no Tony Curtis movie novelization, dang-in), but enough for a little Wild About Harry Bookshelf retrospective. So away we go!

The Master Mystery
Yes, Houdini's 15 episode movie serial, The Master Mystery, was novelized by screenwriters Arthur B. Reeve and John W. Grey. Released in hardcover by Grosset & Dunlap in 1919, it has become a hot collectible, especially in its original dust jacket. The book also contains photos from the movie. Before The Master Mystery appeared on VHS this was the only way to experience the serial and it remains an excellent way to research missing scenes. 

Here's a sample of the book describing Houdini's (a.k.a. Quentin Locke) straitjacket escape: 

Locke struggled with superhuman effort to release himself from the straight-jacket in which he was held prisoner. The throat-straps pressed against the neck muscles and the strain on the straps could be heard like pistol-shots as the leather stretched his prodigious effort.

With every nerve keyed up and his reflexes answering his keen brain, he swayed backward and forward, rolled from side to side until his shoulder blades were thrown completely out of joint. The pain was intense, but he summoned every ounce of strength at his command and finally succeeded in getting one of the arms free by gradually working his body toward a settee, where, with his elbow on the seat, he pushed his disjointed arm over his head.

Agony was written all over his face as at last with a final effort he extricated his arms and was in a position to loosen the straps which bound them, with his teeth.

Nor was his labor over now. The canvas jacket cut into his flesh and the buckles bruised his muscles. His body ached with weariness, yet he clung to his task. Like a thing incarnate he toiled as he realize the danger that in confronted Eva.

Now in public domain, The Master Mystery novelization has been reprinted several times, including as part of "The Arthur B. Reeve Detective Series" in 2006 and as an eBook and audiobook.

Terror Island
While it never appeared in book form (to my knowledge), Houdini's 1920 feature Terror Island was adapted into an 8-part story that appeared in the May 14, 1921 issue of Boys' Cinema Weekly. Joe Notaro uncovered this rarity in 2018 and reprinted the installments at Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence.

It's a shame we didn't get novelizations of Houdini's other movies.

The Great Houdinis
It was many years before there was another Houdini novelization, but then came The Great Houdinis by Melville Shavelson, published by Fawcett books in 1976. This is a novelization of the ABC television movie starting Paul Michael Glaser and Sally Struthers. It's a terrific novelization and a real pleasure to read. It also contains a few cuts scenes. 

Here's the opening of the book which gives a good taste of Shavelson's prose:

Two women walked along the pathway between the crowded headstones, the wind blowing the autumn leaves about their feet, rain dripping from the trees, a damp chill adding to the gloom. One of the women was Bess Houdini, older now, but still Bess. Sadness had touched, but not crushed her. She wore a cloth coat bundled about her, a scarf knotted firmly at her neck, a hat and gloves, and in her hand she carried a small cluster of roses, out of place here, because this was an Orthodox Jewish cemetery where the a customary offering is a pebble. But Harry Houdini was no ordinary tenant, and even after his death he was treated as a headliner; whatever he wanted backstage was okay with the management.

The Great Houdinis novelization was also published in a paperback and hardcover in the UK. The UK hardcover is illustrated with photos of the real Great Houdinis.

The Great Houdinis UK paperback.

FairyTale: A True Story
Ok, this isn't strictly a novelization, but I thought I'd include 1997's FairyTale: A True Story as it is an adaptation of a Houdini movie and was written by Monica Kulling who would go on to pen the children's biography The Great Houdini in 1999. Here's a taste of Tale:

Backstage in the dressing room, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a famous author, was waiting for Houdini. Sir Arthur was very interested in communicating with spirits. Houdini had once dazzled Sir Arthur's daughter by making an apple appear out of thin air. "Never try to fool children," Houdini had told the audience. "They expect nothing and, therefore, see everything."

It's too bad the movie did not also receive proper novelization, but it appears tie-in merchandise for this movie was all aimed at children.

Death Defying Acts
It's surprising that a movie which barely received a release (one week in Los Angeles and New York) would be novelized, but that is what we have with Death Defying Acts by Craig Cox. The novelization appeared as a trade paperback from Pocket Books in 2008. As far as I know it was only released in the U.S. Here a sample from Chapter 1:

Stay calm, Houdini reminded himself. As always, his chief task at such moments was to conquer fear, to retain his wits and faculties despite his alarming circumstances. Even shackled from head to toe, and plunging swiftly towards a watery grave, it was necessary to maintain an absolute serenity of spirit. If I panic, I am lost....

He held on tightly to his breath. Years of practice and conditioning has expanded his lung capacity until he go without breathing for three minutes or more. Cold water leeched the heat from his bones, yet the chill had little effect on him. He routinely bathed and tubs of ice water to inure his body against the shock of sudden immersion. Indeed, he had become accustom to a cold bath every morning and seldom enjoyed going without one. Sydney Harbor was not exactly warm this afternoon, but he had attempted this stunt in far cooler waters. Detroit, back in November of '07... now that had been cold.

Not to be nit-picky, but the "Detroit stunt" was actually 1906. But, hey, we don't read novelizations for the facts. These are for fun.

For more about novelizations, check out this 2014 Vanity Fair piece, Yes, People Still Read Movie Novelizations . . . And Write Them, Too

Other selections from the WILD ABOUT HARRY bookshelf:

Friday, October 16, 2020

Hardeen in caricature

We've seen plenty of Houdini caricatures, but what about Hardeen? Well, here's one from the February 8, 1917 Salt Lake Telegram when Hardeen was appearing at the Pantages Theater. Click it to enlarge because it has some nice humor to it.

Click to enlarge.

This caricature accompanied an article that announced boxers Jack Dempsey and Jim Flynn, who were in town for a bout, would appear onstage together to strap Hardeen into a straitjacket. 


Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The Cecil M. Cook exposé

One of Houdini's most famous spirit exposés was that of the trumpet medium Mrs. Cecil M. Cook at her home at 41 West 88th Street in New York City on July 1, 1925. Houdini attended the seance in disguise. Here's an AP account from The Ithaca Journal that briefly explains what went down.

The building where this took place still stands and my guess is it doesn't look all that different, at least on the outside, than it did on the day of that fateful seance. 

Below is a photo of Houdini in his medium catching disguise. Houdini was no stranger to disguises. During his Handcuff Kings days he would attend performances of rival escape kings in disguise and wait for an opportune moment to reveal himself and challenge them. One wonders if he drew his inspiration for disguises from the Sherlock Holmes stories, of which he was fan.

Despite Houdini's high profile exposé, Mrs. Cook continued her spiritualistic career, and even wrote a book called The Voice Triumphant: The Revelations of a Medium. A search of the contents via Google Books doesn't turn up any mention of Houdini. This probably shouldn't be a surprise. That was one time the Voice certainly wasn't Triumphant!