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.

22 comments:

  1. John, you never cease to amaze! Thanks for this.

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    1. I think we both have Diego to thank! So exciting to be able to see and share this.

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  2. For those who are interested: http://www.flashlightmuseum.com/Eveready-Flashlight-6984-Silver-Plated-Vest-Pocket-Flashlight-with-Engine-Turned-Finish-3AA-1914

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    1. Thanks Tim. But that's not exactly the same one. You can see it has a different switch and appears a bit shorter. And no engraving on Houdini's.

      Diego and I have been pouring over antique vest flashlight images online and it doesn't appear to be an Eveready or a Franco, which seem to be the popular brands. This one has no identification. I did buy the exact same one on eBay and the auction didn't list a maker.

      A member on the Magic Castle FB group says he just grabbed a Franco. I think there's about to be a run on old vest flashlights!

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  3. Re: Other flashlights: I have seen online the Eveready flashlight and also one by Remington, which both have their brands stamped on the flashlight. This one and others we see online has no brand/names on it. Also the HH flashlight has 2 hinges at the bottom, the others have 3.

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  4. The internet is an amazing thing and has brought us into an amazing time! Because of the web and the relentless work of John Cox on his site, an item others wondered about was quickly indentified & located, written articles unseen until now, better verified the importance and provenance of the flashlight, that few have seen or knew about. Thanks to John, Joe, Jim, and the web for bringing Houdini's flashlight (literally) to light, despite the distance of miles and half a century!

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  5. Wow that's really cool that it's still around. I cannot believe the low prices on those items back then. Diego was smart to jump on it. Good luck finding out more about the flashlight and the battery that would fit it!

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    1. The list reflected the then current prices for magic/Houdini collectables. The price of $20 for the typed and signed letter by HH, was the current price. The same year, I bought a 3 page handwritten HH letter from an antique dealer for $35. This would change by the mid-1970's, when magic collecting was becoming less of a hobby, fascination, passion, interest, to turning into the market it has morphed into, for both good and bad reasons.

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  6. So cool! Diego is one of my favorite people and full of great stories.

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  7. Here's a couple of "Merit" flashlights that look similar and have a battery in the picture.

    https://www.ebay.com/itm/Vintage-1920s-Merit-flashlight-No-25-Battery-Rare-/264279599166

    https://images.app.goo.gl/cu7gKi1fQHGzJpqy5

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    1. Yes! That it!!! Merit with a No. 25 battery. Thank you.

      Because this has the battery, and because I'm insane, I just bought it. Hey, maybe we should try the battery on Diego/Houdini's flashlight? :)

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    2. Cool I really got lucky in that search. I just used "Tin 1920s Battery" and it popped up. Hopefully you can figure out how many DC Volts that battery was originally. You could paint the lens red and build a battery and test it out. How cool would it be to bring to the next Houdini Seance and use it!

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    3. Yep, you nailed it! I never thought to search "battery."

      Now that I have two, maybe I will paint one of the bulbs red just so it matches HHs. Or I may sell the second if someone is interested. These weren't expensive.

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    4. Diego has received some contradictory info from the Flashlight Museum saying this is an Eveready. So holding back on updating with the Merit info for now. But I still think it's a possibility.

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  8. Hey, appropriately enough I just received the (first) flashlight I bought on eBay today. Tweeted out a pic HERE. So cool.

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    1. Congrats on finding a duplicate! It's a great feeling when you hold a period piece in your hands knowing that the historical figure handled the same thing. I wonder what HH used for the red paint. Bess's nail polish?

      I can picture John at the next Magic Castle seance (whenever that will be) playing with that flashlight: Put that thing away!

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  9. Luck of the gods to find this historic totem and find yourself an exact duplicate! I love everything about this story. Big thanks to your source of information Mr. Domingo for all the photos and info.

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  10. I obtained a battery for the flashlight and in the presence of several Houdni historians, tried to see if it would turn on and it didn't.
    Yesterday, using a digital multimeter, I tried to see if the lightbulb in the flashlight functioned and it didn't. The case, (all of it which is grounded) connects and registered a response, but the bulb, unfortunately no.
    I can get a new functioning bulb, if I remove the red-painted bulb that is in now, and see if then it turns on, however some feel it wouldn't serve any purpose and the historical value is having the bulb Houdini use, regardless if it works now or not. Something to think about.

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    1. Thanks Diego. I had a feeling that bulb was burned out long ago. Glad you were able to confirm. But I would urge you NOT to replace it or try to unscrew it. That is old, thin glass that might have corrosion and putting pressure or twisting it could make it break. The hand painted red bulb is everything and what makes it Houdini's flashlight. I say put it back under glass and don't touch it. If we want to see if we can get one of these to work, we can use the one I picked up on eBay for $30.

      But I am glad you checked and thanks for letting me part of that experience. What fun this has been!

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  11. Thanks John.
    If others have their thoughts of this:
    Try a new bulb in the flashlight to see if it lights
    OR
    Leave it as is.
    Please share them with us.

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  12. Because the flashlight case does conduct/connect current, if a functioning battery and bulb were substituted, it would turn on, no reason it wouldn't...so no real point in using non-Houdini-associated parts to turn it on once, which is probably would ever happen. So everything stays as it was and will. Thank you all for your input!

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