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.