Friday, December 16, 2022

Unseen Houdini to end the year

What better way to wrap up 2022 than with an unpublished photo of Houdini that also provides a peek at an unknown poster. This gem comes from the Harry Ransom Center (where else?) and was taken in Boston during Houdini's Christmas week engagement in 1921. I only wish we could see more of the poster behind him.

Below is an ad for that Christmas week engagement. As I shared in my 2020 sign off post, Santa Claus was also on the bill this week.

The Boston Globe, Dec. 20, 1921.

I hope you all enjoyed another year of WILD ABOUT HARRY. I know I enjoyed it. Visiting the Harry Ransom Center in August was certainly a highlight for me. I also made terrific progress on my chronology book. I've embarked on a very exciting Top Secret collaborative project that I think everyone will flip for. And launching a Patreon has proven to be a big success. I really appreciate all the support.

Next year expect more of the same. Because I'm still Wild about Harry! And so are you.

2022 in Review:
January (23 posts)
February (24 posts)
March (29 posts)
April (28 posts)
May (23 posts)
June (21 posts)
July (28 posts)
August (21 posts)
September (23 posts)
October (28 posts)
November (24 posts)
December (14 posts)

Most Viewed New Post of 2022

Happy Holidays

Thursday, December 15, 2022

A fabulous start to 2023

Before I take my traditional year end break, I wanted to give a shout-out to the first big Houdini happening of 2023. In January the excellent 1961 book Houdini's Fabulous Magic by Walter B. Gibson and Morris N. Young will be reprinted in a new edition with a forward by Gabe Fajuri. Here's a teaser from publisher Vine Leaves Press.

You can pre-order the 2023 edition of Houdini's Fabulous Magic at and Release date is January 17.

_ _ _ _ makes The New York Times Crossword

Today's New York Times Crossword features this Houdini-related clue. 40 Across. Four letters.

Don't look below if you don't want the puzzle spoiled! But I'm betting you already know the answer.

The Dec. 15, 2022 puzzle was edited by Will Shortz and created by Bruce Haight. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Hear Dunninger inventory his Houdini collection

David Muller, author of Growing Up With Houdini, recently sent me an extraordinary recording of Joseph Dunninger verbally cataloging his entire collection of magic and Houdini artifacts. Dunninger sold his collection to David's father, Henry Muller, in 1967. These rarities were displayed for many years at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls, Canada. 

I shared Dunninger's 29-minute primary inventory for members of my Patreon on Monday. Today I'm posting his 8-minute "supplemental" list unlocked so anyone can listen for FREE. Just click below to go.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

The Boy Houdini makes The Black List

Deadline Hollywood has posted this year's Black List, a roundup of Hollywood’s "most-liked unproduced screenplays." Coming in under #11 is a Houdini project.

Matthew Tennant 
New York, 1889. When young street urchin and aspiring magician Harry Houdini discovers a mysterious puzzle-box, he must use his talent for illusion and escape to unlock the box’s powerful secrets and keep it from the hands of a vengeful occult sorcerer hot on his tail. 

Sounds similar to Simon Nicholson's Young Houdini series or Marty Chan's The Ehrich Weisz Chronicles. Also sounds like the kind of thing Hollywood loves. Congratulations to screenwriter Matthew Tennant and his representation for making this list. Maybe this will help bring The Boy Houdini to the screen.

Monday, December 12, 2022

Deconstructing Houdini '53: Blow up

Continuing my scene by scene dissection of Paramount's classic 1953 biopic Houdini. Last time Harry and Bess decided to cash in their Magic Ticket and live a domestic life. Today that plan goes up in smoke.

Chapter 10: Blow up

The next three scenes are closely linked narratively, so I'm going to examine them as a single sequence. We start with Harry back on the assembly line at the lock factory. I've already discussed how the lock factory can be seen as analogous to the real Houdini's tie-factory job. In that earlier scene we saw Harry denied a change to attempt an escape from the factory's big safe. Now we see him putting a secret plan into action.

On his lunch break, Harry pays a shop boy (Jon Gardner) to lock him inside the safe when no one is looking. "It's alright. He said he can get out," the boy tells a mortified Mr. Hunter (Frank Orth). Hunter explains to the foreman (Frank Jaquet) that the safe has a 24 hour lock and can't be opened until tomorrow. It's unlikely there would be such a thing as time locks at this time, but it's necessary to explain why Hunter can't simply open the safe himself. When the foreman asks who's in the safe, the answer comes back, "Houdini." I believe this is the first time anyone in the film has called him "Houdini" directly.

The decision is made to blow open the safe, which they do in dramatic fashion. Harry emerges through the smoke, apple still in hand and coughing. "What'd you blow it up for," he asks. "You'd given me a little more time, I would have gotten out." Not surprisingly, he's fired on the spot.

There was another way to do this scene. They could have blown open the safe and found it empty. Then Houdini could have emerged from within the pack of workmen, apple in hand and smiling. This would have played as a magic trick for the audience and a nice "Houdini" moment, not unlike the Miners Hall vanish. He could still be fired for a stunt that cost the factory their best safe, so it works with the plot. But I guess it was wise to play it straight and make the attempt unsuccessful as we will see another safe escape later in the film.

Having lost his job, Houdini has to face the consequences back home. We dissolve to a tense dinner table with Bess and Mama. The silence speaks volumes. When they finally do speak, their veiled hostility is pretty humorous:

Bess: I still don't understand what you were doing inside that safe.
Harry: Told you a hundred times, I was having my lunch.

Bess then directly accuses him of getting fired on purpose so he could "go back to being a magician." Harry is resolute. "What's wrong with magicians? That's what I was when you married me."

Then comes the second explosion of the sequence as Bess leaps to her feet and shouts, "Well if you love your magic more than me, good luck to both of you, because I'm leaving!"

Mama implores Harry to go after her. Harry instead insults Bess's cooking. Mama retorts, "I made the soup!" Harry can't seem to win, so he gets up and leaves himself. It's a low point for all.

We then dissolve back to Coney Island. It's as if the movie has moved in reverse, using the same establishing shot from the start of the film. This nicely illustrates how Harry is trapped in a cycle of small time sideshow work, endlessly looping like the carnival rides on the midway. I do feel this is somewhat analogous to the Houdinis second stint with the Welsh Bros circus in 1898. Certainly at that point they must have felt stuck in an endless loop of small time work.

This time we see Harry playing "Oscar the Sea Serpent." Houdini never played an aquatic sideshow "freak" to my knowledge, but I like how this continues the idea of Houdini developing skills in his sideshow days that will serve him later in his career. Holding his breath and working underwater will play a major part in this movie.

Bess comes to see Harry. She has had a change of heart and through the glass shows him their boat ticket to Europe is now a one way ticket for two. Her sudden change isn't explained, but I think we can assume that after their big blow up she's realizes she can't stand in the way of her husband's nature. Obviously, Harry is thrilled to the gills.

One curious thing is the date on the ticket; June 12, 1902. The date the real Houdinis traveled to Europe was May 30, 1900. The filmmakers kept the month and day close, but why change the year to 1902? Real life gave them a gift as 1900 is wonderfully representative of a "new beginning." The 1976 TV movie The Great Houdinis takes full advantage of this. The ship, S.S. Ruratania, is also an invention. The ship the Houdinis sailed on was the S.S. Kensington (below).

These past few scenes have gone as far into fiction as this movie will travel. From this point on the movie tightens up on the analogous history as the career and exploits of Houdini kick into gear. And so will we next year!

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Unmatched: Houdini vs. the Genie

This week sees the release of Unmatched: Houdini vs. the Genie, the latest in a popular series of role-playing fighter games from Restoration Games. Below is a description and the beautifully illustrated box.

In battle, there are no equals. 
Unmatched is a highly asymmetrical miniature fighting game for two or four players. Each hero is represented by a unique deck designed to evoke their style and legend. Tactical movement and no-luck combat resolution create a unique play experience that rewards expertise. Just when you’ve mastered one set, new heroes arrive to provide all new match-ups. Houdini vs. The Genie is a stand alone expansion for the Unmatched system and includes: 
  • Gameboard with art from Brian Patterson
  • Hero cards with art from Peter Diamond 
  • Pre-washed miniatures for each hero 
  • Plastic sidekick token 
  • Custom life trackers Instructions

You can purchase Unmatched: Houdini vs. the Genie from Amazon or direct from Restoration Games. If you buy from Restoration you'll get a Foil Promo Card. Game on!

Friday, December 9, 2022

Houdini at Park East Synagogue, Dec. 23

The historic Park East Synagogue in New York City will remember their "most magical member" with a Shabbat Chanukah Dinner on December 23 staring at 4:20pm. The evening will feature Houdini artifacts and a talk by Benjilini.

The Weiss family were members of Park East from its earliest days. Houdini's father, Rabbi Weiss, had a good relationship with Rabbi Drachman who led the synagogue for 55 years. In fact, Rabbi Drachman bar mitzvahed young Ehrich Weiss.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Buried Alive surfaces in 1922

While at the Harry Ransom Center last summer I found this invoice among papers related to the Houdini Picture Corporation. It's from the Theodore Reisig Co., makers of "high grade scenery," and is dated January 4, 1922. I suspect those who saw this before me might have passed it by as just scenery for one of Houdini's movies. But Houdini was not making any movies at this time. And what's described here is, to my eye, something very different and very exciting!

Click to enlarge.

This "Sand Box with heavy ornamental iron hinges" and "apparatus for loading and unloading sand" can only be Houdini's Buried Alive escape. What we don't see here is the casket Houdini would also use in the effect. The bill is for $420, which in 2022 would be $7,450.30. Houdini settled the bill for $300.

The Buried Alive is one of Houdini's most elusive escapes. Houdini himself claimed to have performed it as early as 1908 in Germany. In 1914 he had a lithograph made for the effect, but there's no record of him performing it at this time. In 1918 he announced Buried Alive for his return to the Hippodrome in Everything, but when he broke his wrist making The Master Mystery he had to substitute it with a suspended straitjacket escape. There's also his famous 1919 accident while rehearsing a Buried Alive stunt in California, but that was an outdoor stunt, not the stage version.

Now here we have evidence of the apparatus being built in 1922. This contradicts Houdini's claim the he had the apparatus "rebuilt" in 1916. But the date does make sense career-wise. Needing money after a year of producing films, Houdini had just embarked on a 9-week vaudeville tour. It's possible he intended the Buried Alive to be his new escape for this and the tours to come. But for whatever reason, it didn't happen. The Water Torture Cell remained his marquee escape and Buried Alive wouldn't surface until 1926, and then only for a couple performances.

Maybe the biggest frustration about the Buried Alive is there are no photos of the apparatus and no good description of Houdini's presentation. The 1914 poster (right) is all there is to go on, and I'm not convinced the "Sand Box" was as large as this poster depicts. In fact, I suspect it was only a little larger than the coffin that fit inside.

Perhaps the records of the Theodore Reisig Co. survive and within them we could find the specs on the Buried Alive they built for Houdini in 1922. I could dig that!

You can unearth my Buried Alive research and see the envelope for the Reisig bill as a "Scholar" member of my Patreon below:


Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Houdini creeps into 'Wednesday'

Did anyone spot the Houdini reference in the popular new Netflix series Wednesday? Check out the third paragraph.

Click to enlarge.

Houdini may be in the DNA of this show. Wednesday creator Tim Burton made a short film about Houdini when he was a young Wednesday-like lad (below).

Thanks to Deborah Wexler for the alert and Groucho Marxist @antipyrine for the screen capture.

Monday, December 5, 2022

Ye Shall Know The Truth

Here's an interesting ad from the December 1, 1922 Richmond Times Dispatch that may flag the moment Houdini went from being a "seeker of truth" to an active combatant against fraud mediums. Looks like he's gathering ammunition...

Richmond Times Dispatch, Dec. 1, 1922.

Below are links to some of the mediums Houdini ensnared. The Truth indeed!


Sunday, December 4, 2022

Jack Kirby’s Super Houdini

I remember encountering Mister Miracle early in my Houdini mania. I thought I had discovered gold. I liked comics and I liked escape artists, and here was a comic book escape artist! But I never really got into the few issues that I bought. For me to was too much superhero and not enough escapist. (I thought Marvel's The Human Fly, which came a few years later, struck the right balance between daredevil and hero.) 

But Mister Miracle developed a following, and while short-lived in his initial run, the character continued as part of the DC Universe and even saw a popular mini-series revival in 2017.

The below video does a nice job of laying out the origin of Mister Miracle by taking a look at the first issue page by page. One surprise for me was hearing that the character was influenced by real-life escape artist Jim Steranko. Enjoy.

Friday, December 2, 2022

The bouncing beds of 278

In 1938 a ghostly phenomena was reported in Jonesville, Virginia, when the Sybert family claimed that the bed of their 9-year-old daughter, Bertha, would bounce uncontrollably whenever she was in it. Bertha also showed signs of possession. The press would dub her "Bouncing Bertha" and a bouncing bed would later appear in The Exorcist. You can read more about "The Legend of Bouncing Bertha" HERE.

In December a reporter asked Bess Houdini about the Virginia phenomena and, as you'll read below, she dismissed it as "bunk" (others would eventually come to the same conclusion). But what I really like about this article is Bess's description of bouncing beds and other trickery inside her former home of 278.

The Skyland Post, Dec. 29, 1938.

Houdini's bed survives today in the collection of Jon Oliver. No reports of bouncing.

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Unlock 'Handcuff Secrets' free PDF

This month's reward for patrons is a free PDF of Houdini's book Handcuff Secrets. Appropriately enough, this was a Christmas release in December 1909. The book was only ever published in the UK so it's one of the harder Houdini books to find. But you can find by clicking below!

The start of the month is a great time to join my Patreon. You will unlock 45 exclusive posts with 279 images and be set to receive all the great content and rewards going forward. For more information you can read my full pitch HERE.

Thanks to everyone for your support!

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Houdini's curious cross escape

One of the more unusual pieces of surviving Houdini apparatus is his "Cross Escape." There are actually two crosses. One is gaffed for quick release and was acquired by Sidney Radner from Hardeen. Today it is owned by Teller. The other was acquired by Henry Muller from Dunninger and was displayed for many years at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame. The photo in the right shows this latter cross as it appeared in the museum. (Fun fact: I now own that mannequin head.)

I admit this particular escape has always perplexed me. The Houdini Magical Hall of Fame described it as "a famous Houdini challenge escape," yet I've never been able to find any account of Houdini ever performing it. The quick release gaff seems more like a spiritualism or magic effect than a Houdini escape, and the overt religiousness doesn't seem to be Houdini's style. Recall how he took offense to Carl Mysto's use of a coffin onstage.

But David Muller recently sent me extraordinary audio of Joseph Dunninger going through the collection he sold to David's father in 1967, describing each piece of apparatus and its history. Here's what he says about the cross:

Dunninger: "The Houdini cross escape, used in Houdini's earlier performances. Made in his museum days. He would be tied to the cross, a screen would be placed in front of it and in a few moments he would liberate himself. It needs some repair as is obvious, but it's of very great historical value as it belonged to Houdini and was one of his first sensational escapes."

Hearing Dunninger call this an effect from Houdini's "museum days" is informative. Maybe this explains why I've not been able to find an account of it? And its similarity to a spiritualism or magic effect fits with the evolution of the escape act.

Teller also describes it as a "carnival item." In an interview Two Magicians One Mic Podcast, in which we get a glimpse of his cross in his "Houdini alcove", Teller says:

Teller: "It's a carnival item. It would be erected on stage and the person who's doing the spiel on the bally would take, usually, a runaway 13 or 14-year-old drug addicted girl, who happens to be with the carnival, and tie her neck and wrists to this cross. And then at the moment when they were trying to turn the tip and bring the whole group into the tent, all of a sudden she would just walk away from it. The ties would be gone."

The cross escape coming from dime museums or carnivals does makes sense. It's even possible Houdini didn't build the effect himself, but acquired it as he did his electric chair. But I'll keep on searching for some account of Houdini doing the escape himself.

In the 1970 BBC documentary The Truth About Houdini, Sidney Radner demonstrated his gaffed cross. This scene was cut scene from the documentary––possibly because The Magic Circle objected to the exposure––and it does not appear in any version of the doc today. But you can watch the full clip as a member of my Patreon below.

Thanks to David Muller for the Dunninger audio and Dan Bowen for the Teller interview alert.


Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Houdini's Budapest birthplace

Our good friend and long time reader Narinder Chadda recently visited Budapest and shot this video of Houdini's birthplace at 1 Csengery Street. In 1874 this was Rákosárok utca 1. sz., the address shown on the birth certificate of Erik Weisz.

Narinder also visited David Merlini's magnificent The House of Houdini museum in Budapest. David and Narinder recently became Angel patrons, so a big thank you to both! You can see some of Narinder's museum photos HERE.


Monday, November 28, 2022

Don Creekmore tracks Houdini in Wichita

If you're not a member of Don Creekmore's Facebook page, Escaping The Sunflower State - Harry Houdini's Turbulent Time In Kansas, you're missing out. Don has been posting daily memes tracking Houdini's appearance in Wichita 99 years ago this week. Today's meme marks the anniversary of Houdini's suspended straitjacket escape in downtown Wichita.

Houdini in Kansas is Don's specialty, and he will soon be publishing a book on the subject. You can read more at Don's official website


Sunday, November 27, 2022

Helen Keller on Houdini

Like Houdini, Helen Keller is one of those remarkable figures in American history that every grade schooler learns about. Rendered deaf, dumb, and blind by illness at 19 months, she was miraculously educated by her famous teacher, Anne Sullivan, and grew up to became a prolific writer, disability rights advocate, and lecturer. Like Houdini, her inspirational life story has been told in many books, plays, and movies.

That's why finding the below was such a treat. This appeared in the Buffalo Evening News shortly after Houdini's death. I'll let Helen speak for herself.

Buffalo Evening News, Nov. 8, 1926.

One of those times Helen would have experienced a Houdini performance was at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Fransisco. As you can see below, Houdini and Keller were featured attractions on November 6th.

Today you can always find Houdini and Helen sharing a bookshelf.

Friday, November 25, 2022

'Houdini Unchained' original art and merchandise

The Christmas shopping season is upon us, so I thought this was a good time to showcase some of the original merchandise created for Houdini Unchained: The Legacy of Harry Houdini at Muzeo Museum and Cultural Center in Anaheim, CA. The museum commissioned several artists to create original Houdini pieces. That artwork is on display and also available as prints in the gift shop.

I snapped these photos inside the gift shop last time I was there. Muzeo doesn't have an online store, so it appears the only way to buy these is to visit in person. Or perhaps you could try contacting the artists direct. I've linked them all below.

"The Handcuff King" by Chris Kawagiwa.

"The Handcuff King" by John Coulter.

"Close Call with the Sea Monster" by Justine Prebich.

"Halloween Seance" by Michelle Prebich.

Vanishing Elephant lenticular by Melissa Chan Stone.

"The Key to his Heart" by Olivia Faust.

"Asleep in the Deep" by Vincenzo Savastano.

"Great Escape" by John Coulter.

"Lil Houdini Magic Set" by We Are Pretend Friends.

Houdini patch by Badaboöm Studio.

Muzeo is located at 241 S. Anaheim Blvd., Anaheim, CA 92805. Normal hours are Wednesday through Sunday from 11am to 5pm. Houdini Unchained: The Legacy of Harry Houdini will be on show until January 22, 2023.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Nevil Maskelyne and the Water Torture Cell sale

Here's a tasty piece of untold magic history to chew on this holiday. In 1920 Houdini tried to sell his most famous escape, The Chinese Water Torture Cell, to magician Nevil Maskelyne. I uncovered the correspondence between the parties during my trip to the Harry Ransom Center last summer. Here's the story.

In January 1920 Houdini arrived in the UK for a five month tour. Having just completed two films in Hollywood, Houdini was convinced that his future lay in the movies. He was only making this tour to honor bookings made before the war and avoid a hefty fine. For the first time in years he revived his standard vaudeville act; Needles, straitjacket, challenges, and, of course, The Chinese Water Torture Cell.

Getting the Torture Cell back into action took some effort. Houdini recorded in his diary that he "nearly cracked my neck" in a test run of the escape. During the second week of the tour the glass cracked. Then in Liverpool, Houdini seriously injured his right ankle performing the escape. These struggles may have something to do with what happened next.

On February 6 Houdini sat down with magician and inventor Fred Culpitt (right) at the North Western Hotel in Liverpool. There they discussed the possibility of selling the Water Torture Cell to Nevil Maskelyne, who was performing his "Maskelyne's Mysteries" at St. Georges Hall in London at this time. Houdini gave Culpitt the go-ahead to approach the magician on his behalf.

Culpitt wrote to Maskelyne on February 10th, presenting the idea of a sale and laying out the specifics. Unfortunately, that letter in not in the Ransom Center file, so it's unclear if the idea was for Maskelyne to take possession of the cell immediately or at the end of Houdini's tour.

"It certainly seems as though they are interested in the proposition," Culpitt wrote to Houdini three days later. But there was one hiccup. Maskelyne's representative, George Facer, told Culpitt that Will Goldstone had offered the same effect to Maskelyne that very same week. "Of course, it does not matter to me who gets the illusion 'placed'," wrote Culpitt, "but I think it would be wise for me to know my position."

Houdini quickly wrote back clarifying that Goldston offered Maskelyne "some sort of mermaid illusion", not the Water Torture Cell. He also told Culpitt that he had attended Maskelyne's show at St. Georges Hall and Maskelyne had asked to see the escape. Houdini sent the magician two tickets to his show at the Empire Palace in Stratford. "If anything transpires, I will let you know," he assured Culpitt.

It appears nothing did transpire and that's the end of the correspondence. Houdini kept his Water Torture Cell and performed it for the remainder of his career.

It's hard to know how serious Houdini was about selling the Torture Cell. Perhaps his initial frustrations with the apparatus caused him to overreact. However, he reportedly did destroy magic apparatus that he had stored in the UK at the end of the tour and the cell was likely expensive to ship. So if Houdini really did believe he had no more use for the escape then it would make sense for him to offload it in the UK.

There's also another possibility, but this is pure speculation. Is it possible what Houdini was looking to sell was a second Water Torture Cell, perhaps the cell he had made for "Miss Trixy" in 1912? It's likely that cell would have been stored in England.

As for Maskelyne, the magician was 56 and not an escape artist, so it seems unlikely he would perform the escape himself. What he would have done with it is anyones guess. So this episode offers a fascinating "what if" of magic history.

Want more? You can read the original Houdini/Culpitt correspondence as a "Scholar" member of my Patreon.

Happy Thanksgiving!