Houdini has been credited (by myself and others) as the inventor of Metamorphosis. But if you look closely at his billing in these early years, it shows he and Bessie as the Introducers of Metamorphosis. Not quite the same thing. But if Metamorphosis wasn't Houdini's creation, where did it come from?
While I was at David Copperfield's International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts last month, I might have come across the answer in a letter to Harry Kellar. On July 2, 1920 Houdini attended a magic show in Paris featuring Professor Robertson and Italian magician Tournees Benevol. A few days later he penned a lengthy letter to Kellar describing the entire show, which didn't impress him ("Your flower production he murdered."). It's near the end of that letter that we find this remarkable sentence:
“When this was over, he did my old trunk trick, the one I did for many years with Mrs Houdini, and which Delprade brought to America.”
This appears to be Houdini acknowledging the source of Metamorphosis as a magician named Delprade. I had never heard of Delprade, but it didn't take much of an internet search to turn up the below poster which shows a 3 second "Substitution" trick of some kind. This is from 1889, so two years before Ehrich Weiss first appeared as Houdini.
I threw out a request for help on Facebook in finding a description of Delprade's effect. Our friend Charles Greene III, author of Ionia - Magician Princess Secrets Unlocked and an expert in magic posters, was able to provide the following review of Delprade's "Mystere!" in Rouen in September 1889:
"The great event of the week was, without a doubt, the passage of Mr. Delprade. Very appreciated in his imitations of birds, Mr. Delprade then invited us to a brand-new attraction with which he has just made all of Paris run - It is a question of substituting, in three seconds, a lady for a gentleman in a bag and in a hermetically sealed trunk. This exercise, of great originality, is carried out with such speed that it becomes a real puzzle. We can only urge all our fellow citizens to realize, by themselves, this strange curiosity."
This certainly sounds like Metamorphosis to me! So the next step was finding when Delprade brought his Substitution to America and if it was at a time and place where Houdini may have seen it. Again, it didn't take much of an internet search to find the answer to both questions. Check out the below from the April 15, 1893 New York Evening World:
The Eden Musée was very much part of Houdini's world and there can be little doubt that he would have seen Delprade do his Substitution here. So it seems almost certain this is what Houdini is referencing in the Kellar letter. The earliest mention of Houdini doing Metamorphosis (that I have found) is a review of The Brothers Houdini at Miner's Bowery Theatre in New York on July 8, 1893. This is only a few months after Delprade's debut at the Eden.
According to Walter Gibson in The Master Magicians, Houdini learned that a substitution trunk and sack was being offered by a supplier of spiritualist effects in Chicago named Sylvestre. But the $50 price was too steep. He then discovered "a performer who had an old outfit for sale cheap, so he bought it." While Gibson doesn't name that performer, he told Patrick Culliton it was Joe Godfrey. The image at the top of this post, which comes from Patrick's Houdini The Key, shows the young Houdini with that first sub trunk.
Of course, Houdini made some key changes. Instead of substituting assistants as Delprade had, he inserted himself into the effect. He also appears to have introduced the bound hands and borrowed coat exchange. These effects were inspired by the cabinet trickery of spirit mediums. And as far as I know, Houdini came up with the name Metamorphosis.
This timeline does mean letting go of the long held assumption that The Brothers Houdini featured Metamorphosis from the very start. If evidence of the trick can be found that pre-dates Delprade's April 1893 performance, that assumption can be restored. But the evidence at this moment points to a later adoption.
So while we can no longer credit Houdini with inventing the substitution trunk, I think we can still credit him with recognizing its potential and pioneering the modern presentation which remains the version magicians still perform to this day.
Thanks to David Copperfield, Charles Greene III, Michael Pascoe, and Patrick Culliton for helping unravel this tale.
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