Friday, May 29, 2020

The hidden meaning of Houdini's iconic suit

Last night I had the pleasure of joining Mike Caveney and Jonathan Levit "Behind the Bookcase" at the Academy of Magical Arts, where I shared some things I haven't yet posted to the blog. First and foremost was "the secret of Houdini's suit." So today I wanted to share with all and lay out my theory in full. Enjoy!

This is a famous photo of Houdini likely taken in early 1918. Here we see him in a black suit of clothes that appears in many other photos. And I mean many. In fact, I have not seen a photo or film clip of Houdini in everyday life taken between 1914 and 1918 in which he isn't wearing this same black suit. There's even a photo of him wearing it on a golf course!

So what's the story? Was this just a favorite suit? Or is there something else going on? I believe there's something else going on, and I believe I've figured out what that something is.

Whenever Houdini does something inexplicable in his personal life, I always consider the possibility that it has something to do with his mother. Because it always does! At first I thought this was maybe a suit she bought for him. Or maybe it was one she simply thought he looked good in. That would probably be enough for Houdini to wear it everyday for four years. But as far as I can find, this suit first appears a few months after his mother's death. And that's the key.

This was a time when Houdini was displaying his grief in any number of ways. He even had new stationary and greeting cards made rimmed in a black boarder. I believe this suit was another part of his formalized grieving. I believe what we've been looking at all these years is Houdini in a mourning suit.

Mourning clothes are typically associated with women, but it was not unheard of for men at this time. Women's fashion dictated veils, etc., but the only real requirement for men was that it should be black. Also, in Jewish tradition, someone in mourning is not allowed to wear new clothes for a year. And that's another aspect of this suit that has always struck me as peculiar even before I landed on this idea. Houdini was fairly modern, even dashing, in his dress leading up this time. (Just look at him here.) But this is a very Victorian suit.

Houdini also had a specific hat that went with this suit with a thick hatband that can be seen in several photos. Turns out hatbands, typically made of crepe, were a feature of Victorian male mourning clothes. And according to The Vintage News, "widows were expected to wear special clothes to indicate that they were in mourning for up to four years after the death." Houdini appears to have worn this suit for, yes, a little over four years.

But I think the most convincing evidence is that he wore this suit to the 1916 dedication ceremony for the exedra he created for his parents at Machpelah cemetery. In a photo from the event we see others dressed formally in tail coats and top hats. But not Houdini. Obviously Houdini would have thought very carefully about how he dressed for such a sacred occasion, and it's unthinkable that he'd wear his old "everyday suit" if it didn't broadcast special meaning. Wearing this suit was making a statement which now seems abundantly clear. He was a man in mourning.

Below are a few choice images of Houdini in the black suit.

In the graveyard (1914).
In California with Jack London (1915).
At the exedra dedication (1916).
On the golf course (undated).
With Harry Kellar (1917).
Traveling to Hollywood (1919).

The last images I've found of Houdini in the suit are from his early days in Los Angeles in April 1919 when he came to work on The Grim Game. It may be telling that a young starlet commented in a fan magazine on the strange suit Houdini was seen wearing around Hollywood. So maybe he decided to it was time to give up the ghost. By May 1919 he is sporting a new suit and a youthful straw hat. This old suit appears to vanish.

But Houdini wore this suit for so long and in so many photos that it has become part of his iconography. It inspired Harvey Keitel's wardrobe in 1998's FairyTale: A True Story. It also appears in the 1976 biopic The Great Houdinis in the scenes following his mother's death. It's telling that the costume designer instinctively associated this look with mourning. The suit is not described in the screenplay, but in the novelization it says: "That coat he's wearing, she thought, that had to be thrown out. And that terrible hat. He looks like an immigrant. One more week without shaving, he'll look just like his father, the Rabbi."

So what do we think? Was this Houdini's mourning suit? Sound off in the comments below.


When Douglas Geoffrey became Hardeen Jr.

It was 75 years ago today that Theo Hardeen named Douglas Geoffrey his official successor. As "Hardeen Jr.", Geoffrey would carry the Houdini-Hardeen show all the way into the 1980s. To mark the occasion, here's a link back to a post from 2011:

Below are a few more links related to Geoffrey and his show "Houdini Lives Again."


Thursday, May 28, 2020

Listen to The New School's 1977 Houdini Seance

In 1977 The New School in New York City offered a 10-week course called "The Incredible Houdini: The Man...The Myth...The Magic". It was taught by Gabriel Grayson and included a mouthwatering lineup of guest speakers. Last weekend Joe Notaro shared a flyer from the course showing that lineup of a-listers (click to view).

While doing a little more research I discovered something pretty wild. The New School Archives has a 2+ hour recording of a Houdini Seance held in their auditorium at 66 West 12th Street on Halloween 1977. While not part of the official curriculum, it was related to the course and open to the public. At the table was Milbourne Christopher, Bernard C. Meyer, Billie Dunninger, Morris N. Young, Louis Rachow, Henry Muller, and Sidney Radner. (Walter Gibson was ill and unable to attend.) The moderator was Gabriel Grayson.

It's not your typical Houdini seance in that the medium, Ethel Meyers (who played a role in the Amityville Horror hoax), quickly makes contact and "Houdini" speaks to the gathering in the first person. This means the experts at the table can ask questions of Houdini directly.

Did she/he pass scrutiny? If you want to hear for yourself, you can access both parts via the link below.

If you don't want to go to the trouble of listening, I can tell you that Meyers, after getting off to a good spooky start, bombs spectacularly when the questions begin. She...I mean, Houdini...cannot or will not answer even the most basic question. The knockout blow occurs when Sidney Radner asks, "What do the letters USD mean to you?" Her answer: "United States Detention Home."

One thing that has me intrigued is when Christopher asks details of a seance Houdini attended in January 1926. It's clear Christopher has Houdini's notes on this seance, but it's one I've never heard of. If anyone is aware of these notes or has the details, please give me a shout.

I'm also wondering if The New School recorded the course and guest speakers. To hear the remembrances of Houdini by Walter B. Gibson would be phenomenal. Also, Louis Rachow played the Houdini voice recording during his class on November 15. This marked the first time the recording was played publicly. How much of it did he play?

If anyone attended this course, please share your memories in the Comments below.


Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Rapper who went by "Houdini" killed in Toronto

A Canadian rapper who called himself "Houdini" has been shot and killed in an ambush attack in Toronto. He was 21.

According to a report in the Mirror--which used the headline "Houdini Dead"--the rapper, whose real name is Dimarjio Antonio Jenkins, was one of Canada's most streamed independent rappers with 19.2 million plays on Spotify in 2019.

Ironically, Houdini said he would not reveal how he received his name until "later in life" when he became more successful.

UPDATE: The Toronto Sun is catching flack on Twitter for this headline:


Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Watch Strange Inheritance 'Houdini Jewel' on Tubi

The first four seasons of Strange Inheritance with Jamie Colby are available to stream for free on Tubi. This includes the episode "Houdini Jewel" devoted to Bess Houdini's royal crown brooch. Interviewed are David Copperfield, Milt and Arlene Larsen, and me!

There have been developments since the episode first aired on January 22, 2018. David Copperfield is no longer the owner. The brooch now belongs to Randy and Kirsty Pitchford of the Cardini family. I also discovered a 1952 article in which Gerri Larsen says the brooch was given to Bess by the Grand Duke of Russia (Sergei Aeksandrovich), not Czar Nicholas, confirming the theory I express in the show.

However, the most recent twist is a 1902 Christmas card that proves Bess had the brooch before the Houdinis ever went to Russia, so it appears we can forget about Russian royalty altogether! But the brooch has passed through the hands of magic royalty, and that's what continues to make it a true treasure.

This was a fun shoot and I think the episode is well done. And while I don't know this for certain, I think this is how I landed on David Copperfield's radar and why I received the great honor of visiting his incredible museum in 2018 (which you can read about here).

Thanks to Ashley Drew for the alert.


Monday, May 25, 2020

Talking Houdini with the AMA this Thursday

With the Magic Castle closed due to Covid-19, the Academy of Magical Arts wanted some way to continue to bring members magical experiences. Among those efforts are Facebook Live events called "Behind the Bookcase," which have proven to be very popular. So I'm excited and honored to have been asked to join Mike Caveney and Jonathan Levit for a "Behind the Bookcase" all about (surprise) HOUDINI this Thursday, May 28 at 7:00 PM PST.

Click to enlarge.

"Behind the Bookcase" is available to all AMA Members via the AMA Facebook Group. Episodes are then archived and available on the Magic Castle website. So if you are a member of the AMA, I'll see you Thursday "Behind the Bookcase." (We'll turn Mike Caveney into a "Houdini Nut" yet!)

UPDATE: I'm happy to report that the event went so well we are planning a Part 2. And I think Mike might be re-catching Houdini fever (his interest in magic actually began with the Epstein book). And if you want to know the "secret of Houdini's favorite suit", I've shared it HERE. Thanks to all who watched!

Click to enlarge.


Sunday, May 24, 2020

LINK: The escape artist

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has a nice article today by performer Dan Kamin about how he and his friends were influenced by the 1953 biopic Houdini.

"Until we’re all set free, you might enjoy watching Tony Curtis’ exhilarating portrayal of a man who could not be confined."

Click the headline to have a read at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (be forewarned you only have a few clicks before a registration wall pops up).


Saturday, May 23, 2020

Watch ETHER: The Strange Afterlife of Harry Houdini & Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Playwright Susan I. Weinstein has uploaded the first 10 minutes of ETHER: The Strange Afterlife of Harry Houdini & Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to YouTube. The 2-act play made its debut at the iRT Theatre in New York City last December and was in the processes of seeking an Off Broadway Showcase before theaters were shut down due to Covid-19. But now you can enjoy a taste of it at home.

UPDATE: You can now watch the full play via THIS LINK.

Thanks to Susan Weinstein.


Friday, May 22, 2020

New Italian edition of Gibson's Houdini on Magic

A new edition of the Walter B. Gibson classic Houdini on Magic has been released in Italy. The cover features Houdini's Prison Cell and Barrel Mystery poster art (which was also just used on the large print edition of the Joe Posnanski book).

This isn't the first release of Houdini Il Mago in Italy. The book was previously released by Editoriale Corno in 1977 (below).

Houdini Il Mago can be purchased at

Thanks to Arthur Moses for the alert!


Thursday, May 21, 2020

The 'Houdini House Pen' gets it write

Our friend and woodworking artist Barry Spector has teamed with Master pen maker Mike Duffy to create a very special limited edition Houdini House Pen. This high quality pen has been beautifully crafted from authentic wood from Houdini's New York home (stand not included).

Barry has been creating unique works of art using wood lath from Houdini's 278 (see related links below). But for these Barry and Mike did not use lath. The wood for these pens comes from the window casing of a mystery room located off Houdini's library in the back of the house, possibly once used by his brother Leopold as his "operating room." The window was removed during recent renovations.

I'm excited to have received one of these yesterday (No. 3), and I can attest to the fact that it is a heavy duty quality pen in all regards. In fact, it's so nice, I'm afraid to use it!

Each pen comes with a certificate of authenticity. Two styles of presentation cases can also be purchased at extra cost.

You can purchase the Houdini House Pen at Etsy


Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Houdini's Madison straitjacket escape then and now

Here's a terrific video from the Wisconsin Historical Society on YouTube about Houdini's suspended straitjacket escape in Madison on January 23, 1924. I especially like that they travel to the location today.

The video gives a brief glimpse at the story which ran in the Wisconsin State Journal the day of the escape. Below is a look at the full front page.

Click to enlarge.

It was during this same Madison engagement that an eyewitness claimed Houdini performed his Water Torture Cell in full view of the audience. You can relive that one via the top related link below.


Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Instagram Live event with Katherine Factor

Rediscovered Books in Idaho will be hosting an Instagram Live event with author Katherine Factor this Wednesday, May 20, from 4:00pm to 5:00pm MDT.

Join us for an Instagram Live event with author Katherine Factor, featuring her Choose Your Own Adventure SPIES: Harry Houdini on the Rediscovered Books Caldwell Instagram Page
Choose Your Own Adventure SPIES: Harry Houdini takes YOU to stages around the world—from Paris to Moscow, Coney Island to San Francisco—wowing audiences with your death-defying stunts and magic tricks. But that’s not all that Houdini was up to at the turn of the century...Will YOU agree to a lifetime of spying for the US and British intelligence agencies or is your magic routine life threatening enough? 
Katherine Factor is a freelance editor, book coach, and educator. She has her MFA in Poetry from The University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and has held positions at Idyllwild Arts Academy and Interlochen Arts Academy. She is a recipient of grants from the Iowa Arts Council, and the Arts Enterprise Laboratory for supporting projects publishing young writers. She is the author of both Choose Your Own Adventure: Mata Hari and Choose Your Own Adventure: Harry Houdini.


Monday, May 18, 2020

Master Mystery episode 10 poster sells for $24,570

A poster for episode 10 of Houdini's The Master Mystery sold for $24,570.00 (including buyers premium) during this weekend's Haversat & Ewing magic auction. The image is one of the most striking of all The Master Mystery posters.

Another Houdini highlight from the auction was a copy of The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin inscribed to Hatty Fisher, along with an invitation to the 1916 dedication of the Weiss family exedra at Machpelah Cemetery. The book included a leaf pressed between its pages, presumably from the dedication itself. It took $3,276.00.


Saturday, May 16, 2020

At last! Evidence of Houdini's near fatal buried alive surfaces

The story of Houdini nearly dying during a buried alive stunt in California is one that appears in most biographies. As told by Houdini in a 1925 Collier's article ("When Magic Didn't Work") he was trying the escape at different depths. But when it came to six feet, he found the weight of the earth too much and for the first and only time in his career he panicked and shouted for help. But he could not be heard under the soil. By sheer will he was able to claw his way to the surface and collapsed as his assistants hauled him from what had almost been his real grave. Houdini called it "the narrowest squeak in my life."

Illustration by Noa Kelner.

It's a great story, but there has always been a problem with it. There's no evidence that it actually happened. Exactly where the stunt took place has never been clear. Houdini first said it happened "in Hollywood." But it later became "Santa Ana", which is a good 30 miles from Los Angeles. Nor has a date ever been established. Most biographies, while never explicitly dating it, place it in their chapters covering the years 1915-16. But in Collier’s Houdini wrote that it occurred "six years ago," which would make it 1919. But Houdini was famously bad with dates.

The only thing that has kept me from dismissing this story as Houdini-generated mythology is a handwritten annotation Houdini made on some Buried Alive notes which appears (undated) in Walter B. Gibson's Houdini's Escapes (1930):

"I tried out 'Buried Alive' in Hollywood, and nearly [?] did it. Very dangerous; the weight of the earth is killing." 

So this is where things have stood on the Buried Alive story for decades.

But last Wednesday while doing some unrelated research, I stumbled on the following from the May 16, 1919 Los Angeles Times and nearly fell out of my chair!

Los Angeles Times, May 16, 1919.

So is this THE buried alive? Let's dig deeper.

Houdini had arrived in Los Angeles in late April 1919 to begin work on The Grim Game. By mid May he had already performed with the Lasky players at two Liberty Loan drives in Pershing Square (in which he was tied to a cannon). So this is right in line with his activities at this time. And it looks like Houdini had the year right after all!

The Air Memorial Day circus was a major event featuring over 50 airplanes and staged dogfights. The grand finale was to be the bombing of a German balloon, but it broke loose and drifted off over Hollywood. The crowd was estimated at 100,000.

The location, De Mille Field, sat at Crescent and Melrose Avenue between the cities of Hollywood and Santa Monica, which is likely what Houdini meant when he wrote Santa Ana. If DeMille Field sounds familiar, that's because it's where The Grim Game airplanes were leased and took off on their own fateful flights.

DeMille Field.

But there are some problems. In Houdini's telling it was a private test done on a bet with the magician trying the escape at graduating levels. I was also able to find several accounts of the Air Memorial Day event itself, including a detailed schedule, and there is no mention of Houdini, let alone a near death experience. Not something you'd expect a newspaper to ignore! So it appears Houdini did not do the escape at the event itself. Nevertheless, I still think we've found it.

My thinking is Houdini's close call occurred while he was practicing the escape, likely a day or two before the event. This fits with the graduating levels. He then cancelled the performance when he discovered six feet, as announced, was not feasible and damn dangerous. For it to be announced on the 16th, and then the papers show Houdini removed from the lineup on the 18th, suggests this test happened on the 16th or 17th. It seems logical Houdini would have tried it at DeMille Field itself, although we can't know that for certain. But a test before the event makes sense, and the fact that he didn't do the escape as announced only reinforces the idea that something happened.

So there we have it! Houdini's near fatal buried alive stunt is not the stuff of mythology but appears to have happened in mid May 1919. Maybe even 101 years ago today?

The illustration at the top of this post is by Noa Kelner and used with permission. Bottom illustration is from Patrick Culliton's Houdini The Key.


Friday, May 15, 2020

10th Anniversary: Those Vanishing Elephant photos

It was ten years ago today that I shared what would turn out to be one of my most popular (and frustrating) posts to that date. It concerned the rumor that color photos of Houdini's Vanishing Elephant illusion ran in a 1918 issue of New York World magazine. You can revisit below:

TEN YEAR UPDATE: I wish I could say that these photos have been found within these past ten years, but I cannot. They remain as elusive as ever, and I'm beginning to wonder if they ever really existed. But, hey, this is the kind of thing that keeps up going!

For those who might be disappointed in the lack of progress on the elephant front, know that I have made another major Houdini find that I will share this weekend. You'll dig it! (And that's a clue.)


Legal Disclosure

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.


Receive updates via email