Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Spectacle of Illusion by Matthew Tompkins

The Spectacle of Illusion: Deception, Magic and the Paranormal by Matthew Tompkins is a new book to be published in conjunction with the exhibition Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic, which runs April 11 through September 15 at the Wellcome Collection in London.

In The Spectacle of Illusion, professional magician-turned experimental psychologist Dr. Matthew L. Tompkins investigates the arts of deception as practised and popularised by mesmerists, magicians and psychics since the early 18th century. Organised thematically within a broadly chronological trajectory, this compelling book explores how illusions perpetuated by magicians and fraudulent mystics can not only deceive our senses but also teach us about the inner workings of our minds. Indeed, modern scientists are increasingly turning to magic tricks to develop new techniques to examine human perception, memory and belief.

Beginning by discussing mesmerism and spiritualism, the book moves on to consider how professional magicians such as John Nevil Maskelyne and Harry Houdini engaged with these movements – particularly how they set out to challenge and debunk paranormal claims. It also relates the interactions between magicians, mystics and scientists over the past 200 years, and reveals how the researchers who attempted to investigate magical and paranormal phenomena were themselves deceived, and what this can teach us about deception. 
Highly illustrated throughout with entertaining and bizarre drawings, double-exposure spirit photographs and photographs of spoon-bending from hitherto inaccessible and un-mined archives, including the Wellcome Collection, the Harry Price Library, the Society for Physical Research, and last but not least, the Magic Circle’s closely guarded collection, the book also features newly commissioned photography of planchettes, rapping boards, tilting tables, ectoplasm, automata and illusion boxes. Concluding with a modern-day analysis of the science of magic and illusion, analysing surprisingly weird phenomena such as ideomotor action, sleep paralysis, choice blindness and the psychology of misdirection, this unnerving volume highlights how unreliable our minds can be, and how complicit they can be in the perpetuation of illusions.

The Spectacle of Illusion: Deception, Magic and the Paranormal is being published in a U.S. edition (picture above) from D.A.P., and a UK edition from Thames and Hudson. Amazon shows conflicting release dates, so I will leave it to you to purchase or pre-order or both!

For more information on the exhibition, visit the Wellcome Collection website.

Thanks to Rory Feldman for the alert.

Monday, March 18, 2019


At dawn on March 18, 1910, Harry Houdini made the first powered controlled flight of an aircraft on the continent of Australia. The historic flight occurred 109 year ago today in Diggers Rest near Melbourne. Click below to read the details of Houdini's historic flight in a post I wrote back in 2010 commemorating the 100th anniversary.


Saturday, March 16, 2019

The saga of Houdini's Film Developing Corporation

It doesn't get much attention in biographies, but the Film Developing Corporation, a.k.a. FDC, was a major part of Houdini's (and Hardeen's) life from 1916 to 1925. It also marked Houdini's entrance into the movie business, albeit behind the scenes. While the FDC is today forgotten, the building that housed it remains. But we'll get to that.

Houdini formed the Film Developing Corporation on September 25, 1916. Opening a film lab was, in theory, a good investment. Movies were exploding in popularity, and even threatened to supplant vaudeville. And here at last was a way for Houdini to earn a steady income without having to tour. There was a fair amount of competition. But the FDC promised a faster, cheaper process for developing motion picture film using machinery and chemicals worked out by an aniline dye expert named Gustav Dietz. This was at a time when most film developing was still done by hand.

The executive offices for the FDC were located at 22 West 42nd St. in New York, while the film plant itself was located across the river at 216-222 Weehawken Street in Hoboken, New Jersey. Houdini was President, Hardeen Vice President, and Alfred Davidson Secretary and Treasure. Houdini took his new role seriously enough that on his 1918 draft registration card he listed his profession as: "Actor / Manager, Film Factory."

The December 20, 1920 issue of Motion Picture News gave a nice description of the FDCs laboratory operations:

On the west shore of the Hudson not far from the center of Hoboken the laboratory of the Film Developing Corporation is running full blast. The laboratory under the direction of Messrs. Houdini, Hardeen and Davidson has forged ahead by its production of work of high quality until it occupies a position as one of the leaders in the fine film development.
Although the interior of all laboratories are much the same as far as equipment and procedia are concerned, the Film Development laboratory offers some refinements in these respects. Particularly impressive is the roominess of the separate departments. Instead of having many machines in a close space with little room for expansion, there is plenty of space in every direction.
In the printing room, for instance, there is room for 15 to 20 printing machines, and a like amount of spaciousness is found in the performing department. Three projectors, two Simplexes and a Baird, are used to prove each foot of film before being sent out.
But probably the most interesting parts of the Film Developing plant are the automatic developing machines. There are three of these automatics, a small negative machine and two mammoth positive machines. Through the use of these machines, it is possible to pass films from printing machines through the various developing and drying processes without being touched by the human hands. The drying drums are totally inclosed and fed with perfect conditioned air.
In personnel the laboratory is especially fortunate tin having workers long experienced in handling of film. Superintendent Flosse has been identified with laboratory practice for many years. Mr. Joseph Leighton is an expert negative developer. Miss Madelaine Keough is floor lady, and Miss Sohns is in charge of the printing department.
The Film Developing plant has been laid out for an ultimate capacity of 1,500,000 feet weekly.

Personnel and titles would change during the first few years of the company. Nathan Saland, who had experience running film labs, was brought in as Vice President and Hardeen became Secretary and Treasurer.

Houdini had convinced his brother to leave the stage to help run the business. Hardeen's true feelings about surrendering his successful stage career for a desk job are not known. But a profile of Hardeen in the "Equipment Services" column of Motion Picture News chirpily noted:

Mr. Hardeen's executive ability has had much to do with the success of the firm in which he is interested. His long experience in the stage has given him a personality which aids him in handling employees. And strange as it may seem to view of the fact that his present work is much less exhilarating that the one which made him famous he has become thoroughly absorbed in his laboratory and only on rare occasions such as benefits does he drop his robe of business and take up the secrets of tricks of the magician.

The FDC had some notable clients, including Famous Players Lasky who would later produce Houdini's The Grim Game and Terror Island. The FDC also developed First National's innovative newsreels called "Kinograms". When Houdini formed his own production company, the FDC did all the processing for his two feature films, The Man From Beyond and Haldane of the Secrets Service. According to "Houdini's Ghost" Patrick Culliton, the lab also pioneered the concept of "Film Dailies", turning around shot footage within 24 hours for the film company to review.

With Houdini at the helm, it should comes as no surprise that the FDC aggressively advertised themselves, primarily in trade publications. Below are two such ads from 1919 and 1923.

Unfortunately, the FDC was problematic almost from the start. Dietz's special chemicals proved highly corrosive to the machinery. The war also affected the supply of chemicals needed for the automatic developers, and "rather than chance it with results not quite up to the standard" they shut the machines down. Profits proved elusive. To cover mounting expenses, in 1921 Houdini created a real estate holding company called The Weehawken Street Corporation, naming Bess Vice President. Through it he purchased the building for $35,000 and then rented it back to the FDC for $541 a month. This accomplished little. As Ken Silverman noted in Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss, "Houdini was out of his depth in this financial wheeling-dealing."

Then there were the lawsuits. A former manager, Arnold de Biere, sued the company for $2600 in unpaid salary. The case was settled out of court for $2000. The FDC was also hit with an ugly lawsuit by rival Powers Film Products, who claimed, falsely, that the FDC was a foreign owned company. The charge made news causing deals to collapse and some customers to withhold payments, one for $8000. Houdini filed a $25,000 countersuit for damage to the company's reputation.

Among the FDC stockholders was magician Harry Kellar, who had cautioned Houdini early on "not to go too deep into it as you have worked too hard for your money to throw it away." Now Kellar grew concerned that if the FDC went bankrupt, he'd be held libel for its debts. Houdini persuaded him to not sell his 125 shares and granted him the power of attorney. "I'm not worried about losing my money in the FDC," he wrote to Kellar, "but would certainly worry about losing your friendship."

The FDC and Houdini soldiered on, expanding and installing new equipment in 1922. But business didn't improve, and the following year two shareholders filed a suit against Houdini and Hardeen for mismanaging the company.

The stress of the business took its toll on Hardeen who had to have surgery for ulcers. But even with the weight of the FDCs problems, Houdini still found time to tour, make movies, lecture, write books, and launch his campaign against fraudulent spirit mediums. But with Houdini's waining interest in even his own motion picture productions, in 1925 he at last threw in the towel.

In November 1925 Nathan Salad resigned as Vice President and set up his own Saland Film Laboratories. The Weehawken Street Corp. folded that same year, and the FDC appears to have remained in existence in name only. Houdini now used part of the building as his workshop. Two famous photos show Houdini and his assistants at work inside the building, which are the only images of Houdini at the Weehawken site (as far as I'm aware).

In January 1926, G. Bert Ward leased the lab and it became the Ward Cine Laboratory. After Houdini's death, the FDCs equipment was sold to Seiden Camera Exchange. This appears to have been the official end of the Film Developing Corporation.

Film Daily, August 15, 1927.

But it was not the end for the Weehawken Street building. Happily, the building still exists today. The address is now 216 19th Street in Union City, NJ. (I visited it last year.) While modernized, it still retains its familiar structure inside and out, and would be recognizable to Houdini today. It's now a rental space frequently used for film and television work. Aware of the Houdini connection, the owners have dubbed the building "Houdini Studio."

A postscript to all this. One of Houdini's fellow Scientific American spiritualist investigation committee members was Daniel F. Comstock who had founded the Technicolor Film Laboratories also in 1916. One wonders if during their down time the conversation veered from ectoplasm to the shared frustrations of being a "Manager, Film Factory."


Friday, March 15, 2019

Houdini's London address and phone

Our friend Perry Reed has made an interesting discovery in this Getty Images clip showing an early London BT telephone directory. At the end you can see a listing for "HOUDINI, Harry, Handcuff King" with the phone number "Gerrand 1312" and the address "84 Bedford et mans." This was Houdini's London apartment, but exactly when he occupied it, I'm not sure. Unfortunately, this clip does not reveal the date of the directory.

Thank you Perry!

UPDATE: The good folks at The Manchester Society for Magic & Magicians @OrderOfTheMagi Twitter have shown me that many British telephone directories are available on Ancestry.com, including this one! The year is 1911, which is later than I always assumed for this residence. But it makes sense as Houdini was equally dividing his time between Europe and America right up to 1914.


Thursday, March 14, 2019

Houdini stamp from 1951

Here's a Houdini memorial stamp issued at the joint SAM-IBM "Mid Century Convention" in New York in 1951.

Today we take Houdini merchandise for granted. There are any number of puzzles, games, and bobble heads for the asking. But in 1951, I expect this was something unique. Of course, Houdini got an official U.S. postage stamp in 2002. In fact, that stamp was first revealed at the SAM Centennial Convention in New York. So this is somewhat of a forerunner to that.

Thanks to Kevin Connolly for reminding me I had this!


Wednesday, March 13, 2019

A close call in the Water Torture Cell

Houdini breaking his ankle in the Water Torture Cell in 1926 is his only known accident while performing the famous escape. But Houdini did the escape for 14 years, so we can assume there must have been other mishaps or close calls. Now I've found one!

The below occurred while Houdini was performing at the Palace Theatre in New York in January 1917.

The New York Clipper, Jan. 17, 1917.

While this doesn't raise to the level of a true accident, it does shows the dangers of doing any water escape. And unlike modern Water Torture Cells--which are quickly locked by padlocks--Houdini's cell required his upward folding hasps to be perfectly slotted into the locks which then required a full turn of a key. So I can see how this happened. Good thing Houdini could hold his breath for over three minutes!

Below are links to a few other close calls.

UPDATE: Jim Criswell reminds me of this quote from an interview with Dorothy Young:

"And, then the very, very exciting thing was Water Torture Cell. [...] I stood with Mrs. H. often, and she said only once in their life, did he have to give the signal to be taken out."


Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Houdini on the Roadshow

Houdini showed up on Antiques Roadshow in the UK recently. Here's a tweet that shows what landed before the experts.

Thanks to Narinder Chadda.


Sunday, March 10, 2019

Here's the cover of Joe Posnanski's new Houdini book!

Today I'm thrilled to help reveal cover art for Joe Posnanski's new book, The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini, due out October 22, 2019. I love it!

Author Joe Posnanski shares with us his feelings about the cover:

"I cannot tell you how excited I am about this cover. This is my fifth book, and for each of the first four, the cover was a lot of difficult work. You want it to be perfect, of course, and that has meant looking at dozens of different possibilities. I would say, no exaggeration, that for my each of those books, the artists drew up at least 20 different covers. For one of my books, we probably looked at closer to 50 covers. 
And for The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini: This is the basically first cover they sent me. The art designer has done a wonderful job adjusting it, adding some light and flow, but it’s still the first cover.

And that’s just incredible. It’s like everyone at Avid Reader is on exactly the same page about what this book is — you have the shadow of Houdini dominating the cover, and there’s Harry peeking from behind, still very much alive, still impacting the world in countless very real ways. I’ve never had a cover that so perfectly aligns with the words. 
I cannot tell you how rare this is, for a cover to come together as quickly and as beautifully as this one has. It feels like a continuation of the magical ride that this book has been for me as an author. I’m so thrilled for you to share the cover, and I cannot wait to share the book — October cannot come fast enough for me."

You can pre-order The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. This promises to be the Houdini book event of 2019.

Thanks to Joe and the good folks at Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster for the scoop. 


Saturday, March 9, 2019

A gathering at Famous Players-Lasky

Here's a photo of a gathering at the Famous Players-Lasky studio commissary in Hollywood. This comes from the July 5, 1919 Motion Picture News. Can you spot our boy? Extra points if you can spot his Terror Island co-star and director (even though this was taken while Houdini was shooting The Grim Game).

Click to enlarge.

The Famous Players-Lasky studio stood on Vine Street between Selma and Sunset Blvd. Today it's the site of modern development and a 1968 bank building which once housed "The Society of American Magicians Hall of Fame and Magic Museum."

Below are a few more posts that show Houdini at work at the Lasky studio.


Friday, March 8, 2019

Houdini's early days online

Today I feel like giving a nostalgic shoutout to two Houdini websites that pioneered Houdini news and information on the net. While no longer updated, both sites are still available online.

First up is Bob King's "Houdini Tribute", which I believe may have been the very first Houdini site on the web. Bob devoted his site to historical Houdini ephemera as well as news and current events. It's still a fun place to explore as there are some hidden gems. The super old school design is also part of its appeal.

The next site is George Ford's Houdiniana.com, launched in 1999. I always found Houdiniana an exciting destination as it was mostly devoted to current Houdini news and events. The site went offline in 2007 and George seems to have fallen out of the Houdini world. But he was a pioneer and a good guy.  Houdiniana can be viewed via the Wayback Machine.

Finally, there was Houdini Connection, launched in 1998. I don't know who ran this site. It stopped updating in 2007, but is still online.


Thursday, March 7, 2019

Haldane of the Secret Service screening in Portland

There will be a screening of Houdini's Haldane of the Secret Service with live musical accompaniment at the Clinton Street Theater in Portland on Tuesday, March 19 at 7 PM. Below are details.

The master escape artist, Harry Houdini, stars in one of his few screen roles as Heath Haldane, secret service agent extraordinaire, who is hot on the trail of the counterfeiters who killed his father. It has action, adventure, romance and some of Houdini's signature escape tricks and stunts. 
Join us at the next installment of Public Domain Xinema at the Clinton Street Theater with live music by Sonochromatic for Haldane of the Secret Service (1923) starring Harry Houdini and silent film star Gladys Leslie. The musicians of Sonochromatic will be in from Corvallis to accompany this silent classic on the big screen, plus newsreels and cartoons from 1923 to really take you back and a historical introduction from curator Ygal Kaufman. 
This is a donation based show, so you don't have to bring a penny, but the donations are vital to keeping the Clinton Street Theater open and keep our show going, so if you can spare a few bucks we appreciate it. Tuesday, March 19th, 7 p.m. only at the Clinton Street Theater.

Visit the Clinton Street Theater website for more details.

Thanks to Dick Brookz at the Houdini Museum in Scranton for the alert.


Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Mystifier, Fourth Quarter 1996

Continuing my issue by issue look back at the Mystifier, the newsletter of the Houdini Historical Center that ran from 1991-2003.

The Houdini world experienced a peak moment in the Fall of 1996 with the 70th anniversary of Houdini's death and the release of Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss by Kenneth Silverman. The Fourth Quarter 1996 Mystifier captures this time, starting with a rave review of the book by HHC curator Benjamin Filene.

I breathed an "Aaah" of relief after reading only a few pages of Kenneth Silverman's new biography Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss. My job as curator of the Houdini Historical Center had just become immeasurably easier. Finally I had an authoritative, clearly organized, properly indexed source to which to turn when seeking information about Houdini.

This newsletter also contains a report on Penn and Teller's visit to the HHC on October 16. The magic duo were performing in nearby Green Bay, Wisconsin. They also sat down for a quick interview, which includes the following intriguing exchange:

Penn: We've talked to three people who saw Houdini perform, They all came up to us after seeing our show––they were all in their eighties. They mentioned it because Teller does the needles and they mentioned seeing Houdini do the needles. All three said the exact same thing––that they found [Houdini's] shows kind of disappointing. The Vanishing Elephant was supposed to have really stunk. But you know, it was the excitement of going and being part of it. 
Teller: Although I'm convinced very much by [Kenneth] Silvermans's description of the water tank [the Water Torture Cell] that it was a really fine piece of theater, just a killer piece of theater. It was paced completely differently from the way we should see something nowadays, but certainly within the realm of an event in that time. 
Penn: I'm afraid I can't be accused of having any sense of how the performance was in its time. I'm just ruined for that––it's like reading Dickens. So all I have are the accounts of these three people that saw him. Of course, once you've seen something big like this, once you've seen Houdini, you have two choices: either it was the best thing you've ever seen or a disappointment. You don't really have any sort of middle ground.

The newsletter continues with a report on radio interviews conducted by HHC curator Benjamin Filene on Halloween, as well as the Halloween AOL online conference co-hosted by Filene and D.L. Shiloh. It reports that "at any given second as many as 60 to 80 people hand 'logged on' to the conference." The article provides a URL of where a transcript can be retrieved, but the link has long since died. But a new age of online Houdini information had begun!

In his "Backstage" column, Sid Radner offers a ringing endorsement of Gene Gamache's new documentary, Houdini People Came to See Him Die, saying he feels it is "the best one to date." He also offers praise for the Silverman book, saying: "This biography surpasses everything written previously about Houdini, and no magic buff should be without it."

Sid then alerts readers that the first HHC publication, Houdini Comes to America, is now available from the museum shop. He also corrects a statement he made in a previous newsletter that Houdini had no nieces. "My statement was true, but Houdini did acquired nieces through his marriage with Bess, and his niece Marie Blood is well known in the magic profession."

Volume 6, Number 4
Fourth Quarter, 1996
6 pages

Houdini!!! Reviewed
Penn & Teller Visit HHC
Museum Shop
Center On Line for Halloween
Center Staff on Radio



Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Mysteries at the Museum murders Houdini

The Travel Channel's Mysteries at the Museum once again featured a segment about Houdini. The episode titled "Scared To Death" aired last Wednesday (Feb. 27). It can be watched on YouTube.

Unfortunately, the series, now in its 24th season, seems to be running out of ideas. They've turned to the old murder/poisoning conspiracy theory, and do a pretty sloppy job with even the basic facts (he performed "for several weeks" after the punch?). But on the upside, we get to see our friend Dorothy Dietrich and the Houdini Museum in Scranton.

By my count this marks Houdini's seventh appearance on the show.


Monday, March 4, 2019

Hardeen's new job

Today is the birthday of Houdini's brother Theo. Hardeen, born on March 4, 1876 in Budapest, Hungary. For the occasion, I thought I'd share this untypical profile of Hardeen from the February 14, 1920 issue of Motion Picture News. It is not about him as an escape artist, but as Vice President of Houdini's Film Developing Corporation, a role he played from 1917 to 1925. The photo is also one I've not seen before.

Click to enlarge.

Stay tuned for a deep dive into the FDC, including some unique trade advertisements and a description of the working plant itself. In the meantime...

Happy birthday Dash!


Sunday, March 3, 2019

LINK: Franz and friends

Reader Perry Reed alerts me to a website called Lost Vaudeville that features the postcard collection of costume designer Blanche Townsend. Among the cards is one that shows Houdini's assistant Franz Kukol. It's an image I've never seen. The card is from March 1907 when Houdini was playing two weeks the Valentine Theater in Toledo, Ohio.

Click the headline to see the full Franz and friends at Lost Vaudeville.

Thank you Perry.



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