Saturday, December 4, 2010

Who Inspired Houdini?

Dr. Lynn (John Hugh Simmons)

It's well known that Houdini changed his name to reflect his admiration for Robert Houdin. It is said that after reading the Memoirs of Robert-Houdin that is when Erich Weiss decided to become a magician. But there was someone before that. Several of the Houdini biographies name Dr. Lynn as the magician Houdini saw as a boy.

The story has it that young Erich Weiss went to the theatre with his father, Rabbi Samuel Mayer Weiss and they saw a performance by Dr. Lynn. Erich was enthralled by the performance and later in life he purchased all the props from the act from Dr. Lynn's son. Much is made of the routine "Palingenisia" which is a dismemberment routine. In Dr. Lynn's show he would cut off the arm, then a leg and then the head of a person and the restore that person back to normal. This was an invention of Tobin, who was also the inventor of the Sphinx Table. The methods for the two effects were similar but the effects were quite different.

Ward Memorial Theatre Milwaukee
When did Houdini see Dr. Lynn? We know it was in Milwaukee so it was between 1882 and 1887.  Erich would have been between 8 and 13 years old. Dr. Lynn shows up in America in 1882 performing in NY and then is gone again by 1886. I may have tracked down where the Weiss's saw Dr. Lynn perform. The Grand Opera House in Milwaukee is possibly the spot. It was built in 1871 and was not far from the area where Rabbi Weiss tried to open a private school. The Grand Opera House burned down in 1893 and the Pabst Theatre was built on the same location. The Pabst Theatre is still there and is still used as a live venue theatre.

There have been over 100 theatres built in Milwaukee over the years but I could only find two that fit that time period. The other is the Ward Memorial Theatre which was completed in 1881. There is a good chance that it was one of these two theatres that young Houdini went to with is father and first was exposed to magic.

I think there may have been a little bit more in Dr. Lynn's performance that interested young Erich than just Palingenisia however. It seems Dr. Lynn also did Rope Ties, Spirit Writing and Spirit Manifestations, and his own version of the Maskelyne Trunk Trick. The Maskelyne Trunk Trick is the basis for the routine that started Houdini's career, the Metamorphosis/Substitution Trunk! It's kind of funny that rope ties, spirit writing/manifestations and the trunk trick all became important parts of his repertoire later in life.

All of this research began when I was looking at the photos in Patrick Culliton's book 'Houdini-The Key', on page 400-401 of Houdini presenting Palingenisia and also photos of the secret workings of the trick. The back edge of the cabinet seems to be the give-away, it goes straight across but in reality if Houdini were really using the Dr. Lynn props, the floor would angle backwards in two directions from where Vickory is standing (sorry, I don't want to divulge the method so if you don't have the book or don't know the method then this will be confusing) Plus to top it off, Houdini is supposed to be using Dr. Lynn's actual apparatus, but the cabinet drape looks kind of modern to me, not something from the 1870s. Though in all truth, the method could be working so well that my eyes are fooled into seeing it incorrectly. Afterall, that is what illusion is all about, deceiving the eye. These subtle discrepancies  got me wondering about Palingenisia and Dr. Lynn and before I knew it my office looked like a library had exploded with books everywhere!

By the way, If you'd like to see what Palingenisia looked like, here is a recreation presented at the LA Conference on Magic History that I found over on Youtube. Dr. Lynn did not have mylar in his cabinet, but try and overlook that small alteration. The presentation is superb and actually better than the trick. Though I wonder if it looked better LIVE as opposed to video.

2 comments:

  1. Fantastic work as always. I've always thought Dr. Lynn didn't get enough credit for influencing Houdini/Ehrich. Very interesting to learn he also performed spirit effects and the trunk trick.

    Love the Neal Patrick Harris performance. I saw him at the Magic Castle yesterday, btw.

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  2. Dr. Lynn is always kind of glossed over in the bios, but I do think he deserves more credit than he gets.

    By the way, Dr. Lynn's son was apparently involved in a lawsuit with Maskelyne over the trunk trick and actually won!

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