Monday, October 16, 2017
The Men Who Fooled Houdini
There is an amazing story of how a young Howard Thurston fooled Herrmann the Great. He fooled him with a Rising Card effect. Thurston invited a newspaper man to join him on the day he was to present the trick to Herrmann. In a rushed performance, only a few minutes before Herrmann's show was to begin, Thurston had four cards selected and returned to a pack of cards and each one, one at a time floated up out of the deck. Herrmann was amazed and said so. The next day the newspaper had a headline that read, "The Man Who Mystified Herrmann." Thurston, understandibly got really full of himself really fast. His bubble was soon burst however, when he met with Herrmann the next day and Herrmann was incensed over the headline. He felt he had been used, and he had been. Plus, Thurston had not fooled Herrmann the Great. He fooled Leon Herrmann, Alexander's nephew. And Leon was no where near the magician that his Uncle had been.
Back in those days, you sometimes needed a boost, something to give you an edge to break into show business or make a bigger name in show business. Defeating a rival or besting the number one person was a great way to get publicity. For those interested, the story is well recounted in the wonderful Jim Steinmeyer book, The Last Greatest Magician In the World, Chapter 6.
As I stated in a previous column, Houdini really felt like he was number one and in many ways he was. It is said that he made the claim that he couldn't be fooled by a trick if he saw it three times. In Houdini's defense, this is not a unrealistic statement. In magic we are taught not to repeat a trick. The reason being, after a spectator sees a trick once, they are more likely to catch on to the method with a second viewing. There are exceptions of course. But when people know you've made a statement like Houdini's, someone is liable to try and prove you wrong. Keep in mind, none of the following stories appear in any of the Houdini biographies. But they all appear in print in other books. The first one, is fairly well known magic lore.
He Fooled Houdini
Thereafter, Dai Vernon, who was going by Dale Vernon at that time, used the moniker 'He Fooled Houdini' in all his promotions. Quite reminiscent of Thurston's approach with Herrmann. If you're wondering about sources, I found this story in Genii Magazine, but also in the book, He Fooled Houdini-Dai Vernon A Magical Life by Bruce Cervon and Keith Burns, and it's in other books as well.
He Fooled Houdini First
Here's a story you may not have heard. In 1907, Houdini and Karl Germain were both in England. Germain, happened to run into Houdini at a banquet and decided he wanted to amaze his friend. He then proceeded to present his favorite pocket trick, the term that was used then for close-up magic. The trick was called The Spirit Writing On Cigarette Paper. Houdini watched like a hawk, but in the end was amazed by the presentation. Did he fly off the handle or ask that the trick be repeated numerous times? Apparently not. Germain used a somewhat unorthodox method for this one showing and he felt it best not to share the 'how' with Houdini, who then might have been offended by the ruse. This story comes from Stuart Kramer's Germain the Wizard book, the Miracle Factory edition.
Houdini Enjoying The Magic
THE ODDS AGAINST ME: The Autobiography of John Scarne. This story takes place at Horrnmann's Magic Shop in NYC. Some of the players involved in the story include Frank Ducrot, Daisy White, Jim Collins, Houdini and a young John Scarne. Mr. Scarne had come to the shop to take lessons in magic from Ducrot. However, upon his first set of lessons in card magic, he asked Mr. Ducrot about midway during the lesson if maybe he could skip cards and learn something else. Ducrot asked why, and Scarne tells him he already knows cards pretty well. Ducrot asks to see something, figuring they'll be some rather simplistic tricks. But to his amazement, he is dumbfounded by what he sees. He calls Daisy White into the room, she worked as a demonstrator at the shop, and Scarne repeats the tricks. Fools them both!
Ducrot, who has been around magic his whole life, wants to know where he learned this, and Scarne tells him he learned it from card mechanics. It's the first time, Ducrot has heard this term. He suggests that Houdini, who is in town performing, and habitually stops by the shop, should see these tricks. So Ducrot sets up a meeting and a few days later, young John Scarne gets to meet the great Houdini.
Houdini shows up at Horrnmann's shop along with Jim Collins. He is greeted cordially by everyone and then introduced to the 'kid'. According to the Scarne story, Houdini took out a beat up deck of cards and started to do some manipulations and asked Scarne if he could do those. Scarne was about to when Ducrot interrupted and said, "That's easy for Johnny, but it's not what I wanted you to see." And encourages the kid to show Houdini the same tricks from a few nights earlier. The first trick he does is a signed card to pocket which catches Houdini by surprise. In fact, most if not all the tricks amazed Houdini. Scarne could tell by Houdini's reaction that he'd been fooled multiple times. But he didn't come out and say so. Instead, Houdini invited Scarne to come to the theater and see the show and then he wanted to have him come back to the dressing room so he could show Bess some of these clever gambling style tricks.
John Scarne went on to become a regular at Horrnmann's and quite popular among the magicians in NYC. So popular that Frank Ducrot eventually suggested to Scarne that he use the tag line "The Magician Who Fools Magicians."
So here you have three different stories of Houdini being fooled and you have three different endings. In one, Houdini is livid. In the second, there is no mention of his temper flaring, in fact, Germain mentions that he purposely did not share the secret so as to avoid that potential disaster. And in the third instance Houdini is fooled and very cordial.
Do I believe the stories? Yes, I believe all three took place. Do I believe they happened the way they are told? No.
Vernon made no bones about not liking Houdini. His feeling was Houdini was a bad magician and escapes were not magic. So I tend to think there is a bit of an anti-Houdini bias that creeped into the story. Do I think Vernon fooled Houdini with a version of what we know today as The Ambitious Card? Yes, I do. Vernon was a revolutionary card man. He learned all the sleights of Erdnase and, like John Scarne, knew methods used by gamblers and perfected them. The methods and techniques for The Ambitious Card were not as well known in Houdini's day. Nor was that kind of close-up style card magic popular. It would take Vernon and others to make it popular over time. So I do believe the story is true, but I tend to think there might be a bit of embellishment along the way. For example, I have seen the dates listed by Vernon as 1919, and 1922, so something is wrong there (it was definitely 1922). The quote where Houdini supposedly admits defeat and calls Vernon the greatest man with cards he's ever seen, I think is false. I think that was made up for promotional purposes as it appeared in a promo piece of Vernon's. In fact, Vernon even says on page 131 of Dai Vernon A Magical Life, "Harry would never admit that anyone could fool him". So I don't believe Houdini said that he did. In addition, if you've ever read Elliott's Last Legacy, Houdini felt, at least in 1923, that the two best card men in the country were Dr. James Elliott and himself, no mention of Vernon.
As for the Germain story. Yes I believe it and it likely played out just the say he described it. The one thing I left out, when describing the story, was the unorthodox move. Germain used an accomplice to make the trick happen, which is why it fooled Houdini. If he had used his regular method, Houdini likely would have not been fooled. In the end, Germain didn't go around bragging about fooling Houdini afterward, as Vernon had done.
Correction: An addition to the Germain story, Pat Culliton points out that Houdini was in America in all of 1907, so either the story is not true or Germain has his dates wrong. I meant to check the date too before posting and I didn't, so now I'm checking.
Further Correction: I went back and did the checking that I should have done in the beginning. It appears that Houdini was in England in 1907 for a short time. In the book The Great Houdini-His British Tours by Derek Tait, chapter 7 is about Houdini's brief time in England in 1907. Mr. Tait even mentions that Houdini wasn't thought to have made any appearances in the UK in 1907, but it turns out he did. Now, some still dispute this, and that's ok. I think, given the fact that Houdini was doing a gig for the Sheffield Empire Palace, and he had been there a previous time, that's proof enough for me that he was in England in 1907. Plus Germain, who was in England, claims to have showed Houdini a trick IN England at that time.
The final Scarne story is my favorite I think. In his biography, Scarne describes seeing Houdini's show for the first time and he is amazed by it. He clearly looked up to Houdini. Unlike the Vernon story, Houdini didn't loose his temper. He actually watched the magic for 20 minutes! And then invited Scarne to the theater so that he could show Bess. No doubt, that was also so Houdini could see the tricks again. But this event was less adversarial. The Vernon event with the whole, 'I Can't Be Fooled If I See A Trick Three Times' sets up more of a contest and pits Vernon against Houdini or vice versa.
Incidentally, I do believe this statement about Houdini bringing out a beat-up or well worn- deck of cards, from the Scarne story. I don't think it was intended as any sort of insult towards Houdini. Sure, Houdini could afford a new deck. But Houdini's card act was mainly a manipulation act and one of the keys in card manipulation are softer cards. There are techniques magicians use to make cards softer in order to manipulate them. Today, it's easy to purchase cards that are already softer and idea for manipulations, but this was not always the case. So I do believe Houdini carried this worn deck of cards which made his manipulations easier. It makes total sense.
I can also add, that a lot of old timers had this 'I can't be fooled' attitude for whatever reason. I personally, LOVE to be fooled. I'm not fooled often, but that's because I've been in the magic biz for a long time. If someone fools me with great magic, I really do love it. But I guess I also don't think of it as 'being fooled' either. That term has a bit of a negative connotation, like 'making a fool out of someone'. I prefer the term 'being amazed'. But in the early 20th Century, they were not out to amaze, they were out to FOOL!
By the way, the photo at the top of the page has NOTHING to do with any of the three stories. I just thought it made a good visual hook for the topic.