Personally, I find the book fascinating. Sure, Houdini's angle on Robert-Houdin was all wrong, but he does record quite a bit of history about other performers in those pages. I'd like to take a moment or two and trace the origins of Houdini's act. I will not be accusing him of pilfering his material from other performers. He was not the first escape artist, nor the first to do many of the effects he claimed as his own. What he did do was what many performers do, including Robert-Houdin. He took a lot of existing material, made it his own and did it so well that everyone associated it with him. I think there is nothing wrong with that! Plus, Houdini did have some things that were uniquely his.
The Origins of the Escape Act
Escapes generally came out of the Spiritualist Movement. Folks like the Davenport Brothers were the first to be tied into a cabinet and cause odd manifestations to take place. The truth was, the brothers had discovered a special way to be tied so that they could untie themselves and then get back into their bonds. The Davenports began their act in 1854, a good 20 years before Houdini was even born. The Davenports presented their show as apparently genuine mediums, so they were not escaping, but the technique of freeing themselves was very much the same.
In the March issue of The Sphinx, John Mullholland points out that it's very possible Wyman the Wizard was the first magician to present these fake spiritualistic effects in a magic show. So there is the jump from pseudo-religious use to entertainment. In fact, John Wyman was also on a committee in Boston in 1857 to investigate the Fox Sisters, the originators of the Spiritualism Movement. Other performers soon jumped on the spirit phenomenon train, like John Henry Anderson, Robert-Heller, Samri Baldwin and a fellow named Horatio.
|Houdini & Cooke|
Another close friend and mentor, was Harry Kellar. Mr. Kellar worked for the Davenport Brothers and eventually developed his own rope tie that allowed him to present the Spirit Cabinet. By the time, Houdini and Kellar became close friends, Kellar had retired. But Kellar was the most popular magician in America for a long time, and no doubt Houdini witnessed his performances and was inspired by what he saw.
Though, he never worked for the Davenports, Samri Baldwin was inspired by their performances and decided to create of his own based on the same concept. It was also Baldwin who made the claim to be the first performer to present a handcuff escape. He mentions it in a letter written in 1915 that reads "The first public handcuff escape ever given in the United States and elsewhere, was given by myself in the city of New Orleans during the first week I ever exhibited in public. This was 46 years ago, long before any so-called handcuff kings were born." The year was 1871. He no doubt escaped from genuine handcuffs. Gimmicked handcuffs were used in the world of the seance worker, in fact, that might just be where they originated and eventually found their way into the magic world.
To Be Continued...