Showing posts with label #HoudiniMonth. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #HoudiniMonth. Show all posts

Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Day Houdini Was Buried

We often hear about Oct 31st 1926 at 1:26pm, as the time when Houdini died. But it wasn't until November 4th that he was buried. I'm going to explore this slightly, and steal content from one of my own articles I wrote a while ago.

On the morning of November 4th, 1926, the bronze casket containing Houdini's body, made it's second to last stop, this time at the Elks Clubhouse on West 43rd near Broadway. It took three cars to move all the flowers from the funeral parlor to the Elks Clubhouse. Houdini would have been proud as the room was packed  for  his funeral. Close to two thousand people showed up for the service.

The service began at 10:30 a.m. and was officiated by Rabbi Bernard Drachman and Rabbi B.A. Tintner. Eulogies and remembrances were given by numerous fraternal groups, magicians and others in the theatrical community. The very first Broken Wand Ceremony was conducted by a member of the Society of American Magicians. This is where a magician breaks a wand to signify that the magic of the deceased individual has ended. It's a great ceremony, but I'm actually not sure how fitting it was for Houdini as his magic kinda continued on, even till today.

Kenneth Silverman's book HOUDINI!!! says that Bess held up well until the casket was sealed at which point she broke down in tears. Incidentally, the casket that Houdini's body traveled in from Detroit to NYC was actually a bronze casket liner. It was placed inside a larger casket and the entire thing hermetically sealed before it was carried out to the hearse. Houdini's male assistants acted as the pallbearers, with some very notable individuals being listed as honorary pallbearers; Martin Beck, his former manager and theatrical impresario, Bernard Gimbel, one of the originators of the Gimbels Dept. Store, William Morris, of the famed entertainment agency,  and Adolph Zucker, a film mogul who started Famous Players Film Company which eventually became Paramount Pictures. These were just a few of the high profile names listed as honorary pallbearers.

As the casket was carried to the hearse, the mourners could see for the first time that the streets were jammed with 2,000 spectators who had all come out to say their last goodbye to the master of mystery.

According to The Secret Life of Houdini, the funeral procession to Macapelah Cemetery contained twenty five vehicles.  How long it took to travel from the Elks Clubhouse to the cemetery, I do not know. Silverman's book HOUDINI!!! says that the funeral procession was scheduled to drive through the theatrical district before heading to the cemetery.

Finally at the cemetery, two rabbis were present at the grave site as well as Houdini's family and widow Bess and 500 hundred mourners. Rabbi Isadore Miller conducted the graveside service. The newspapers said that Bess Houdini collapsed at the graveside. She had been ill and under doctors supervision ever since her husband passed away a few days before. Houdini made it clear in his final burial instructions that he was to be placed next to his mother. After the final words and prayers were given by the rabbis, the casket was lowered into the ground. According to the Silverman biography, Theo Weiss, Harry's brother tossed a flower onto the lowering casket and as if by magic a shower of flowers were tossed by the grieving graveside friends.

To learn more about the grave and cemetery, go to Mysteries of the Houdini Grave

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Houdini Documentary Available on DVD

About 15 years ago, I purchased a VHS tape of a documentary called simply HOUDINI. It was by Gene Gamache and put out my Unipix. It quickly became my favorite documentary on Houdini. It was well written, had great interviews and they had the perfect narrator, Hal Douglas. Mr. Douglas was famous for his many movie trailer narrations. He did a superb job on this documentary.  There is an original musical score by which moves the story along in an amazing way. Well finally, this documentary is available on DVD.

Some of the interviews include: Larry Weeks, Stanley Palm, Ken Silverman, Dorothy Young, Sid Radner, Whit Haydn, and more. You even get to see the tiny paw cuffs that Houdini had made for his dog.

Below you'll see an image of the front and back of the VHS version and below that, the front and back of the DVD. The DVD cover is similar to the VHS cover in that they used a picture of Houdini in the Russian Manacles. But that is where the similarities end. I really like this new cover.
The original cut had a 41 minute run time. However, this new DVD version was recut in 2013. The new version has a 60 minute run time. I'm curious to see what was added.  Repertoire Films is selling the DVD and they also have a poster available. You can purchase this direct from them at or you can also purchase it from their Facebook page at

I know posted this as well and I don't usually duplicate what John has done, but I really want to get the word out on this documentary!

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Houdini Month Bonus: The King Breakers

If you've never heard the term King Breakers, you're not alone. It's a term known by most escape artists, but not really a popular term outside of the genre. In the book, Houdini The Untold Story by Milbourne Christopher, the term used is 'defeaters'. King Breakers/defeaters usually refers to a set of handcuffs that have been gimmicked, reworked, faked or mechanically altered in some way that prevents them from being opened by normal means. Some King Breakers are simply impossible to open once closed. Others have been reworked to open with a different key or with a different device other than the standard key. And still others, might not be faked in any way but for one reason or another are extremely difficult to get out of even with a key.

This phenomenon of having a cuff that could defeat an escape artist came about because of the numerous so-called Handcuff Kings of the early 20th Century. Competitors would use King Breakers to basically try and humiliate or destroy the reputation of fellow escape artists and magicians. Chief among them, HOUDINI. Quite possibly he was the originator of the King Breaker, I do not know for sure. But I do know he used them against fellow handcuff kings. And it's quite possible that their invention came about by sheer accident. Houdini was once caught in a pair of cuffs that had been tampered with, even with the key they would not open. This was early in Houdini's career, and he had to have the cuffs sawed off. He thought his career over, but he soon found there was little coverage of his failure and what there was came down on Houdini's side. After the humiliation of having to have the cuffs sawed off, Houdini vowed to never have cuffs put on that he didn't first examine and make sure were in working order. This is why he often refers to 'regulation cuffs.' If he felt for any reason a cuff wasn't legit, he could claim it was not regulation and could dismiss the challenge. Of course, he could also use this type of strategy of having king breakers against competitors.

What pair of cuffs were the first King Breakers? That's a tough question. As for regulation cuffs that have not been gimmicked, I would say the Bean Giants. Once these cuffs were put on, they were quite rigid, restricting hand movement. Even with a key, it was virtually impossible to open them. Houdini came up with his own method to escape from Bean Giants and I think it remained the go-to method from his time forward. In fact, he even produced a challenge flyer to anyone who get out of the Bean Giants with them placed on behind their backs. For this he offered a $50 reward.

It might be said that the Mirror Cuffs (photo top of page) were specifically designed to be King Breakers. Or at least that is what the publicity about them made you think. Over time, the theory behind the origin of the Mirror Cuffs is that perhaps the entire incident was concocted by Houdini. One clue is the fact that Houdini didn't have the cuffs tested beforehand. If you recall his embarrassment of being stuck in handcuffs. Well after this he always checked to make sure cuffs were in working order, but with the Mirror Cuffs he didn't. He surely did use the Mirror Cuffs later in his career, as his own personal set of King Breakers that he could challenge others with. In one instance, a young man took Houdini up on the offer to escape from the Mirror Cuffs. Houdini noticed the young man had thin wrists and would likely just slip the cuffs rather than open them. So Houdini locked the cuffs and handed them to the young man and told him to open them. After several frustrating minutes, the challenger gave up.

I recall a conversation I had with the late Norman Bigelow about a pair of King Breakers he made. They were basically ratchet cuffs that had a pop rivet through the keyhole that prevented a key from being used. I assume they could be double locked and then the only way off is to saw them off, or possibly drill out the rivet, which could not be done during a challenge. Clever guy ole Norm.

The photo above is from the recent Potter&Potter Auction. It's a pair of Lily Irons that have been turned into King breakers. They use a different key from the regulation one. Any would-be escapist with a hidden Lily key would be completed stopped cold with this particular handcuff.

Another famous pair of king breaker handcuffs used by Houdini were the French Letter Cuffs. Now 
in the collection of escapist Jon Oliver, these cuffs have a unique origin.

French Letter Cuffs (Jon Oliver collection)
In June 1902, Houdini was in Holland. While there he received word there was an escape artist in Germany basically trashing Houdini's name. The man's name was Kleppini, and he boasted that he beat Houdini in a contest. Houdini was livid and took a leave from his contract in Holland to confront Kleppini. Houdini even wore a disguise! Houdini sat in the audience as Kleppini badmouth him. Then at some point, Houdini, disguised as a mere spectator, spoke up to contradict what Kleppini was stating. At the requisite dramatic moment, Houdini whipped off his disguise to prove HE was Houdini! He then challenged Kleppini to escape from his cuffs. He even offered to escape from Kleppini's for the sum of 5000marks. But Kleppini nor the circus manager would put up the money. After this the crowd began to disperse.

The following day the circus manager visited Houdini with an offer of a challenge. In the process, the manager asked if Houdini would allow Kleppini to escape from an unusual set of French Letter Cuffs owned by Houdini. As he examined them, he asked Houdini the combination, which Houdini gave him. The word, 'clefs' which translated meant 'key' would unlock the cuffs. Houdini swore the manger to secrecy. The truth is, Houdini knew that the business manger would tell Kleppini the key-word and when faced with the French Letter Cuffs, Kleppini would be victorious. But, as fate would have it, that was not the case. On the night of the challenge, Kleppini was unable to remove the cuffs. Why? Houdini changed the key-word. Houdini later let the manager and Kleppini know what he had done and that the new key-word was 'fraud'. Ouch!

Pat Culliton in his fine book, Houdini: The Key, refers to the French Letter Cuffs and The Mirror Cuffs as SUPER CUFFS. I think it's a fitting description. He also adds that the Russian Manacles, Houdini Bell Lock Cuffs belong in this class and there is evidence some of them might have been made by handcuff manufacturer Thomas Froggatt.  This means these special cuffs were made for Houdini and used both as a way to promote himself and as a way to defend himself.

My old friend, the late Steve Baker, shared a technique he used when confronted with what he knew were king-breakers. He had them placed on between a number of other cuffs. In other words, they joined two pair of other handcuffs, but never went on his wrists. This technique was also used by Houdini.

I can attest to being stuck in handcuffs and it's not a pleasant feeling. The night I was stuck, I did eventually open the cuffs, but not without some severe bruises to my wrists. A painful lesson, but fortunately something done privately for a friend and not publicly where it could have been embarrassing. Due to that one incident, I am very cautious about cuff escapes. I wouldn't have believed it, but Norman Bigelow assured me there are still folks out there, (mostly a-holes and angry escape artists) who might show up with a pair of king-breakers. The chances are slim, but like Houdini's early career embarrassment when he had to have handcuffs sawed off his wrists, the danger still lurks in the shadows.

Houdini Month on Instagram & Final Thoughts

Over on my Instagram account I've been posting Houdini books every day this month. Sadly, I still have more books to go and I've run out of days. There were a few books I couldn't locate, but I have them....somewhere. Above are all the ones I posted except for one. The last one, which will go up later today, is below. My very first book on Houdini. Houdini the Untold Story by Milbourne Christopher. Notice how wrecked the copy is. I actually have a pristine copy of the book as well(thank you ebay). But this one was the one I took with me everywhere as I studied all I could on Harry Houdini. Looking at the photo above however, I'm realizing there are a lot more missing than I first thought. Some are different editions of the same book. No problem, I'll find them and save them for next time.

I hope you enjoyed Houdini Month.  I will let you in on a secret, the plans I had for the month did not come together the way I wanted. Yes, you read that right. What I had in mind for Houdini Month was vastly different than what you saw. A couple of snags along the way, and a busy performing schedule, caused me to put those ideas on hold. I still have half a dozen articles that I've not had time to finish. But the good news is, I'll be doing another edition of Houdini Month, down the road.

Keep watching, keep reading The content doesn't stop just because Houdini Month has wrapped up. There will always be more to come!!!

OH WAIT. There are two more bonuses coming later today. One is a video, the other another article!

Houdini Month

Article 1: An Escape Revelation
Article 2: Houdini and Queen Victoria's Dress
Article 3: Steve Baker Interview
Article 4: A Houdini Card Mystery 
Article 5: Houdini's Detractors
Article 6: Houdini In Ice
Article 7: The First Statue of Houdini
Article 8: Houdini in Ukraine
Article 9: Houdini: The Latest Bust
Article 10: The Men Who Fooled Houdini
Article 11: Houdini & Dunninger Together, Again.
Article 12: Houdini in Baltimore 1916
Article 13: Houdini in Nashville 1899 
Article 14: A Poem about Houdini from 1916
CONTEST 3: Third Houdini Month Contest
Article 15: Houdini's Official Protege
Article 16: 104 Years Ago Today In the Life of Houdini 
Article 17: Houdini and His Ghost Houses
Article 18: BONUS My Original Invention
Artilce 19: BONUS Houdini and The King Breakers
Article 20: The Day Houdini Was Buried

My Original Invention - Bonus


What you saw above is my own original invention. No, it's not a video shot in reverse, it's actually an example of reverse escapology. Though I'm not the first to think of the effect. My inspiration was reading a story in Ricky Jay's book Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women. I don't have the book in front of me so I can't quote from it. However, I recall the chapter had to do with a performer who created a sort of reverse escape act. Rather than getting free from things, he would have the props locked up and he would end up inside, while they remained locked.

So my idea was to take a piece of rope, place it in a bag and reach into the bag with both hands. A moment later when the hands are removed, the performer (me) is found to be tightly bound by the rope. In fact, the routine I created has more to it than that, and for now I'd rather not give away anything else. But I would like to give a bit of history.

I developed this routine around 2001. The first person I showed was a buddy of mine and he was 100% fooled. This guy knew magic and I never expected him to be fooled, but he was floored. I began to discreetly show it around and it got the same reaction. I think the strength of it is in the fact that it's so unusual and so different from what you might expect. There are several ways to finish the effect: 1. You can be cut out of it. 2. You can have someone untie you out of it. or 3. You can use my ending, which I'm not revealing here.

Since the creation of this effect, I have found at least two instances in the Houdini literature regarding an effect like this. One is in Houdini's Escapes and Magic by Walter Gibson called The Self Tie. I'm not sure if Houdini ever did it, but it was in his notes and appears in the book.  My method is different, but all methods have similarities and of course, the end result is the same, you end up instantly tied, a truly impossible predicament. So the reason I posted it is that it gives you yet another example of Houdini's magic. I somewhat jokingly say 'my original invention' as it's a play off of Houdini's line from the USD. It's highly likely I just reinvented a technique long forgotten, one used by spirit mediums in days of old. I hope you liked it!

Monday, October 30, 2017

Houdini and His Ghost Houses

Houdini and ghosts are connected by way of the spirit mediums, spirit photography and all things associated with the haunted genre. But there is another connection. Something he traveled with and relied upon for years. That something was called his 'ghost house'.

The ghost house was the small cabinet he would often use to escape from handcuffs. He would kneel inside the house and it prevented people from seeing exactly what he was doing, but wasn't so large so as to hide an accomplice who could secretly let Houdini free.

Ghost house can be seen on the left.
The first mention of the 'ghost house' in a Houdini bio would be in the Kellock biography, when he describes the Mirror Handcuff Challenge. But I think perhaps one of the best descriptions comes from the more recent biography, The Secret Life of Houdini by William Kalush and Larry Sloman. They describe an event that took place June 27th, 1900 in London and the report comes directly from Inspector Melville's Diary. The event took place at the Alhambra, and the manager Dundas Slater had invited and encouraged members of the press to come and bring their own restraints to try and defy Houdini. I'll spare you the various details of his escapes however, this is how the ghost house is described, "a small waist high enclosure consisting of metal piping and black fabric that hid Houdini on three sides and could shield him totally by drawing a curtain in the front." This quote says the 'ghost house' was made of black fabric. However, Pat Culliton mentioned that he thought the 'ghost house' was red. I also found reference to the red fabric in the book, The Great Houdini by Derek Tait.

In a newspaper article from The Pittsburgh Daily Post May 19th, 1907, a reporter says to Houdini, "the secret in your powers lies in the fact that you are probably the most expert locksmith in the world, does it not?" Houdini answered, "Practically yes, but not entirely. I can open the ordinary handcuff by simply rapping on the floor. I understand the mechanism so thoroughly that I know exactly how to tap it to make it open. For such easy tricks, I don't mind for the spectators to watch me. It is when I have something particularly difficult to perform that I retire to my 'ghost house' to preserve my secret."

There is an interesting article in a Sept 26th 1906 article from The Washington Times that describes a challenge Houdini faced by escaping from a packing crate on stage. According to the article, the ghost house was placed over the top of the crate and then he began his escape. Later, the article mentions the 'red curtain' obscuring the box from view. This account makes me think that perhaps in this case, it was not his ghost house, but rather another fabric cabinet of a larger size, like the curtained cabinet for the Metamorphosis for example.

A similar escape from a Paper Bag also describes Houdini's ghost house, but again, I think this was a larger version again. In the Silverman book, there is a description of the Milk Can escape, and again they mention bringing in the ghost house to cover the can.

I believe that Houdini called all his cloth cabinets 'ghost houses', as a throwback to the old spirit cabinets that mediums used. A Spirit Cabinet began with the Davenport Brothers as a large wooden cabinet, usually several feet off the ground on saw horses or mounted on 4 legs. Over time it was replaced with a large curtained cabinet. But the use was the same, this is where the mediums would do all their dirty work to cause various supposed manifestations of spirits. Houdini was using it for a different sort of dirty work, to escape. And I believe he had more than one. The small fabric cabinet for handcuff challenges. And then the larger red ghost house for the Milk Can, and any challenge where he would require more room, or more space. I also believe these ghost houses were likely gaffed to the hilt, to use magic jargon. The larger red ghost house may have even had a roof on it to prevent folks in the balcony looking down into the cabinet. Either that or it could have been quite tall, but I'll bet it just had a covering/roof.

Sadly, I do know if any of the ghost cabinets survive today. My guess is they do not. The only picture I know if is the one above of the Mirror Challenge that just happens to have the small ghost cabinet in the picture.

UPDATE: I can't believe I missed this initially. Houdini's Escapes and Magic by Walter Gibson actually has a chapter on Houdini's Cabinets. The first thing I read really stands out, "The cabinet must not only be unsuspicious in appearance; it must stand an examination by committee members, who go through it before the escape takes place." YES!!! Besides being easily portable, easy to construct, they also had a perfect innocence to them, at least in their appearance. Forgive me, as I do not like to give out secrets here, so I will be stopping short before I give away too much. I will add though, that Houdini described several different cabinets, some were quite elaborate and it doesn't look as if he ever constructed the more elaborate cabinets. What he had worked for what he needed.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Houdini Month Contest 3b

The previous Contest 3 didn't seem to garner any interest, OR the question was too hard. (If you're interested, the answer could be found in Pat Culliton's book, Houdini The Key.)

So to make it simple, I'll just take the 31st entry. The winner gets a brand new Houdini Mug, pictured above, still in it's original packaging.

  • Only 1 entry per person
  • To enter: Send me an email, with the subject heading 'Houdini Contest 3B' to    
  • Please include your full name in the email. 
  • On Saturday Oct 31st, 2017, I will announce the winner.

We have a winner. C. Nicholson of Sterling is the winner. Thank you to everyone who participated. 

Saturday, October 28, 2017

104 Years Ago Today In The Life of Houdini

used with permission of John Hinson

This very large punchbowl/trophy was given to Houdini by his assistants on his 30th Anniversary as a performer, Oct 28, 1913. 30 years before that would have been 1883, and Houdini was born in 1874 so according to the assistants he was 9 when he became a performer. Using standards I should be celebrating my.......oh never mind. 

The names engraved on the punch bowl below to his assistants: F. Kukol, J. Vickery, J. Collins and one name not family J. Zwettler. I began to try and dig up information on this unknown assistant. There is a brief mention of him in the book Houdini Laid Bare, page 164 item 25. It mentions that Josef Zwettler swore an oath to be an assistant on Nov 30, 1912. Below is the oath:

I hereby swear by God the Almighty , not to reveal in any manner to 
anyone, no matter who it might be, nor even to give the smallest hint
of the secrets, instructions, plans, apparatus, constructions you have
confided in me in reference to the execution of your numbers.
Should I any manner directly or indirectly act against this oath you will
have the right at any time to begin court action against me for perjury.
In addition, the above mentioned oath above also refers to the following:
that even should I leave my position with you, I will nowhere and never
permit myself to copy any of your numbers...or even work as an assistant
in [an act] similar to yours. 
(from Houdini by Kenneth Silverman)

I can find no other mention of Josef Zwettler. He was hired in Germany during Houdini's tour in 1912-13. He may possibly be pictured among the magicians on the top of page 244 in Houdini The Key by Pat Culliton. But beyond the above I've come up pretty much empty. World War 1 broke out the following year 1914, and it's possible this is the reason we don't hear any more from Zwettler. Though, there is a huge brewery in Austria with the name of Zwettler, so maybe he is connected to that some how? We may never know.

By the way, the punch bowl trophy is owned by Houdini's great nephew John Hinson.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Houdini's Money Was Always Safe!!!!

One of Houdini's unique strategies to get people interested in his escapes was to offer a money challenge. He'd offer a certain dollar amount as a reward to someone who could find, discover, or uncover something related to his escapes. A perfect example is the poster above for the Prison Cell and Barrel Mystery. Look closely at the wording at the lower part of the poster (see below)
100 pounds Will Be Paid To Anyone Finding Traps, Panels, Or False Doors In the Cell. And I'm sure there were none, otherwise he would not have risked a financial loss.

The flyer to the left is interesting. It actually contains two monetary challenges. But it's also different from most of Houdini's offers of this kind. In this poster, his first offer is $100 to anyone who can release themselves from all the cuffs that he carries, and from which he releases himself. This is pretty bold and like many of his challenges covers himself fairly well. He points out that he allows the key holes to be stamped and sealed and will bring out all the cuffs interlocked, proving he does not slip the cuffs of his wrists without unlocking them.

He further ads, he carries a very rare curious and costly collection of torture, antique and modern handcuffs. This line is likely to deter any would be takers. Finally, at the end Houdini offers a second challenge of $50 to anyone who can escape from the Bean Giant cuff with those cuffs strapped behind the person's back. This challenge is not quite as safe as the previous, so the reward is less.

One of his most unique money offers was with the Water Torture Cell. The exact wording on the poster, "...Reward To Anyone Proving That It Is Possible To Obtain Air In The UP-SIDE-DOWN Position In Which Houdini Releases Himself From This Water-Filled Torture Cell"

In England the reward was 200 pounds. In Germany, the reward was 5000 marks, In the United States it was $1000.  And the truth was, he could have offered any amount of money as the money was never in any danger of being lost. The reward doesn't say to prove it's possible to obtain air while inside the cell, it says prove its possible to obtain air IN THE UPSIDE DOWN Position. That's the key phrase and it's the one that keeps his money safe!

The allure of winning money is a very power motivator for people. Look at all the people who buy lottery tickets. Well, Houdini wasn't gambling with his money. He clearly worded things very carefully to keep his money safe.

Houdini didn't restrict his Money Challenges to his act. Below is an ad for his movie, The Grim Game where he offers yet another reward. This time, it's a $1000 reward to anyone who can prove that the airplane accident in the movie didn't take place.

Later in life, he did step it up a bit. When he launched his campaign to fight fraudulent spirit mediums the offer became $10,000 to any Medium who could produce any Physical Phenomena that he cannot reproduce or explain by Natural means. Houdini's wife Bess kept this $10,000 challenge going after Houdini's death. According to Joseph Rinn, friend of Houdini's and fellow paranormal skeptic, Bess Houdini offered the reward to any medium able to prove, to her satisfaction, the survival of her husband in the spirit world. It looked like in 1928 Arthur Ford might have won the reward after revealing the Houdini code. Even Bess came out and said it was genuine. But days later, after the media fire storm, they began to debunk it, along with Dunninger and others, Bess finally recanted saying there were ways Ford could have discovered the code. She continued doing her Seances to reach Houdini until the Final Houdini Seance in 1936. After that, fans and friends of Houdini have picked up the ball, and though no reward is offered, Houdini has yet to show up.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Search for Boudini

I must admit I am fascinated by this story. The event takes place September 20th 1905 and is a challenge between Houdini and someone who is referred to in newspaper articles as 'his erstwhile pupil, Jacques Boudini, or as the paper printed his name Bondini.

The newspaper, The New York Times. reports, "When recently Houdini returned to this country, he found, Bondini, his erstwhile pupil, was usurping his field here." So basically, Houdini challenged this guy name Jacques Boudini to an underwater escape challenge. They were on the Fred B. Dalzell tug boat, along with a group of reporters.  Both had handcuffs and leg irons placed on and were tied with a rope around the waist and lowered into the water below. They both went under at the same time and then, silence. At least for one minute and a half when Houdini's head bobbed above the surface of the water. He asked, "Is Bondini Up Yet?", and the crowd replied NO! Houdini showed he was free from the cuffs and went back underwater. A minute later, Bondini came out of the water and reports say he didn't look well. He was still shackled as before. Then, he drifted back in the water. Houdini, came back up and again asked, "Is Bondini Up Yet?" again the crowd replied no. Then Houdini went back down for a third time but this time showed his ankles were free as well, as he went back into the water. I wonder, if he was looking for Bondini? There was no reason to go back under at this point. A minute later Houdini emerged and asked to be pulled up by the rope. Then the men grabbed the other rope and pulled out of the water a lifeless Bondini. He was rolled around (that sounds very medically sound) and he did come to. But he was still stuck in all the cuffs and ankle restraints. Houdini was  clear winner of the contest. 

Who was this guy? Erstwhile pupil? There are theories. Probably, two of the most current are from Pat Culliton who thought at one time Boudini might have been Jacob Hyman. He has since changed his thought on this and thinks it might be Leonard Hicks. It's possible, but I'm struggling with this theory only because when Hicks left performing, he was done. Yet. Boudini, shows up in 1912, and later. Still, the theory is plausible.

Let examine this theory further. The original showdown with Houdini and Boudini takes place in 1905. Hicks meets Houdini in 1906 in Chicago and is invited to be his protege.  a year after the apparent Boudini/Bordini event. However, the meeting in Chicago was actually the second time they met. Originally the two met in Richmond VA years before.

Then in 1907 Houdini and Boudini both appear in Boston, at different venues but at the same time (see image left). In fact, Houdini's billing says "HOUDINI -NOBODY CAN HOLD HIM"and if you look to the lower left of the image you'll see it says "BOUDINI NOBODY CAN HOLD HIM." And this would be about the time Houdini would be training Hicks.

But the one surviving photo of Boudini and Houdini doesn't really look like Hicks. However, it's such a poor copy of the photo, it's hard to tell who it is. It could very well be Hicks. I'm pretty certain it is not Hyman though.

Dec 1912 The Sphinx reports on page 349, that a team who went by Boudini and Stone were performing at the New Theatre, and presented magic and escapes. This was Washington D.C..  I found a second report of Boudini & Stone from a later date, also doing escapes and magic, but now I can't track it down. I want to say it was the 1930s after Houdini had died. It's possible that it's just another person named Boudini and NOT the one who was involved in the 1905 challenge. But if this is the same Boudini that Houdini challenged then he is not Leonard Hicks.  The reason I say that is due to the fact that Hicks was a hotel owner in 1912 and quite involved in that business at that point. So then, Boudini, if not Hicks, would likely be someone from the east coast, because he only appears in NYC, Boston and Washington DC. Maybe Oudini, the guy from Boston who wrote the booklet on escapes and was working the area in 1900?

One thing puzzles me, ok a bunch of things do, but the newspaper article says, "When recently Houdini returned to this country, he found, Bondini, his erstwhile pupil, was usurping his field here." There is a problem with this statement. There is NO record of a Bondini, or Bourdini, or any B-ini that I can find prior to 1905. NO newspaper reports, nothing. He surely wasn't 'usurping Houdini's field' then. Many folks were led to believe, including some reporters that this whole thing was a stunt created by Houdini to showcase Houdini. That could be and probably was the case.

Going back to the original theory, it could have played out like this. Houdini meets Hicks in Richmond and is aware of his interest in escapes. A few years later, Houdini invites the young Hicks to help him in a stunt in 1905, a one time deal. You'll notice by the report that Houdini keeps popping his head above water asking about Boudini. I think this has less to do with the challenge and more to do with the fact he is concerned for this person's safety. In the end, Boudini survives and goes back to Chicago to work at the Saratoga Hotel that his father owned. Then Houdini comes to Chicago in 1906, stays at the Saratoga Hotel, invites Hicks to his show, the two get to talk, Houdini is grateful for Hick's help in 1905 and offers him the spot to be protege. Why? Because Houdini is heading to Europe in the later part of 1908 and having 'Houdini presents The Great Leonard' keeps his name in the press. Of course, Hicks can't use the Bordini/Boudini name, which is why he goes by Harry Leonard. And the rest is history. The later Boudini and Stone is then not the original, just a coincidence. THAT is one possibility. A clear photo of Boudini might help a lot more figure out his identity but I've scoured a ton of newspapers from that time and have come up with nothing.

Who do you think this Boudini guy was???? Any thoughts? Please leave them in the comments below. Perhaps someone out there has a photo that we don't know about. Maybe together we can figure out this mystery once and for all.

To read a bit more about the Houdini Boudini Challenge, go here.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Another Look At Houdini's Official Protege

I have written about this man before. However, recently, I've uncovered some additional information which helps to give a better picture of who he was. The man's name was William Leonard Hicks and he was hand selected to be Houdini's protege. In fact, his billing was, "The Famous Houdini presents The Great Leonard".
Leonard Hicks's career began in 1908 when Houdini left for Europe. In fact, his entire career seems to span from 1908 to 1909. He was touring with The Famous Sam Devere Show, a mixture of music, comedy and burlesque that featured a huge cast of 40 people. The Great Leonard learned his show from Houdini. In fact, he took up residence at 278 the previous year. He presented handcuff escapes, the Metamorphosis and an effect that he called, "The Death Defying Can Mystery", which is better known as The Milk Can Escape.

Like his mentor, Houdini, Hicks also presented outdoor publicity drawing escapes. One of the most harrowing I've ever read took place in Minneapolis MN. It garnered a headline in the Star Tribune Newspaper that read, HANDCUFFED, JUMPS INTO ICY WATER. Indeed, despite snow flurries, The Great Leonard, wearing a bathing suit, and manacled with three pair of handcuffs jumped into the icy water of the Mississippi River at noon on Nov 11th, 1908. According to newspaper reports, he popped out of the water 20 seconds later free from the handcuffs. That was probably the longest 20 seconds of his life! The crowd of around 1000 people cheered when he burst forth out of the water.

A great article from the Pittsburgh Daily Post reveals a bit more about his performing material. His act includes handcuff escapes, the milk can, and even straitjacket escapes. So it really was the same material Houdini had done up until that point. The article mentions his connection to the hotel industry in Chicago and the fact his father owned the Saratoga Hotel, where young Leonard Hicks worked until going off to join the circus, or rather, going off to join Houdini. This article also proved an assumption I had, that Hicks first met Houdini when he lived in Richmond VA and Houdini had been performing there. So there was a previous relationship although it might have been small. It was when Houdini performed in Chicago that the two became reacquainted and Houdini eventually invited Hicks to be his protege. This second meeting was in 1906.

On September 22, 1908 The Great Leonard was in Wilkes-Barre PA appearing at the Luzerne Theatre. On Sept 21st, he went to the West Market Street Bridge, got himself handcuffed and jumped off the bridge into the waters below. The local paper, The Wilkes-Barre News, said, "The act is one of the best public stunts given in this city and was performed before the police could interfere". 

His first public show in the east took place at the Brooklyn Empire Theatre  in Feb 1909. Same material as listed above but with one interesting addition in the article. The paper reads, "This is his first year on the stage and he is making his trip around the Empire circuit more as a lark than anything else and because lock-picking and freeing himself from seemingly impossible barriers is his hobby."

Well, well. That previous sentence really explains a lot. His stage career lasted from 1908 to 1909.  In September 1910, a long article in the Natchez Democrat is all about Mr Hicks purchasing the Grant Hotel in Chicago. And that is his return to the hospitality industry and the conclusion of his stage career.

We don't hear much about Hicks after he goes back to the hotel biz. Though in 1919, he appears in the news as he was elected president of the Hotel Greeters Association. Then in 1925 he wins a Chicago District Golf Association trophy, and again appears in the paper.

Shortly after Houdini's death, Hicks is again in the paper, this time stating that only 4 people knew Houdini's secrets: Theo Hardeen, James Collins, Jim Vickery and The Great Leonard (himself).

One of the last articles on Hicks that I could locate is from 1953 and appeared in the Vidette Messenger. Hicks was to be the headline speaker for the Rotary Club's Ladies Night where he would talk about his time with Houdini 45 years earlier and also discuss his rise within the hotel business.

To read more about his background, please check out my previous article from 2011 called Houdini's Forgotten Protege.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Houdini Contest #3

It's time for the third Houdini Month Contest. This time, it's a little different. You have to answer a question correctly, and then your name goes into a drawing for the prize. So you'll need your Houdini knowledge on this one. And it's not easily looked up. Please do not post the answers on this page.

  • Only 1 entry per person
  • To enter: Send me an email, with the subject heading 'Houdini Contest 3' to    
  • Please include your full name in the email. 
  • Remember to include your answer to the question below...
  • On Saturday Oct 28, 2017, I will draw a name from all of those who answered correctly.

QUESTION: In the book, Houdini The Untold Story, there are illustrations of various handcuffs at the end of each chapter.  What is the source of those illustrations? In other words, where did they first appear?

Sadly, it appears that I've made this contest question too hard, or no one is interested in this coffee mug, lol! I say that because I've not received many responses and not one correct one. I will keep it up till Saturday and then offer a new contest next week.

UPDATE: Looks Like I've got to cancel this contest. Lack of response makes me think the question was too hard. That's too bad, I thought it was a really clever question, maybe too clever. Oh well. Monday, I'll have a new contest, the last one for Houdini Month!

Monday, October 23, 2017

A Poem about Houdini from 1916

This is an unusual and unexpected thing to find in a newspaper. But sure enough, there it was in the Baltimore Sun the day after Houdini's Upside Down Straitjacket Escape in Baltimore. It's a poem about his daring escape.

Houdini In Nashville 1899

The year 1899 was a big year for Houdini. A few months earlier he had his breakout moment in Minnesota. And after years of struggling, his star was beginning to take off. During his first appearance in Nashville TN, he played at the Grand Opera House. The Grand Opera House was built in 1850 and over the years had many names, these include: the original name The Adelphi, the Gaiety, May's Grand, Milsom's and of course The Grand Opera House. In 1902 the building would burn down and be replaced by the Bijou Theatre around 1916 and then by the Municipal Auditorium, which today is The Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum.

Unlike some cities like Boston, Chicago, Washington DC and Baltimore that had many many theaters, Nashville only had four around the turn of the century. Houdini performed at the oldest and most popular of that group.

I will get into what he did at the theatre shortly. But first I want to discuss his first big publicity push when he arrived in town. He showed up, apparently unannounced at the Nashville Police Department on Nov 6th, 1899. An article that appeared in The Nashville American Newspaper, writes, "Before a number of interested spectators at the station house, prof. Harry Houdini, a clever Australian, and a genius among magicians,  worked a number of sleight of hand tricks, which thoroughly mystified those present. " That doesn't sound too spectacular . 'A number of interested spectators', hmmm, not the 50,000 who appeared at his Baltimore event. Also, they have him listed as an Australian. Did they misunderstand what he said, or just exactly what was said? Did they mean Austrian? Which would also be wrong.

As the story goes, Houdini came into the station house, along with some reporters and made the claim they could lock him up in their cuffs and he could get out. The police in the station just laughed at him. Eventually, they brought out three pairs of cuffs, one of which hadn't been opened in 10 years because no one had a key. Houdini took keyless cuff and stepped out of the rom for a moment. When he returned, the cuff was open, to the amazement of the chief of police! The officers locked Houdini in all three pair of cuffs and then, the newspaper article says, "he stepped behind an improvised curtain and began his escape." I'm wondering if this small curtain was his 'ghost house' or if they truly just made a make shift curtain maybe out of sheets or blankets from the jail.

In any event, Houdini was free in 2 minutes and came walking back into the room two minutes later
holding the three cuffs which had now been interlocked together. Note, the image at the top of shows Houdini in a lot more than three pair of cuffs.

After this, Houdini entertained the group with card tricks. This is actually the most interesting part of the article to me. Houdini escaping from handcuffs is what we expect from him. And it's not unheard of for Houdini to do card magic for people. But one trick specifically he performed was The Card Stab. He had a card selected and lost in a shuffled pack. The cards were spread face down on a table. Houdini was then blindfolded, took hold of a spectators wrist, and with the aid of a pen knife, stabbed the selected card. The newspaper said he referred to this as 'mind reading'.

This effect is Malini's Card Stab! Or to be more precise, this was the trick that would be known as Malini's Card Stab.  I always thought it was Malini's trick, but apparently, it wasn't. I don't know the origin of the trick sadly. I can see that tricks like The Card Sword, and Nailing a Card to the Wall, could be precursors to the Card Stab. But I don't know the origin of the Card Stab. It's amazing to see Houdini using it at this appearance. He followed this up with his needle trick. Apparently he put on quite an impromptu show for the police and newspaper reporters present.

 Also in Nashville this first week were Frederick the Great and Herrmann The Great (Leon).

On Sunday Nov 12, 1899, The Nashville American Newspaper had a notice that says Houdini has been held over a second week. His previous escapes from handcuffs and insane devices drew lots of crowds. They also report what a great sensation his cabinet trick was, probably referring to his sub trunk. And then they also print the notice to the left.

Please note the image which mentions Lafayette will be appearing at the Grand as well.  A significant event in magic history will take place during Lafayette's run.

It was during this time that Houdini gave Lafayette a little dog as a gift. That dog, who would be named Beauty, would become Lafayette's traveling companion, co-star and best friend in real life.

Finally, notice the ad that appeared directly under the GRAND ad. This one is from the Grand Opera House and reads, "$250 Reward To Any Sheriff, Constable, Officer or private citizen who can produce any regulation HAND-CUFFS or LEG-SHACKLES from which HOUDINI, the HAND-CUFF KING, cannot extricate himself, allowing the key-hole to be sealed, proving he uses no keys or wires, and brings out the cuffs interlocked, showing he does not slip his hands." This from the Manager of the Grand Opera House. Though I'm sure it was Houdini who put up the $250 reward, knowing his money was safe. I think from the newspaper accounts, the management at the Grand did not know what they had in Houdini when he first arrived. But as the week progressed and he began to get newspaper coverage, and they saw the crowds increase, they realized Houdini was a money maker for the theatre and really began to push his appearances at the theatre.

This was Houdini's first visit to Nashville TN and he would return in the future. I'll be covering more of his escapades in Nashville in the future.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Houdini In Baltimore 1916

There has always been a certain magic about the city of Baltimore to me.  First off, Milbourne Christopher, Hen Fetch, Johnny Eck, Phil Thomas, Denny Haney, and a host of others were born there. And even more lived there like Henry Ridgely Evans, Thomas Worthington, and it was home to the Demon's Clubhouse and The Society of Osiris Magicians. In 1908, Harry Kellar passed the mantle of magic on to Howard Thurston, from the stage at Ford's Theatre in Baltimore. And I should mention, I too was born in Baltimore. My Great Great Grandfather was killed in Baltimore. run over by a train while working for the B&O Railroad Company. Which brings me to the photo at the top of the page.

The photo was taken from the B&O Railroad Building on Charles St. in Baltimore. The crowd is watching Houdini free himself while hanging upside down in a straitjacket in front of the Sun Building on April 26, 1916. The photo is of the crowd, which has been mistakenly printed as 500,000 on several websites. It is actually a crowd of 50,000. You may note,  Houdini is not in the picture. He would have been on the far right hand side, IF the photographer had been able to reach out far enough to capture him.

Houdini was appearing at The Maryland Theatre and having quite a run. In the Daily Record Newspaper, April 24th, 1916, they say that Houdini has just returned from a trip around the world. They mention his record setting aviation flight in Australia and also the fact he has never been defeated in any challenge.  The paper also mentions Houdini is accepting challenges from all comers. And when not attempting to defeat a challenger, he will be introducing his original invention, The Chinese Water Torture Cell. The postcard image to the left shows one of the few pictures of the Maryland Theatre in Baltimore. The theatre is the slightly shorter building on the left hand side of the image. The taller building attached is the Kernan Hotel. Neither building is standing today.

Houdini  Upside down from the cornice of the Balt. Sun  Bld.
The Baltimore Sun has an interesting take on his straitjacket escape. The headline reads, "HOUDINI SWINGS TODAY". The body of the article mentions that 4 policemen and a sailor will tie up Houdini and THEN they'll place a straitjacket over him and perhaps some handcuffs. This sounds like an odd arrangement, but I suppose it's possible. Further investigation shows that the tying was for his feet, and no handcuffs were added. Houdini declared the escape would take between 10 and 15 minutes.

At 12:22pm he was hoisted 50 ft into the air from the corner of the Baltimore Sun Newspaper Building. The police chief was the one who made the estimate of 50,000 people. The paper said the people were so densely packed that it was almost impossible to move! Not only did people fill the streets, but they were hanging out windows and could even be seen from the rooftops of nearby buildings all to catch a glimpse of Houdini's escape.

The Baltimore Sun paper also mentions that a wagon was set up so that Houdini and the policemen could stand on it and secure Houdini in place. This also allows the huge crowd to watch every detail of the event take place because of it's higher position.

The police chief and police marshall both watched Houdini's escape from an office in the Sun Building, so they likely had the best seat in the house. Bess Houdini stayed on the wagon below, but according to the paper did not watch her husband escape. "I am always afraid" she said after it was over.

His straitjacket escape was covered in three papers: The Daily Record, The Baltimore Sun and a German language paper Der Deutsche Correspondent.

Houdini was in town to play the Maryland Theatre for a week starting April 24th. According to the Baltimore Sun, Houdini began his act with the East Indian Needle Trick. Following this a short film was shown of Houdini doing a packing crate escape in the Pacific Ocean that apparently took place during the California exposition the previous year. When the short film was over, Houdini then presented his Water Torture Cell. This was day 1 of his week long stay, so no doubt as the week progressed the time was filled with challenges.

The Baltimore Sun also has a report on a challenge Houdini received during his run. He was challenged to escape from a Piano Box that would be screwed and nailed shut and then have iron bands placed around it. This from the April 25th edition (day 2 of his week long run) of the Baltimore Sun. Day three he did the Hanging Straitjacket outdoors. But there was also a challenge on Day 3 which appeared as the following: Dear Sir, the undersigned mechanics hereby challenge you to escape from a gibbit we made from heavy irons bands, such as was used many years ago to suspend prisoners in mid-air until death relieved their sufferings."

On April 27th, Houdini was challenged to escape from a cask filled with Arrow Beer by the C.B.S. Brewing Company. There is no record of any special challenge on the 28, 29th or 30th.

Houdini was in Baltimore numerous times, so I will be covering more about them soon.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Another Houdini Pin

When I saw the Houdini Lapel Pin by Dan Cleri last week, I just had to have one. Actually, I have several now. I think the reason I was so intrigued by it, I had been doing research on these pins because I was thinking of doing some myself. In fact, one I had in mind was doing a Lapel Pin of the Water Torture Cell.

Lo and Behold, I found one online that someone had already done! And I will soon have several, lol. But I wanted to let you know in case you want to pick up one or two yourself. Below is the pin and here is the link:

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Dunninger & Houdini Together Again

Note: I was holding this for next week, but word got out on one of the boards, so I'm letting everyone know about it that doesn't already know.

Maxine Dunninger is the daughter of Joseph Dunninger the famous mentalist. She lives not too awfully far from me in Virginia. She has an page with a few Houdini and Dunninger items for sale. I have purchased a number of items from Maxine in the past.

One of my favorites she has for sale now is this 'leg iron' that belonged to Houdini. I'm honestly not sure if that is really a leg iron, but it's still quite unusual and cool.  I also like a very unusual photo of Houdini in a straitjacket.

Then, for magic fans, there are quite a few Dunninger related items, including photos, programs, posters, flyers and more. And speaking of more, there are two paintings that were done by Joe Dunninger himself. In fact, I think she has a copy of the book she wrote on her Dad's artwork as well. Check it out!

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Houdini Contest #2

UPDATE: We Have a WINNER!!!! #40 for this contest was Lisa Cousins of CA. And with that, Contest #2 comes to an end. As I mentioned below, there will be another contest next week and you are all welcome to participate!

I must admit, I just love this lapel pin! The moment I saw them, I ordered one, and then turned around and ordered more. This time the 40th entry wins. Here are the rules:

  • Only 1 entry per person
  • To enter: Send me an email, with the subject heading 'Houdini Contest2' to    
  • Please include your full name in the email. 
  • The 40th email I receive is the winner!

I did not limit this one to the continental U.S. this time. So where ever you live, you can enter!
I will contact the winner via email to get your mailing address so I can send it to you. It costs nothing to enter, and I will even pay the shipping. The contest ends when I get to the 40th person, that simple. So it might take an hour. It might take a day or two,  who knows. The last contest got over 200 views, but only 35 people ended up entering. Like before, there is nothing to purchase. It's just my way of giving back to my readers.

Next Week, I will Have Contest #3, so keep checking back. And don't forget to check out my other articles for Houdini Month 2017

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

The event took place Feb 6th, 1922 at the Great Northern Hotel in Chicago. There was a banquet for the Society of American Magicians and Houdini was the guest of honor. At some point in the evening Sam Margules brings Vernon over to meet and show Houdini a trick. One article I read said, Houdini rolled his eyes and reluctantly agreed. The young Dai Vernon, brought out a deck of cards, shuffled them and had Houdini remove a card and sign it. Houdini wrote 'HH' on the card. Then Vernon, took the signed card and placed it second from the top. Everything was very slow and deliberate. Vernon then turned over the top card and there was the selected-signed card. Houdini was stunned. Dai Vernon did the trick again. The second time Houdini was also surprised. He began to call out possible methods, all of which were incorrect. A third showing, a fourth, a fifth, a sixth, and seventh and Houdini was fooled each time. One telling of the story features this addition, "Mutual friends seated at the table said: "Don't quibble, Harry, you're fooled this time". According the a promotional piece of Vernon's, Houdini finally made the admission and added, "Vernon is certainly the best man I have ever seen with cards." 

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

This final story comes from 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.