Showing posts with label straitjacket. Show all posts
Showing posts with label straitjacket. Show all posts

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Houdini, David Abbott and Omaha

Houdini and David Abbott

The more I research Houdini, the more fascinated I am at all the connections he has to various parts of the country (and even the world). Case in point is Omaha, Nebraska. As it turns out, Omaha is the first city that Houdini performed in after meeting Martin Beck in St. Paul MN. Beck, was a theater owner and booker, and he witnessed Houdini's feats at a Beer Garden in St. Paul. On March 14th, Houdini received a telegram from Martin Beck sent from Chicago. The telegram says, "You can open Omaha, March 26th, at $60, will see act, probably make proposition for all next season." Houdini records in his journal "This wire changed my whole life's journey."

Notice that Beck says, "will see act, probably make proposition for all next season." I wondered about this statement because Beck was supposed to have seen Houdini in St. Paul. Then I remembered that the story is often told that Beck suggested to Houdini to 'drop the magic, keep the escapes and the box trick'. This story first appears in the book HOUDINI His Life Story by Harold Kellock and is repeated in later biographies. It's also pretty accurate as to what happened with Houdini's act. So Omaha, would have been Beck's chance to see the NEW act, and based the potential of a future tour on that. Omaha then begins Houdini's new career and new life.

Here is a glimpse into that 1899 performance in Omaha. Houdini was performing at The Orpheum and on April 8th, a clever situation took place. The manager of the Orpheum had a bet with 5 businessmen in town that they couldn't produce a pair of cuffs that would stop Houdini. One of them came up with something I've not heard of before, a pair of cuffs with a 'time lock' on it. According to the article in the April 8, 1899 edition of Omaha World Herald, it would take no less than 60 minutes to get out of this pair of cuffs due to the time lock. Houdini was free in 4 minutes!

Fast forward one year, April 1900, Houdini was back on Omaha.  Way back in St. Paul a year prior, the act was The Houdinis. But now the act is HOUDINI, with Bess assisting in the Metamorphosis, when it was actually presented. Instead, Houdini, now The Handcuff King, was taking on challengers all over the country. Her role, which was pointed out in The Secret Life of Houdini by William Kalush and Larry Sloman, had been greatly reduced.

A side note to Houdini's visit in 1900, according to the Omaha World Herald April 20th, 1900 edition, Houdini was taken to a party by his many fans in town. While there he presented numerous magic tricks, card tricks and even his East Indian Needle mystery.

Houdini would return to Omaha numerous times. But during one of those encounters he met David P. Abbott. Mr. Abbott was an amateur magician and popular among professional magicians because of his inventiveness. Mr. Abbott is responsible for teaching the Floating Ball to both OKITO and Thurston. He didn't invent it, but he embellished it and made it the popular trick it became. Abbott also wrote an amazing manuscript called, "David P. Abbott's Book of Mysteries." This was a manuscript almost lost, almost never published. The dramatic story of it's eventual publication is chronichled in Volume 2 of The House of Mystery by Teller and Todd Karr (a must read). By the way, the House of Mystery refers to Abbott's home in Omaha that was totally tricked out in order to perform unbelievable magic. The book shares the various secrets of the home.  Harry Kellar visited the home at one point and was so taken by the magic, that he asked Abbott to help him do the same thing to his Los Angeles home!

One of Abbott's greatest creations was The Talking Tea Kettle. Even Harry Kellar owned one of these and loved it. And it's the Talking Tea Kettle that brings us back to Houdini.


You will notice that the photo at the top of the page is of Houdini and David P. Abbbott. They were friends at one time.  However, that friendship became rather rocky when  an October 1922 article that Houdini wrote for POPUAR RADIO Magazine, included an exposure of Abbott's Famous Talking Tea Kettle Mystery. Abbott was furious with the exposure. Houdini later claimed it was not his doing but an editor for the magazine who included the secrets.

Now before I get too far into things, I've got to back up to explain some facts that aren't well known. First, the Talking Tea Kettle was actually the creation of a man named Phillip Meyers, an inventor who was interested in magic, but later became interested in and started creating effects for fake spirit mediums. This is according to Todd Karr, one of the authors of the book The House of Mystery. The Tea Kettle that Meyers built however, didn't get much use and it was eventually gifted from Meyers to his friend David Abbott. Mr. Abbott recognized the amazing effect but streamlined the methodology, which is why it is now known as David Abbott's Talking Tea Kettle.

Remember, Abbott was furious with Houdini's article. Houdini later made two unusual claims, first he said he purchased the Tea Kettle from an auction of a mediums estate. This statement was false. He actually purchased the Tea Kettle from Clyde Powers the magic dealer who had obtained it from Carl Rosini. This again, is documented on pg 482 of The House of Mystery Volume 2. So Houdini did not buy this from an auction.

Houdini's second statement was, Fraudulent Spirit Mediums were using the Talking Tea Kettle to
swindle and con their clients. This was also false. David Abbott himself stated he never sold a Tea Kettle to any fake medium. I'd like to stop here and offer my opinion. Having seen some of the scrapbooks that Houdini had on mediums and spiritualism, and knowing the volumes of information he collected on the subject, I wouldn't be surprised if he truly thought he picked up this kettle in an auction. Clearly it would be remembering it incorrectly, but it's possible. But the second half of this issue, the claim that mediums had used the Tea Kettle to defraud, is one I'd like to address a bit more. Remember what I said above, Phillip Meyers, the first inventor of a Talking Tea Kettle was making props for Fake Spirit Mediums. Houdini likely was aware of this, and aware of the Tea Kettle's origins. So if you put 2 and 2 together, it is only logical to assume that Tea Kettles were made for fake mediums because Meyers was already in the business of building similar things for that unscrupulous bunch. Of course, the other option is that it's possible Houdini was just using all of this for his own benefit, but I'm actually siding with Houdini on the later point. The first point, of where he got the Tea Kettle, well that could go either way.

The article in Popular Radio titled Ghosts That Talk--By Radio authored by Houdini, really does give an exposure of the Tea Kettle in the body of the article. Actually, the title of the article is exposure enough, lol. But the editor of the magazine spells it out even further. Then the magazine uses photos that they artistically rendered to show the secret workings. I'm sure Houdini merely provided regular untouched photos, it was the magazine that drew in the schematics of the inner workings. Despite the exposure the magazine was actually incorrect in the way they claimed the trick was done. My friend John Cox over at wrote an article on The Tea Kettle Controversy back in 2012, which gives more details on this uncomfortable moment in Houdini's life.


Houdini once again is thrilling audiences at the Orpheum in Omaha. He adds the hanging straitjacket escape this time around. He hangs upside down on September 6th, 1923 from the Omaha World Herald building. The paper gives a great account of his escape and mentions that upon lowering Houdini to the ground he had a 'brief spell of faintness.' The day before the paper was promoting his straitjacket escape and within the small blurb was this little gem, "Houdini is appearing at the Orpheum this week, and announces he may quit the theatrical profession after completing his present tour of the world."


We know Houdini began the new phase of his career in Omaha because of Martin Beck. However, there was another person who was taking credit for this as well.  In the Sept 24th edition of the Omaha World Herald there is an article that says, "Two years ago Harry Houdini, famous the world over as the "handcuff" man, came to Omaha unknown. He became a protege of Dan Baldwin, the strong man and genial police officer, and through his influence was launched upon his present career." Later in the article they reprint, word for word a letter Houdini sent to Baldwin about his tour of Europe. I'm not familiar with Dan Baldwin. A cursory look through the various Houdini bios came up with nothing. Perhaps this will be another case for The Magic Detective, but for now, I hope you enjoyed Houdini's connection to Omaha!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The UnMasking of Harry Houdini Part 2

Fatty Arbuckle and Houdini

I hope everyone who read Part 1 understands, I'm not criticizing Houdini or passing any sort of judgement on him. He was and always will be an iconic performer. I'm just giving some background as to where some of his material originated. Make no mistake, though he may not have created everything he did, it all had his unique stamp on it. A Houdini trick was a very specific sort of thing and he really knew how to find and develop those routines that fit him. In many cases he did create something original. Here are a few more for you to enjoy.

The Origins of Houdini's Magic

Once again, I refer to Houdini-The Key, and Patrick Culliton's knowledge. In the book, he says the East Indian Needle trick originated with a magician named Ramo Sami in early 19th Century London. This information came from Houdini. Interestingly, Long Tack Sam, who was a friend of Houdini's was very well versed in the Needle Trick, having learned it in China. So, maybe the trick came from China and found it's way to Europe or vice versa.

Houdini made a masterpiece out of the trick and because of this it became one of his signature routines. This goes back to what I was saying in Part 1. A good performer takes a routine and does it so well that it becomes associated with him. Houdini did add one other thing...according to Long Tack Sam, Houdini copyrighted his presentation which prevented anyone else in Vaudeville from performing it. I can't say I really blame him either.

One piece of Houdini's act that I was surprised to find he did not invent was the Galvanized Milk Can Escape. This was actually the idea and creation of Montraville Wood. You can read all about the Milk Can and it's inventor by clicking here. I will say, that although Houdini did not invent the Milk Can Escape, in this instance he surely was the first to present it and that alone makes it a Houdini Original in my book. He created the iconic performance that other performers try to copy. But Houdini did it first and it was a huge hit for him for many years.

Another Houdini original was the Straitjacket Escape. Houdini was the first to escape from a straitjacket. However, it was his brother Hardeen,  who stumbled upon the idea of doing the escape in full view. Houdini's original presentation had him being tied and secured in full view and then put into a curtained cabinet to escape.

In the Hardeen version, he did the entire escape out in the open. Houdini quickly added that feature to his escape as well. And yet another bit that took the straitjacket from an indoor escape to an outdoor spectacle was the Hanging Upside Down Straitjacket escape. Oddly this too, was the idea of someone else and not Houdini.

It was believed for a long time that a young man named Randini, shared the idea with Houdini. But has presented an article about a man named Mysterio who did the hanging straitjacket escape even before Randini.

I think it's safe to say however, that no one received the kind of press for the Upside Straitjacket Escape that Houdini did.

To be continued....