Shelves: christmas-books An excellent review of the trick and deceptions attendant on Spiritualism. This book, first published in , is a review of the investigations of escape artist Harry Houdini into the different strands of spiritualism current in the late 19th and early 20th century. A accomplished stage magician, Houdini is aware of the many dodges possible to a skilled performer, and debunks the alleged supernatural explanation of those whom he investigates. The only real flaw I could find with the book is that An excellent review of the trick and deceptions attendant on Spiritualism. The only real flaw I could find with the book is that the author does not always give a full explanation of those he is investigating, but assumes some degree of contemporary knowledge which a present day reader does not automatically have. An annotated edition which filled some of these blanks would fill this gap nicely.

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In addition to his fantastic escapes and stunts, he was also well known in the s for his debunking of fraudulent Spiritualist mediums. In this, modern information about Houdini tends to be skewed.

Today, many skeptic organizations have claimed Houdini as one of their own, but this is far from the truth. Unlike these groups, Houdini did not start out attacking fake mediums because he did not believe in the supernatural. In fact, he had gone to them in an attempt to try and contact his dead mother, but found that the mediums he met were often frauds. This was when he turned to exposing them, still searching for the truth.

Before his death, Houdini stated that should it be possible to contact the living from the other side, he would do so. The question remains as to whether or not he actually succeeded… Houdini was born in Budapest, Hungary on March 24, but grew up as Erich Weiss in the small Wisconsin town of Appleton.

Later, his father, Rabbi Meyer Samuel Weiss, moved the family to Milwaukee and he took over a Jewish congregation there. Legend has it that young Erich was apprenticed to a locksmith, where he learned to assemble and take apart locks with his eyes closed. If this part of the story is true, it was a skill that served him well later in life. Rabbi Samuel Weiss left for New York a short time later, feeling that a teacher of religion could do better in a city with a larger Jewish population.

Erich was working at a necktie factory on lower Broadway but more than anything he wanted to become a professional magician. He left his first steady job and, assisted by his friend and fellow factory worker Jacob Hyman, he began appearing in New York beer halls and theaters. He took the name of Houdini, which was based on the name of Robert Houdin, and he and Hyman broke in their new act playing single-night dates wherever they could find a booking.

Discouraged when agents refused to book them for longer runs, Hyman quit and went back to the necktie factory. To his parents, though, he was always Erich. Before Samuel Weiss died at the age of 63, he called his son to his bedside and made Erich swear that he would always provide for his mother. This vow was unnecessary. Erich loved his mother deeply and the bond between them grew stronger some would say almost unnaturally so with the passage of years.

Houdini continued to travel and perform. Her widowed Catholic mother was furious but the understanding Cecilia welcomed the newlyweds into her home. When not performing magic, Harry sold soap, combs, toothpaste and other necessities to his fellow performers. He also spent his free time pursuing his new hobby handcuffs.

He discovered that they could be opened with a concealed duplicate key, a small piece of metal or bent wire. A single key would open every set of the same pattern. With less than a dozen hidden keys and picks, Houdini was sure that he could escape from every kind of manacle used by various police departments in the United States. He read every piece of information that he could find on locking mechanisms and began collecting different kinds of cuffs, taking them apart and studying their mechanisms.

Houdini began employing a variety of new and strange stunts in his act and devised incredible escapes that had never been attempted before. He became known for some time as the "Handcuff King", due to the ease from which he escaped any restraints. It was a skill that would later make him famous.

The investment seemed wise. The Houdinis would be working regularly and Houdini could use his new escape skills to get free newspaper space for the shows. In November , Houdini amazed officers at a police station in Gloucester, Massachusetts by freeing himself from a pair of their handcuffs. Similar stories began to appear in newspapers wherever the show went. Houdini was gaining a good reputation and he and Bess seemed to be well on their way to success. But it was not meant to be, at least not yet.

Marco had hoped to emulate Herrmann the Great but business was so bad in Halifax that he gave up the show and returned to Connecticut, where he was a church organist.

Houdini stayed on in Canada, hoping to make it on his own. He was playing in St. John, the principal city of New Brunswick, when he accompanied a recent doctor friend on his rounds in a mental institution. Houdini watched in shocked fascination as a man in straitjacket, locked in a padded cell, tried frantically to free himself. Houdini became convinced that an escape from a straitjacket would be an effective one to perform on stage. He obtained a straightjacket from his friend and then, after weeks of strenuous practice, was ready to try it before an audience.

Eager volunteers buckled Houdini in, carried him to a cabinet and then closed the curtains. He had gained some slack by holding his crossed arms rigidly as the sleeve straps were fastened. Straining every muscle, a little at a time, he forced one sleeve and then other over his head. Then, he opened the straps with the pressure of his fingers through the canvas.

He twisted, turned, and finally squirmed free. He threw off the restraint and burst through the curtains to take a bow. No one applauded. The escape had fallen flat because the audience had not witnessed his struggle.

They assumed that a hidden assistant had released him. Houdini had not yet discovered the showmanship that would allow him to hold an audience enthralled. The Houdinis had their worst winter season so far in and new bookings eluded them until the spring.

In August, they were in so much trouble financially that Harry wrote to both Harry Kellar and Herrmann the Great and offered the services of he and Bess as assistants. Kellar wrote back to say that he was filled at this time but offered Houdini luck in the future. In the fall of , Houdini toured with a midwestern medicine show. Hill, the owner, sold bottled cure-alls to crowds that gathered in small towns to watch the free entertainment supplied by members of his troupe.

He then offered another show, for a ticket, later on in the evening. In one town, Dr. Tied to a chair in his cabinet by a committee from the audience, he pretended to go into a trance.

Once the curtains were closed, a mandolin played softly and bells and tambourines jangled before flying off over the heads of the crowd. When the curtains opened, Houdini was still firmly tied. Houdini then walked to the front of the stage, closed his eyes and passed on messages from the dead. Houdini had hurriedly prepared for this, the most convincing part of his performance, by listening to local gossip, reading back copies of the Galena newspaper, and copying names and dates from tombstones in local cemeteries.

The medicine show tour ended and Houdini still found it difficult to book his magic and escape act. He and Bess traveled for a time as mediums before they signed on to play another season with the Welsh Brothers Circus. At 24, Houdini was still on the bottom rung of the show business ladder. He promised his wife that he would try for only one more year and then, if he was not a hot, he would give up magic and find another, more profitable, line of work.

While playing in St. Paul, Minnesota, early in , Houdini was approached by a short, plump, German man after his show. Could Houdini, the man asked, free himself from other manacles, or only those used in the show? Houdini boasted that the restraint had yet to be made that could hold him. When the brash young magician easily escaped from the manacles, the man introduced himself as Martin Beck, the acclaimed booker for the Orpheum vaudeville circuit.

He offered Houdini a trial date in Omaha if Harry would put together a new act with dramatic escapes. In San Francisco, Houdini was stripped to the skin in the office of the San Francisco detective force and examined by a police surgeon. He then proceeded to slip out of 10 pairs of handcuffs, a wide leather belt used to subdue dangerous prisoners and a regulation straitjacket. The escapes took place behind the closed door of a closest and the veteran detectives could come up with no explanation as to how it was done.

The lengthy newspaper account never mentioned that Houdini had visited the detective bureau in advance to inspect the restraints and never mentioned the kiss he exchanged with Bess prior to being placed in the closet.

There was no way that they could know about the clever method the Houdinis had devised where Bess slipped a key to her husband with her tongue in the midst of their kiss! Martin Beck used the ads, as well as the lengthy newspapers stories of his feats and box office reports from the Orpheum tour, to sell Houdini to the Keith Theater circuit in the East as a headliner. When he returned after playing the Keith theaters, he introduced his second major publicity stunt. Stripped naked, fastened at his wrists and ankles by five pairs of irons, he was locked in a cell.

In less than eight minutes, he escaped from not only the manacles but the cell, too! Needless to say, newspaper headlines screamed his name and Houdini rode the wave of popularity to several sold-out shows. Eager to travel abroad, Houdini and Bess sailed for England without a booking. He had to convince a dubious theater manager that he could escape from handcuffs at Scotland Yard before he received his first British contract. In July , he opened to acclaim at the Alhambra Theater in London and then traveled to the Continent, where he set new box-office records in Dresden and Berlin.

Within a year, Houdini was the most popular attraction in Europe. Houdini never turned down any opportunity for publicity. When Werner Graf, a German policeman, wrote a derisive article in July , accusing Houdini of lying when he said that he could escape from any sort of police restraint, Houdini sued Graf for slander. He fought the case through two German appeals courts but he eventually won the case.

Houdini celebrated by issuing a new advertising lithograph showing himself in a tuxedo and manacles, standing before the highest German tribunal. He loved publicity but he was never the sort to ignore an insult, either. Engelberto Klepini, an escape artist with the Circus Sidoli, advertised in that he had defeated the American in a handcuff competition.

He likely assumed that Houdini would never see the advertisement but not only did Harry see it, he traveled from Holland to Dortmund, Germany to confront his detractor. Wearing a disguise, he took a seat in the stands. He sat through the show until Klepini told the audience he had beaten Houdini in an escape contest.


Harry Houdini



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A Magician Among the Spirits




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