A new piece of Houdini memorabilia has been kind enough to grace the library with its presence. It is a reproduction of a bust that Houdini gave to Jim Bard in the early 1900s which is quite striking. Since only two busts of Houdini are known to have survived, the Houdini-Bard and one sold at the Sidney Radner auction, the reproductions are a welcome addition.
Each bust is handcrafted using methods and materials faithful to those used a hundred years ago when the original was made. The bust is just over a foot tall and the detailing is impeccable. Only 100 were made, so we feel very fortunate to have obtained the copy we did. Mr. Bard obtained the bust directly from Houdini as a gift. Later on, a young Jim Baldauf befriended Mr. Bard, who was then in his eighties, and was given this rare artifact as a gift. Additionally, he also received some other memorabilia, including a stage coat designed, made, and worn by Bess Houdini. It is through Mr. Baldauf that these spectacular reproductions are being offered.
The Secret Life of Houdini was one of the factors inspiring Mr. Baldauf to take on the task of reproducing these fascinating pieces due to the references to Jim Bard, and he has been kind enough to donate part of the proceeds from the sale of these to the Conjuring Arts Research Center.
Handcuff King. Escape Artist. International Superstar.
Since his death eighty years ago, Harry Houdini’s life has been chronicled in books, in film, and on television. Now, in this groundbreaking biography, renowned magic expert William Kalush and best-selling writer Larry Sloman team up to find the man behind the myth. Drawing from millions of pages of research, they describe in vivid detail the passions that drove Houdini to perform ever-more-dangerous feats, his secret life as a spy, and a pernicious plot to subvert his legacy.
After years of struggling on the dime museum circuit, Harry Houdini got a break that put him on the front page of a Chicago newspaper. He never looked back. Soon Houdini was performing for royalty, commanding vast sums, and exploring the new power of Hollywood to expand on his legend. At a time when spy agencies frequently co-opted amateurs, Houdini went to London and developed a relationship with a man who would run MI-5. For the next several years, the world’s most famous magician traveled to Germany and Russia and routinely reported his findings.
After World War I was successfully concluded, Houdini embarked on a battle of his own. He created a group of disguised field operatives to infiltrate the seamy world of fake spirit mediums. In doing so, Houdini triggered the wrath of fanatical Spiritualists, led by the esteemed British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Death threats became an everyday occurrence, but the group would pose an even greater danger to Houdini’s legacy.
Rigorously researched, and as exciting as a good thriller, The Secret Life of Houdini traces the arc of the master magician’s life from desperate poverty to worldwide legend, initiating the reader along the way into the arcane world of professional magic. In this remarkable book, Kalush and Sloman decode a life based on deception, providing an intimate and riveting portrayal of Houdini, the man and the legend.
Atria Books, October 2006. 608 pages. Hardcover // Available for purchase in our store.
Below are the links to our preliminary version of the footnotes to The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero. Please keep in mind that these are preliminary and to get the fully refined notes with annotations you should order the boxed set.
- The Oath (Draft v1.1) Updated 11/09/2006
- Starving for a Living (Draft v1.1) Updated 11/09/2006
- The Celebrated Clairvoyants (Draft v1.1) Updated 11/09/2006
- Quid Pro Quo (Draft v1.1) Updated 11/09/2006
- The King of Handcuffs (Draft v1.1) Updated 11/09/2006
- M (Draft v1.1) Updated 11/09/2006
- Police State (Draft v1.1) Updated 11/09/2006
- Taming the Bear (Draft v1.2) Updated 01/02/2007
- The Challenge of the Mirror (Draft v1.1) Updated 11/09/2006
- Leap of Faith (Draft v1.1) Updated 11/09/2006
- Kill Thy Father (Draft v1.1) Updated 11/09/2006
- Death Visits the Stage (Draft v1.1) Updated 11/09/2006
- Above the Down Under (Draft v1.1) Updated 11/09/2006
- The Emperor of Sympathy-Enlisters (Draft v1.1) Updated 11/09/2006
- Chinese Water Torture (Draft v1.1) Updated 01/02/2007
- Forgive (Draft v1.1) Updated 01/02/2007
- Fighting Our Way To The Grave (Draft v1.1) Updated 01/02/2007
- Death by Misadventure (Draft v1.1) Updated 01/02/2007
- Art Imitates Life (Draft v1.1) Updated 01/02/2007
- Saul Among the Prophets (Draft v1.1) Updated 01/02/2007
- Little Sister Will Do Exactly As Big Brother Says (Draft v1.1) Updated 01/02/2007
- Margery’s Box (Draft v1.1) Updated 01/02/2007
- My Own Secret Service (Draft v1.1) Updated 01/02/2007
- I…Am A Fake (Draft v1.1) Updated 01/02/2007
- An Eye For An Eye (Draft v1.1) Updated 01/02/2007
- There is no Death (Draft v1.1) Updated 01/02/2007
- Epilogue (Draft v1.1) Updated 01/02/2007
“Harry Houdini didn’t die in the Water Torture Cell. He didn’t have a mother fixation. And he wasn’t just a great showman. Eventually all legends get cluttered by apocryphal stories, and the legend of the greatest professional master of deception is no exception. Much of what has become his story is fabrication. Ironically, the real story is better.”
So begins THE SECRET LIFE OF HOUDINI, the result of William Kalush and Larry Sloman’s years-long journey to discover the man behind the magic. Exhaustively researched, and chock-full of new facts and details, THE SECRET LIFE OF HOUDINI gives readers an inside look at a complicated man who was much more than the world’s most famous escape artist.
Born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest on March 24, 1874, he emigrated to the U.S. and grew up in the small Wisconsin town of Appleton. As a child, Houdini was fascinated with all types of locks and fasteners and hardware, practicing at home by opening the drawers, closets and pantries of his house at will, using a small buttonhook. He became notorious in Appleton as the boy who unlocked all the doors to the shops on College Avenue one night.
Ehrich became enthralled with magic after seeing an English magician doing a decapitation effect. His childhood was scarred by extreme poverty after his father lost his job as Appleton’s first rabbi. Moving to Milwaukee, and then New York, Ehrich was charged by his frail, elderly father with the responsibility of caring for his mother and siblings in the event of his father’s demise.
While working in a necktie factory, he teamed up with a fellow worker and began doing a two-man magic act known as The Brothers Houdini. Ehrich had adopted the name Houdini in tribute to his hero, the French magician Robert-Houdin.
After his father’s death in 1892, Harry Houdini began touring as a magician. With his new wife Bess now added to the act, the Houdinis began their long struggle for supremacy in the field of magic.
“Ehrich Weiss was born into poverty and cast into the world with an inadequate education and a great burden. This flawed mortal struggled, schemed, and persevered, transforming himself into Harry Houdini, America’s first international sensation by creating the idea that he could beat any possible restraint. The idea was so powerful that he became mythic—a superman that would submit to no human authority.” –from THE SECRET LIFE OF HOUDINI
He escaped from handcuffs, safes, and the notorious Black Maria, the Russian carette used to transport dangerous prisoners to Siberia. He jumped off bridges into rivers and bays, shackled. He was locked into a can filled with water (and later beer and milk) and freed himself. He devised an especially ingenious torture, The Chinese Water Torture Cell, where he was bound by the ankles and thrust head first into a small water-filled enclosure that was then locked. He escaped before a certain drowning death. He created the most ingenious outdoor publicity stunt ever, a harrowing upside down escape from a straitjacket while suspended hundreds of feet in the air.
Houdini’s relentless publicity seeking and his innate understanding of what was believable combined to push his name into the language. As early as 1899 the word Houdini began to be used synonymously with escape. Newspapers referred to escaped criminals as Houdinis or as “doing a Houdini.” By 1917, the guardians of the language noticed that cartoonists, lexicographers, preachers, the Literary Digest, and even a U.S. congressman were using Houdini’s name as a comparison for other people’s activities in elusion.
Houdini was the most popular entertainer of his age, and no one yet has filled his shoes as a magician. Fifty years after his death his name was added to the Oxford English Dictionary. When Googled today, his name comes up with 5,150,000 references. Harry Houdini may have been dead for 80 years, but his myth remains young and vital.
“The years of Houdini’s challenges created a cumulative effect that became the myth of the Superman. Houdini could get out of anything, he could defeat any device thrown at him. He was more than a man, he was a Superman. And every member of his audience both rooted for him and basked in his reflected glory. He was better than us, but in the end, he was one of us.” –from THE SECRET LIFE OF HOUDINI
In the late 1800s, a young Harry Houdini, though stunningly creative and clever, couldn’t make enough money to succeed at magic. Hungry and crestfallen, he was ready to give up his dream, until he walked into a Chicago police station and met a detective who would change his life. Immediately after this fateful encounter, he was catapulted into stardom, leaving cheap beer halls and dime museums for the big time of vaudeville stages. In one year, he had gone from literally eating rabbits for survival to making the equivalent of $45,000 a week. But then he left it all behind to travel abroad. Why would someone who had finally made it big, risk everything and leave behind lucrative contracts to travel to England with no real prospects? Within days of arriving, however, Houdini met with a prominent Scotland Yard Inspector and once again, his career took off. Did Houdini have a secret agenda that would make sense of these seemingly suicidal career moves?
This was just one of the questions that intrigued authors William Kalush and Larry Sloman. To find the answers they sought, they did an incredible amount of research. They read and reread all of the previous books on Houdini, and many from the magic field in general. They gathered a massive amount of source material—photocopied documents, Houdini’s personal scrapbooks (17,000 pages alone!), as well as his letters and correspondence. They electronically searched as many as 200 million newspaper articles, and millions of census and government records. Ultimately, they created a fully text-searchable database that now contains 700,000 pages of material on magic, with tens of thousands of references to Houdini.
Early on in their research, the authors discovered an interesting letter from a man in Scotland who was reporting to Houdini that there were rumors circulating that he was a spy! When they looked back at why Houdini suddenly succeeded in Chicago after having done substantially the same act for years in anonymity, they found some stunning connections. The particular Chicago detective that boosted Houdini’s career was a member of an exclusive club called the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), made up of law enforcement officials from around the world. Another member was the chief of the U.S. Secret Service. They eventually discovered that the Chief was also a magician, and he admitted to using magician as operatives. Perhaps this was the opportunity Houdini had needed.
Houdini’s first trip out to the west coast in 1899 may also have been his first mission for the United States Secret Service. The counterfeiting of silver dollars in the western portion of the country was a major problem for the Chief of the U.S. Secret Service John E. Wilkie in the spring of 1899, and it is known that Houdini had been receiving orientation on counterfeiting techniques around the same time.
The authors made contact with Andrew Cook—one of the worlds leading espionage experts—who dropped a bombshell by revealing that he was in possession of a diary of England’s top spymaster, Inspector William Melville of Scotland Yard. A close examination of the document revealed many entries that showed that Houdini was doing espionage for Melville abroad, as well as tutoring him in escape and lockpicking techniques.
Houdini made inroads into the top echelons of the German police and then sent back reports to Melville. In The Right Way to Do Wrong, he also admitted to serving as a liaison between in the IACP in the United States and the top German police brass.
Houdini’s magic was so mystifying that he was asked to become an advisor to Czar Nicholas’ court on three separate occasions.
Only days before his death from peritonitis on October 31, 1926—the result of a ruptured appendix according to his doctors —Houdini was struck repeatedly in the abdomen, first by a “college student” during a dressing room visit, and then by a mysterious burly stranger while he was sitting, reading the newspaper in a Montreal hotel lobby.
Today, medical science tells us that it was impossible for an appendix to be ruptured by blunt trauma caused by blows. In fact, coroners maintain that it is just as likely that Houdini was poisoned than he fell victim to a ruptured appendix caused by a blow to the stomach.
If one were to suspect Houdini a victim of foul play, then the fraudulent spirit mediums, who were a highly organized group, must be considered likely suspects. The spiritualist underworld’s modus operandi in cases like this was often poisoning. Houdini’s life was threatened by them and both Houdini and Bess suffered from non-specific poisoning in the weeks leading up to Houdini’s death.
After Houdini’s death, an organized network of spiritual fanatics—led by Sherlock Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—worked relentlessly to orchestrate a campaign that would destroy Houdini’s legacy for all time. A Spiritualist minister named Arthur Ford was dispatched to seduce Houdini’s widow and orchestrate a bogus séance where Houdini returned to affirm that the Spiritualists were right and that death was not the end.
The Secret Life of Houdini, Laid Bare: Available now from Mike Caveney’s Magic Words. A new collectors’ set that includes the footnotes to The Secret Life of Houdini. In this limited edition set you get a 1st printing, 1st edition of the biography with a special new color frontispiece signed and numbered by both authors and a copy of the beautifully produced and illustrated 333 page hardbound volume of footnotes which also includes a full color frontispiece signed and numbered by both authors. The set comes in a beautiful cloth, foil stamped, slip case. There have been only 1000 sets produced, so order now and don’t miss your chance to own this piece of Houdini history. Please bear in mind that the draft notes below are accurate but they do not represent the full contents of volume 2 of this set. The printed volume has much material that didn’t fit in the original biography, as well as new, heretofore unpublished, photographs and many annotations by the authors.
When America entered World War I, Houdini led the war efforts by magicians by example, giving away more than $7,000 (which today would be about $250,000). He also contributed money to build a hospital that was dedicated to his mother.
Then he wrote to Secretary of War Newton Baker and offered to conduct classes in extrication from ropes, handcuffs, and even shipwrecks. He began his classes during intermissions of “Cheer Up,” a patriotic show that he joined at the Hippodrome.
In June of 1918, a mere fourteen months after the war was declared, Houdini had sacrificed over fifty thousand dollars in lost salary and his own expenditures in his ongoing efforts.
After the war was over, Houdini morphed himself from a hero to a superhero. Inspired by Sarah Bernhardt’s advocacy for the Russian Jews, Houdini used his unprecedented fame to bring down ruthless phony spiritualists who preyed upon the bereaved.
Houdini desperately wanted to belief in the afterlife, although, try as he might, he never felt he witnessed anything that might prove its existence. Throughout his life, he made pacts with many of his friends, creating a unique, secret code for each one. Whoever pierced the veil of death first would then attempt to relay the code from beyond the grave.
Houdini’s thoughts on spiritualist mediums and the afterlife: “I am not a skeptic. I am perfectly willing to believe, my mind is wide open. For over thirty-five years, day in and day out, night in and night out, I have been seeking the truth. No one in the world has a greater right to believe than I. My parents are on the other side, and if there is anyone who worshipped their father and mother it is your humble servant.”
Houdini embarked upon what became his most dangerous mission when he took on the fraudulent spiritualist movement, creating his “own secret service”, a bevy of operatives whose occupations ranged from showgirls, mechanists, and housewives to infiltrate this powerful adversary.
He was well suited for this mission. During his early career, Houdini performed at times as a spiritualist medium. However, after one particular performance where he held a séance, he decided to never again pose as a genuine medium. He wrote, “When it was all over I saw and felt that the audience believed in me. They believed that my tricks were true communications from those dear dead….I was brought to a realization of the seriousness of trifling with the hallowed reverence which the average human being bestows on the departed.”
Houdini threw into himself wholeheartedly into his mission. He testified before Congress, and led many police raids on unsuspecting phony mediums.