Saturday, March 24, 2007

Harry Houdini's Next Escape

Harry Houdini, born Erich Weisz in Budapest, Hungary, March 24, 1874, is back in the news, over 80 years after his death on Halloween of 1926.

Houdini's grand-nephew, George Hardeen, concerned that all of the questions surrounding the master of escape's mysterious death haven't been properly answered, is seeking the exhumation of Houdini's remains from his resting place at Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York. Hardeen is the grandson of Houdini's younger brother, Theodore Hardeen, (Ferencz Deszo Weisz). Theodore was also a performer of magic and illusion, although, despite inheriting all of Harry Houdini's paraphernalia and "secrets," he never quite reached the level of his brother's fame or achievement, and lived under the shadow of the moniker, "Brother of Houdini," for most of his life.

Paperwork will be filed in New York Monday by attorney for Houdini's descendants, Joseph Tacopina, to begin the process of disinterment with an official request for the exhumation, after which, if approved, accomplished forensic pathologists Dr. Michael Baden and professor James Starrs will examine Houdini's remains for signs of foul-play. It could take months for the legal process to play out.

Mystery has shrouded Houdini's death ever since the American icon was ruled to have died from a ruptured appendix on his left side as a result of a punch to the stomach by one of his students three days before his passing. The fact that the appendix is on the right side was apparently overlooked by the medical examiner. Houdini, dead at the age of 52, had already been buried by the time his death certificate was filed on November 20, 1926. There was no autopsy.

Speculation has long swirled with suspicions of a plot against Houdini by a group known as the Spiritualists, whose claims of contact with the 'other-side' Houdini worked tirelessly to debunk, proving time and again that the Spiritualists used deceptive methods to convince their gullible and unwitting patrons of their abilities to communicate with the great beyond. One particular medium Houdini went head-to-head with was Mina "Margery" Crandon, wife of Boston surgeon Dr. Le Roi Crandon, himself a staunch defender of the Spiritualists and fierce adversary of Harry Houdini. The friction between Houdini and the Spiritualists was reaching a peak in late 1924, when Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries and himself an ardent and unwavering believer in the Spiritualist movement, wrote that Houdini would likely, "get his just deserts very exactly meted out. ... I think there is a general payday coming soon." According to an AP article Friday in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:
"During a 1924 "seance," Margery channeled a "spirit" named Walter who greeted Houdini with a threat: "I put a curse on you now that will follow you every day for the rest of your short life.""
A note in the McManus-Young Collection at the Library of Congress, part of the Rare Books Division, sheds some light on the running conflict between Houdini and the Spiritualists:

"The December 31, 1924 edition of the "Boston herald" reported that Houdini had, on the previous day, deposited $10,000 in New York City Bonds at City Hall in Boston as a guarantee that he could detect and repeat any phenomena shown by "Margery." The first paragraph of the article stated the following: "Neither Dr. Le Roi G. Crandon nor William McDougall, professor of psychology at Harvard, will answer the challenge, backed by a $10,000 guarantee, which was made yesterday by Houdini, the magician, that he can detect and repeat any phenomena shown by Mrs. Crandon, the famous medium "Margery," and that he can prove to an unbiased committee that he knows more about mystery than the Harvard psychologist."

Houdini considered "Margery" Crandon a fraud. Professor McDougall accused Houdini of being prejudiced and unfair. As the level of debate escalated, Houdini offered to forfeit $5,000 if he could not duplicate or explain any manifestation produced by "Margery" and, as stated in the "Boston American," $5,000 "To a Harvard professor if he will consent to be thrown into the river nailed in a packing case."'
Houdini went so far as to design and build a "Margie Box," made with the intention of limiting the medium's ability to move freely while "channeling" otherworldly spirits, thereby reducing the odds of trickery on the psychic's part. The Prints & Photographs Division of the Library of Congress offers this note on the apparatus:

"Mina Crandon, known as Margery, was a medium who fully challenged Houdini. In her impressive Boston home, with the unwavering support of her husband, a respected surgeon and member of the Harvard faculty, she held seances to demonstrate her alleged supernatural powers. In 1924, she applied for a $2,500 prize offered by the "Scientific American" to any medium who could establish authentic communication with spirits under strictly controlled test conditions. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was her great champion; Houdini, her great opponent. Determined to limit the medium's physical movements in the seance room, Houdini provided the box shown here by which Mina Crandon's suspected manipulations were to be contained."
Was Harry Houdini poisoned by the Spiritualists, as many Houdini historians and enthusiasts believe? It is a question that has remained unanswered since the first newspaper headline ventured to ask, shortly after the legend's untimely death: "Was Houdini Murdered?" Soon, the world may find out, when Harry Houdini makes his ultimate escape, from restful slumber of 80 years. Is he pushing the process along, reaching to us from the afterworld, his spirit demanding the truth be told? Even Margery Crandon's great-granddaughter, Anna Thurlow, entertains skeptical questions of her ancestor's possible complicity in Houdini's sudden demise, quoted in the AP article: "With people that delusional, you have to question what they're capable of," Thurlow said. "If there's any circumstantial evidence that Houdini was poisoned, we have to explore that."

Or maybe there is another avenue to explore in this intriguing American mystery - if only for the sake of a good twist to the plot, however speculatively imaginary it may be - the frustrated and jealous sibling-rivalry angle, perhaps? Here is the accompanying and intriguing note to the first advertisement poster below, provided by the Prints & Photographs Division of the Library of Congress, Magic Poster Collection:

"Under the terms of Houdini's will, the Library of Congress inherited the magic and spiritualism components of the great mystifier's library. Beatrice Houdini received the Theater Collection, now at the University of Texas at Austin. Apparatus and other stage effects were bequeathed to Hardeen. As exemplified by the poster shown here, Hardeen used testamentary language in an effort to position himself as Houdini's heir in magic. His role, however, was to remain "Brother of Houdini." Often credited with having been the first to realize the dramatic potential of doing a straitjacket escape in full view of an audience, Hardeen, nevertheless, was not the creative, evolving, ego-driven force represented by his sibling. The riveting magic of Houdini came from within. Once he was gone, the presence of his apparatus spoke most eloquently about a greater absence--a legend who had fused mastery of detail with great showmanship, daring, imagination, and mystery.

Despite directions to the contrary, Hardeen passed on to others the legacy he had received. Today, many of the handcuffs and related items are held in the Houdini Historical Center located in the magician's first American hometown--Appleton, Wisconsin. A fire, however, at the Houdini Museum and Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls, Canada consumed all but the metal frame of the prominently displayed Upside Down Water Torture Cell."
Harry Houdini's legend and spirit perserveres, binding us to his memory in the same knots and buckles of mystery he so easily transcended, still waiting for us to catch on to the trick. Waiting for our escape.

Carey and Sons Lith, N.Y. (c. 1936?)

Triangle Poster Printing Co., Phila. (c. 1931)

Poster source 1: Library of Congress, Prints and Photgraphs Division, Magic Poster Collection, Digital ID: var.1626
Poster source 2: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Magic Poster Collection, Digital ID: var 1623
Poster source 3: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Magic Poster Collection, Digital ID: var 1622
Photos and notes source: Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, McManus-Young Collection


Bill Dusty said...

Harry Houdini was one of the great skeptics of our times!

Ted said...

I remember meeting a gentleman in Holyoke who owned a carpet company I was using for one of my projects. He had a huge collection of Houdini items. I read an article about him and his collection, later in The Springfield Republican. I believed he passed away and his wife or son just recently had the collection up for sale. Wished I had paid more attention so I could report all of this as hard facts rather than vague recollections. It was a very enjoyable read and I learned how to access the library of congress. Thank you - - The old muser

Anonymous said...

The person you are thinking of is Sid Radner. He is very much alive and still runs the annual Houdini seance. He sold most of his private collection in 2003, and the auction was documented by Richard Brehm in a film for the History Channel. The documentary is still aired rather frequently on tv.

Anonymous said...

I have an original of the Hardeen Memorial Issue The Conjurors' Magazine, vol.1 no.6 from July, 1945 with Theo Hardeen, February 29, 1876 - June 12, 1945 printed under Hardeen's photo portrait. Does anyone know if this item has significant monetary value?

Mark T. Alamed said...

The web site above,, is offering Volume 1, Numbers 1 - 6 of the New Conjuror's Magazine from 1945 in 'Fine to Mint' condition for $150.

Sounds like a cool magazine.