Houdini’s Shackles Case

Posted on June 20th, 2018 by

Blog post by JMM intern Alexia M. Orengo Green. To read more posts from JMM interns, past and present, click here.

As many of you may know, the Jewish Museum of Maryland is opening Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini. This exhibit puts Houdini’s story in a new perspective that most people do not know. Houdini’s Jewish legacy. Before coming to the Jewish Museum of Maryland and learning about the upcoming exhibit I did not know that Houdini was Jewish, which surprised me. The exhibit connects Houdini’s Jewish heritage, his life’s work, and Maryland through artifacts such as newspapers, his straitjacket, and his shackles.

Title Houdini exhibit. Photo by Alexia M. Orengo Green

This week one of the other interns and I had the amazing opportunity to help set up this magical exhibit. We were given the opportunity to set up the case for Houdini’s shackles and part of his lock pick set. Before starting to set up the case, we selected the fabric we were going to work with, which was a black velvet that went with the color scheme of the exhibit. Afterwards, we saw the different artifacts we were working with, which gave us an idea of the possible layout we were going to create. To better present and add dimension to the case, we decided to elevate with props several of the artifacts.

Props used to create the case.  Photo by: Alexia M. Orengo Green

When creating the case, the artifacts that were heavier and bigger were put on the back of the case while the smaller ones were set up on the front. By doing this, the visitor can see the multiple artifacts without having to hover over the exhibit case. An example of the smaller artifacts in the front of the case would be the lock pick set. The set was placed in front of the case in a line, so the visitor could better compare each of the tools Houdini used. So, it can be better appreciated on the right of the lock pick set, we placed a hair pin that Houdini also used to open locks. After we finished setting the artefacts on the table we began to adjust some of them to improve the case’s presentation and make space for the labels.  We also decided to move some of the artifacts, so the case could have a good contrast.

Exhibit case. Photo by: Alexia M. Orengo Green

From the exhibit case we created, my favorite artifact was a pair of shackles that we set at the top left corner of the case. This pair of shackles were my favorite because they were the most unique from the collection. The shackles are rigid, oxidized, and cannot bend, but the most interesting thing from the shackles is their key. What intrigues me the must of the key is the H” that it has on the middle to indicate the shackles were Houdini’s. This small detail, which may not be noticeable at the beginning, makes the shackles stand out.

Participating on the creation of the Houdini exhibit was an amazing experience. Being able to work behind the scenes of an exhibit and with artifacts that belonged to Houdini is an incredible honor. This exhibit creates a new narrative encompassing Houdini’s Jewish heritage and his connection with Maryland. Anyone that goes to see the exhibit will have an astonishing time.

 

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Un-“tie”-ing Houdini

Posted on May 30th, 2018 by

A blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. You can read more posts by Marvin here.

When does an exhibit really begin?  Is it the day it opens to the public? Or the day the press comes in for a preview? Or the minute the installation is finished – hopefully, at least an hour before the events above.  Well for me, there is often a special moment when I have my first occasion to wear my “exhibit tie.”

Yes, I have had exhibit ties for several JMM projects.

Rachel Kassman made me the chicken tie for Beyond Chicken Soup, the matzah tie is for special tours of The Synagogue Speaks and the Houdini tie is my most recent acquisition, worn for the first time last weekend at my first formal presentation in conjunction with the upcoming Houdini exhibit.  I sported this tie at Balticon last weekend where I made a presentation entitled “Fraud! Harry Houdini and the Spiritualists.”

I probably don’t have to explain that my tie was barely noticed in comparison to the creative attire of many Balticon participants – after all it’s not like I was sprouting antenna or wearing eye shadow – I forgot to take a selfie, so you’ll just have to take my word for this.

I was scheduled to speak as part of Balticon’s “skeptic track”, a portion of the convention devoted to the “science” in science fiction.  My talk followed a speaker from the SETI Institute, so we essentially went from communication beyond the stars to communication beyond the grave.

My presentation was focused on the question of why an individual who spent most of his career creating illusions would have chosen to spend the last few years of his life carrying on a crusade against mediums and fakirs.

Following the flow of the upcoming exhibit I traced the transformation of Ehrich Weiss from impoverished child of an immigrant rabbi, to struggling performer and on to international acclaim as Harry Houdini.  The exhibit will touch on Houdini’s exposure of spiritualist frauds, but by using some contemporary sources I was able to go a bit deeper in my talk, covering the techniques Houdini used to unmask his targets.

I found Arthur Moses’ Houdini Speaks Out and David Jaher’s The Witch of Lime Street to be particularly helpful (and if you want to learn more about Houdini’s adventures with the spiritualists come hear David talk at JMM on July 1).  I speculated on whether Houdini’s Jewish upbringing could have been a factor in his skepticism about Spiritualism and offered a brief account of some of history of Jewish attitudes about the afterlife that might have had an impact.

In the end I think this was one knot I couldn’t completely untie (and perhaps neither could Houdini).  Still, it felt like a great warm up for what’s coming next month.  And if you want to see me in the tie you will just have to come to one of our opening events – the members-only preview on June 21 or the Magic of Jonestown Festival on June 24.

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Finding Houdini in Scranton

Posted on October 26th, 2017 by

We continue our new blog series, Finding Houdini, from magician and storyteller David London, who will be serving as a guest curator for our upcoming exhibition exploring the life and legacy of Harry Houdini. In this post, David brings us along to his visit to the Houdini Museum in Scranton, PA. To read all the posts in this series, click HERE.


The  Houdini Museum in Scranton, PA

The Houdini Museum in Scranton, PA

The first stop on my “Finding Houdini” tour brought me to the Houdini Museum in Scranton, PA. Throughout his career, Houdini appeared in Scranton numerous times, and performed throughout Pennsylvania. The museum is run by Dorothy Dietrich (The Female Houdini) and Dick Brooks (Bravo The Great). Dorothy and Dick have a long history in the world of magic, working with many of the greats in the world of illusion, previously managing “The Magic Towne House” in New York City. Additionally, Dorothy and Dick restored the bust on Houdini’s grave gravesite, which had been damaged or destroyed numerous times throughout its history. They were also critical in facilitating the re-release of a long-lost Houdini film, The Grim Game, and are currently producing a Houdiniopoly boardgame! These are life-long caretakers of Houdini’s legacy, and it was an honor to arrive at their museum.

I was welcomed to the museum with open arms and open hearts, The amazing tour of the museum, which is offered daily in the summer, and on weekends the rest of the year, is filled with many exciting artifacts and masterfully told stories of Houdini’s life and career. The tour ends with a live show with the entire experience lasting over three hours!

Some great Houdini ephemera. Check out that peek at "Houdini-opoly"!

Some great Houdini ephemera. Check out that peek at “Houdiniopoly”!

Housed in the museum are several pairs Houdini handcuffs, signed books, a reproduction of the Water Torture Cell, and countless photos, posters, and ephemera. Some of the most exciting items at the Houdini Museum in Scranton are objects from Houdini’s apartment at 278 W. 113th Street, which Houdini fans and historians refer to it as simply “278,” including Houdini’s telephone, phonograph, and beautiful gold framed portraits of his parents.

Me with the wonderful museum runners Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brooks!

Me with the wonderful museum runners Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brooks!

But truthfully, the best part of my visit was spending time with Dorothy and Dick. After the tour, we went to dinner and shared our passion for Houdini and the strange and wonderful world of magic. We reflected on the unbelievable but real-life story of Houdini and by the time I departed, I had not only seen the first incredible collection on my tour, but also made new friends. And that’s the real magic of magic!

“My brain in the key that sets me free” -Houdini

“My brain in the key that sets me free”
-Houdini

In my upcoming posts, I will be sharing my adventures in Wisconsin, New York, New Jersey, Ohio and Washington, DC, as I continue my search for Houdini. Stay tuned…

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