My First Seance

Posted on November 1st, 2018 by

A blog post by JMM Marketing Manager Rachel Kassman. To read more posts from Rachel, click here.

Last night the Jewish Museum of Maryland played host to the 91st Official Houdini Séance. It was definitely an evening to remember. In case you weren’t able to join us (or follow along with our live tweeting of the event, #HoudiniSéance2018), I thought I’d share a little of the experience with you – this was my first séance and I didn’t know what to expect!

First, a little history on the séance, courtesy of the directors William Radner and Thomas Boldt:

“Harry Houdini died at Grace Hospital in Detroit on Halloween 1926 from complications of acute appendicitis. He had told his wife, Bessie Houdini—and close friend, confidant and mentalist Joe Dunninger—that if he died, he would make every effort to communicate with the living and established a secret code to guarantee proof if indeed he was successful. Every year since his death, an official séance was held to see if he could come across the veil and prove the spiritual afterlife existed.

Final Houdini séance in 1936. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

After 10 years, Bess Houdini declared the séance efforts over; however, Houdini’s brother Hardeen took up the torch and continued the tradition for many more years. There was never a sign from Houdini. When Hardeen passed away, his protégé and magic collector, Sidney Radner, was directed to continue the séance and did so every year until his death at 91 years of age in 2011. He was accompanied by his good friend Tom Boldt for many years in this endeavor. Now Sid’s son, Bill Radner, along with Tom, continue the tradition.”

The evening began with food, drinks (including one of our signature “magical” cocktails, mixed and served by yours truly!), and a pair of roving magicians who demonstrated a variety of card tricks and rope escapes for members of the audience. My favorite part of the evening was the presentations by our Houdini experts!

Here, Houdini collector Ken Trombley shows off a piece from his collection – a 1925 telegram to the Associated Press debunking a slate-writing medium.

“Can the living speak to the dead?” Collector Arthur Moses shares about Houdini’s deep desire to contact loved ones on the other side, referencing a pair of programs produced by Houdini. Both Ken and Arthur emphasized that while Houdini sincerely hoped to speak with those who had passed on, he was equally fierce in debunking those he felt were preying on the grieving and naïve.

Houdini in Handcuffs: expert Fred Pittella’s interest was born from reading “The Man Who Walked Through Walls.” In the age before internet, researching Houdini and handcuffs involved a lot of foot work – Fred found many of the pieces he used to learn about handcuffs and locking mechanisms hunting through flea markets and thrift stores. He shared that Houdini’s handcuffs (and handcuffs of the time in general) were more massive and complicated than those in use today!

As part of his “challenges,” Houdini asked to keep any handcuffs he escaped from! This allowed him to build up a large collection for both study and use in his performances. He also created his own sets of handcuffs for his challenges – 5 different ones in fact, including a “Russian” handcuff, a “Hungarian” handcuff, and the most famous “Mirror” handcuff.

His worst nightmare, losing the title of King of Handcuffs, loomed large when was presented with a pair of doctored handcuffs – they had been stuffed with buckshot, rendering the locking mechanism unusable. The handcuffs could be closed, but could not be opened, even with the key.

Houdini had to be cut out of them – in future, he required all challenge cuffs to be demonstrated to both close AND open before placing them on his wrists. Fortunately, Houdini’s reputation as King of Handcuffs survived this incident, and reports of the time seemed to side with him, calling the event a “cruel trick.”

Why is the Séance held on Halloween? It’s the day Houdini died. Bill Radner, séance director, told us that Houdini was not expected to survive that long by medical professionals, but he held out because he wanted to make it to the 31st.

Bill also presented about the official “Séance Handcuffs.” To have a real séance, you need to have an item from the person you are trying to contact. This pair of handcuffs was used at the first séance in 1948 – Houdini said he would open them from beyond the grave. These handcuffs were considered “unpickable” and are unlike any handcuff you’ll see today – they are the “mirror” design.

The above is a photo of the actual “Séance Handcuffs” used in the séance, but we have a fantastic selection of other handcuffs, keys, lock picks, and other escape tools used by Houdini on display in Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini.

But one of the coolest items shared this evening might be Houdini’s adjustable key! He made molds of the keys for challenge cuffs and use this adjustable key to match it. This object, shared by Bill, is the only known adjustable key used by Houdini.

Finally, the “Inner Circle” (those serving as participants in the séance) and the medium took their seats around the table. We were lucky enough to be joined by Debbie Hardeen, Houdini’s own great-grandniece – this was her first time participating in the Official Houdini Séance!

Alas, Houdini did not make contact with us this year, but we did have fun trying. And no night dedicated to Houdini can end without some seriously magical entertainment! Harley Newman, escape artist, performed a lively act to close out the night.

We were thrilled to host this fantastic group of Houdini experts and enthusiasts – here we’ve got the whole crew posed inside our Inescapable exhibit. Good luck next year!

I, Harry, and the JMM hope you all had a wonderful Halloween and come visit us soon.

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Coincidence?

Posted on July 12th, 2018 by

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

From the beginning the Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini exhibit has been full of coincidences and surprises and  the surprises didn’t end on opening day.  Here is an amazing story from last week:

We held a member/donor preview of the exhibit on June 21.  In addition to our members and project donors we (as is customary) invited a select group of public officials to the event.  Among these was Maryland’s Secretary of State, John Wobensmith, who had been kind enough to participate in our opening for Yad Vashem’s Beyond Duty exhibit last February.

Secretary Wobensmith showed up for the Houdini preview carrying a folio.  He said “my grandfather was Harry Houdini’s patent attorney and I brought with some correspondence between them.”  I admit that this seemed like such a strange coincidence that I barely knew what to say.  Given the evening’s busy schedule, I did not have time to peruse the folio, but the Secretary invited me to his office in Annapolis to take a closer look.

Last Thursday I was able to make a visit and what I found was astonishing.  The Secretary had inherited not one small folio but at least three binders of material related to his grandfather’s work.  Moreover, James Chambers Wobensmith (1879-1973) was much more than Houdini’s patent attorney, he was a magician in his own right.  He founded the Philadelphia chapter of the Society of American Magicians and in 1930 was elected national president of the Society, immediately succeeding Houdini’s brother (Theo) Hardeen.  He was ultimately elected to the Society’s Hall of Fame.

It also turns out that Wobensmith wasn’t just Houdini’s patent attorney, but the leading patent attorney for magicians in his time (including patenting tricks of the famous magician Thurston). For the most part, Houdini avoided patenting his magic (he didn’t want to expose how his tricks were done).  His work with Wobensmith was focused on more pragmatic technologies, such as his “easy escape” diving suit, featured in our exhibit, or film development processes (from the days when Houdini ran his own movie studio).

Wobensmith was also a confederate in Houdini’s third act – his crusade against phoney mediums.  Wobensmith gave Houdini legal advice and even participated on stage in Houdini’s exposure of a particularly prominent Philadelphia Spiritualist.  Remarkably, Wobensmith’s work on the project did not end with Houdini’s death in 1926.  Mrs. Houdini (Bess) had offered a substantial reward to anyone who could bring her a message from her husband from the great beyond.  Wobensmith stepped in to protect the estate from unscrupulous frauds like “the Mysterious Raymond” who tried to trick a grieving widow into awarding them the cash.

But the most amazing thing I saw last Thursday was not a document with Houdini’s signature or a patent drawing.  It was one of several newspaper clippings about the Houdinis that Wobensmith had collected.  In January 1933, Bess Houdini gave an extensive interview to the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin (at one time America’s largest circulation evening daily).  Just two passages from the article will reveal just how interesting it was:

“I can’t give up the idea of someday hearing definitely from him [Harry}.  I suppose it is my early Catholic upbringing that makes me think perhaps the delay [in receiving a posthumous message from Harry] is penance for some act done long ago.

I never make any decision without calling on Harry for help – I get an answer, maybe from my subconscious mind, which knows from long associations how he would act under certain conditions.

Harry was religious.  He believed in the Jewish religion and in an afterlife where we would all be together.  He did not believe in spirit messages though he had an open mind and was willing to believe, as I am if he could be given real proof”

And later in the article –

They played many amusing games together [Bess and Houdini], which they never told for he was afraid of being thought sentimental.

They had no children, so Houdini created a dream child, a son named after his own father Mayer Samuel.  In their large New York home, he occupied the fourth floor, while his wife’s quarters were on the third.  He sent her many letters by the maid about how the son was getting on.  The letters only stopped when the son became President of the United States.

I closed the binder, thanked the Secretary of State, and as I exited I thought “how improbable was this encounter?” to learn something about the mind of Harry Houdini in a government office in Annapolis… it seemed about as likely as running into a Jewish magician at Artscape and deciding to create an exhibit!

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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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