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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Houdini’s Magical Halloween Family Day: Making Memories!

Posted on October 31st, 2018 by

A blog post by Director of Learning and Visitor Engagement Ilene Dackman-Alon. To read more posts by Ilene click HERE.

The JMM welcomed lots of folks to Houdini’s Magical Halloween Family Day this past Sunday.  Our visitors had a magical time learning about Harry Houdini and trying to imagine the world through his eyes!  Our education team provided a well-rounded experience for our guests- we saw lots of smiles as our visitors of all ages participated in so many activities from magic shows, living history performances of Harry Houdini, marvelous crafts and delicious treats, along with workshops featuring lock-picking and card tricks!   Here are some highlights from the day!

Students and families from the Interfaith Families Project from the DC area visited us first thing in the morning.  These boys were doing some creative cooking at the dinner table inside the Voices of Lombard Street exhibit!

David London dazzled audiences young and old sharing the story of how Ehrich Weiss transformed himself to become the legendary Harry Houdini!

The Houdini inspired crafts allowed our visitors to make connections to Harry Houdini in very special ways! This gentleman was winding up the propeller to his airplane.  Did you know that Harry Houdini was the first person to fly an airplane in Australia?

JMM Development Director Tracey Dorfmann was having a great time manning a craft station.

This little guy was casting some spells complete with his new hat and magic wand.

I think that best part of the day was the way the event brought people from all over the city the Museum, many of who have never been to the JMM before!  One of my favorite moments of the day was meeting Evan Bernard Drachman, the great-grandson to Rabbi Bernard Drachman, the rabbi that helped Harry Houdini become a Bar Mitzvah at the age of 16!  Rabbi Drachman was one of the leaders of Orthodox Judaism in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Do you see the family resemblance?

The Houdini Family Day was made possible, in part by the generous funding of the Jacob & Hilda Blaustein Fund for the Enrichment of Jewish Education.

Come on down to the JMM to make your own memories!

Be sure to check out our website for some of the upcoming JMM public programs taking place in November and December!

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Jenny Goes to the “Vet”

Posted on August 29th, 2018 by

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

As many of you know, here at the Jewish Museum of Maryland we pride ourselves on creating exhibits that are lively, innovative, and hands-on. So we make a point to build in different kinds of interactives – some as simple as a push of a button and others that take a little more active participation…like making an elephant disappear!

Any museum professional will tell you, hands-on interactives need to be prepared for lots of wear and tear. And even with the best of planning, sometimes you need to repair, replace, or re-think an interactive after it has been in use for a while.

In Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America, we underestimated the strength of our visitors and had to repair our punching bag, replacing its mount with a heavy-duty chain.

In Voices of Lombard Street we regularly replace the fake food in the deli section of the exhibit. You can see our missing coleslaw and bun discoloration in these before-and-after photos!

And in Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini, we were met with a challenge – Jenny, our disappearing elephant, was a little “under the weather” after performing her trick for so many adoring fans.

(You may have noticed this cuddly stand-in while Jenny was out of her box awaiting surgery.)

But don’t worry, JMM staff came to the rescue! Archivist Lorie Rombro and Visitor Services Manager Paige Woodhouse played doctor for the day and fixed Jenny right up (they even let me assist!). In preparation for “surgery,” they gathered a variety of potential repair supplies, from needle and thread to multiple brands of superglue. We weren’t sure exactly what material Jenny’s hide was made from and knew we might have to test a few different techniques.

As you can see here, Jenny’s trunk and tusks are worse-for-wear. In addition to repairing the tears themselves, we needed to find a way to increase the support inside the trunk to help prevent future damage. In order to do that, we decided to fully remove the trunk before re-attachment.

A behind-the-scenes fun fact? We used a combination of hand-carved epifoam and the recycled underwire from a bra (yes, you read that right!) to create the needed support. The underwire was the perfect angle for Jenny’s trunk.

In the end the judicious application of gorilla glue (and some TLC) let us return Jenny to her magic box where she continues to delight and astonish our museum visitors!

Make sure to stop in, say hi to Jenny, and watch her perform her miraculous disappearance.

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