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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