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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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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Finding Houdini: Bringing Houdini back to Maryland

Posted on September 19th, 2017 by

We are thrilled to introduce a new blog series, Finding Houdini, from guest curator David London! David will be sharing his adventures as he tracks down the exciting ephemara, daring details, and fascinating facts on who some might call America’s Greatest Magician: Harry Houdini.


 

In July, while performing at Baltimore’s annual Artscape Festival, I unwittingly called Marvin Pinkert on stage to help assist a piece of magic. At the time I didn’t know that it was Marvin, or that he led the Jewish Museum of Maryland, but the trick worked, people were fooled and entertained, and we all went about our merry ways. That was less than two months ago today, and neither Marvin nor I could have imagined where we would find ourselves today.

A week after that show, I received an email from Marvin titled simply “Houdini exhibit”. He was inspired, and I was intrigued. Emails turned to phone calls. Phone calls turned to meetings. And meetings turned into a vision: Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini coming to the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Summer 2018.

The World's Handcuff King & Prison Breaker

The World’s Handcuff King & Prison Breaker

I have had an interest in Houdini since I was a kid. On a Houdini poster for his Water Torture Cell escape that hung above my bed since I was an early teen, claimed the act as: “THE GREATEST SENSATIONAL MYSTERY EVER ATTEMPTED IN THIS OR ANY OTHER AGE.”

Aside from the lofty claim itself, I find myself particularly fascinated with the phrase “this or any other age,” for the most amazing thing Houdini ever accomplished was to become the most famous magician and escape artist of all time, who to this day, over 90 years after his death, is still synonymous with magic. But despite being known around the world, few people know his incredible story of transformation from Erik Weisz, Hungarian-born son of a rabbi, to Harry Houdini, the Master Mystifier.

Born in Budapest in 1874, just 9 years after the end of the American Civil War, and uniquely balanced between two centuries, the first 26 years of Houdini’s life were the final 26 years of the 19th Century. Houdini found himself uniquely positioned  at a critical time of transformation, innovation, and radical progress in America and the world. 1874 to 1900 saw the invention of film, radio, wireless communication, the incandescent light bulb, the internal combustion engine, and skyscrapers. These first 26 years of Houdini’s life also saw endless hardship and struggle, which Houdini combatted with big dreams and sheer determination.

Before turning our focus to the second 26 years of Houdini’s life, where Houdini achieved the fame and fortune we are all familiar with, the exhibition will provide an in-depth exploration of Houdini’s early life, including his formative years in Appleton, WI, Milwaukee, and New York City. We will provide a focus on Houdini’s father, Rabbi Samuel Mayer Weiss, and Houdini’s other early Jewish influences, before we hit the road with Houdini, as he travels around the country during his early years in “The Show Business.”

Houdini’s early career, from changing his name to Harry Houdini in 1891  to signing a contract with the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit in 1899, is both a fascinating and often overlooked period in the Houdini story. Trying to make ends meet, Houdini took every gig he could, jumping from town to town, hoping for his big break, while attempting to realize his calling be a professional magician. At this time in his career, Houdini touched many of the most critical constructs in early American popular entertainment and spectacle– circus, sideshows, dime museums, medicine shows, the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, and finally vaudeville.

When he “hit the big time,” Houdini needed the world as much as the world needed him. As a symbol of freedom and self-liberation, and after years of trying to make ends meet, Houdini became a worldwide sensation on a scale which we will never see again.

I have been tasked with bringing Houdini back to Maryland. I say back, as Houdini made at least 7 appearances in Maryland in the early 20th Century including at least five appearances right here in Baltimore. In the amazing photo below, courtesy of Fred Pittella’s Houdini and Escape Museum, a crowd of over 50,000 gathers on Charles Street in Baltimore on April 26, 1916, to witness Houdini escape from a straitjacket while suspended high above.

At various times in his career, from 1905 – 1917, Houdini performed at The Maryland Theater in Baltimore, a now defunct  2,000 seat vaudeville house on Franklin Street. In 1925, he kicked off his world tour at The Maryland Theatre in Cumberland, MD, certainly not knowing at the time that it would be his final tour.

In order to bring Houdini back to Maryland, I must first find him. Aside from inside the hearts, minds, and imaginations of his beloved fans both past and present, where does one go looking for the legend himself? Countless biographies, newspaper clippings, photographs, and personal accounts help paint the picture. The story becomes more clear while digging through private and public collections of Houdini items across the country. On this blog, I will document my adventures as I embark on my quest of Finding Houdini, and bringing him to the Jewish Museum of Maryland.

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