Un-“tie”-ing Houdini

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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