Monday, October 31, 2016

No escape for Houdini‘s diaries

The great Harry Houdini, Handcuff King, illusionist and magician extraordinaire, died 90 years ago today, on Halloween - not from a failed trick, despite a lifetime of apparently death-defying acts, but from acute appendicitis probably brought on by an unexpected blow to his stomach. Houdini kept interesting and detailed notebooks/diaries for much of his life but, to this day, they remain secret, passed down and closely guarded within the family of Houdini’s friend and lawyer Bernard M. L. Ernst. Most of the diaries have never been published, nor, in recent times, have they been available to any of the myriad of biographers fascinated by Houdini’s life - with the exception of Kenneth Silverman. Indeed, it is Silverman’s notes on the diaries, stored at the Houdini Historical Centre, that are the closest any other biographers have been able to get to the diaries. Surely it’s time for Harry’s own words and thoughts to escape from their prison cell, to be heard at last!

Erik Weisz was born in Budapest in 1874 to a Jewish family, and was one of seven children. In the late 1870s, the family emigrated to the US, where they
changed their name to Weiss (Erik becoming Ehrich) and settled in Appleton, Wisconsin. Aged 9, Ehrich performed as a trapeze artist, but he was also a champion cross-country runner. Still a teenager, he embarked on a career as a magician, taking the name Harry Houdini, and specialising in cards tricks but also working in circuses. He soon found more success with escape acts. While performing with his brother Dash, as The Brothers Houdini on Coney Island, he met a fellow performer, Wilhelmina Beatrice (Bess) Rahner. They married in 1894, and, Bess replaced Dash in the show - often performing their signature act, The Metamorphosis. Though they had no children, Bess remained Houdini’s stage assistant throughout his life.

In 1899, Houdini was taken on by manager Martin Beck who advised him to concentrate on escape acts. He booked him on the Orpheum Circuit, a chain of theatres which included some of the top vaudeville houses in the country. The following year, buoyed by his huge success, Houdini arranged his own tour of Europe, where he spent most of the next five years. He crisscrossed the continent and the UK, winning over large audiences and the media with his escapes, illusions and public challenges - often involving police handcuffs - hence the name Handcuff King - and escaping form prison cells.

On returning to the US in 1905, Houdini bought a seven acre farm in Stamford, Connecticut, as well as a brownstone in then fashionable Harlem where he installed his mother and several brothers. In 1908, he published The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, claiming it was the first authentic history of magic ever published. In fact, it was an unflattering account of his legendary predecessor Robert-Houdin (after whom he’d taken his own name) in which he aimed to show that most of the tricks that Robert-Houdin had claimed as his own invention were nothing of the sort.

By now, Houdini was creating more and more spectacular acts - the Milk Can Escape and the Suspended Straightjacket Escape, for example - and was soon to become one of the highest paid performers in vaudeville. He was able to perform these escapes, biographers says, thanks to his uncanny strength and his encyclopaedic understanding of locks. The Chinese Water Torture Cell, first performed in 1912, is said to have been the hallmark of his career. Houdini was suspended by his feet and lowered upside-down in a locked glass cabinet filled with water, requiring him to hold his breath for more than three minutes to escape. The act was so daring and such a crowd-pleaser that he continued performing it for the rest of his life.

Houdini’s accrued wealth allowed him to indulge other passions, such as flying - he set out to become the first person to man a controlled power flight over Australia in 1910 - and movie-making (he starred in several films, and produced others). In 1923, he became president of Martinka & Co., the US’s oldest magic company. He wrote several more books, such as Their Methods (1920) and A Magician Among the Spirits (1924); he was president of the Society of American Magicians; and he campaigned vigorously against fraudulent psychic mediums.

Houdini died of peritonitis, secondary to a ruptured appendix, on 31 October 1926 in Detroit. Nine days earlier, two students had visited his dressing room, determined on testing Houdini’s claim that he could withstand any blow to the abdomen if given time to brace himself. The student then hit Houdini several times, under the impression, it is said, that he had braced himself. Houdini went on to perform that night, though was in pain for days. A doctor diagnosed appendicitis, and advised immediate hospitalisation, but Houdini performed again that night. He collapsed before the end of the show, and was taken to hospital; but, by then, his appendix had ruptured. Houdini’s funeral was held five days later in New York with 2,000 mourners. For more biographical information see Wikipedia, The Great Harry Houdini, PBS, or The New York Times obituary. For explanations of ten of Houdini’s greatest illusions see Gizmodo.

Houdini was an avid journal keeper, though no diaries - nor even any substantial extracts - have ever been published. This photo of 
Houdini’s travel diary, 1897–99, in the collection of Dr. Bruce J. Averbook, Cleveland, can be found at New York Social Diary in Jill Krementz’s article on a Houdini exhibition at The Jewish Museum in 2011.

Biographers quote from Houdini’s diaries, sometimes quite extensively, but do so citing several different sources, and never really offering an overall description of their history and current whereabouts. One of the most respected recent biographies, perhaps, is The Secret Life of Houdini by William Kalush and Larry Sloman (Simon & Schuster, 2006 - some pages can read freely at Googlebooks.) The authors make grand claims as to how much data they pored over, how many millions of pages of text were searched, how many libraries and archives they visited, how many Houdini experts they consulted, and so on. Their book is fully annotated, though not in the original printed version - one has to visit The Conjuring Arts Research Center website (a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of magic and its allied arts) to see them. However, there is no bibliography in print or online.

Many chapters, in Kalush and Sloman’s biography contain information drawn from Houdini’s diaries. Trawling through the online list of notes for each chapter one can find two main sources for these: diaries from around 1897-1899 ‘from the collection of Dr. Bruce Averbook’; and diaries from various years as ‘cited by Kenneth Silverman in his notes deposited in the Houdini Historical Centre at the Outagamie Museum, Appleton, Wisconsin’. (There is also a somewhat curious reference to a diary entry by Bess, Houdini’s wife, on a page of Houdini’s last diary kept by the Harry Ransom Centre at the University of Texas.)

Here are two extracts which include quotes from Houdini’s diary from The Secret Life of Houdini, both with Silverman’s notes cited as the source.

1) ‘Houdini was back in the English provinces, breaking all attendance records, but it was trying, grueling work. On December 14 [1903], he was at the Palace in Blackburn, the scene of the dreaded Hodgson contest. “Back to this wretched town,” he wrote in his diary. “Of all the hoodlum towns I ever worked, the gallery is certainly the worst. Had a tough job with a heel named Wilson.” Houdini had been challenged onstage that night by this young man who seemed more intent on making speeches from the stage than testing the Handcuff King. “He would not let me examine his cuff, so after a lot of speech making he wanted to walk off the stage. [Then] I sneaked behind him and tore the cuffs from his grasp and snapped them on myself. Well, you ought to have heard the booing that was my share to obtain . . .” Houdini wrote. “I went into my cabinet and found out that he had deliberately cut away the whole inside of the lock and it was ten minutes ere I had both hands free. Instead of applause once again I was booed. Then I snapped them on to the rods near the footlights and it took Wilson twenty minutes to take them off himself and he had to use three kinds of instruments to do so. He was applauded and I was booed.” ’

2) ‘The [coffin] escape had taken another toll on Houdini, at least that was what he told the reporters. “I was very tired after it was all over and the worry was as bad as the work,” he said. “All the time I was in there I was thinking of death.” In private, he relished the fact that his promoter Paul Keith had managed to spirit him away from the more inquisitive committee members who wanted to examine him after the escape - to a steam room where a search would be superfluous. “Coffin affair a great big success,” Houdini wrote in his diary. “Created more talk than anything I have ever done in Boston. Paul Keith sneaked me into the Turkish bath after show. That is, a committee desired to search me but we fooled them all and Paul grinned for two days.”

And here is a third diary quote, this one only found in the footnotes of The Secret Life of Houdini. ‘Houdini diary entry, November 1909: “Go to Dr. Kolm. Have a bad spot on my derriere cut open, the effects of the strap on straight jacket that runs through crotch. Ought to have it attended to long ago. Glad it’s over. Charges me twelve marks. Very painful to work.” ’

Kenneth Silverman, professor emeritus of English at New York University and a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, has himself produced a book on Houdini, HOODINI!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss (HarperCollins, 1996) with a long subtitle: American Self-Liberator, Europe’s Eclipsing Sensation, World’s Handcuff King & Prison Breaker - Nothing on Earth Can Hold HOUDINI a Prisoner!!! Silverman does include a ‘source guide’, and this explains how he was able to access Houdini’s diaries: ‘Stanley Palm of Brooklyn., New York, gave me unlimited consultation of a scrapbook gathered by Houdini in the 1890s and of Houdini’s first diary (ca. 1878-79) - key items in my account of Houdini’s early career. Most of Houdini’s other diaries - indispensable to writing his biography - are owned by a collector who generously allowed me to read them but wishes to remain anonymous.’ (My own emphasis.)

Here are two extracts from Silverman’s book with direct quotes from the diaries.

1) ‘It became national news when, in Sheffield, Houdini escaped the murderer’s cell that had held Charles Peace - “the greatest criminal that London ever had,” he noted in his diary. “Never saw such crowds.” Hanged in 1879, Peace had worked respectably enough as a picture framer, sent his children to Sunday school, and collected birds. But because of his violent nocturnal burglaries, which had terrified London, he never managed to stay out of jail long. (He tried: once while in custody he jumped, manacled, from the window of a train going fifty miles an hour.) With Houdini inside Peace’s cell, on the second tier, Sheffield police triple-locked the door; they placed Houdini’s clothes in another cell, also triple-locked. To bar his escape further they fastened the iron gate leading to the cell block with a seven-lever lock. Yet five minutes later Houdini stood before the very surprised chief constable, clothed. “This feat has been discribed (sic) in almost every newspaper,” he reported to his diary, pleased with himself. “Makes me one of the most noted foreign performers in England. Every illustrated paper has my portrait.” ’

2) ‘Houdini found not much else in Russia to like. He thought the country’s magical life dead - “only poor magicians, and nothing worth mentioning.” The situation of Russia’s five million Jews shocked and offended him. The same Grand Duke Sergei Aleksandrovich he entertained by swallowing needles had marked his appointment as governor general of Moscow in 1891-1892 by ousting twenty thousand Jews from the city. Houdini had assimilated to Christian America, not only in marrying a Gentile: the meaningful holidays to him were the Fourth of July and Christmas. He had his own brand of Jewish anti-Semitism, too, which could be hard to tell from other varieties. An entry in his 1904 diary reads: “Some Jew tried to get out of the handcuffs to gain the £100. He failed.” Still, even with his stage name he made no secret of his roots: “I never was ashamed to acknowledge that I was a Jew. and never will be.” ’

So, where are the bulk of Houdini’s diaries, the ones Silverman had access to briefly, and which also gave rise to the notes used by Kalush and Sloman? This very question was posted by someone called Roger M on a Genii Forum thread in 2011. Richard Kaufmann provided a reply: ‘The name of the person who owns most of them (a few - very few - are in the hands of magic collectors) has never been made public. He is a descendant of someone who was close to Houdini and is extremely wealthy. He does not need the money, nor does he seem to care that their contents are of interest to many people. One of the few allowed access to them was Ken Silverman while researching his biography on Houdini. As I recall, he was given something like 2 hours to look through them and take notes. So he flipped through them very quickly (there are MANY volumes), talking into a cassette recorder as rapidly as he could. In this way, amazingly, Ken managed to extract most of the best information.’

Earlier this year, Roger M. returned to the thread and posted a link - to the website of Elf Lake Lodge - with further information about the diaries:

‘Owners of the lodge and surrounding 12,000 acres surname is Ernst.
1) Houdini's attorney at his death was Bernard M. L. Ernst, he’s the executor of Houdini's estate.
2) B.M.L. Ernst son was Richard C. Ernst.
3) Richard C. Ernst married Susan Bloomingdale, granddaughter of the stores founder.
4) R.C. and Susan Ernst had a son, John L. Ernst, and also two daughters, Eleanor and Cornelia.
5) John L. Ernst owns Elk Lake Lodge, and (with his sisters) the Houdini diaries.’

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