This September, the Reading into History Family Book Club kicks off a new year with a dive into a magical piece of history. All summer we’ve been reading The Magician and the Spirits by Deborah Noyes, which explores an intriguing debate between master illusionist Harry Houdini and Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. We absolutely cannot wait to get together with readers and the author and hear your thoughts on this riveting story!
For those of you who may be joining us for the first time this fall, Reading into History is our monthly book club for kids ages 9–12. Each month families read a historical fiction or nonfiction book together at home and then join us at the Museum to share reactions to the book, see cool historical artifacts and documents related to the story, and meet other History Detectives and special guests—like the author!
As you work your way through the summer read, here are a few things you may not know about Houdini, the enigmatic figure at the center of our story. Want to learn even more about history’s most famous magician? Then we’ll see you on Sunday, September 16, when author Deborah Noyes join us to chat about the book! After discussion, we’ll visit our very special summer exhibition Summer of Magic: Treasures from the David Copperfield Collection to see some of the objects Houdini used to enchant audiences in the 1900s!
1. Harry Houdini started his career as a “wizard” in the Midwest
Harry Houdini went by many names throughout his career but his first stage name was “The Great Wizard.” As The Great Wizard in a traveling show, he demonstrated a few tricks that would become some of his most famous acts throughout his career, performing them for years to come. However, there was one trick that absolutely never showed up in his later performances: a “spirit demonstration.” For this trick, Houdini would (pretend to) summon the spirits of the dead from each of the towns he visited.
The secret to Houdini’s early spirit demonstrations was not at all complicated—he would simply befriend the oldest members of each community when he arrived in a new town and, through conversation, pick up on all of the local gossip. Then he’d go to the town cemetery and see who had recently passed away. Once on stage, he was able to provide detailed accounts about deceased members of the community, creating the illusion that he had summoned the spirits from the great beyond. After all, in the eyes of the audience, how else would an outsider know so much about the town?
Houdini later came to regret his early work pretending to summon the dead. “At the time I appreciated the fact that I surprised my clients,” he wrote, “but while aware of the fact that I was deceiving them, I did not see or understand the seriousness of trifling with such sacred sentimentality and the baneful result which inevitably followed.” The magician confessed these feelings in his book A Magician Among the Spirits, published in 1924. “To me it was a lark… After delving deep I realized the seriousness of it all,” he said.
2. Bess Houdini was one-half of the act that made Houdini famous
Harry Houdini met his wife Bess on Coney Island, where she was performing as a singer. After they married, her flair for performance made her the perfect stage partner for Houdini. To the public, she was known as “Beatrice, Queen of Mystery,” and she enchanted audiences throughout her husband’s career performing half of one of his most captivating acts—a feat he dubbed “The Metamorphosis.”
As was the case with many of Houdini’s escape acts, it started with volunteers entrapping the magician in a seemingly inescapable situation. After jumping into a black bag, Houdini invited audience members up on stage and instructed them to tightly tie up the bag. The bag, with Houdini inside, was placed inside a steamer trunk, which was closed and then padlocked. Volunteers would roll the steamer trunk into a large wooden cabinet and close the cabinet by pulling back a velvet curtain. With Houdini locked away, his assistant was left to start “The Effect.”
“I shall clap my hands three times… I ask you to watch closely for…THE EFFECT,” Bess explained to the audience each night, before stepping behind the velvet curtain of the cabinet. Within seconds, Houdini leapt from the cabinet, unbound. Somehow, in his place, his assistant would replace him in the locked trunk inside the cabinet. The whole trick was accomplished in just three seconds—a time so impressive, it was printed on the posters promoting the trick.
Houdini always credited his physical skills and flexibility with his ability to do such tricks. But for this trick, he had to rely on an especially quick assistant in order to pull it off, making Bess Houdini a supremely talented magician in her own right!
3. Some of Houdini’s most daring tricks were performed in New York City
It’s no secret that Houdini loved New York City: He and Bess met and spent their honeymoon on Coney Island, and Harry frequently came to the city to reveal his most thrilling acts. It was right here in New York City that he made an elephant disappear!
One of Houdini’s most notable acts took place in the waters surrounding Governors Island. Just like in “The Metamorphosis” trick, Houdini was shackled and then placed in large box. This time however, the box was weighed down with 180-pound weights and tossed into the water! In less than sixty seconds, Houdini appeared on the surface of the water, miraculously, and the crowd went wild—but later, the box was found in the water, with all the locks still intact. (Perhaps something fishy happened down there in the river?)
4. Houdini made sure the “magician’s code” did not extend to spiritual mediums
Although Harry Houdini dabbled in summoning the spirits at the beginning of his career, he devoted much of the end of his career to debunking mediums, or people who claimed to be able to communicate with the dead. Mediums, he argued, were cruel frauds who preyed on the public.
What was it that changed Houdini’s mind from believer to skeptic? Undoubtedly, the death of his beloved mother played a large role in this change of heart. When Houdini’s mother died while he and Bess were touring Europe, he was heartbroken. He grieved this loss for the rest of his life, and it transformed his view of the Spiritualist movement, a craze devoted to contacting the dead. In the introduction to his book, A Magician Among the Spirits, he even wrote that this practice “bordered on a crime.”
Traditionally, magicians have a very strict code that stage secrets must not be revealed to the public. However, because Houdini did not see mediums as magicians, but rather as phonies harming society’s most vulnerable people, he did not feel as if he had to honor the magician’s code and made a career of disproving mediums.
5. Houdini’s friendship with author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sparked an international debate on spiritual mediums and their credibility
Harry Houdini was an outspoken opponent to spiritual mediums, but he counted one of Spiritualism’s most famous advocates among his friends: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes books. While Doyle’s novels featured Sherlock Holmes as a reason-driven detective, Doyle very vocally defended the Spiritualist movement. In order to prove to his disbelieving friend that spirits did in fact communicate to spiritual mediums, Doyle invited Houdini to a séance. “I was willing to believe, even wanted to believe,” Houdini recounted in The Magician Amongst the Spirits. At this fateful meeting, Doyle’s wife claimed to receive a message from Houdini’s beloved deceased mother, noting that his mother was speaking in English. But this didn’t make a believer of Harry: In his book, Houdini wrote, “although my sainted mother had been in America for almost fifty years, she could not speak, read nor write English,” and the already skeptical Houdini became convinced that his friends were trying to deceive him.
This séance started a debate that ended friendships, sent the media into a frenzy, and created an international conversation about the magic that does or does not exist in our world. Curious to learn how this story ends? You’ll find this story, and so much more about magic history, in Noyes’s book and our special summer exhibition. See you this September!
Family Programs Education, DiMenna Children’s History Museum
Harry Houdini, A Magician Among the Spirits. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1924. Deborah Noyes, The Magician and the Spirits. New York: Viking, 2017.