Category: Magic History

Houdini: Who’s Your Daddy?

Inside Magic Image of Novel Ferret Out by Tim QuinlanHoudini’s father was a ________?

If you answered Rabbi, you may or may not be correct.

If you said, “lawyer,” you may be close.

If you asked, “who is ‘Houdini’?”  You are on the wrong site.

If you whined, “a person is much more than what he does for a living,” you are probably also on the wrong site but because your response evidences so much depth and sensitivity we assume you have lived life of considerable pain and disappointment and would hate to add to the long list of places and people who have rejected you.  You can stay but don’t touch anything.

The Houdini File is publishing a multi-part series on the question of Houdini’s daddy.  It is absolutely fascinating.

The series is a product of The Houdini Birth Research Committee of the Society of American Magicians.  Their task was to “ferret out hard facts about Mayer Samuel Weisz.”

As an aside, we love the phrase “ferret out hard facts” for inducing a wonderful melange of visual imagery.  In fact, our first World War II novel was titled “Ferret Out!” From the dust jacket “Captain Elmo Ferret was a young aviator trained as a crop duster in rural Key West, Florida drafted into Uncle Sam’s Air Corps to put a hurtin’ on a different kind of crop-destroying pest.”

Continue reading “Houdini: Who’s Your Daddy?”

Magic and Anesthesiology in the News

So we were perusing Anesthesiology: The Journal of the American Association of Anesthesiologists whilst waiting for our HOT POCKETS® brand Breakfast – Ham, Egg & Cheese sandwich to cook and came across two articles with magical applications.

The first is by Dr. Amr Abouleish titled “Try and hold your breath while reading this!

The second is “A Mixed (Long- and Medium-chain) Triglyceride Lipid Emulsion Extracts Local Anesthetic from Human Serum In Vitro More Effectively than a Long-chain Emulsion,” by Weiming Ruan and Deborah French.

The first piece gives an anesthesiologist’s take on magician David Blaine’s world record setting attempts at holding his breath (as opposed to holding someone elses?) for more than 17 minutes. You can watch the TED Talk in which Mr. Blaine instructs audience members in the special preparation needed to hold their breath for more than three minutes after breathing “normal” or upwards of 17 minutes after huffing pure oxygen.

Dr. Abouleish poses the following question to his new anesthesiologist residents when discussing the relationship of end-tidal CO2 and respiration. “If your oxygen saturation is 100% and you hold your breath, what would your oxygen saturation be when you have to breathe?”

Of course all magicians know the answer to this but non-magic oriented medical residents need to be reminded of the relatively slow decline in oxygen saturation experienced by pre-oxygenated patients under general anesthesia.

We agree with Dr. Abouleish’s praise of Blaine’s talk. Those in the audience were able to hold their breath for as long as three minutes or more. Check it out for yourself and abide the constant warnings that this is not a skill easily acquired and one should never try this under water. The chance of passing out is high and because the risk of drowning whilst underwater is directly proportional to being conscious, you could, in the medical parlance, “konk out and die.”

The comments to Dr. Abouleish’s article are also instructive. There is general agreement that Mr. Blaine should have sought advice from an anesthesiologist rather than neurologists.

Instructive is a comment from Dr. Gerald Zeitlin. His capitalization and grammar is taken verbatim from his post:

As you all know Dr. Abouleish is discussing apneic oxygenation.

Watching David Blaine do his 17 minutes was fantastic – but what an incredibly wasted opportunity for science.


Neurosurgeons “Don’t know nuffin’ ” about respiratory physiology. Why did Blaine not have an arterial line for his record attempt – then we’d have known what his arterial pCO2 was after 17 minutes.

Of course we all know that, at rest, during apnea the pCO2 rises between 3 and 5 mm. Hg per minute.

I failed math in Kindergarten but I think 17 times, let’s say 4 mm. Hg = 68. So, approximately he was at 108 mm.Hg pCO2.

As WE (anesthesiologists) know that level has mild to moderate anesthetic properties. I bet if you Emailed Dr. Eger he would know what the MAC of CO2 is.

We would love to meet Dr. Zeitlin. He is our kind of guy.

The second article of magic merit in the February 2012 edition of Anesthesiology, attempts to the answer the age old question, which extracts local anesthesia better, a “mixed” triglyceride lipid emulsion or a long-chain version?

Houdini’s correspondence with Kellar on this issue springs to mind.

Continue reading “Magic and Anesthesiology in the News”

Magicians Seek New Home for Old Tricks

Inside Magic Image of Visitor to Magic MuseumMagicians and magic historians have thousands of magic props, costumes and tools of the trade but no place to show them.
The Los Angeles Times covered the Society of American Magicians’ on-going effort to select a home for the more than 5,000 piece collection years after an explosion in a nearby building coated the items in soot and carcinogenic PCBs.
The collection in exile is currently housed in de classe digs in Pico Rivera, California – not quite its former home at the corner of Hollywood and Vine in Hollywood. 
"We'd love to reopen the museum. The problem is money," said John Engman, president of the society's local assembly.
The magicians sued and settled with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power for $57,000.00 after more than three years of battling over the cost of decontamination.  Chase purchased the bank building in which the museum was housed and restricted access to bankers’ hours thereby prohibiting any evening events.
"We're looking for around 3,000 square feet, preferably in Hollywood. We'd have a little theater, a display area and storage space," said Engman, a retired California attorney and magician.   Space is dear in California and if the society cannot find a benefactor to donate a suitable venue, the museum may be moved to Parker, Colorado where its national office is to be opened.
Members of the local assembly can still see the items by visiting the storage facility but that arrangement is not practical or befitting such an important trove. 
The Inside Magic Museum of Magic endured a similar episode when local Mystic Hollow, Michigan zoning ordinances were updated to prohibit the public display of “old things” or images of “old people” that may “scare vulnerable members of society” or “contribute to respiratory distress due to mold or accumulated dust.” 
Unlike the society’s collection, the IMMM was easily moved to its new location by towing the single-wide unit to the south side of Dante Avenue and thus out of the official village limits.  The sudden starts and stops during the trip did result in indelible snow-cone juice stains on the museum’s collection of used mouth coils. 
Curator Darla White estimated the damage to some of the more popular bunched up mouth coils could be “significant.”  The prize of the collection, The Thurston Wad – nearly 47 feet of multicolored crepe paper spewed by the great magician whilst suffering a severe cold in Chicago – remained pristine and still glistening within its protective glass case.
A thumb-tip attributed to 1950s Vegas magician Alopecia Jones was also found still permanently affixed to its wooden base along with a plaque explaining how Jones utilized the gimmick in unique and not all magic-related ways. Continue reading “Magicians Seek New Home for Old Tricks”

Houdini and Art in Madison Wisconsin

Inside Magic Image of the Great HoudiniFor a dead guy, he sure does get around.  Houdini packed 'em in at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art last Friday as "Houdini: Art and Magic" opened.

According to press reports, a talk by the show's curator was standing room only and the galleries were packed. 

The Jewish Museum in New York assembled the show and it is making its sole Midwest stop on the way home from a very successful run in Los Angeles. 

Critics noted that the show is "a bit of a departure for MMoCA, which tends to focus more straightforwardly on modern and contemporary art, but the show is already proving to have wide crossover appeal."

While visitors can enjoy watching rare video clips of the star's greatest escapes, they can check out  more conventional art  from the world of sculpture and painting.

One critic notes:

Heavy chains in Petah Coyne's sculpture, Untitled #698 (Trying to Fly, Houdini's Chandelier), recall those with which Houdini bound himself for feats of escape. The piece's suspension from the ceiling brings to mind the many stunts he performed while dangling over crowded city streets. Coyne's work compels the viewer with its brooding, mysterious presence, rather than a literal representation of Houdini.

Some of my other favorites included Jane Hammond's large-scale paintings, one of which shows Houdini on a tightrope, performing his needle trick (in which he swallowed sewing needles and then pulled them from his mouth on a string). In this case, the silhouettes of women in pre-Civil War dress hang strangely from the string. The simplified, graphic composition of Hammond's painting calls to mind posters for his appearances, some of which are on view here.

Read more at The Isthmus here.

Magic’s Demise Predicted — Again

We have been reading The Last Greatest Magician in the World: Howard Thurston versus Houdini & the Battles of the American Wizards and enjoying every page. Jim Steinmeyer could have made his living writing books and wouldn't have needed to be the prodigious inventor of so many game changing illusions. We are fortunate as a community that he lost his way and fell victim to Magic's seductive call.

After Kellar's passing, there was a heated contest between Houdini and Thurston to assume the position of Dean in the Society of American Magicians. The debate was ugly and filled with attacks founded and otherwise to prove or disprove worthiness to the throne. One of the knocks on Thurston was his alleged violation of Magic's sacred rule against exposure.

Audiences could purchase candy in specially printed containers that taught basic magic tricks. Some of Magic's elite branded this activity evil and worthy of disqualification. Others saw no problem with the general principle of teaching very basic tricks to young people. The case apparently turned on a bizarre technicality: because the candy was being sold, there was no offense. If the same candy had been given away in the boxes, the case would have gone against Thurston.

In the midst of the debate, the magician and historian Henry Ridgely Evans penned his essay "Is Magic Decadent?"

Ah, for the good old days, when magic was a genuine mystery, and one had to learn it from a professor of sleight-of-hand; when books and boxes of magic did not exist, and stage secrets were as closely guarded as the formula of certain patent medicines.

Magic has been on the cusp of ruin for centuries and apparently the advent of mass production of magic kits and publication of magic books indicated the last days in 1923.

In an article published this weekend in the online journal, Salon, writer Santiago Willis voices concerns almost identical to those of Evans. His article, The Internet Makes Magic Disappear runs parallel to Evans' concerns and is familiar.

Magic depends on secrecy, magic shops controlled access to secrets, brick and mortar magic shops are shuttered by the internet outlets, exposes all to everyone with a computer; and therefore, magic will die out from over-exposure.

The writer notes New York City had 16 magic shops in 1960, three in 2003 and now only two. Willis quotes Jamy Ian Swiss for the proposition that the decline in brick-and-mortar shops portends the erosion of one of our art's essential support structures.

We cannot disagree that youtube has permitted really bad magicians to expose what could be really great tricks. But magic has been with us for a very long time and it has never been just about figuring out the secret. Magic in its truest form focuses on the performance, the give-and-take with an audience of one or a thousand, and the experience shared.

Continue reading “Magic’s Demise Predicted — Again”

Charles Dickens’ Magic Book

Inside Magic Image of Charles "Chuck" Dickens

One of the things we love at Inside Magic is the news feature Magic From Unexpected Places.  The column appears weekly in The Mystic Hollow News and brings treasures from the secular, non-magic world to its primarily magic-oriented readership.  For instance, most readers are not aware that Charles Lindbergh stayed awake during his record-breaking trek across the North Atlantic by mentally re-arranging an imaginary deck of cards in the Si Stebbins’ stack.  We don’t know if that’s true, but it was in the column last week and caught our attention.

Today’s edition was a celebration of Charles Dickens because this is (or was) his birthday or death day or graduation day or something of significance celebrated for the last century.  We will look up the exact day we’re celebrating and supplement this post if it seems important or makes us look better.

The point, though, is Magic from Unexpected Places has portions of two tricks that were to be included in a magic book Charles Dickens was drafting at the time of his death – which may or may have been 100 years ago today.

The first is apparently some sort of card trick:

Magic of a kind but unlike the kind thought by the idle minds of youth or recalled fondly by the old.  Not a magic of love or nature but of things! – created not by God – at least not directly, although all concede it must start with Him and proceed through substances of nature to be hewn by man for noble purpose.  A tree to be felled, be sawn into boards, or slivered into to pulp for paper upon which the markings of gamblers and the tarot would imprint  to make one side memorable (by the fashion of numbers and symbols of hearts and other fanciful images selected to stir one’s memory and emotion) and the other quite forgettable.

We have read this passage several times and think it is just describing a deck of cards: different on one side, same on the other. 

The second passage begins what we understand to be a 35-page (single-spaced) description of Charles Dickens’ version of The Cups and Balls:

Appointed as if by chance but clearly anything by random, each of the three orbs had in their respective chalice a home and hiding place but from what?  The balls were not vulnerable nor impervious to injury – they were just perfect, round and solid with nothing more and nothing less.  Their partners in performance sat in perfect line awaiting movement from within or, if some real  magic were to occur, without their gilded sides.

We are guessing that despite his knowledge about the nitty-gritty world of London’s poor and homeless, Charles Dickens would have failed miserably at street magic proper.  In the time it would have taken to ask a participant to take a card, the seasons would have changed or the volunteer would have passed on from old age. 

There was a great exchange between Charles Dickens and one of his readers on the topic of magic books and the tendency to describe all volunteers with disrespectful terms; like “stooge,” “fool,” “victim,” “dope,” or “ne'er-do-well.”  The topic is relevant to magicians today:

When upon being invited to the platform not as a gallows or stump for final passing but to join – ho! Join indeed! – in the show proper portrayed from the perspective of the audience but now on stage yet not quite a performer but nonetheless performing as if he – and it is almost certainly a man because a woman being either too wise or weary to permit such an invitation to be extended towards her from any stranger much less the stranger who has already professed the ability to lie and trick with such guile and skill that the assembled patrons are to give their best attempt to catch him in (or catch him out – as may be the case, as it certainly would be) – had their collective wits within his own sweating skull and through his confused eyes blinded by the lime-fed lights before him could see any clearer what was about to happen or, to the point, happen to him in retribution for his bountiful spirit and delightful joining in an event for the benefit of all at his sole expense.  The “dunce” or “spot” becomes the full lever and fulcrum of the cruel effect visited upon him and exposing (accurately or no) his ignorance or lack of grace or lack of schooling or (in the case of a poor old codger who was apparently a professor of some local university, Professor Cheer) a lack of undergarments. 

Boy, they sure don’t write ‘em like they used to.  Happy birthday or whatever it is to Charles Dickens and of course to David Copperfield, his son, we think.     

T. Nelson Downs’ Modern Coin Manipulation – Magic Work in Progress

Inside Magic Image of First Illustration from T. Nelson Downs' Modern Coin Manipulation - Now Available at Inside MagicSeveral months ago, we published an article about T. Nelson Downs' adopted hometown celebrating his part in their history. Researching the story got us thinking and researching and reading.

That's a lot for a bear with little brains, as AA Milne noted. So it took us a lot longer than we expected to get where we are now. And where exactly are we?

We have read, re-read and corrected our distillation of the several copies of Mr. Downs' Modern Coin Manipulation floating about the public domain realm of the interwebs. None of the publicly available and public domain versions of the book were ready for publication. There were pages missing, headings applied incorrectly and very poor scanning performed. Our various attempts to run optical character recognition scans met with failure due to one or more of these flaws.

Our solution was to purchase some pretty sophisticated OCR, image and books assembly software. We were able to stitch together images from different scanned versions into one document ready for OCR and assembly. Still, we wanted to do more. Mr. Downs' book has historical references throughout that need to be chased. For instance, he begins the book with a defense of his position that he was the true inventor of the Back Palm.

He provides the place and time for his first public use of this essential sleight and suggests that those who claim to have invented the move are wrong or disingenuous. His use of the sleight was to hide and produce coins as part of his Miser's Dream routine. But he notes that other magicians use the same move for card effects.

Speaking of The Miser's Dream, Mr. Downs dedicates substantial portion of the book to teaching this classic act. His instruction is outstanding and the images are very helpful but if one hopes to duplicate his success with the act based on a quick reading and memorization of the script, that one will be frustrated and sad.

The moves taught are knuckle-busters plus. Perhaps part of his motive in writing this book was to dissuade would-be imitators from starting. If you are just starting in Magic or have worked as a professional for decades, this book will have something for you. You may not yet have the skills to perform everything but you will find something to fit your routine with a little practice.

Robert Browning was clearly speaking of magicians when he wrote, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp / Or what's a heaven for?"

We will put T. Nelson Downs' Modern Coin Manipulation in the Inside Magic Library for those who would like a copy. The version will be revised periodically to include annotations and cross-references. Let us know if you find any problems with this or later editions. Enjoy!

King Copperfield Joins Roster of Magic Royalty

Inside Magic congratulates David Copperfield on his deserved ascension to the awesome position of King of Magic and awarded the “Magician of the Century” designation.

The Society of American Magicians (“SAM”) bestowed both accolades upon the peripatetic and prolific prestidigitator.

Mr. Copperfield has earned many titles and laudatory commendations throughout his incredible career but unlike us, is not willing to rest on his laurels. The SAM’s press release notes the ever-young performer still puts in an honest day’s work by presenting his full show more than 500 times a year.

The Society previously picked him as “Magician of the Century” for the 20th Century – quite a feat considering the incredible lot of magicians that performed from 1900 through 2000.

This is the first time the Society has named a “King of Magic.”

Our U.S. Constitutional research shows Mr. Copperfield’s acceptance of this title does not run afoul of Article 1, Section 9:

No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.

See, Cornell’s fantastic resource, the Legal Information Institute here..

Note,  it is a popular misconception that a more strict prohibition against titles was added to the Constitution by Amendment.  While there was a Titiles of Nobility Amendment passed by the Senate, House of Representatives, it was not ratified by the requisite number of states and is not law.

We would like to go on record as saying that even if the Titles of Nobility Amendment had been ratified and Mr. Copperfield’s acceptance of the title “King” violated that law, we would not turn him in.

The Society gave the title in recognition his efforts “to advance, elevate, and preserve magic as a performing art, to promote harmonious fellowship throughout the world of magic, and to maintain and improve ethical standards in the field of magic.”

However, as Inside Magic reported recently, Mr. Copperfield earned the more significant and lasting title of Father with the recent birth of his daughter, Sky. The magician and his beautiful French model girlfriend, Chloe Gosselin kept Sky’s arrival under wraps for about 16 months before the lay and magic press discovered the happy news.

Under traditional rules and customs pertaining to royalty, Sky would properly be considered a Princess of Magic but Chloe Gosselin could not attain the title of Queen of Magic unless she married the then-existing King.

Additionally, we are informed by a scholar on royalty that kingship is rarely attained by talent or popular acclaim. In fact, 77.41 percent of all kings or queens attained their position simultaneously with the murder, execution, coup d’état, or suspicious disappearance of the previous monarch.
Continue reading “King Copperfield Joins Roster of Magic Royalty”

Holingworth’s EXPERT Gets Boffo Reviews

Inside Magic Image of Guy Holingworth from Expert at the Card Table In its review of The Expert at the Card Table, LA Theater Review identifies Magician and British Barrister Guy Holingworth as both “suave and debonair.”

We certainly do not disagree but wondered if the statement should be considered “news.”  After all, it is well known that all intellectual property attorneys are by tradition always either suave or debonair; and a select few of us are both.

We read further into the expertly written essay and understood.  The theater critic was using what us professional writers call, “an introduction” or, as we say around the professional writers’ clubhouse, “an intro.”

But we are quick to protest — probably because we were conceived during some beatnik protest in the late 1950s — that Guy Holingworth needs no introduction. Magicians and magic fans know him well from his writing and performing neat effects with ordinary cards.

Then we read further into the review and realized the introduction was primarily for those unfamiliar with Guy Holingworth.  We calmed down, popped a Chocks and continued sounding out the words as quietly as possible lest we wake those around us in the Mystic Hollow Public Library.

Neil Patrick Harris directed Mr. Holingworth’s show based on 1902 classic The Expert at the Card Table. The critic then explains the rich history and intrigue surrounding the creation of S.W. Erdnase’s gift to future generations of knuckle-busting masochists and their ever-patient friends and family.
Continue reading “Holingworth’s EXPERT Gets Boffo Reviews”