Here are the top search terms and phrases, from the night of “History” Channel’s Houdini biopic, that led to this site:
- images of houdini and daisy white
- houdini was an arrogant little bastard
Of related interest:
Here are the top search terms and phrases, from the night of “History” Channel’s Houdini biopic, that led to this site:
Of related interest:
This article originally appeared in The Mandala Magazine (2:1), July 2011
The Hand of Isaac Fawkes:
Quicker than Hogarth’s Eye?
Isaac Fawkes is the earliest professional magician about whom we know anything substantial, and the sparse historical record is top-heavy with praise. He is “the famous” Mr. Fawkes, who “performs… most surprizing Tricks by Dexterity of Hand.” He undertakes “Curiosities no Person in the Kingdom can pretend to show like himself.” He has “had the Honour to perform before his present Majesty King George” and other high-falutin’ types, and has done so to “great Applause.”
For those who know the business, it perhaps comes as no surprise that the reviewer who authored most of this praise was… Isaac Fawkes. As the research of Ricky Jay, Edwin Dawes, and especially Richard H. Evans has shown, Fawkes was a relentless self-promoter who issued a flood of publicity. Newspapers were fresh and abundant in the early 18th century, and people high and low would gather in London’s countless coffee houses to read the daily news, bicker over the issues, and click the occasional AdSense link. What were these ads like? In a typical one, Fawkes trumpets his own success at the box office and defies other magicians to match his fiscal feat: “The famous Mr. Fawks, as he modestly stiles himself, has since Bartholomew and Southwark-Fairs, put seven hundred Pounds into the Bank” and he “may certainly challenge any Conjuror of the Age to do the like” (Paulson 80).
All this publicity made “Fawkes” a household word in London, and the magician’s presence every year, year after year, at those two great fairs kept him in the public’s eye. To spark and sustain the interest of the upper classes, he also performed at fashionable venues such as the Long Room at the Opera House, the James Street Theater at the Old Tennis Court, Haymarket, and near St. James’s Park (During 82).
Apart from the time and place, this profile is starting to sound familiar! Tireless in generating publicity. Self-aggrandizing. Defiant toward his peers, if indeed he recognized any. Openly boastful about his bookings and earnings. Performing for crowds and crowns. Ricky Jay is right— Isaac Fawkes was an 18th-century Houdini! (Fawkes even died young at the peak of his fame.)
To be fair, Fawkes was not the only promoter of Fawkes. As early as 1726, one writer observed that “when you first saw the famous Fawkes perform his Dexterity of Hand, I doubt not but it appear’d wonderful, that a Man’s Actions should be quicker than your Eyes” (Jay). And in 1746, fifteen years after the magician’s death, the buzz had not abated: “Fawkes, one of our modern Conjurers… after having anointed himself with the Sense of the People, became so great… that he amassed several Thousand Pounds to himself” (During 84).
Every coin has two sides, and not everyone who kept an eye on Fawkes was a fan. Foremost among the unenchanted was the artist William Hogarth, one of the most astute observers of early and middle 18th-century London. At least twice, Hogarth refers to Fawkes in his graphical parodies of contemporary taste and behavior: most prominently in one of the first prints of Hogarth’s career, Masquerades and Operas (1724), and again in Southwark Fair (1733), a print from the moment when Hogarth’s own fame was cresting. In both images, Hogarth presents the conjurer’s feats not as great theater, but as a symbol of decadence.
Hogarth was no stranger to the variety arts. Born “in the shadow of St. Paul’s” in 1697 to a family dwelling in Bartholomew Close, just off Smithfield, Hogarth literally grew up a stone’s throw away from the annual Bartholomew’s Fair. This event, like Southwark Fair, featured “waxworks, rope-dancing and music-booths, conjuring tricks, acrobats and drolls” as well as gamblers, prostitutes, and rowdies. “Laughter and humiliation, illusion and reality merged in the flesh. Bearded women… and freaks mingled with the costumed devils and heroes of the plays” (Uglow 14). Indeed, in the year of Hogarth’s birth, the Lord Mayor of London took official action to quell the “obscene, lascivious and scandalous plays, comedies and farces, unlawful games and interludes, drunkenness etc.”— but this ordinance could not withstand the sheer momentum of the irrepressible annual festivities, which soon resumed. London was gonna party like it was 1699.
In light of this background, we might have expected Hogarth to be more sympathetic to the charms of a carnival and its conjurer. After all, in an autobiographical note in his book The Analysis of Beauty (1753), Hogarth recalls that “Shews of all sort gave me uncommon pleasure when an Infant and mimickry common to all children was remarkable in me” (Uglow 13). And even in his maturity, Hogarth was capable of pulling stunts that call to mind the seedier side of the Fair. For example, on a drunken walkabout with friends in 1732, Hogarth decided to critique the clergy by defecating on the doorstep of a church, to the delight of his equally besotted walking buddies (Uglow 223). But Hogarth wasn’t sympathetic to Fawkes and the Fair. The more Hogarth learned about the ways of the world— especially the ways of people in power— the more he began to use the duplicity of masks and magic as symbols of hypocrisy and corruption.
This is how we should understand what Fawkes meant to Hogarth. The satirical prints that were Hogarth’s stock in trade present the carnival as a symbol of indiscipline, indiscretion, or plain old bad taste. He first mentions Isaac Fawkes in 1724, in the print Masquerades and Operas, also known as The Bad Taste of the Town. Let’s survey the scene. Hogarth shows a street running between two theaters. On one side, a crowd of costumed nobles and commoners queues up outside a masquerade hall. The impresario, Heidegger, leans out an upper window and coaxes the revelers in. A satyr and a fool guide them toward the door. Across the street, an equally dense crowd presses into a theater to see an overwrought drama. Above, a banner promotes some over-the-top opera. And in the background, a statue of the foppish architect William Kent perches atop an “Accademy of Art.” In contrast to all this, a worker in the foreground is taking out the trash, wheeling away a barrow full of the neglected works of the great English dramatists: Shakespeare, Jonson, Dryden, and the like.
And where is Waldo? Hanging above the doorway to the masquerade, a conspicuous sign reads “The Long Room. FAUX’s Dexterity of Hand.” Hogarth gives us three clues: the magician’s off-season theater, his name misspelled to ensure a pun on the French word for “false,” and his memorable catch phrase. Hogarth makes the puzzle easy, because he wants us to get it: the trickery of Isaac Fawkes is a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with contemporary culture and politics.
Hogarth’s cultural target here is Italian style and those who promote it. Heidegger, the figure leaning out the window, was a key player in the promotion of Italian opera and masquerade balls in London. William Kent and his young patron Lord Burlington, both newly returned from their Grand Tour of Italy, were trying to replace the English Baroque architecture of Christopher Wren and his followers with the style they preferred— that of the Venetian architect Palladio. Adding insult to enmity, Lord Burlington had even marginalized Hogarth’s own teacher, the architect and artist Sir James Thornhill, in the royal court. In Hogarth’s view, Heidegger and Kent were contemptible corrupters of culture. How did he summarize his complaint? He called them illusory, ephemeral, false—Faux!
Hogarth’s political target is Sir Robert Walpole (then treasurer, but eventually Britain’s first Prime Minister) and his colleagues in the world of commerce. A couple of years earlier, a frenzy of speculative investment in the South Sea Company had created a market bubble. At one point, the value of the stock rose so high that the company cockily offered to pay off the entire national debt by issuing South Sea annuities. Needless to say, the bubble burst, fortunes were lost, and the chief malefactors were (what else?) guarded from prosecution by Walpole, who rounded up the usual suspects.
For Hogarth, Fawkes perfectly epitomizes these events. As Paulson explains, “Fawkes… reminded Hogarth of the opera, pantomime, and masquerade, and their disguising or distorting of nature celebrated by noble patrons” (80). Those who promise riches from far off lands tomorrow in exchange for a modest investment, or a hamburger, today…. Those who promise justice while providing cover for their cronies…. Those who displace rich and weighty English drama with flighty Continental nonsense…. Those who invite people to don costumes and behave as they would never do by the light of day…. Well, all those loathsome people are like this Fawkes chap, with his “Trick of raising Money by Legerdemain” (a Miser’s Dream routine performed with an egg bag). Fawkes embodies all that Hogarth finds wrong with popular art and the people who consume it: bombast lures them in, tricky words and actions delude them, and they walk away with something ventured, nothing gained.
A decade later in Southwark Fair, Hogarth again takes a shot at low-brow entertainment as a diluting factor in English culture. Again, he includes a reference to Fawkes, this time the conjurer’s portrait familiar from his signs and advertisements. What’s notable here is the lack of explanation; Hogarth simply expects that the meaning of this image will be clear to his audience. This implies that the meaning Hogarth invested in his references to Fawkes was familiar, intelligible, and shared.
So there’s the other side of the reputational coin. Fawkes had many fans, and none more fervent than Fawkes himself. But not everyone in Enlightenment England was in a mood to celebrate his legerdemain and his income. Even so, I like to imagine what would’ve happened if Isaac Fawkes had been given a chance to reply. He might’ve pointed out, with dexterity of mind, that the most theatrical and deceptive art of all is pictorial oil painting, an illusionistic medium whose foremost English practitioner in their day was none other than William Hogarth. Hocus pocus… and touché!
This article originally appeared in The Mandala Magazine (2:5), April 2012
Houdini Now and Then:
Caught on the Web
It’s tough being a fan of the Great Houdini. Your non-magician friends quickly grow tired of hearing you say “Watch me escape from this” or “Tie me up! Tighter!” The patience of your significant other wears thin as you beckon “Look at this photo of the fourth milk can!” And your magician friends who are not fans of HH (a defect we fans describe with the phrase “just doesn’t get it”) are likely to respond with “You know, he wasn’t really much of a magician” or “You know, Vernon fooled him with a double” or “You know, he was sort of an arrogant bastard to… well… everyone.”
OK. Yes, we know. Even so, there’s just something about Houdini the man and the myth. And being a fan is no longer about becoming Houdini (though for some it once was). Nor is it about defending Houdini. (Well, maybe a bit.) It’s about appreciating two interwoven themes in the life of Ehrich Weiss: a tragically imperfect pursuit of the American Dream and a splendidly perfect example of magical theatrics. The actor lived a life, not always well, but the character he played projected a fiction, always magnificent.
Weiss came as close as anyone to embodying the formula that Drive plus Opportunity plus Intelligence plus a dash of Charisma equals Success. Ehrich is the little guy, the underdog, the undereducated middle child of an impoverished immigrant family with no advantages. Unpolished, unsophisticated, and unpromising, he falls in love with magic (as each of us has done) and with the stage (as many of us have also done). He tolerates his miserable life in a New York sweatshop by dreaming big dreams and harboring unlikely ambitions. Finally, against all good judgment, he goes for broke and pursues a life in show business. And hundreds of odd engagements and thousands of days later, broke and broken is precisely where he ends up. Then, on the brink of failure and defeat, he’s discovered, coached, funded, and placed on a short path to unparalleled fortune and glory. By cultivating his uniqueness, working hard, and never giving up, Ehrich Weiss becomes the Great Houdini.
That rags-to-riches tale is the essence of the Houdini legend. The biographical facts are much more complex, of course, but part of what’s so appealing about the legend is that it is both highly improbable and also true—or at least truthy. It’s a show business parable densely packed with lore, and mining it for wisdom yields gem after gem: At least try to follow your dream. Don’t settle when you could be doing what you love. Act confident, and people will read you as confident and assume that you have good reason to be confident. Talk clearly in ways that reach people. Be a generalist for your own satisfaction, if you wish, but be a specialist for your agent and publicist. Establish a brand and promote it relentlessly, interestingly, and evidentially. Do your homework, know your stuff, and be better prepared than your competitors. Be trained and ready for production when opportunity knocks. Lend a helping hand where you can. Invest in your community. Innovate. Be sure they spell your name right. Think Outside The Box!
Of course, that platter of proverbs has a flipside: Don’t alienate potential allies. Don’t beat down colleagues. Don’t humiliate passionate fellow travelers who also have dreams to pursue. Don’t be a narcissistic control freak. Don’t take publicity as the measure of true greatness, especially if the praise came from your own pen. Don’t hog the spotlight and suck all the oxygen out of every room. Celebrate others’ talents and let someone else shine from time to time. Don’t inflate an already impressive resume. Try not to get bent out of shape when criticized. These are just a few of the lessons apparently lost on Ehrich Weiss.
So part of the attraction of Houdini is the fact that his biography is brimming with life lessons. But there must be more. After all, he wasn’t the only person who rose from humble origins to achieve success. Another part of the appeal is that Houdini’s success depended on the moment, and on how he met that moment with his magic. Consider what he achieved: international celebrity on the vaudeville stage as a variety entertainer. Now consider his core talents. He was strong, athletic, and mechanically inclined. He had good metalworking skills, a robust memory, and a disciplined approach to training and presentation. He was smart and sometimes charming. He was an effective leader, commanding the loyalty of his team for many years. And he understood the business of drawing in the public and giving them something to talk about.
That doesn’t sound much like the profile of an actor or magician, and especially not of the biggest box office draw in vaudeville. It sounds more like the profile of the general manager at a local auto shop. How did someone with his disposition and skill set become an entertainment superstar, of all things?
Houdini was able to bring together his talent, his moment, and his magic because he understood a few things not generally recognized. He understood the vulnerability of locks in an era when mechanisms were relatively simple and non-specialists were utterly clueless. He grasped that a sympathetic audience would follow guidance and spin rather than deductive inference. He also learned that for the sake of publicity or a quid pro quo, local industrial businesses, police officials, and journalists would collaborate in promoting him. Unlike his audiences, Houdini knew that these adversaries wouldn’t try too hard to thwart him; their interests were aligned.
Most powerfully, Houdini understood that being handcuffed, or chained, or locked in a jail cell, or nailed into a crate or coffin, or tied up in a sack, or hurled into the sea served as a metaphor that everyone could understand. Every member of the public knows what it is to be confined, impeded, suppressed, or denied. And everyone knows, at least in theory, that overcoming such adversity makes you the good guy, the hero, maybe even the superhero. And a superhero would never collude with his challengers, or hack away a tough handcuff with a file or cutter under cover of the orchestra, or swap out a tough piece of hardware for an easier one from his own extensive collection, or plant stooges, or hide tools on his person or in that little cabinet where he achieves his escape. So if he escapes, it must be by magic. Fold in some theatrics, and Houdini becomes the feisty little guy who uses his magical superpower to punch back at The Man.
Mix the part about the American Dream with the part about using superpowers to defeat early 20th-century tools of oppression – fetters, crates, and underwater torture cells! – and the appeal of the Houdini legend comes into focus. Houdini fans are locked onto a duality: the boy Ehrich Weiss realized his dream of performing magic for a living, and the fictional character he played, Houdini, put his fictional powers to practical, manly, down-to-earth, democratic use. Making a cane dance or a birdcage vanish or a thousand flowers appear or playing cards proliferate— that’s all nice, but so very… refined and precious and beside the point. Restoring severed or bisected bodies— although that might be useful under the right circumstances, how often does the need arise? But escaping from anything, anytime, anywhere? Bring it.
Ehrich Weiss wanted to dress up in a white tie and tails, to speak in elevated terms, and to make things vanish and appear and float and fly because the fancy and ephemeral is what had caught his young eye in the first place. Despite his disappointment in some of Robert-Houdin’s exaggerations, Houdini never gave up wanting to be like his French predecessor, a sophisticated purveyor of baffling blossoms and evocative levitations. He longed to play the role of a magician who puts his powers to incidental, delicate, beautiful use. Goodbye, Winter! Hello, Summer! My, how time flies!
Houdini envisioned reaching up and making art. But early in his career, his middle- and working-class European and American audiences did not want the refinement and nuance of a world they couldn’t recognize; they wanted their fictional magic to play out in the world they knew, the world of industrial stuff, wood, iron, canvas, stone, and steel. At least, that’s what they wanted when he was the man on the platform. Ironically, it was just because Ehrich Weiss was in fact an unpolished, macho, cocky sweatshop worker turned defier-of-authority and not an elite suit with soft hands that he was able to give them what they wanted. So the full evening magic show with silk tubes and split fans continued to dangle before him, and he in a leathery straitjacket continued to dangle before them. The ongoing negotiation of this compromise between magic and metal made Houdini great. And exploring that duality still enchants his fans.
Houdini’s enchanted fans were once a scattered tribe. Finding one another was like spotting needles on the Hippodrome stage: you weren’t really catching more than a glimpse of them, but everyone was assuring you that they were there, somewhere, united by a common thread. Once in a while, at the Castle or a magic club event, you’d meet a partner in obsession, but more often, you’d encounter the doubters, the naysayers—the Houdiniphobes. And they would haze you. And it wasn’t just the Vernon taunt; sometimes it got physical.
For example, our esteemed Editor in Chief, Shawn, is a classic Houdiniphobe. (“Just doesn’t get it.”) And he was a hazer (now recovered). Many a decade ago, when I was yet in high school and Shawn wasn’t much past it, a bunch of us from the local SAM observed Halloween by hosting a walk-through haunted house. Heads on tables, thrilling chilling sounds, etc. If memory serves, Shawn as a strobe-lighted Mr. Hyde in a room decked out as a madman’s lab spent a portion of the evening repeatedly chopping off my still-crawling forearm while I beckoned in futility for passers-through to save me. Good times.
Well, it turns out that a straitjacket was one of the props in play that Halloween. Not a cool, period-proper leather model like the one recently authenticated as Houdini’s and sold at Christie’s. No, it was one of those white canvas deals that every magic shop carried back in the 70s. Still, that was thrilling to me, and it might have set me off on a bit of a pro-Houdini harangue.
This jacket was, shall we say, professionally enhanced to accelerate escape. But I didn’t know that. After all, Houdini didn’t need no stinkin’ gimmicks! In the afternoon before showtime, as we were scheming and setting up, Shawn’s anti-Ehrich issues boiled over and he took them out on me by proposing that I escape from said jacket. Feeling confident that I understood Houdini’s methods, I tolerated the hazing and let them strap me in. I had forgotten one thing: Houdini was a buff athlete with an expansive ribcage, and I was a scrawny, stick-thin weakling. I did eventually escape, but it took me nearly an hour. During this interval, none of the flippin’ Houdiniphobes (this means you, Shawn) saw fit to tip me off to the fact that there was… an easier way. It’s tough being a fan of the Great Houdini.
Therapy helped, and I’m over it now. *twitch*
Since the advent of the internet, being a fan of anything has become much easier. Houdini fandom is no exception. Those who share the Houdini mania can now find one another with ease, compare notes and speculations, circulate photos, and correct one another’s misconceptions. We are many, and we can hold our heads high, confident that however marginal our preoccupation may actually be, it is now trivially easy to find fandoms that make ours seem mainstream, healthy, and downright patriotic. This newfound dignity comes alongside a slew of wonderful Houdini resources in the old media – three excellent scholarly studies (Silverman plus notes, Kalush & Sloman, Culliton) and a roving museum exhibition with its slick catalogue. But the new media, the web and facebook and Twitter and such, are the ones that have changed the game. Here are just three of the game changers.
Consider the screenwriter John Cox, the proprietor of the website Wild About Harry (at WildAboutHoudini.com , because Harry Potter got there first!) In his autobiographical blurb, John exhibits all the classic tropes of Houdinimania: sucked in by the Tony Curtis movie, further entranced by Doug Henning’s adapation of the Torture Cell, willingly stereotyped at school as the magic kid— these gateway drugs eventually led to John’s stint as an escape artist and to his energetically making the acquaintance of anyone who had breathed the same air as Ehrich Weiss.
John has become a one-man aggregator of all Houdini news on the web, as he creates original content, links to the work of others, and exploits the power of social media to spread the word far and wide. John has broken many stories: the recent recovery of a seldom- or never-seen photograph of Houdini performing his Water Torture Cell; an overview of all the women with whom Houdini has been linked romantically by evidence, gossip, or speculation; informed speculation about why Harry and Bess never had children; the definitive answer to the question How Tall Was Houdini; identifying the exact location where Houdini’s ball and chain escape (not a euphemism for divorce!) took place; a series on the leading ladies in Houdini’s ill-fated films; Houdini’s apparent belief in reincarnation; a pilgrimage to Houdini’s home on west 113th Street; identifying the make and model of Houdini’s wristwatch; weighing whether Houdini performed the underwater casket breath test not once but at least three times; reporting on clues that Houdini may have performed the Bullet Catch; and of course John’s ongoing hunt for lost recordings of Houdini’s radio broadcasts. Most dramatically, he uncovered a 1932 RKO film treatment for an unrealized Houdini biopic! John Cox has put together a fascinating site for fans of Houdini and magic history, and John is performing a service for us all by going the extra mile, past those first few Google result pages, to find the really obscure, undiscovered stuff.
Another website that feeds the addiction is Dean Carnegie: Magic Detective. Whereas John Cox is an all-inclusive, indiscriminate Houdini-linker (“A lunchbox with Houdini on it? Linked! Houdini soda pop? Linked!”), Dean Carnegie has a specific mission: “Researching and hunting for unusual pieces of magic history and anything to do with Houdini.” Dean has uncovered quite a few gems on Houdini by reading old, digitally archived newspapers and foraging where no man has gone before. For example, he turned up yet another example of Houdini performing the Bullet Catch during his tour of Russia. He found two photographs and a heap of information about Houdini’s assistant (and likely lover) Daisy White. Dean manages to give the play-by-play for Harry’s casket on the day of his funeral, and uncovers a forgotten and puzzling incident that saw Houdini arrested for assault in Rhode Island. He reproduces in its entirety (1, 2, 3, 4) a lengthy article from the Los Angeles Herald in 1907, at the height of his Challenge act, in which Harry rambles on about jailbreaking and handcuffs. From the same year, Carnegie brings forth a single newspaper page that includes promos for Houdini, Boudini, Thurston, and Buster Keaton. In another piece, he gives a brief history of straitjacket escapes. *twitch* And like John Cox, Dean Carnegie somehow manages to put his hands on previously unpublished photographs of the teen-aged magician, Ehrich Weiss. Plus, he can’t stop himself from visiting, and documenting, whatever now stands at the site of any place where Houdini worked or played. If you want to fill in the gaps in your knowledge of Houdini, spend some time with the Magic Detective.
At HoudiniHimself, the legendary Houdiniana collector Kevin Connolly takes a different approach to fandom. Cox aggregates everything, and Carnegie tries to answer particular questions. In contrast, Connolly blogs about particular items in his collection, offers general advice about how to collect wisely, and even offers items for sale. There has hardly been a significant book, documentary, or exhibition on Houdini that didn’t include important items from Kevin’s collection, and it’s fascinating to watch him take down some spurious junk on eBay or slowly reveal details about his latest treasure. For example, Kevin memorably pieces together a photographic puzzle having to do with Houdini’s assistants. Indeed he scans and shares all sorts of photographs that most Houdiniphiles have never seen before: a variant of the famous Grim Game promo shot, an extremely rare variant of the Metamorphosis poster, an X-ray of Houdini’s left hand showing a bullet lodged among the metacarpals, Houdini’s childhood home in Budapest, Houdini taking risks with a deck, and on and on. It’s astonishing how much unpublished Houdini material still exists; Connolly figures that hundreds of photos remain to be discovered.
In a recent post called The Cologne Papers, Connolly reveals his most recent exciting discovery: Houdini’s own scrapbook relating to the trial in Germany in which he prevailed over a policeman who had slandered him with accusations of fraud. This incident, well known to Houdini fans, is the subject of one of the most recognizable Houdini posters. Until now, however, Houdini’s bound volume of press clippings and legal documents was on nobody’s radar. And the most wonderful aspect of Kevin’s collecting endeavor is that he doesn’t hoard in silence and secrecy; he scans, shares, and shouts from the rooftops. Because of this enlightened practice, everyone wins.
These three webmasters illustrate the impact of the internet on the world of Houdini, and on magic history in general. It’s tough being a fan of the Great Houdini. But it has never been less tough, nor more exciting, than it is right now.