Breaking News from Queens re Houdini Grave

They’re calling this “an unprecedented act of theft and vandalism.” The news broke this morning. Here’s a quick excerpt, but you can read the full story by clicking on the link below.

Body of Harry Houdini Stolen From Queens Grave

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Grave robbers acting under cover of darkness stole the body of famed escape artist Harry Houdini from an unguarded
Glendale cemetery early Tuesday morning in what police are calling an unprecedented act of theft and vandalism.

The NYPD is hoping the public can help them find three men whom a homeless witness spotted driving out of Machpelah Cemetery’s south driveway
sometime between 3 and 4 a.m. in a dark blue or black flatbed, turning and heading north on Cypress Hills St. …

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Happy Birthday, Houdini!

Harry Houdini, born March 24, 1874

Harry Houdini, born March 24, 1874

By Tom Interval

On March 24, 1874—140 years ago today—legendary escape artist and magician Harry Houdini escaped from his mother’s womb in Budapest, Hungary.

Born as Erik Weisz in a room at Rákosárok utca 1. sz. (a street now known as Csengery utca), he would have that name for only about four years before he and his family moved to the United States, where his name was Americanized Ehrich Weiss. It wouldn’t be until around 1890 that he adopted the name Harry Houdini.

Since there are many biographies of Houdini on the Web, including a very good one on this page, I won’t cover the details of Houdini’s life here. However, I will share some photos of the building in which he was born, compliments of Google Maps. But first, a little background.

The building in which Harry Houdini was born, Budapest Hungary

The building in which Harry Houdini was born, Budapest Hungary (Google Earth image with Photoshop filter)

In an email to me about two and a half years ago, magician Ryan Majestic claimed he was the first magician to physically track down Houdini’s birthplace. Having an advance copy of the book in which the Rákosárok utca address was first published, Ryan, by sheer coincidence, was already planning to go to Budapest around that time. While there, he took a couple pictures of himself in front of the door at that address. Here’s one of Ryan in which you can see the address placard.

Note that the door Ryan is standing in front of has since been repaired or replaced, and the placard is no longer there. You can see this by looking at the November 2011 Google Maps Street View of the location.

I’m not sure exactly when Ryan went to Budapest (probably in 2006 or 2007), but it’s only fair to mention another gentleman who tracked down the building: Attila Csordas, a bioinformatician at the European Bioinformatics Institute in the UK. You can read Attila’s Nov. 12, 2007, blog about that here.

Magic historian and collector, David Stahl, also went to Budapest to find Houdini’s birthplace. This was recorded in August 2010 on Kevin Connolly’s fine Houdini blog, Houdini Himself. If you look at the photo of David on that page, the building behind him is actually across the street from the building in which Houdini was born (assuming the original source was accurate).

In any event, here are some pictures of 1 Csengery Street in Budapest (again, thanks to Google Earth and Maps/Street View).

Happy birthday, Harry!

Google Earth view of the building in which Harry Houdini was born Erik Weisz on March 24, 1874, Budapest, Hungary

Google Earth view of the building in which Harry Houdini was born Erik Weisz on March 24, 1874, Budapest, Hungary

Google Earth view of the building (highlighted) in which Harry Houdini was born Erik Weisz on March 24, 1874, Budapest, Hungary

Google Earth view of the building (highlighted) in which Harry Houdini was born Erik Weisz on March 24, 1874, Budapest, Hungary

Google Maps Street View of 1 Csengery Street, Budapest, Hungary, where Harry Houdini was born (brown door is the entrance)

Google Maps Street View of 1 Csengery Street, Budapest, Hungary, where Harry Houdini was born (brown door is the entrance)

Google Maps Street View of 1 Csengery Street, Budapest, Hungary, where Harry Houdini was born (brown door is the entrance)

Google Maps Street View of 1 Csengery Street, Budapest, Hungary, where Harry Houdini was born (brown door is the entrance)

Google Maps Street View of 1 Csengery Street, Budapest, Hungary, where Harry Houdini was born (view from the opposite direction; brown door is the entrance)

Google Maps Street View of 1 Csengery Street, Budapest, Hungary, where Harry Houdini was born (view from the opposite direction; brown door is the entrance)


Posted in Birth, Buildings, Cecilia, Mayer, Parents, Rákosárok utca 1. sz. | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Happy Birthday Bess!

By Tom Interval

Happy Birthday, Bess!

Bess Houdini, born 138 years ago today as Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner (Jan. 23, 1876 – Feb. 11, 1943)

Although many sources cite January 22 as Bess Houdini’s birthday, John Cox of Wild About Harry has uncovered evidence that Houdini himself celebrated Bess’s birthday today—January 23. At least, that was the case in 1921. The evidence? Compliments of John C. Hinson: A copy of Houdini’s book, Miracle Mongers and Their Methods, inscribed by Houdini to his “Sweetheart Wife” on January 23, 1921 “on your birthday.” John (Cox) also sites California death records indicating January 23 as the day of birth. While most Houdini fans realize Houdini’s claims and recollections of birth dates are not always the most reliable, the two pieces of evidence John provides are pretty convincing. Even so, the skeptic in me still needs to be convinced by an official birth certificate obtained from the New York City Department of Records. Does anyone out there already have a copy? If so, please drop me a line. And if you happen to be in a giving mood, I’d love to see a scan of it! In the mean time, Happy Birthday, Bess!

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John Cox: Wild About Harry Since 1975

By Tom Interval

John Cox of Wild About Harry

John Cox of Wild About Harry (Photo: Copyright 2013 Tom Interval)

In 1980, 15-year-old John Cox told a Los Angeles Times reporter he was the third disciple of Harry Houdini. The first two, he said, were carnival worker Edward Saint and noted illusionist and author Milbourne Christopher. At the time, John, whose business card and stationery read, “John C. Cox, Houdini Enthusiast,” said he hoped to write a definitive history of Houdini. Thirty-three years later, the realization of that wish is Wild About Harry, the most comprehensive Houdini-themed blog on the Web today.

Although John launched Wild About Harry only three years ago, the blog’s origin dates back to 2005 when he created a monthly online newsletter called Houdini Lives, which became a full website the following year. But in 2010, John decided to transfer most of that site’s content from an Apple iWeb template to a more functional, smartly designed Blogger interface—the site Houdini fans and researchers worldwide are now familiar with.

“The simple idea was to create a website that keeps up with everything that’s new in the world of Houdini,” says John. “Wild About Harry still delivers the news, but it also includes my own experiences with collecting and going to events and doing research, or even just thinking about a certain topic. And now it’s become an even larger experience with people contributing material and participating in the research. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how it’s become such a communal place and real hub of Houdini activity and thought.”

John Cox of Wild About Harry at his work station

John Cox of Wild About Harry at his work station (Photo: Copyright 2013 Tom Interval)

Wild About Harry, which has drawn more than a million visitors since its launch, is packed to the pixels with primary and secondary research and interpretation, news stories, books, fictional portrayals, special features, cultural references, collection highlights, auctions, and external links to other original Houdini-related content. John says the main requirement for content to appear on his site is that it “has to interest me as a Houdini buff and historian. I figure if I’m into it, then all Houdini buffs will be into it.”

And to further enable the typical Houdini buff’s addiction, John has harnessed the power of social media to promote his blog and all things Houdini. At the time of this writing, John’s Twitter feed has attracted more than 350 followers while his Wild About Harry Facebook page has 700 fans. And those numbers don’t include the separate, specialized Houdini-themed Facebook pages he runs: Houdini (2,170), Bess Houdini (121), Hardeen (94), Houdini’s Movies (166), and Houdini the Miniseries (115).

John Cox’s childhood business card

John Cox’s childhood business card (Photo: Copyright 2013 John Cox)

Despite having several other interests, including Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, movies, Hollywood history, and Universal Monsters, John has lived and breathed Houdini since 1975, the year he saw Houdini, the 1953 film starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, and Doug Henning perform Houdini’s Water Torture Cell on television. From that point on, he was hooked, and this “double whammy,” as he puts it, inspired him to read two books that would be the first to contribute to his lifelong fascination with the legendary escape artist: Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls, by William Lindsay Gresham, and Houdini On Magic, by Walter B. Gibson and Morris N. Young.

John Cox, age 15, with some of his Houdini collection

John Cox, age 15, with some of his Houdini collection (Photo: Copyright 1980 John Rosenfield, Valley News)

With his father’s help in the 1970s and ’80s, John, who lived in the Canoga Park neighborhood of San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles at the time, substantially added to his library and has since amassed a collection of more than 500 books and some 1,500 other items, including original autographed photos, letters, posters, pressbooks, programs, publications, press clippings, multimedia, and other odds and ends, such as a chunk of glass from an original Houdini Water Torture Cell and even strands of Bess Houdini’s hair.

I had the pleasure of perusing John’s collection in September after he and I dined at The Magic Castle with actress Kristen Connolly, who was consulting us about her new role as Bess Houdini for History’s upcoming Houdini miniseries. John, who lives in Studio City about 10 minutes from the Castle, was extremely hospitable and gave me free reign to look through everything. Not only is it a great collection, but John is meticulous in organizing and caring for it.

John Cox featured in the Los Angeles Times at age 15

John Cox featured in the Los Angeles Times at age 15 (Photo: Courtesy of John Cox)

Leafing through his personal scrapbooks took me back to my childhood when I, too, saved anything and everything about Houdini and magic. Every clipping was sacred, every ticket stub and souvenir program in its place. But my meager collection pales next to John’s. His bookcases are filled with stacks of Houdini-related publications and what must be almost every edition of every book ever written by or about Houdini, including some that are autographed by the man himself. Signed photos and letters are displayed or tucked away, and Houdini posters and novelties grace some walls and bookshelves.

John Cox featured in the Valley News escaping from a straitjacket at age 15

John Cox featured in the Valley News escaping from a straitjacket at age 15 (Photo: Courtesy of John Cox)

Back in the day, the beginnings of this collection were substantial enough to earn John some publicity in a few local newspapers, including the Valley Chronicle, Valley News, the Los Angeles Times, and Hunters’ CALL, his high school paper, which referred to him as “a bit of a celebrity.” In a way, he was a local celebrity, even if only for a short time. In addition to collecting Houdini books and memorabilia, he put on magic shows at schools and other venues and performed Houdini-like stunts, such as escaping from a straitjacket and shedding handcuffs and chains after jumping into a swimming pool. He appeared on a local news channel and even performed his straitjacket escape on The Toni Tennille Show.

These days, John doesn’t perform. In fact, he quit when he was about 16 years old. “I just suddenly realized I wasn’t a performer,” he says. “I was a historian, and I stopped. It was that easy.” As a historian, John has learned from many Houdini experts over the years, including Manny Weltman, Patrick Culliton, John Gaughan, and Sid Radner. But one of his favorite moments was meeting Marie Blood, Houdini’s niece.

“That was an out-of-body experience for me,” he says. “I had driven to Colorado Springs, two days, and we were sitting together alone in a big hotel lobby beside a fire with a thunderstorm outside, and she’s sharing with me family secrets. When she told me Bess [Houdini’s wife] smoked, I almost fainted. All these years of study and then just one little thing like that from a family member gives you a key character detail that blows your mind. I really felt like I was in the room with Houdini himself. Like I said, out-of-body experience.”

John Cox of Wild About Harry with a small section of his Houdini library

John Cox of Wild About Harry with a small section of his Houdini library (Photo: Copyright 2013 Tom Interval)

Some might think John’s interest in Houdini is borderline excessive. That’s because it is, but in a great way. It’s his unbridled passion that inspires him to consistently produce original content, which, in turn, fuels discussions and debates among Houdini scholars and contributes to our overall understanding of one of the most significant historical figures to ever live. And that passion hasn’t waned in the least since 1975. John says he doesn’t know exactly which aspects of his personality so intensely draw him to the great entertainer. “It’s probably rooted in some deep psychology,” he says. “But I’m also a lover of mystery, the past, and all things gothic, and Houdini sits well in that frame.”

John’s passion—or “obsession,” as he once called it—is represented well on Wild About Harry, and for good reason: John is a natural writer and has been since he was a kid. “I remember when I was 12 or so, I sat down and started writing a book about Houdini,” he says. “I was dead-set determined to write a full book. I think I got about 25 pages done, which is a lot when you’re just sitting with a pencil and paper while other kids are playing outside.” Despite his childhood love of writing, John says he was a “terrible speller” and that the “massive mechanical aspect” of writing held him back until his college days, when computers and spell-check made those mechanics a bit easier. “It’s interesting to think that, for me, technology—the computer—is an essential writing partner,” he says. “Maybe that’s why I’m so comfortable being a blogger.”

When he’s not blogging, John, a graduate of USC School of Cinematic Arts, works in the film industry as a quality-control technician and screenwriter. In the latter position, he has penned projects for ABC, CBS, USA, DreamWorks, MGM, Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox, and Warner Brothers. His first produced feature film, coauthored with Agatha Dominik, was Boot Camp (2008), starring Mila Kunis and Gregory Smith.

John Cox of Wild About Harry

John Cox of Wild About Harry (Photo: Copyright 2013 Tom Interval)

With John’s connection to Hollywood, it’s no surprise he has a special interest in Houdini’s filmmaking career. His favorite Houdini film is The Master Mystery (1919), a 15-part serial starring Houdini as Quentin Locke, a Justice Department agent who investigates a shady patents company that dupes inventors. “He’s great in it,” says John. “There are some fantastic escapes. And it’s incredibly long. You can sit for hours and just watch the living Houdini. I love it.”

John says he would someday like to write a book about Houdini’s film exploits but doesn’t have time to research and write it at this point in his life. He does, however, plan to work on a book containing some of the best material from Wild About Harry. “I just really want to get some of this into a printed version,” he says. “I think people would really like it.” Other than that, he has no future plans for the blog. “I don’t try to force anything,” he says. “I enjoy how [the site] grows and evolves naturally.”

In the mean time, John plans to continue consulting on Houdini projects, giving presentations, writing articles for online and print publications, and, of course, adding fresh content to the blog. He has already appeared as a Houdini expert on the Houdini Exposed documentary; assisted NPR, BBC, and other media companies and organizations with Houdini projects; written two articles for Magic magazine; and given presentations at last year’s Magic Collectors Weekend in Chicago and the Official Houdini Seance in Fort Worth.

All of John’s exploits over the years make it clear that he transcended the role of Houdini disciple long ago. Not only is he “a one-man aggregator of all Houdini news on the web,” as David Byron of The Mandala puts it, but he is easily the most prolific, active, and original Houdini blogger out there, setting a new standard for the dissemination and interpretation of information relating to Houdini. These are qualities of a leader. The only disciples are those attempting to follow his example.

Related Links:

Posted in Bess, Collecting, Collections, Ephemera, Experts, John Cox, John Cox, Letters, Multimedia, Other Escapologists, Physical, Playbills, Portrayals, Posters, Posters, Scrapbooks, Sculptures, Websites, Wild About Harry | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin Launches Free Houdini and Magic Digital Collections

By Tom Interval

Houdini scrapbook pages as seen in Page Flip View

Houdini scrapbook pages as seen in Page Flip View (Image: Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin)

The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin has launched a new website featuring several free digital collections, including two that will interest Houdini buffs, magic fans, historians, and researchers: The Harry Houdini Scrapbook Collection and the Magic Posters and Playbills Collection. Prior to this launch, both of these outstanding collections were available only through the Victorian Popular Culture Portal for a fee (or free if you happened to be a student or faculty member at a university that subscribed to the Portal).

I’ve included brief descriptions of both of these collections below, with direct links to each subcategory or individual image so you can quickly dig in to the material yourself using the Ransom Center’s online viewer, which includes useful tools such as zoom in/zoom out, full-screen view options, page rotation, and “Page Flip View” to view images as if you’re turning the pages of a scrapbook or photo album. There is a combined total of 1,180 images in both collections, and individual images are downloadable (small sizes only).

Keep in mind that these digital collections do not represent all the material housed in the Ransom Center. Researchers are welcome to visit Austin to peruse the stacks and even take pictures in the reading room at no charge (for personal use only). To obtain a more detailed working inventory of either collection (in Word format), contact the Center’s Performing Arts staff or email me a request and I’ll forward the documents to you.

Harry Houdini Scrapbook Collection

(Descriptions from the Ransom Center website)

In the circle. The medium at work.

In the circle. The medium at work. (Image: Confessions of a Medium, by Griffith and Farran)

Description: The Harry Houdini Scrapbook Collection contains ten scrapbooks owned by the legendary escape artist Harry Houdini (1874-1926), whose vast collection of memorabilia pertaining to the history of magic was obtained by the University of Texas in 1958. The scrapbooks contain playbills, theater programs, clippings, photographs, prints, correspondence, and other materials dating ca. 1820s to the 1920s. Most of the content falls into two categories: notices and reviews of performances by magicians, and articles about magic and spiritualism. Nearly every scrapbook contains elements of both categories. Read more »

Total number of pages/images: 1,101

Links to individual sections:

Magic Posters and Playbills Collection

(Description from the Ransom Center website)

Balabrega, the Swedish Wonder

Balabrega, the Swedish Wonder (Image: Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin)

Description: The Magic Posters and Playbills Collection contains selected visual images from the Ransom Center’s Harry Houdini collection and Magicians collection pertaining to magicians and the history of magic from 1750 to 1920. Approximately 3,000 magicians are represented in the full collection. This digital collection includes selected posters, playbills, prints, and other ephemera documenting the careers of Harry Houdini, Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, Harry Kellar, Henry Evanion, and others. Read more »

Total number of images: 79

Links to individual images:


Posted in Art, Collecting, Collections, Digital, Ephemera, Harry Ransom Center, Harry Ransom Center, Letters, Playbills, Posters, Posters, Scrapbooks, UT Austin, UT Austin | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Memoriam: How did Houdini die?

By Tom Interval

Harry HoudiniIf there were such a thing as the perfect day to die, Harry Houdini would have thanked the Grim Reaper. The legendary showman escaped the earth 87 years ago this minute—1:26 p.m. (ET) on October 31, 1926.

To this day, the exact circumstances leading to Houdini’s death are still a bit hazy; however, here’s what we do know for those unfamiliar with the facts:

  • He did not die during or after an escape.
  • He died of peritonitis after suffering from appendicitis for several days.
  • The appendicitis might or might not have been caused by a punch to Houdini’s abdomen. There’s no conclusive evidence either way.
  • There is no evidence to support the theory that he was murdered. Period.

To learn more about the life, career, and death of Houdini, read the most dependable biography: Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss, by Kenneth Silverman. (Note that even Silverman suggests Houdini might have had appendicitis before being punched in the stomach; however, we really don’t know that for sure. All we know is that Houdini looked tired and sick but not that he had acute abdominal pain before the famous punch.)

That clarified, best wishes for a safe and happy Halloween.


Posted in Anniversaries, Death, Halloween, Holidays | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Houdini Jack-o’-Lantern 2013

I carved this pumpkin earlier today, deciding to go with a profile shot so it’s a bit different from the previous two year’s jack-o’-lanterns. Hope you enjoy, and Happy Halloween week (a.k.a. National Magic Week)!

Tom Interval

Houdini jack-o'-lantern, October 2013

Houdini jack-o’-lantern in the dark, October 2013

Houdini jack-o'-lantern, October 2013

Houdini jack-o’-lantern in medium light, October 2013

Houdini jack-o'-lantern, October 2013

Houdini jack-o’-lantern in the light, October 2013

Posted in Art, Halloween, Holidays, Sculptures | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments