Review of: Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss (Kenneth Silverman)

Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss. By Kenneth Silverman. HarperCollins, New York 1996. ISBN 0-06-016978-8. 466 pp. Hardcover, $ 35.00.

For years, among magicians and magic scholars, it was rumored that a new biography on the life of the Elusive American was being prepared by such a qualified man as Kenneth Silverman. Professor of English at New York University, codirector of the NYU Biography Seminar, and author of four earlier books, including The Life and Times of Cotton Mather, winner of the Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes, and Edgar A. Poe, winner of the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America, Silverman is also a member of magical organizations and a former performer under the name of "Ken Silvers". The high expectations were not disappointed. Many biographies on Houdini have been published during the last seventy years, starting with Harold Kellock 1928 "official" biography, through William Lindsay Gresham's Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls, Milbourne Christopher's Houdini: The Untold Story, James Randi and Bert Randolph Sugar's Houdini: His Life and Art, to Ruth Brandon's The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini, and tens of other lesser books and monographies on the man and his work. However, what sets this book apart from most of the others is its exclusive attention to facts, rather than folklore, hersay and undemonstrated suppositions and theories. Furthermore, the completeness of the book has been greatly enhanced by the author's study, in many cases for the first time, of Houdini's personal diaries, scrapbooks, manuscripts, letters and notes. This leads to the discovery of many previously unknown facts and to the debunking of often repeated errors and myths on the Houdini story. The whole development of his act and personal image, the escapes and challenges all over the world are all described in detail and often with new revelations; however, lots of space is also dedicated to Houdini's other interests: his brief career as an aviator; his passion for collecting not only magic, but also drama memorabilia and books; his rising as a movie star and then his failure as Cinema producer; his feuds with competing magicians and escape artists but also his care and support to magicians or their widows fallen in disgrace. Also described are his attempts at serious literary work and his story writing; H. P. Lovecraft, who in his youth also worked as a ghost-writer for one of his stories, described Houdini as "supremely egotistical, as one can see at a glance", but later in his life credited him with having "a tremendous amount of penetrative skill and workable erudition" concerning the human capacity for self-delusion. And, for the first time, the documented revelation that Houdini had an affair with Charmian London, the widow of American writer Jack London, is described. In her unpublished diaries several, tantalizing short comments on her love story with Houdini, whom she called "Magic" or "Magic Lover", appear; many other, however, written in a stenographic code devised by her uncle, remain undecipherable. What appears to be more interesting to us, however, are the extensive descriptions of Houdini's investigations of mediums and of his confrontations with spiritualists, notably his friendship/enmity with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. At least a third of the book (150 pages) is devoted to Houdini's interest in psychical research. Here, he appears as having been, at least in the beginning, amateurish in his approach to scientific research and often more interested to the sensationalization of his cases. An example is the case of George Valentine (or Valiantine), a medium who accepted to be tested by the Scientific American committee, of which Houdini was a member, in order to win their challenge to mediums for demonstrating psychic phenomena under controlled conditions. After sitting with him, Houdini disclosed to the journalists that the committee had caught him in a fraud, and goes on in revealing the secret wiring of the séance room, which allowed the experimenters to determine when the medium had left his chair to produce the phenomena. In doing so, however, Houdini violated the members' agreement to keep test-results secret until a unified report could be written and, more important, revealed the secret control that might have enabled the committee to expose another "half dozen Valentines". He was no James Randi, it must be recognized, but he has to be credited with having brought to the general public attention the important role that an expert of deception (he didn't want to be called a magician) can have in detecting fraud in psychical research. And, in fact, this is best shown in the famous Scientific American investigation of Mina Crandon, alias "Margery" the medium. The story has often been told in many biographies and by Houdini himself in a self-produceed booklet on the case. However, Silverman's recreation appears to be the more close to reality and it alone, to me, justifies the price of the book. In brief, the SA Committee had held thirty séances with Margery and was on the verge of awarding her their prize; Houdini, however, had never been informed of the case because the investigators saw no need to "bother" him while he was on tour. He was outraged and immediately went to Boston to sit with Margery. At the very first séance he was able to spot her methods and, after a few more sittings, became anxious to inform the world about it. The other members tried to hold him, while preparing a joint report (which however took nearly six months to be ready), but he couldn't allow the Crandons to tell the newspapers what he considered to be black lies. So, when a preliminary report was published after a couple of months, Houdini felt released from the vow of confidentiality and began a campaign to unmask Margery's secrets. This led to his alienating the friendship of all the other members of the committee, who felt his actions made them look foolish. It was only after new facts on Margery came to light that Houdini felt vindicated: others, including a young J. B. Rhine and a group of investigators from Harvard, had found proofs of her deceptions and published their results, confirming Houdini's allegations. Houdini's committee colleagues apologized to him and admitted that he had been right much of the time. Houdini would surely also have been happy to learn, as it happened after his death, that his claims that two committee members, Herward Carrington and J. Malcolm Bird, had helped Margery fake her phenomena in exchange for sexual favours were true. Much interesting is the less known theory, developed by the Harvard group, to explain the Margery séances. Briefly, Margery's séances were a convulted marital charade: her actual audience being not Houdini or Conan Doyle or the Scientific American committe but her husband, whom she helped to delude himself in order to save their collapsing marriage. Margery herself didn't despise Houdini, as it has often been reported in previous accounts. It his true that her husband, as well as Conan Doyle, exchanged racists comments on him being Jewish; Margery, however, later disclosed that she admired Houdini for not being taken in by her, and for not being afraid "to say where he stands". Even in the description of Houdini's death we find new information and different points of view. And this is where the book ends, with no further comments on Bess and Ed Saint, the Halloween séances, the Arthur Ford messages, and the growing of the Houdini's myth all through the decades. Two personal memories, however, by Houdini's niece Marie Hinson Blood and Houdini's expert Sidney Radner are included at the end of the book. Being the documentation for this biography so big as to make "a typescript of one hundred and fifty pages", it could not be included in the text. However, for the magic community, and readers with scholarly interests in the history of magic, the detailed documentation is being issued separately as Notes to Houdini!!! under the imprint of the magic publishers Kaufman and Greenberg (Washington, D.C.) to benefit the Houdini fund of the Society of American Magicians.

Massimo Polidoro is an expert in the techniques and psychology of psychic deception, head of research for CICAP (the Italian Committee for the Investigations of Claims of the Paranormal), author of various books dealing with critical examination of paranormal claims and a graduate student in psychology at Padua University, http:www.aznet.it/polidoro

Published in: Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 21, n. 3 - May/June 1997