HOUDINI’S Mystifying Magic Stunts EXPOSED (Dec, 1929)

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HOUDINI’S Mystifying Magic Stunts EXPOSED

By R. D. ADAMS

The Mechanic Who Made Houdini’s Trick Magic Apparatus

Recognized as the Master Magician of his time, the great Houdini performed tricks of magic which were the marvel of millions. Only one man knows the secrets which Houdini carried to the grave with him. That man is the mechanic who made Houdini’s illusion-producing apparatus, who concludes his expose below.

OF ALL the stunts performed by Harry Houdini, perhaps none was more mystifying or brought forth more impossible explanations of his method of accomplishing it than his celebrated trick of the vanishing elephant in which a full size animal was made to disappear from the stage of a crowded theater instantaneously.

After making the elephant go through an act that would have done credit to a wild animal trainer, Houdini led the pachyderm behind a framework and with appropriate patter, fired a pistol. Instantly the elephant vanished.

Some say it went through a trap-door, but there was a tank of water under the stage of the New York theater in which the trick was performed. Anyhow, a trap-door could never have been utilized for the purpose. The frame around the elephant hid the secret of his disappearance.

Have you ever touched a window shade with a nervous spring? Such accidents occasionally cause bathroom tragedies.

The curtain rolls up so quickly your eye cannot detect it. The lower part of that framework about the elephant which was well back on the stage, hid a roll of cloth identical with that immediately behind the elephant. Above in the flies was a heroic-sized shade roller whose spring, especially built by a Chicago firm, had to be wound up by two men. Straps running down the sides of the frame behind which the elephant stood, connected with the roll of cloth below. As the shot was fired, the audience probably blinked. In any event, its eyes were not keen enough to see that curtain jerked into the flies with lightning speed by that giant spring. With the background unchanged and the elephant invisible, the illusion was complete.

Two or three years before Houdini died, I was talking with him about some of the outstanding feats of magic I had seen performed when I was a boy and asked him if he knew how Keller had done a mind reading stunt which had always mystified me. Oddly enough, Houdini himself had the trick in mind and was then considering the advisability of amplifying it and introducing it in his act if he could find the proper kind of an assistant. And the assistant had to be a real specialist as you will see. Here is the trick and how it was performed, as Houdini explained it.

Keller would have a lady assistant sitting on the stage blindfolded, as usual, while he would pass through the aisles and ask her to name various articles he held in his hand. At first the answers were merely “a fountain pen,”‘ “a lady’s purse,” “a gold bracelet.” Then he would hold up a newspaper. “Give the name, date and volume number.”

Quick as a flash she would answer accurately.

A spectator would be asked to copy the serial number of one of his pieces of cur- rency on a piece of paper so that Keller might hold it up for others about him to see. “What is the number?” he would inquire.

“577762.”

“Correct,” he would return. “Now multiply it by 7453 and extract the square root of that sum.” Tall mental arithmetic, that!

Mathematicians in the audience would be requested to take their pencils and determine if the answer was accurate. But they would hardly have the multiplication started before the blindfolded assistant would call out the correct result.

And there was no fake about that feature of it either, except that the lady did not do the figuring herself.

Up in the flies was a dwarf with an uncanny mind for figures such as are found occasionally. He could extract the cube root of a number in twelve figures in a flash without the aid of paper or pencil and had at one time been billed himself as “the human adding machine.” The dwarf, with the aid of a special device combining the features of both a telescope and microscope which Keller had made in Germany at the cost of several thousand dollars, from his secret place in the flies kept his glass trained upon Keller through a peephole in the curtains. Since he could see any article in Keller’s hands as well as the magician himself could, and was a master at mental arithmetic, it was very easy for him to pass the correct answers down to the lady on the stage through a small speaking tube which ran under the rug and up through the chair on which she was seated, connecting with a receiver hidden beneath her hair.

Suspended in Mid-Air Among the tricks Houdini worked in his earlier days was the “Aerial Suspension Mystery” which had a Hindu origin but was first introduced to the stage by Robert Houdin, from whom Houdini took the name he was to make world famous. Despite its antiquity, the stunt is still worked occasionally and never fails to intrigue an audience.

The performer brings forth a heavy plank 5×2 feet standing upon legs six inches high to demonstrate that it is not connected with the stage floor. In the center of the platform he places a stool upon which steps a young woman who is to be the subject of “Hypnotic” demonstration. She extends her arms full length with the palms of her bands pointing downward. A brass pole of appropriate length is placed beneath either arm a few inches from the shoulder. The magician makes a few “hypnotic” passes. The young woman’s face takes on a fixed expression. Slowly her eyes close. The trance is complete.

The magician kicks the stool from beneath her feet. She is undisturbed by the incident. He removes the support from under her left arm. The lady still sleeps, her position unchanged. He removes the brass rod from beneath her left arm. There she remains like Mahomet’s coffin, suspended between heaven and earth. Gently the per former takes his subject and bends the right arm until the palm of her hand rests against the side of her head. He then tilts her body until it forms an angle of thirty degrees with his own. He raises her feet again until the angle is sixty degrees. Still she rests comfortably. Another elevation and her body is parallel with the floor of the stage and five feet above it.

How is the illusion produced? When the brass pole at the lady’s right was placed under her arm it was fitted in a socket in the plank. The one on her left was merely held there by the pressure of her arm. In her clothing was a hinged steel rod to which she was attached by a body harness which passed around her waist, between her legs and over her left shoulder. The lower end of the bar was fastened securely by a belt around the right leg well above the knee. Near the top of the bar, which was hinged at the position of her arm-pit, another belt was drawn about her right arm just below the shoulder. There is a hole in the top of the pole under the lady’s right arm. On the end of the bar to which her harness is strapped, is a steel plug extending at right angles which the performer slips into the slot at the top of the rod but which is hidden by the end of the subject’s short lace sleeve dropping over it.

Removal of the stool and the rod to the sleeping beauty’s left of course means nothing. The pole on the right only seems to have been removed. What the magician actually took away was a brass shell covering an iron rod painted the same color as the curtain immediately behind it and blending so completely with the background that the audience does not see it. The hinge under the girl’s armpit will take several different positions since it is controlled by a ratchet governed by a check held in place by a spring which the performer may release by a downward pressure on a hood also hidden beneath the girl’s clothing. This accounts for the various angles at which the girl’s body rests during the several stages of the performance.

Such were the tricks which made Houdini the great master of his craft—so great that many refused and still refuse to believe he did not possess supernatural power.

Strange enough, though he spent many years and thousands of dollars exposing false mediums, Houdini was not convinced that it is impossible for the spirits of the departed to return. On the contrary, he was inclined to believe that they can do so. He sought many times to obtain communication with friends and relatives who had passed on and he promised many of his intimates to appear to them himself, after death, if it were possible.

“With all of the insistence of the gullible that you are in league with familiars,” I once said to him, “it seems strange that you tried to disillusion them, rather than insist that they were in error. What a fortune you might have cleaned up. Were you ever tempted to do so?”

“I was very sorely tempted once,” he replied, “tempted almost beyond my powers of resistance.” He gazed out of the window reflectively, then continued: “Perhaps if I had been money mad, I would have closed my career, rich beyond the dreams of avarice and the world’s greatest charlatan.”

Then he explained that while he was in Russia, the news of his exploits had made a tremendous impression upon the mystic mad empress. She was convinced that he was possessed of supernatural powers and that he might be of great assistance to the Russian throne.

“A Russian of great distinction,” he said, “came to me and explained the situation. He did not know, or care, whether I was a medium. He only knew that Rasputin, the clumsy peasant libertine with his crude trickery and his hypnotic powers, was the real ruler of the empire. If I would accept, he would make it possible for me to supplant Rasputin in the favor of the empress and through her with the czar.

“No fortune I could hope to gain in any other way would be a tenth part of the reward that would be mine if I accepted. I asked for time to think it over.

“The sensation my act was causing had the entire country by the ears. A committee of dignitaries waited on me. They had definite assurance that the czarina would cast aside Rasputin for me if I would only announce that I was able to accomplish my feats with the aid of the supernatural.

“How easy I could have deceived her! I was commanded to appear before the emperor and empress. Then at a dinner held in my honor, a toast was proposed to the czar and the czarina. I am a teetotaler, as you know. I had left my glass turned down and I merely raised it empty when the others drank. My actions were misinterpreted as a slight to the monarchs, and Rasputin, to whom the czarina had spoken about me several times, made the most of the incident. The commanded appearance was recalled. Disappointed but not discouraged, the tempters who desired to make me the premier charlatan of Russia begged me to wait for a more propitious moment and that they would yet make me the favorite of the court.

“I left Russia, promising to return when they were ready for me. But I had no intention of doing so. Once away from the country I saw how utterly absurd it would have been to sell my birthright of trickery even for such a stupendous price. I could not have lived the lie that would have been necessary even though the world had been the reward.

“Yet, I, a Jew—hated of the Russians— might have been the real ruler of the vast country. Perhaps, after all, in view of the destruction to which Rasputin led the empire, it had been better for me to have accepted.

” ‘You, at least,’ one of the Russians who wished to have me installed at court had argued, ‘are not a madman; you will not, you could not be the terrible menace to our country that Rasputin is.’ And, of course. I could not have been. It may be that I, had I superseded the mad monk, could have gradually disillusioned the mystical empress. Had I possessed the ‘mediumistic’ power to foresee what Rasputin would do to the country, I might have stepped out as Rasputin’s rival. By so doing, perhaps I could have saved an empire from complete collapse.” And so he might.

4 comments
  1. Toronto says: November 11, 201010:51 am

    Nobody talks about the elephant in the auditorium.

  2. Myles says: November 11, 201011:46 am

    Interesting article. I’m surprised the elephant trick worked as you wouldn’t see the elephant vanish, you would see it be erased from bottom to top. The hand is not quicker than the eye, although many of the audience would be distracted or startled by the gunshot.

  3. Firebrand38 says: November 11, 20101:20 pm

    Myles: Unfortunately I don’t think that the author of this piece even watched the trick much less built it.

    He reminds me of all the “experts” who have stated that the ghosts in the Ballroom of Disney’s Haunted Mansion are holograms.

    The definitive work on this subject was called (oddly enough) Hiding The Elephant by Jim Steinmeyer.

    A partial description of the show may be found here in Google’s preview of his book.

  4. Mike says: November 11, 20106:24 pm

    Firebrand, watch the nightly news and see how often the title “expert” is used.

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