Friday, April 29, 2022
Sunday, October 24, 2021
When Milbourne Christopher referred to the sea monster, he used quotation marks. I confess I didn’t take any notice of them at the time or even realise their significance, an oversight that many chroniclers of Houdini’s exploits have also made. The story is briefly but tantalisingly referenced in many books. Occasionally quotes are used but often they are not. Harold Kellock, in the biography authorised by Houdini’s wife, describes the creature as ‘a sort of crossbreed of whale and octopus.’ He also has the escape taking place offshore with Houdini being lowered into the water and inside the ‘dark, meaty dungeon.’
Particularly perplexing for me was that none of the Houdini books had a photograph of the ’sea monster’ or, as you might expect, one of the great escapologist standing triumphantly beside it. For a kid obsessed by monsters, that was very irritating. Then along came the Internet.
Houdini's sea monster haunted me for decades but all became clearer in 2011 when Campaign Outsider published a photo of the creature online.
The photo came from The Boston Post (Sept 25th, 1911). Why this photo did not appear against any of the published accounts in magic books is an interesting question. But, following the lead given by Campaign Outsider, and delving into the digital archives of Boston newspapers, here is what I’ve been able to put together about Houdini and the Sea Monster.
On Sunday, August 13th the sea monster was brought into Boston Harbour by the steamer S. S. Prince Arthur. The Prince Arthur made daily trips between Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, to Boston, a distance of some 300 miles. And the creature, openly identified as a giant turtle by the Boston press, who covered just about every aspect of the story, had been harpooned in Liverpool, Nova Scotia, by Captain George DuBois. The Captain said the seven-foot turtle put up quite a fight and that it was a struggle to get it into his small, powered dory boat. The intention seems to have been to take the turtle to Boston where it could be cut up and sold for meat to restaurants, to make turtle soup. Turtle soup was a popular dish at the time. The then President of the United States, William Taft, was said to have hired his chef because of his skill at making this favourite dish.
This turtle did not become soup, a more ignominious fate awaited the poor beast. Instead, it was exhibited as a ‘Sea Monster’ at the Boston pier known as Long Wharf. The creature was now reported as weighing 1,000lbs, and resembled a cross between a seal and a turtle. Some of the press seemed keen to tell their readers that this was more than a turtle. ‘Persons interested in strange forms of life will doubtless make a point of seeing it. To school children it will prove especially interesting.’
It wasn’t long before those interested in zoology became curious about the ‘sea monster.’ Professor Henshaw and his team at the Agassiz Natural History Museum at Harvard College identified the creature as a 500lb a turtle, spargias coriacea, a species that originated in the ‘Southern Waters, near the Caribbean Sea’ and was said to rarely come north. It’s from the family of leatherback turtles.
The professors had the turtle embalmed, possibly for the museum, but somehow it remained on exhibit at Long Wharf. While the capture of a large turtle might have been rare it was not unprecedented. In July 1906, the Boston Post reported the landing of a ‘monster keel-back turtle in the Georges fishing grounds near Cape Cod. It took fourteen men to pull this nearly eight-foot turtle into the boat after it had been harpooned. Even while wounded its powerful flippers and snapping beak meant it was still dangerous. Rather than try to finish the creature off they let it die on deck.
The year before Houdini’s escape, 1910, the Boston Sunday Post featured a story about a ‘Giant Turtle’ captured 65 miles off Highland Light, Cape Cod, that was said to weigh over 1,100lbs and was taken to Gloucester for exhibition. Quite a few giant turtles, like the one above, ended up on exhibition. One crew were paid $250 for their dead turtle, the idea being that some prospective Barnum would put it on display. Despite this, newspapers were still fond of portraying their capture as a battle between fishermen and sea monsters. It made a better story than saying they’d harpooned a turtle that was lost having wandered too far north.
One month after the Long Wharf sea monster went on exhibition, the 36-year-old Houdini arrived in Boston to play B. F. Keith’s Theatre. As was his custom, to drum up business for the show, Houdini announced that he would accept challenges from the local townsfolk ‘to furnish any sort of a box, can, package or bag specially constructed with a view to holding him captive, from which he will escape.’ The only stipulation was that he be given 24 hours notice so that the challenge could be advertised in the newspapers.
John F. Masters issued such a challenge on the 25th September. He dared Houdini to escape from inside Long Wharf’s famous sea monster, which was now reported as, ‘weighing more than 1,500lbs, and estimated to be about 500 years old.’ John F. Masters managed the business of the Dominion Atlantic Railway Steamship Company at Long Wharf, the owners of the Prince Arthur, the ship that brought the turtle to Boston and had arranged for its exhibition. More significantly, Masters also worked in tourism and you’ll find his name in many of Nova Scotia’s tourist ads and brochures. The challenge clearly had promotional advantages for Masters, the steamship company and the local area.
Masters called in other local businessmen to support him, and all got a name check in The Boston Post article announcing the challenge. And this is where we get our only glimpse of the ‘Freak Sea Monster,’ a photograph that clearly shows it is a turtle. A big turtle for sure but not a cross between a whale and an octopus or any other chimeric creature you might imagine when seeing the words ‘Sea Monster.’ The teenage me would have been very disappointed.
Houdini responded to Masters’ challenge. ‘This is the most original challenge I have ever accepted. If you bring your sea monster to the stage of B. F. Keith’s Theatre on Tuesday evening, Sept. 26. 1911. I will submit to the conditions you name.’ One of those conditions was that he have enough ventilation while inside the carcass. ‘As the inside of a fish or turtle is not the most desirable place to be for any length of time.’
The challenge actually took place on the afternoon of Tuesday, 26th September. Crowds of people followed the sea monster, ‘an exceedingly evil looking brute,’ as it was paraded through the streets and the one mile distance from Long Wharf to B. F. Keith’s Theatre on Mason Street.
The turtle was on stage when Houdini read out the details of the challenge to a packed theatre. As Houdini was finishing, John F. Masters ‘sprang to his feet’ and asked permission to read a legal document he had drawn up for Houdini to sign before undertaking the stunt. The document stated that as the turtle had been embalmed using arsenic Houdini took all responsibility and relieved the challengers and their heirs for evermore. Houdini took this unforeseen demand in his stride and bravely signed his life away.
This eleventh hour revelation is a small stroke of genius. And I think we can be confident that it was dreamt up by Houdini not Masters. Houdini went off stage to change his clothes and returned wearing ‘blue jumpers, and armed with three handkerchiefs and two bottles of strong perfume.’ He sprayed the perfume inside the turtle. A gang of sea skippers then proceeded to chain and manacle Houdini, the details of which were reported.
‘Houdini was bound hand and foot with handcuffs and leg irons and was then placed inside the big monster. The belly of the monster was then laced tightly with strong chain. The eyelets through which the chain was passed being three inches apart. After being laced in, the chains were locked by numerous locks and then strapped around the monster were more chains which in turn were locked.’
Houdini’s assistants Franz Kukol and Jim Collins were there to place Houdini inside the turtle. ‘It was a tight squeeze.’ Already gasping for breath, Houdini asked them to hurry. Bess Houdini watched from the wings. The turtle was left belly up, ‘so that Houdini could get a little air by pressing his lips against the chains.’ A red curtained cabinet was placed around Houdini and the turtle, and the orchestra began to play.
15 minutes later, Houdini came bounding from inside the cabinet, his hair mussed, and his face drenched in sweat. The packed audience cheered and the challenging committee congratulated him. Still apparently suffering from his suffocating ordeal, Houdini called for the windows and doors of the theatre to be opened so that fresh air could be let in. Whenever this escape is mentioned, so too is Houdini’s struggle for breath having been almost overcome by the embalming fumes.
Newspapers reported that Houdini’s escape was much quicker than the three days Jonah spent inside a whale. Before the event was over, Houdini announced that another challenge would be met the next day. Two locals had invited Houdini to escape from a restraint used to incapacitate the insane. This time the escape would be ‘in full view of the audience.’ And so, with the promise of another captivating challenge, Houdini kept his public enthralled.
Two days after Houdini’s escape, the turtle was back at its regular job: ’Sea Monster which challenged Houdini now on exhibition at Long Wharf. Admission 10 cents.’
Houdini and the Sea Monster gives us a detailed insight into how Houdini constructed a challenge, and how not only the press of the day but historians of later years reported it. Even before Houdini arrived on the scene the turtle was referred to as a sea monster. Houdini and the journalists were often in the same business, selling stories and entertainment. Though I do detect a little more scepticism from The Boston Herald than The Boston Post. Historians while dedicated to uncovering the reality of the past are also susceptible to a little myth making. Better to not look too deeply into the mystery of the sea monster if you want to tell a good story. Oddly, Houdini himself doesn't seem to have made much of his escape from the sea monster. It does not appear to be an event he boasted about. The stunt served its purpose, and was only one of several challenges performed during his engagement in Boston, but perhaps it was something he didn't want anyone digging into. We can only speculate.
However, the sea monster is a splendid example of a Houdini challenge that is unique to the location. Houdini surrounds the challenge of the unknown with his tried and tested work with handcuffs, chains and locks. He counters uncertainty be creating a firm base from which to operate. The novel challenge also provides unique staging opportunities. The parade of the sea monster to the venue. The last-minute signing of a document absolving the challengers of responsibility. The possibility of being poisoned and the final call to throw open the doors and windows to let in fresh air. This is a professional at the top of his game and who knows exactly how to extract the maximum from any performance. He did all this for one show. For Houdini, every stunt brought new opportunities.
Houdini’s greatest talent was his showmanship. The best of his challenges tell the story of a hero who struggles, almost fails and then succeeds, sometimes at great cost. We can find this pattern in some of Houdini’s best-known escapes, like the Daily Mirror Handcuff Challenge where he almost fails, dramatically cuts himself free of his coat and then escapes only to bear the scars for the rest of his life. At least that is how the event has been retold. The sea monster has all those elements and more. It’s a story where myth meets legend, Monster vs Houdini. A battle between man and beast embroidered by the public's imagination. Houdini created stories and played them out on stage. Stories that pitted the human spirit against whatever could be thrown against it. Stories that survive even today, keeping his memory alive and transforming a life into legend.
Giant turtles still find their way north. Just this month one washed up at Cape Cod. Luckily it was pushed back into the waters before any Barnum could lay hands on it. You can read about it here.
If you are interested in Houdini, then do visit Wild About Harry, the incredible blog from John Cox. John has posted a couple of times about this story including some pages from an unproduced movie script about Houdini in which the sea monster makes an appearance.
The photographs of Houdini in this article are credited to the State Library Victoria in Australia, specifically the Will Alma collection. This is a tremendous resource for anyone interested in magic and its history. And you will find it here.
If you are interested in the history of magic, you might want to check out a book I worked on with David Copperfield, Richard Wiseman and Homer Liwag. It's called David Copperfield's History of Magic and is available from 26th October just about anywhere they sell books, including Amazon. David Copperfield has an astonishing collection of Houdini equipment at his museum in Las Vegas and if you ever have the opportunity to visit, grasp that opportunity with both hands. It is simply breathtaking.
Friday, August 20, 2021
Cardopolis Issue 20 is available now. It is free and you can subscribe here. Inside you'll find Bob Ostin's Paper Prison, a magician's view of a card cheating move and a different take on Paul Curry's Out of this World.
Wednesday, June 30, 2021
With the approach of summer, hostelry ops here are opening their purses, with improved shows the result. Charlie Carts, young, handsome Parisian conjurer, has great possibilities but needs some major renovation. Carts’ turn is a card manipulation and memory combination that should hit much better than it does. He allows diners to take various size stacks from a deck of cards and tells them every card they’re holding. His closer should be a show stopper. He splits a deck into seven parts, putting one part in each of seven pockets, from which diners take cards. He tells payees what they’re holding. Major handicap is his endless monotone of descriptive prattle. He needs to slow down and add laugh lines. His card manipulation encore, while appreciated by a fellow magician, is too subtle as a closing piece.
Charles Carts, French card manipulator, is a very clever handsome lad. His work, however, isn’t geared for mass visual appeal. Basically he’s a close worker using the take-a-card-any-card system. People up close can be very interested. Those even a row away can’t see what he’s doing. As a table worker he should do quite good (Billboard, Feb 26, 1949).
Unquestioned star of last Friday’s It’s Magic show was French-American artist, Charles Carts. With a deck of cards, one Jumbo and one miniature, he did a high-speed revelation routine and packed it full with mystery and fun. His engaging personality emerged in the round from the little box in the corner.
Charles Carts whose skilful card work has been highly praised in American journals, journied (sic) at great inconvenience from his native France, where he was on holiday, to make an appearance in the programme. Card artists can learn much from his brisk direct presentation of painless card magic. His flawless technique with a stacked deck was a joy to witness particularly his “any-card-named-found-at-any-position” and “everywhere and nowhere” with its slightly different climax.
Worked in lounge suit. Stated during introductory remarks that he would use a complete deck of 52 cards. To prove that there were 52, without delaying his presentation by passing the cards around to be examined and counted, he would like to have anyone name any card. Next they were requested to choose either “top” or “bottom”. Suppose they said Seven of Diamonds and TOP. Cartes cut the deck and revealed the Seven of Diamonds on TOP of the deck. Repeated five or six times.CC apparently shuffles cards. Three members of audience are asked to think of one card each. CC divides deck in SEVEN groups. They are distributed in various pockets. Right trouser pocket – inside left coat pocket, inside right coat pocket – handkerchief pocket – left trouser pocket – right coat pocket and left coat pocket. Thought of cards are named one at a time. CC produces them one at a time from the proper pocket.Here again he departed from the usual presentation of the Cards From Pockets as he did with the Instanto Pack. When the first member of the audience thinks of a card, CC concentrates and appears to try and read his mind. At last, by his appearance, once feels that he is confident that he has been successful. This bit of business is repeated with the other two “thinkers” but it is worked briskly and does not slow down the act.BEFORE placing each packet of cards in his pocket, CC glances at the faces briefly. His explanation is that he could not possible remember all the cards, their position in the packet and in which pocket they are placed. He is ONLY remembering the position of three cards which have been merely thought of and have not (as yet) been named aloud.Two volunteers are requested to come forward. CC still has the cards distributed in his pockets. Including the three cards he produced as they were returned to the pocket whence they came after being displayed for verification.One volunteer removes the cards from CC’s right coat pocket. Other volunteer takes the cards from left coat pocket. Volunteers arrange the cards in their hands according to suits. CC names all the cards in each hand.There is a slight variation in the way he does this. Each card is named in the first group one at a time. For the second group, CC names a suit, the number of cards in that suit in the group and lastly the values of the cards of that suit.Three spectators each select a card from the assembled deck. They are returned and deck shuffled by a member of the audience. CC places deck in his inside right coat pocket. First spectator thinks of his card. CC quickly produces one with back to audience. Spectator names his card. Card is reversed and revealed to be the one named.CC apparently has difficulty locating second spectator’s card. CC says spectator has not been thinking very strongly of his card but it is the Ace of Spades. CC produces a half-size Ace of Spades.CC says it is extremely easy to produce the card of which the third spectator is thinking. CC says it is the Queen of Hearts – which spectator verifies – and that the selector is thinking of it very strongly. He then produced a GIANT Queen of Hearts.A walk on card act with a single basic theme. Except for the prop cards to supply the “light touch” climax, absolutely nothing is used except the deck and there appears to be only one.
You will probably think I am quibbling but I consider a stacked deck a whole system of card magic and NOT a single effect. But it does bring to mind how different two acts can be although based on the same basic theme.. just compare Cartes routine with that of Arthur Lloyd. And I venture to say that I would enjoy Cartes turn much more than AL’s regardless of the much greater preparation and practice required for AL’s.
Friday, May 07, 2021
Cardopolis Newsletter 17 is now available. This month you'll find tricks involving spies, cupid, tribes and a colour change. Subscribe at Cardopolis Newsletter.
Monday, January 11, 2021
There has been a lot of debate about who created the first Sawing Through a Woman illusion. And it has now been 100 years since P T Selbit debuted his version in January of 1921. The illusion was a sensation but this didn't stop some magicians questioning the originality of the effect. Hadn’t Robert-Houdin mentioned such an illusion in his memoirs back in 1868? Didn’t the Hanlon Brothers do the trick at the Follies Bergere in 1878? Robert-Houdin's trick was a product of his imagination and while the Hanlon Brothers did patent a dismemberment illusion in 1890, I don't think anyone has evidence that they performed what we would categorise as a sawing illusion.
None of the discussion, much of which seems to be mischievous rather than analytical, unearthed a sawing illusion that predated Selbit’s. And even if they had, it would not detract from the fact that it was Selbit’s invention, and his clever publicity, that made the sawing illusion one of magic’s most iconic feats.
However, one piece of information that seems to have been forgotten was unearthed by Houdini. He published a very interesting article in the M.U.M. magazine for September 1921 (Vol 11 No 3). Houdini had in his collection a playbill for a Prof Hengler and a show at the Winchester Music Hall in London. It advertised an effect titled ‘Sawing a Lady in Two.’
The playbill is undated but Houdini estimated it to be from the early 1800s. No one seems to have looked into Houdini’s playbill so I decided to see what I could find out via the various newspaper databases that are now available.
Dr Eric Colleary, Cline Curator of Theater and Performing arts at the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Austin, Texas, emailed to say that the actual poster is in their collection. With the permission of the Harry Ransom Center the poster is reproduced here. Incidentally, they have some wonderful Houdini ephemera available for viewing on the department website including some of Houdini's scrapbooks.
|Image courtesy of The Harry Ransom Center|
the University of Austin, Texas
The playbill displays the proprietor of Winchester Music Hall as R Preece. The first thing I learned was that Preece had given up his management of the Winchester Music Hall by March 1878. Which means the playbill is earlier than Houdini's estimate.
Searching for Hengler showed that Professor Hengler was Alfred Hengler. I'd assumed he was from the famous Hengler circus family but this is an ongoing enquiry.
According to John Stewart's book The Acrobat (2012), Alfred Hengler was the brother of Charles Hengler, the man who founded Hengler's Grand Cirque. The London Palladium is built on the former site of Hengler’s Grand Cirque which had been there since 1871. I haven't done a deep dive but I haven't seen anything to show that the Hengler family had any interest in magic. They were equestrian acrobrats. And there are reports that one of the family named Alfred Hugh Hengler died in 1842 after a fall from a horse. Yet there is an Alfred Hengler still in the circus business in the 1880s. Maybe someone who is familiar with the Hengler dynasty can provide some clarity.
Chris Woodward referred me to the books by John Martin Turner on the history of circus. His papers are at the National Circus and Fairground Archive. Chris found what appears to be a reference to a magician called Alfred Charles Hengler in volume 2 of Turner's Victorian Era - The Performers: volume 2. Perhaps this is our guy. Chris also sent along an advertisement for the opening of Hengler's Cirque in 1871:
Alfred Hengler was a magician who had been performing since the mid 1860s. Press advertisements and reviews show that he was good at his job and noted for his sleight of hand, instantaneous growth of flowers, and the Indian Basket Trick.
But in 1873 he advertised a new routine, ‘Cutting a Lady in Two.’ The first advert I’ve found appeared in the Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle on 1st February 1873 for a performance on 3rd February at the South of England Music Hall, St Mary’s Street, Portsmouth
'MR ALFRED HENGLER, in his new Grand Magical Illusion Every Evening, Cutting a Lady in Two – A Feat never attempted before. All should see this wonderful illusion.'
The South of England Music Hall was no small town theatre. It was built to rival London theatres and seated 2,000 people. It was said to be Hengler’s first appearance at the venue. He had been performing there in January but the illusion is not mentioned until February after which it makes appearances in several small advertisements.
A brief note in the same newspaper on 15th February says:
'SOUTH OF ENGLAND MUSIC HALL – The principal attraction at this popular place of entertainment are the wonderful feats of Mr. Alfred Hengler, whose crowning illusion is that in which he appears to cut a lady in two.'
A final advert, on 19th February, advertises the ‘last six nights’ of appearances by Alfred Hengler.
It is possible that these performances are the provincial shows mentioned in the playbill. I can’t find any other shows. More importantly, I haven’t found any reports of Hengler appearing at The Winchester Music Hall in May 1873 though De Castro’s acrobatic troupe, also mentioned on that playbill, did.
At the moment we have no idea what the trick looked like. The title ‘Sawing a Lady in Two,’ appears on the London playbill but not during the performances in Portsmouth. More material might come to light as more newspapers are digitised. New material is being digitised all the time and some archives will even alert you when new items for keywords you have already searched for have been added to the database.
This year is the 100th anniversary of the invention of Selbit's illusion, a fact that will be celebrated by a broadcast from The Magic Circle. You can read more about that here:
Finally, in his 1921 article, Houdini wrote, 'we must hand Prof. Hengler the palm for at least inventing it before present day disputants. Perhaps Houdini was right.
Since I uploaded this post yesterday a couple of notes have come in. Richard Wiseman pointed out that the Chinese method of execution supposedly involved being sawn vertically down the body not across the midriff. Searching for reports of that in the British Newspaper Archive I found an article from 1870 of a visit to a sort of wax museum in Canton that was circulated in several newspapers (Strange Sights In Canton - The Clare Journal 14th July 1870). The method of execution, of being sawn while held between two planks, is briefly mentioned there. It's pure speculation but maybe an article of this sort inspired Hengler's illusion. Wikipedia has a page on the gruesome business of death by sawing.
Bill Mullins emailed to say that the date on the playbill is Monday 12th May. The only days on which the 12th of May falls on a Monday around that time are 1861, 1873 and 1878. Given what we know I think this confirms that the playbill is from 1873.
Talking of the lengthwise sawing, I remembered that Billy McComb had such an idea in his book McComb's Magic 25 Years Wiser. He wasn't the first but in the book he mentioned a competition that Dunninger ran in Scientific American in the 1920s. Billy had misremembered the name of the magazine, it was actually Science and Invention.
Dunninger had a regular magic column in Science and Invention where, to the consternation of some, he explained many tricks. In the September 1929 issue he ran a reader competition to devise a method for a lengthwise sawing illusion. First prize was $100.
The issue has a vivid cover illustration of Dunninger performing the effect which he described in great detail saying that it was a trick he had intended to perform in vaudeville and that it had never been done before.
The magazine reported that they received more 10,000 entries to the competition. In the March 1930 issue they announced the winner, a Mr A. G. Illich, and published his method which, I have to say, was not half as exciting as the effect. But then isn't that often the way?
Saturday, October 10, 2020
The latest issue of the Cardopolis Newsletter is now available. In 2016 Laura London debuted her show Cheat at the Edinburgh Festival. She kept a journal of the ups and downs of the production and now shares it with readers of Cardopolis.
If you've ever wondered what it would be like to put on a magic show at the Edinburgh Festival then this is well worth reading. A very honest diary of one of the most important months in the showbiz calendar.
The show Cheat is now a highly successful part of Laura's repertoire. This is how it began. You can subscribe to the Cardopolis Newsletter here. And you'll find the CardopolisMagic Instagram account here.