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Review of Houdini On Magic

Official Review

September 4th, 2015 7:16am
Reviewed by Stuart Philip
Houdini on Magic is one of the many excellent books on magic in the Dover Publications catalog. (See The book is a paperback that measures 5 3/8 x 8 inches and is 277 pages long. Although the writing style is typical of the day, it is a quick read for magic lovers. Originally published in 1953, many years after Houdini’s untimely death, it contains reprinted material from “Houdini’s Escapes” and “Houdini’s Magic”, both posthumous publications. The cover photo consists of one of Houdini’s eerie poses in which he is staring intensely into the camera while shielding half his face with a curled palm.

Houdini on Magic was edited by Morris N. Young and also prolific writer on magic, Walter Gibson, who was also a contemporary and friend of Houdini. Gibson also contributed to the content by providing the introduction to the book and also to each chapter. The chapters are arranged by 8 subjects, as follows: Houdini on Handcuffs and Restraints; Houdini on Rope Magic; Houdini on Magicians; Houdini on Challenges and Escapes; Houdini on Spooks; Houdini on Tricks, Houdini on Miscellaneous Mystery and Houdini on the Right Way to do Wrong. Gibson’s notes on each chapter provide an overview of what is to follow and his perspective on the master magician’s personal life and driving forces. And, in each chapter, Houdini discussed each topic and how and why he did what he accomplished.

Although the various chapters disclose many secrets to the tricks and escapes that Houdini performed, I would not recommend buying this book just for that knowledge. I make this suggestion because the book is rich in world and magic history. The semi-autobiographical nature of the publication provides first hand insight into what motivated Houdini. It is clear that Houdini was ultimately driven to be the best, to work harder and be greater every day. He was virulently protective of his reputation and fought with passion in his endeavors. Although he was critical of many “imposters” and “copy cats” he was also complimentary to many of his predecessors.

There are numerous hand drawn illustrations that depict how Houdini escaped from handcuffs, strait-jackets, chains and ropes as well as the various keys that could open different types of locks and cuffs. The book also contains many illustrations explaining various stage effects. There are several black and white photos of Houdini at various points of his life performing various challenges and escapes as well as personal photos.

While this book will satisfy your desire to know how he did it, you may be more drawn (as was I) to the historical accounts of the obsessions and manias of Houdini’s day as well as the lengths he went to maintain his reputation. The most fascinating chapter in the book, to me, was Houdini on Spooks. It detailed his fight to expose fraudster spiritualists who bilked believers out of their hard-earned cash by claiming they could communicate with those that had passed. The book contains Houdini’s testimony before Congress in 1926 in which he made clear that he believed that all spiritualistic mediums are frauds. He appeared before Congress to support a bill that was proposed to outlaw fortune telling for fees. Not only was this topic reported in the New York Times, but it occupied the consciousness of the country during a time when there was a prevalent spiritualist movement. Not only did Houdini dedicate time to expose mediums and fortune tellers, but he put his money where his mouth was; he offered to pay any medium $10,000 who could pass his challenge of reading sealed questions and answering them or moving inanimate objects in his presence. None ever won the prize. Houdini also wrote about his participation on a committee for the Scientific American in which he exposed a medium known as “Margery.” Houdini repeatedly exposed Margery, while others were fooled and convinced that she was in fact able to communicate with the dead.

This book is not a complete story of Houdini’s life (and death), but you get a peek into it through his discussion of the various topics in each chapter. If you love learning about the history of magic and are intrigued by the driven path that Houdini took to global fame, I highly recommend this book.

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