A Magician’s Thoughts on "Miracle Mongers and Their Methods" By Harry Houdini
Those of you who read my thoughts on "Why EBooks" may have noticed that I cite Harry Houdini’s "Miracle Mongers and Their Methods" as a book I consider worthy of reading (and not just owning—a profound difference). You might, therefore, be wondering why I think that. After all, it’s easy to understand why someone would want to own a "real" copy of "Miracle Mongers": It was written by the most recognizable name in the world of magic. It would be an admirable piece in any book collection and an absolute "must have" for Houdini collectors. But why would a magician want, or in fact need, to read a book about a bunch of geeks? "I can understand," you might say to yourself, "why I might want the ‘real’ book. But why would I want to plunk down a few bucks to acquire just the text?"
I think that’s an excellent question and I am going to try to answer it. Whether the answer is worthy of the question is up to you, dear reader.
Let’s start with the obvious "kindred link" these sideshow/dime museum performers share with magicians. From a historic viewpoint, magicians should have at least a passing knowledge from whence they come. Like it or not, magicians are forever associated with the fair/circus sideshows, the streets and the dime museums of the not so distant past. These were our first venues: "legitimate theater" came later—much later—and even then our brethren still performed in those less than glamorous settings right along side the fire-eaters and resistors, stone-eaters, strongmen, sword-swallowers and frog swallowing poison resistors. Some still do.
Yep: those are my people. Learning about them is a fascinating and rewarding pastime for any magician. In fact, many of these sideshow artists also performed conjuring feats as part of their programs. Houdini became fascinated by them because he was one of those who performed, along side of several of those about who he writes, in those dime museums and circuses.
If your passion for magic history includes Houdini, then reading this book allows you a glimpse inside the man himself. His fascination with death makes more than one appearance. His renowned mother fixation appears as does his disdain for the mediums of his day. He also has scathing remarks for magicians who, by their performances, expose more secrets of magic than do the so-called "exposers" (all the while justifying his own "exposures" in the book). It’s quite interesting how little the "problems" facing the art of magic have changed in the ensuing decades.
We also learn that Houdini, not encumbered by today’s New Puritanism (read: being "PC"), had an appreciation for miracle mongers of the opposite sex that went beyond these ladies unusual talents. A small segment on female sword-swallowers is highlighted by Houdini’s observation regarding Mlle. Edith Clifford, who, he writes, "...is, perhaps, the most generously endowed." He also recounts the weakness his strongman friend John Grun Marx had for the gentler sex during a mutual performance in France: "...all a pretty woman had to do was to smile and John would wilt. And—Paris was Paris."
Houdini was passionately desperate to include himself in the world of the well-read intellectuals and academics of his time. He felt that, in order to do this, it would be necessary for him to publish something more than just the secrets of magic, and that meant presenting researched historical material. This book was one such attempt. It’s worth noting that Houdini pads this book with page after page (after page, in many cases) of transcripts taken directly from his source material. He makes few meaningful observations and fewer still interpretations of the material, instead forcing the reader to come to his own. This is not to say that is a bad thing, however, most true academics will present their conclusions as well as the source material for consideration. The lack of scholarship on Houdini’s part in this book is quite telling and thus important—in my opinion—for a Houdini enthusiast to reveal to himself by reading the book. Better than to take my word for it.
But this is still a scholarly work: There is some input from Houdini (notwithstanding the comment regarding Mlle. Clifford’s bosom), and source material abounds, taken directly from Houdini’s extensive collection, which spanned centuries. The reading can be tedious at times if you are not a fan of the rich language of these early centuries. If you are like me and find the cadence of such prose as fascinating as the material it describes, you are in for a double treat.
Even the language of the early 20th century is worthy of historical note for today’s magicians. Most of us know that magic was commonly referred to as "juggling" during the centuries preceding the 20th, but many may be surprised to know that magic—in fact any deception—was still referred to as a "juggle" during the early part of the 20th century. Houdini refers to the bullet catch as an "ill-omened juggle" and, during a passing reference, he comments about the, "...flimsy juggling of pseudo-mediums."
Secrets also are to be found within the text—though I am personally not tempted to test any of them (and wouldn’t recommend anyone to do so without proper guidance). Almost the entire first half of the book covers fire eating and resisting from the historic, scientific (of the times) and arcane points of view. The secrets of the "Georgia Magnet" (Lulu Hurst) are discussed (though not thoroughly) as are many other "techniques" used by these unusual entertainers.
However, the historic aspect of "Miracle Mongers" is obvious and an easy target upon which one can set his aim. More obscure within this rich text are the presentational opportunities the creative magician can find and exploit. Several such opportunities came to me as I read the book, and I wasn’t looking for them (but I still wrote them down—as should all performers when an idea, no matter how obscure, comes to mind). Who’s to say how many I missed? My guess is that there is plenty of gold still to be found in this old mine.
I am reluctant to share—after all, they are the fruits of my labor, both creative and academic—why should I deprive the reader of the joy of these discoveries? However, since it unlikely that escapology will ever find its way into my program, perhaps I can share one morsel as an appetizer. Imagine, while being buttressed in (say) 100 feet of rope, the escape artist speaks of Houdini (who wouldn’t?) and the time he was restrained by Billington, the official hangman of Bolton, England, in the same restraints used on his victims prior to their gruesome demise. During their encounter, Billington enlightened Houdini that, "...he hardened himself to the demands of his office by killing rats with his teeth." Ah yes, the things we will do for the sake of our profession!
I’m certain such a script would not fit everyone who chooses to escape from rope—or any kind of restraint for that matter—but hopefully the reader gets the idea. This book is alive with such memorable lines and anecdotes. Whether used directly (as above) or used in a developmental capacity from which a complete presentation can be adapted, the material—often the most difficult kind of material for many magicians to find, is there. Not to mention that the search is fun (and you might learn something along the way) and one need not invest in an expensive collectable volume to find it. I call that a bargain—and a valuable secret!
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Thanks for reading!