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Posts Tagged ‘Houdini

“The score never interested me, only the game”*…


In 1913, when he was 20, Clayton Hudson wrote Harry Houdini, daring him to escape from a special crate that Hudson had designed.  Houdini warmed to Hudson, choosing his challenge from the myriad he received, and with £100 at stake, found a way out.  26 years later, Hudson put his expensive lesson to work– using Monopoly sets to help World War II prisoners of war escape…

At around the time that Monopoly was starting to make a name for itself – and to achieve the kind of fame that would make it such a central part of prison life in Stalag XXB – Clayton Hutton was beginning to worry about the fate of Europe. As the 1930s drew to a close, a war was clearly looming, and he wanted to get involved.

Despite service as a pilot during the First World War, Clayton Hutton was not a career military man. Instead, he had left the service to work in journalism here and there and as a publicity director for the movie business. He had also become increasingly eccentric – a fact that, along with his age, may explain why he was swiftly turned down when in 1939 he applied to join the Royal Air Force.

Luckily, British military intelligence was currently looking for “a showman with an interest in escapology” – the kind of man, perhaps, who had once been publicly humiliated by the greatest magician that ever lived.

These were busy times for the intelligence services. MI9 had been newly formed under Brigadier Norman Crockatt; its objective was to facilitate the escape of any allied soldiers captured by the enemy during the coming war, and return them safely to the UK. This sort of thing required some pretty unusual thinking – and some pretty unusual thinkers. Following a short interview with Crockatt – in which the story of the Houdini challenge played a crucial role – Clayton Hutton was employed by MI9 as a technical officer…

Read the whole extraordinary story– and see photos of Hudson’s handiwork– at “Inside Monopoly’s secret war against the Third Reich.”


* Mae West


As we bake a hacksaw into a cake, we might recall that it was on this date in 1944 that Helen Duncan became the last person to be charged under the British Witchcraft Act of 1735.  In the event, her real offense was a form of espionage, a violation of the Official Secrets Act: she’d held public seances purportedly with victims of the torpedoed of HMS Barham, the loss of which was classified.  (It was demonstrated at her trial that she’d had the opportunity to learn of the ship’s loss from crew members’ families.)  Rather than amplify the leak, the authorities prosecuted her under the Witchcraft statute, which made falsely claiming to procure spirits a crime.  She served nine months in prison, and was barred from further “practice”…  though she was caught in the act and arrested again in 1956 (this time under the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951, which replaced the Witchcraft Act).



Written by LW

January 19, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Chicago is not the most corrupt American city. It’s the most theatrically corrupt”*…


John Dillinger’s body on display in the Chicago City Morgue (No explanation is offered of the two women in bathing suits leaning up against the glass.)


Even a casual observer of American history will no doubt recognize several of the names in Gangsters and Grifters, a new book of early 20th century crime photographs from the Chicago Tribune archives. John Dillinger (and his corpse) monopolizes a handful of pages. A smirking Al Capone makes a few courtroom appearances. But this isn’t another text seeking to glorify the Second City’s criminal past.

Photo editors Erin Mystkowski, Marianne Mather, and Robin Daughtridge, who refer to themselves as “The Dames of the Chicago Tribune Photo Department,” made a conscious effort to offer a more holistic representation of the annals of Chicago’s notorious history. Through 125 thoughtfully curated photographs, juxtaposed next to the corresponding Tribune headlines, the somber realities of Chicago’s historical criminal activity become apparent…

Tillie Klimek sits on the right in this photo, next to her cousin Nellie Stermer-Koulik. The two women were accused of using arsenic to poison 20 relatives and friends. Tillie was eventually sentenced to life in prison, where she died in 1936, while Stermer-Koulik was found not guilty.


More images and their backstory at “Unrestricted Access to Images of Chicago’s Criminal History.”

* Studs Terkel


As we toddle around town, we might recall that it was on this date in 1827 that M. Chabert, wearing an asbestos suit, entered a large oven carrying a steak; twelve minutes later, he emerged carrying the fully-cooked steak.  Harry Houdini’s account (and broader appreciation of Chabert, “the most interesting character in the history of fire-eating, fire-resistance, and poison eating”) is in his book Miracle Mongers and Their Methods.



Written by LW

January 15, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Disbelief in magic can force a poor soul into believing in government and business”*…


The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin has recently digitized ten scrapbooks belonging to Harry Houdini. The books are divided into three groups: volumes compiled by other magicians about their careers; scrapbooks holding Houdini’s clippings on the practice of magic in general; and books that chart Houdini’s investigations of fakes, frauds, and conjurers. (Later in his life, Houdini became fascinated with the post-WWI fad for spiritualism—mediums, séances, and psychics—and took on a role as skeptical debunker of spiritualist performers.)…

Read more about Houdini’s scrapbooks at the always-illuminating Open Culture.  And read more about the broader scrapbooking craze of which they were a part at “Writing With Scissors.”

* Tom Robbins


As we reach for the paste, we might recall that it was on this date in 1957 that Chairman Mao delivered his speech, “On the Correct handling of Contradictions Among the People,” to the Eleventh Session (Enlarged) of the Supreme State Conference in China.  Calling for the free expression of criticisms of the Communist regime, Mao instigated what he called the “Hundred Flowers era” (as in “let a hundred flowers bloom…”).

It was a short-lived era.  Some historians suggest that the outpouring of criticism that resulted spooked the powers-that-be; others believe that Mao’s invitation was from the outset a calculated move to draw out critics. (Mao later said that he was trying to coax snakes out of their dens so he could chop off their heads…  but he may well have been saving face.) Either way, within months, the Hundred Flowers campaign had given way to the Anti-Rightest Campaign: 300-600,000 intellectuals were labeled as rightists, stripped of their jobs, and sent to labor camps, most on the evidence of their Hundred Flowers comments.

“Bring every positive factor into play, correctly handle contradictions among the people, 1958”: a poster for the Hundred Flowers campaign.



Written by LW

February 27, 2014 at 1:01 am

From The Annals of Overachievement…

click here for video

Bilbao-based David Calvo juggles three Rubik’s Cubes, while solving one of them…

[TotH to Laughing Squid]

As we do the Twist, we might recall that it was on this date in 1926 that Erik Weisz (under his stage name, Harry Houdini, the most acclaimed magician and escape artist of the 20th century) passed away.  Twelve days earlier, Houdini had been talking to a group of students after a lecture in Montreal when he remarked on the strength of his stomach muscles and their ability to withstand hard blows.  One of the students spontaneously punched Houdini, who hadn’t had time to prepare, rupturing the magician’s appendix.  He fell ill on the train to Detroit; and, after performing there one last time, was hospitalized.  Doctors operated, but to no avail: the burst appendix poisoned Houdini’s system, and on Halloween he died.


Written by LW

October 31, 2011 at 1:01 am

Adventures in Naming…

One can’t choose one’s parents– nor the name with which those parents endow one. So one is stuck with the initials that come in the bargain.  (Your not-too-foresightful correspondent’s daughter, for instance, has the monogram “EWW”)

The founders of corporations and not-for-profits, however, can– and in this age of Twitter- and SMS-inspired compression, surely should– try to avoid the sorts of unfortunate double entendre created by the examples in Mental Floss’ “Initials That Meant More Than They Realized.”

As we apply ourselves anew to appellation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1939 that New York City’s 5,200-seat Hippodrome Theater closed its doors for the last time. Built in 1905, the Hippodrome was for a time the largest and most successful theater in New York, featuring lavish spectacles replete with elephants and other circus animals, diving horses, opulent sets, 500-strong choruses, and the most popular vaudeville artists of the day.

Harry Houdini and friend, performing at the Hippodrome (source: Library of Congress)

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