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Tricks and Trade of 19th-Century Magic in Houdini’s Digitized Scrapbooks

by Allison Meier on March 5, 2014

Houdini's "Magicians scrapbook" (1821–1939), showing Houdini at

Houdini’s “Magicians scrapbook” (1821–1939), showing a photograph of Houdini at the grave of magician Robert Heller (all images courtesy the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas)

Through the recently digitized scrapbooks of Harry Houdini, you can be transported to the world of 19th-century magic, an era of deception and curiosity about the unknown.

The Harry Houdini Scrapbook Collection, brought to our attention by Open Culture, is part of the Harry Ransom Center Digital Collections at the University of Texas. The scrapbooks were acquired in 1958 with the collection of Messmore Kendall, a New York lawyer who bought them directly from Houdini’s wife, Bess, in 1926, after the great magician and escape artist died from a fatal punch.

“The Inexhaustible Bottle” in Houdini’s “Magicians scrapbook” (1821–1939). Greatest trick of all time? (click to enlarge)

“The Inexhaustible Bottle” in Houdini’s “Magicians scrapbook” (1821–1939). Greatest trick of all time? (click to enlarge)

The 10 scrapbooks were all owned by Houdini, but they weren’t all compiled by him. Some he acquired from other magicians, such as S.S. Baldwin, aka “The White Mahatma,” a mentalist who specialized in hypnotizing his wife (and later, his second wife). The scrapbook was sent to Houdini by Baldwin’s daughter Shadow after he died. (The Harry Ransom Center has more details on Baldwin on its Cultural Compass blog.) Several of the scrapbooks were created by Houdini, though, and they reflect his fascination with the practice of magic, as well as the frauds and hoaxes he worked to debunk, including mediums, ghost photographs, and spiritualism.

“One thing I really enjoy about these scrapbooks is seeing the notes that Houdini sometimes made about the source of the material,” Helen Baer, curator of performing arts at the Harry Ransom Center, told Hyperallergic. “Understanding the history of the object provides insight into how Houdini assembled his collection and speaks to the relationships between Houdini and his fellow magicians. We are fortunate that he took the time to jot down the source of the item now and then.”

The digitization is quite sharp, and the experience of flipping through the scrapbooks shows their worn edges and handwritten memos. Digital Collections Librarian Liz Gushee explained to Hyperallergic that “digitizing the scrapbooks was tricky due to fragility and the complexity of the pages.” Cards and clippings are crammed in, often overtaking the page. “We took the trouble to give many individual pages descriptions that indicated that it was the view of the page with the clippings folded up, and then provided other views of the same page with the clippings fully visible,” Gushee added. 

The Harry Ransom Center has quite a strong collection on magic, including a Magic Posters and Playbills Collection. The ephemera shows not just the thriving spirit of 19th-century magic, but the personal stories behind figures like Houdini who were at its helm.

Houdini's scrapbook on spiritualism, magic tricks, & articles from Scientific American (1922-24)

Houdini’s scrapbook on spiritualism, magic tricks, and articles from ‘Scientific American’ (1922–24)

Houdini's scrapbook on spiritualism, magic tricks, & articles from Scientific American (1922-24)

Houdini’s scrapbook on spiritualism, magic tricks, and articles from ‘Scientific American’ (1922–24)

Houdini's "Dr. Merlin magic scrapbook" owned by Houdini (1867-96)

The “Dr. Merlin magic scrapbook,” which Houdini owned (1867–96)

Herr Jansen scrapbook titled "Magician's Doings" (1854-1905)

Herr Jansen scrapbook titled “Magician’s Doings” (1854–1905)

Houdini's "Scrapbook about snake charmers and other conjurers" (1832-1914)

Houdini’s “Scrapbook about snake charmers and other conjurers” (1832–1914)

Houdini's "Magicians scrapbook" (1821-1939)

Houdini’s “Magicians scrapbook” (1821–1939)

View all of the Houdini scrapbooks online at the Harry Ransom Center.

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Hyperallergic welcomes comments and a lively discussion, but comments are moderated after being posted. For more details please read our comment policy.
  • Jah Jah

    I want to see the pages they are hiding…. hehe

    • Allison C. Meier

      I don’t think they’re hiding any. Go to the Ransom Center site and you can click through everything.

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