Received The Linking Ring Award of Excellence

By Tom Interval

I recently received this awesome award from the International Brotherhood of Magicians (IBM) publication, The Linking Ring, for the cover story I wrote about John Cox, creator of Wild About Harry (Houdini).

The Linking Ring Award of Excellence, given to a different number of recipients each year, went to 10 people whose articles were published between April 2020 and March 2021. Mine appeared in the October 2020 issue.

Thanks to The Linking Ring executive editor Samuel Patrick Smith, the rest of The Linking Ring staff, and the IBM.

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In Memory of Harry Houdini (1874–1926)

By Tom Interval

Hungarian infant Erik Weisz, who became American toddler Ehrich Weiss, who became worldwide cultural icon Harry Houdini, died way too soon on Halloween 95 years ago today. In memory of a legend who inspired generations of Houdini geeks, magicians, and other showmen. With admiration from all your fans.

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Houdini’s 95th Deathversary: Did He Return?

By Tom Interval

Today, on the 95th anniversary of Harry Houdini’s death, Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz of the Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania, hosted a live Zoom séance, which attracted between 150 and 200 people.

In-person Houdini séances have been a Halloween tradition since after the showman died in 1926, but the official ones (i.e., the ones Houdini’s wife Bess hosted) ended ten years later on the evening of Saturday, October 31, 1936. That one took place on the rooftop of the Knickerbocker Hotel in Los Angeles, California, and you can listen to a recording of it here.

Dorothy and Dick’s Original Houdini Séance, formerly hosted by Houdini associate and author Walter B. Gibson until his death, lasted three and a half hours and was filled with fascinating discussions with two of the last remaining descendants of Houdini and Wild About Harry‘s Houdini expert John Cox.

So the big question: Did Houdini return?

Sadly—and not surprisingly—no. But there were unexplained happenings some could interpret as signs from the Master Mystifier, including the moment when Dorothy and Dick’s Internet connection went black just after, they later claimed, there was a loud pounding in their wall. No one else in the Zoom “room” heard it.

But who am I to be a Doubting Interval? If Houdini could walk through walls, he certainly could pound on them.

And the mystery continues.

In Memory of Harry Houdini (March 24, 1874–October 31, 1926)

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Ex-Library Houdini Book: Connection to the Past

By Tom Interval

Anyone who enjoys studying or writing about history and historical figures seeks to connect with the past and its people on some level. For me, that level is deeply personal, especially when it comes to magic, magicians, and Harry Houdini.

Sometimes that connection is with the people and subjects being written about, and sometimes it’s with the authors. But one type of connection I haven’t heard anyone talk about lives in, of all places, ex-library books.

In general, library discards don’t have much value to collectors of magic literature, and for good reason. They often have damaged spines, rubber-stamp marks, stickers, glue residue, torn and dirty pages and covers, dog-ears, and unintelligible scribbles. Consequently, as a rule of thumb, I avoid purchasing ex-library copies.

But not always.

Some of these tattered texts have a hidden treasure within: the original stamped checkout card recording the dates when people borrowed the book. And if you’re lucky, the card will include signatures of the borrowers, like this one, which I found while continuing to catalog my relatively small magic library:

It’s from a juvenile biography about Harry Houdini found in many school and public libraries from the 1950s through the 1980s: The Great Houdini: Magician Extraordinary, by Beryl Williams and Samuel Epstein. The book this particular card came from was in the Whitesboro Junior High Library in Whitesboro, New York, until at least 1969, when most of the borrowers signed their names.

But why do I care? As someone who has been obsessed with Houdini since childhood, maybe I see my own reflection in these signatures: little windows to an analog past when my own name appeared repeatedly on a school library checkout card. Or maybe it’s just idle curiosity.

For example, what ever happened to Mike Manger, who checked out this book three times? Was he writing a book report, or was he a magic and Houdini enthusiast like so many of us were at his age? Does he still enjoy reading about Houdini? Is he now an amateur or professional magician, possibly inspired by this book? And John Toukatly? He also borrowed it three times. Another book-report author or true Houdini comrade?

While these questions seem trivial, these former students are real people, now close to age 70. Maybe they’re not famous, respected, or even well-liked. Does it matter? Besides our fleeting or permanent interest in Houdini that binds us together over time, we all have something more important in common: humanity.

In memory of Houdini on the eve of his 95th deathday, I want to express my hope that everyone listed on the checkout card is healthy and thriving and that anyone reading this in the present or future has a firm understanding of life’s brevity and derives meaning from something more valuable than any book: the beloved people in their lives and an affinity for those kindred spirits they will never meet.

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Houdini Jack-o’-Lantern 2021

By Tom Interval

Another year, another Houdini jack-o’-lantern. This Halloween, it will be 95 years since Harry Houdini died. Each year I carve a pumpkin in his memory, and this year’s edition features a young Houdini, no older than 25 years. So without further delay, here’s this year’s Houdini jack-o’! And if you’re interested to see what steps I followed to make it, scroll down.

Step 1: Find a photo that works well.

Not all photos are equal. Some look better when you make them high contrast. Here’s the photo I chose this year. It’s from an 1899 Mahatma ad.

Step 2: Make it high contrast in Photoshop.

If you don’t have Photoshop, you can use any free, good photo-editing program like Gimp to change the image mode to grayscale (black and white), adjust the contrast, and make tweaks so it looks something like the following image. Notice that all the black areas connect since that’s going to be the uncut part of the jack-o’-lantern. Also notice how I outlined the hair.

Step 3: Create a gray template in Word and print.

Insert the high-contrast photo into Word or any word-processing program, adjust its size based on the size of the pumpkin, increase the brightness, and lower the contrast so it looks something like the following template.

Step 4: Print, cut out, and outline your template.

Print the Word document you created in Step 3 and cut it out close around the perimeter of Houdini’s head (allow around a 1/2″ margin). Then use a thin black marker to outline the separation of highlights and shadows. It should look something like the following image. (Note that I’ve already laid out protective plastic.)

Step 5: Cut off the lid and hollow out the pumpkin.

Use a highlighter to draw where you want to cut around the stem. Use a large, dull serrated knife from a pumpkin-carving kit to cut around the stem and remove the top of the pumpkin. Wipe off the highlighter guidelines. Hollow out the pumpkin. The mess you make will look something like this.

Step 6: Tape the template to the pumpkin.

Figure out exactly where you want Houdini’s face to appear on the pumpkin, then tape the template solidly into place with Scotch tape. In doing this, you’ll have to push down firmly on the template as you form it around the pumpkin’s curve. Having a few creases in the paper by the time you’re finished is normal, but be sure none of the creases interferes with the design.

Step 7: Trace the pattern from the template to the pumpkin.

Use a safety pin to prick through the paper into the pumpkin in an evenly spaced dotted line along the black lines that separate shadows from highlights. This will take some time and will look something like this when you’re finished. Look closely and you’ll see the pin pricks.

Step 8: Remove the template from the pumpkin.

After you’re sure you pricked all along the black lines, carefully remove the template from the pumpkin, which will look something like this.

Step 9: Carve the face into the pumpkin.

Use various serrated knives from a pumpkin-carving kit to cut along the dotted lines. Remember, the highlighted (white) areas of the template are the parts you cut out and discard. Use smaller-sized carving knives to cut away thin pieces. Be mindful here because it’s really easy to accidentally cut through parts you don’t want cut. And after you cut out each of the parts, you’ll probably have to do some refined cutting along the edges of the openings to shape them from the inside outward. When you’re finished, wipe down the entire pumpkin and lid with a damp cloth and dry it. It should look something like the following image. Use LED lights to illuminate it from the inside.

And once again, the finished jack-o’-lantern! Happy Halloween!

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Happy Birthday, Erik!

By Tom Interval

Erik Weisz (Houdini), 1877, age 3
Erik Weisz (Houdini), 1877, age 3

Today is Harry Houdini’s 147th birthday. Happy birthday, Harry! You don’t look a day older than three! At least in the accompanying video and photo.

Before Houdini was Houdini, he was Erik Weisz, born on March 24, 1874. After moving with his family from Budapest, Hungary, to the United States in 1878, his name was Americanized to Ehrich Weiss.

Ehrich would start calling himself Houdini in the early 1890s, borrowing the name from his then-hero, French conjurer Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, often referred to as “the father of modern magic.” Harry’s first name was derived from his boyhood nickname, “Ehri” or “Ehrie.”

Houdini, who, at various times in his life, called himself the “king of cards,” the “king of handcuffs,” the “master mystifier,” and “the greatest necromancer of the age,” among many other things, had much more than a penchant for hyperbole. He forged an unprecedented career as a death-defying escape artist, magician, actor, author, pilot, and debunker of Spiritualism.

But his most extraordinary feat? Molding himself into a legend whose name will live on for eternity. Happy birthday, Erik!

To learn more about Houdini, I highly recommend Ken Silverman’s biography, Houdini!!!: The Career of Ehrich Weiss. There are many others, but I think Silverman’s is the best to date. For younger readers, Harry Houdini: Death-Defying Showman, by Rita Thievon Mullin, Spellbinder: The Life of Harry Houdini, by Tom Lalicki, and Escape!: The Story of the Great Houdini, by Sid Fleischman, are good starting points. Young or old, there certainly is no shortage of Houdini biographies. And to thoroughly supplement your reading, be sure the check out John Cox’s outstanding Houdini blog, Wild About Harry.

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Smitten with Mittens

Houdini, Bess, and company, Welsh Bros. Circus, circa 1898.

#BernieSandersMittens

Image manipulation by Tom Interval

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Cardistry in 1899

By Tom Interval

Modern cardistry, the art of card flourishing and manipulation for the sole purpose of showing off, dates back to about the early 2000s with its pioneers Brian Tudor and Dan and Dave Buck.

Although its origin is linked to the Sybil cut, first published in 1992 in Chris Kenner’s Totally Out of Control, the term “cardistry” appeared as early as December 19, 1899, page 3, of The Portsmouth Herald, which reported a performance of Boston “magician and cardist” Bennett Springer at the Warwick Club in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

The short article spoke of Springer’s “tricks in cardistry, sleights and flourishes with cards” and described them as “his manipulation of the wonderful” that “won him rounds of applause.”

I just added that historical bit to the History of cardistry Wikipedia page, but I wanted to include the actual article here in case anyone wanted to see it for themselves. I don’t know precisely which card flourishes “Prof. Springer” performed, but I’m pretty sure it was nothing like what some of the kids are calling XCM (extreme card manipulation), otherwise known as flourishing or cardistry.

It’s worth noting that Springer is referred to in at least one or two other early news pieces as a “cartist” (with a “t”) as he was in the Hollis Times of March 4, 1921, p. 8. “His card work was more than ordinarily good,” writes the paper. In those days, maybe the manipulations he did were, relatively speaking, pretty extreme. Whatever the case, I think it’s pretty interesting how far back the term “cardistry” goes.

The Portsmouth Herald, December 19, 1899, p. 3

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In Memory of Houdini

By Tom Interval

Harry Houdini (1874–1926), the world’s most famous pioneering escapologist, showman, and magician, died 94 years ago today. In memory of the man who inspired several generations of aspiring mystery men, including me. Happy Halloween, Harry.

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Houdini Jack-o’-Lantern 2020

By Tom Interval

Here’s the latest installment of my annual Houdini jack-o’-lantern. I’ve been carving these since about 2009 or 2010. See below for a few pictures outlining the basic steps.

Step 1: I chose this photo.
Step 2: I converted it to a greatly simplified, high-contrast image.
Step 3: I created a template in Word, printed it, outlined it, and traced it onto the pumpkin with a pin.
Step 4: I removed the template before carving along the pin holes.
And voila! The finished jack-o’-lantern.

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