Daring escapes were Harry Houdini’s forte, but even the classic illusionist would applaud the disappearing act his own scrapbook pulled. Before a Southern California antique dealer uncovered the book—the magician titled it “Important Scrap Book -- Miscellaneous Clippings”—earlier this month, Houdini’s scrapbook stayed missing and unread for about 83 years.
Most of the materials the magician compiled in the book come from 1925 and early 1926 newspaper clippings devoted to Spiritualism, from around the same time he started his own full-evening show, “Three Shows in One: Magic, Escapes, and Fraud Mediums Exposed.” Houdini spent most of the Roaring ‘20s, until his death on Halloween of 1926, demystifying fraudulent psychics and ghostbusting séances.
The book has handwritten annotations from Houdini, and the clippings cover his famous debunking of fakes. Disproving psychics and mediums was a sort of obsession for the son of a Hungarian immigrant; Houdini once told a reporter from the Los Angeles Times, “It takes a flimflammer to catch a flimflammer.”
One account chronicled through clippings is Houdini’s most famous public confrontations with a medium—his brush with Bostonian socialite Mina “Margery the Medium” Crandon. Crandon competed for a $2500 Scientific American prize that would be awarded for proving “conclusive psychic manifestations”—until Houdini staged an elaborate exposé of the medium’s psychic prowess (or lack thereof) at the Boston Symphony Hall in January 1925. After responding with a performance of her own, Margery the Medium was finally bested that spring by a Harvard graduate student studying psychology.
Houdini also stashed some not-so-spiritualistic clips in his scrapbook, including a story musing whether pets live after death, a French article about himself from a Montreal newspaper, a page about performing for Teddy Roosevelt’s grandchildren, and more than a few clippings about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The mystery writer, a firm believer in Spiritualism, piqued Houdini’s interest in the subject. A journalist once said the odd pair of friends “looked like Pooh and Piglet” when the duo stood next to each other.
In true Houdini form, the scrapbook escaped from the Library of Congress’s collection of more than 100 Houdini scrapbooks (the man was one seriously dedicated scrapbook hobbyist). John Cox, who runs the Wild About Houdini fan site, speculates, “It could be Edward Saint (magician and conductor of séances) brought this book to California when he and Bessie (Houdini’s widow) relocated here in the 1930s.”
In his 1924 book A Magician Among the Spirits, Houdini wrote about how he “accumulated one of the largest libraries in the world on psychic phenomena, Spiritualism, magic, witchcraft, demonology, evil spirits, etc.” The one hundred scrapbooks are just a fraction of that collection, but Houdini proved to be quick with the scissors when combing through newspapers.