This month’s collector is Harry Houdini (1874–1926), whose real name was Erik Weisz. He was an illusionist and stunt performer who became famed for his escape acts. After challenging others to handcuff him, tie him with ropes, enclose him in straitjackets, and even bury him alive, Houdini finally died from peritonitis. He grew fascinated by aviation, spent much of his time debunking spiritualism, and also made movies. He even wrote books himself about magic – Magical Rope Ties and Escapes, A Magician among the Spirits, and Houdini on Magic are some of them. His was a colourful career!
But there was one thing from which Houdini was unable to escape, and that was his love of books. He commented ruefully, “When I come to town the police have tried to show me that their shackles could hold me, and have failed; the booksellers have tried to sell me many books, and have succeeded.”
When he died in 1926 Houdini donated about 4,000 books on magic, witchcraft, demonology, illusion, spiritualism and theatre – considered the world’s largest collection of books about magic – to the Library of Congress. The collection also includes playbills, prints, pamphlets on card tricks and hypnotism, news clippings, his annotated scrapbooks, and stage notables.
His wife Bess also loved books (she collected cook books), and their 3-storey New York home held 15,000 books. Sometimes he bought books he intended to burn because he disapproved of them, but he could not bring himself to throw them into the flames: “I felt the sin of destroying a book, and I kept the offending volumes I bought.” He employed a librarian to catalogue his books.
You can visit the Houdini vault in the Library of Congress with comedian magicians, Penn & Teller, in this 3 minute YouTube clip:
Houdini enjoyed reading Virgil, and once said he’d have loved to discuss the ancient art of conjuring with the Roman poet. I’d have loved discussing the magic of literature with Houdini and browsing his exotic collection of books. How about you? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.