Channeling Harry Houdini in Scranton
By Ryan Munshower, Fall 2010; supplemented by Angelica W. Capone, Spring 2011

Houdini Museum in Scranton
Houdini.org
This Scranton house has been the home of the Harry Houdini Museum since 1988.

Click to see any picture in a larger size.

Passing along North Main Ave through the Green Ridge neighborhood of Scranton in Lackawanna County, there are children riding bicycles, lawns being cut, and neighbors chatting on the street--a portrait of the average American neighborhood. It’s easy to miss the small, unassuming converted home with two signs painted on its blue stucco exterior. The signs beckon visitors to step in and disappear into a world of mystery, intrigue, and magic. Despite its modest appearance, the parking lot along the side of the building is filled to capacity. New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Ohio—the license plates show visitors coming from far and wide. Alakazam! The line for admission stretches around and behind the building. It seems everyone wants to take a glimpse into the life of one of America’s most mysterious men. Welcome to the Harry Houdini Museum.

Harry Houdini, born Eric Weisz, master magician, escapologist, and skeptic, is a world-renowned legend of magic. Born in Budapest, Hungary, raised in Appleton, Wisconsin, and starting his career in New York City, he was always on the move. At age nine, Houdini began performing as a trapeze artist, a gig that would eventually introduce him to professional magicians and spark his own interest in magic. By age 12, Houdini had performed his first great escape when he ran away from home and hopped a train car bound for Galveston, Texas. By 17, Houdini had already begun performing magic professionally.

Harry Houdini in Cuffs, prepared for an escape
Library of Congress
As the great escape artist, handcuffs were generally child's play to Houdini.

His big break came in the form of an invitation to join the Orpheum Vaudeville circuit in 1899, giving him an opportunity to perform in the national spotlight. His performances propelled Houdini and his great escapes to international acclaim, allowing him to continuously tour Europe for five years. By the time he returned to the States, Houdini had become a legend. He continued touring throughout the country, performing in many American towns and cities, including Scranton. Over the next 20 years, his escapes would amaze audiences and confound critics.

Houdini was friends with renowned Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle introduced Houdini to the religious philosophy of spiritualism—a philosophy that Houdini would come to abhor. A major feature of spiritualism is the séance, a ceremony where one person acts as a medium to contact the spirits of the dead in the spirit world. Such contact was usually an illusion, and Houdini, being an illusionist himself, saw straight through the deception. While Houdini loved a good magic trick and wanted to believe that the spirit world existed, he disliked the idea of fooling people into believing that they were actually speaking with their dead loved ones. He especially hated it after his mother’s death in 1913. According to Dr. Loren Pankratz, “Houdini was unabashedly attached to his mother. When she died, he would have given his considerable fortune to hear one word from her. He visited the best known mediums in the world but immediately saw through their flimsy tricks.” Houdini’s inquisitive mind drove him to attempt to debunk spiritualism for the rest of his life. In 1923, he famously exposed the Boston medium Margery as a fake. “Everything which took place at the séances which I attended,” he stated, “was a deliberate and conscious fraud.”

Houdini’s life was brought to an early end at age 52, on Halloween 1926, due to peritonitis and a ruptured appendix. His passing was mourned by a crowd of more than 2,000 that gathered in Queens, New York. Rumors quickly spread that his appendix ruptured after an alleged assault by McGill University student J.G. Whitehead, who supposedly struck Houdini with several heavy blows to test his strength, but no one knows for certain. The ambiguity surrounding the circumstances of his death only contributed to the mystery of Houdini. Over sixty years later, the Harry Houdini Museum opened its doors to preserve the magician’s legacy.

Houdini Museum Interior
Houdini.org
This room exhibits much of Houdini's personal memorabilia.

The museum’s history begins in New York City in 1976 at the Magic Towne House, nestled in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The Magic Towne House was founded to foster and encourage budding magicians, offering them a place to practice and perfect their acts. The museum started as a small, personal collection of Houdini memorabilia, curated by owners Dick Brooks and Dorothy Dietrich. Brooks’ father, an avid Houdini fan, amassed everything he could get his hands on related to the escape artist. After his passing, the collection was bequeathed to Dick, who brought it with him to New York. The collection—along with its reputation—slowly grew over the course of the next twelve years. What started as a personal shrine to the master magician became a centerpiece for the Magic Towne House.

Sadly, the Magic Towne House was forced to close in 1988 due to financial and social difficulties. Brooks and Dietrich sought to take their collection to a place accessible from the city where a niche museum could thrive. “Skyscrapers were going up, and rent was skyrocketing,” Brooks recalls. “Crime was on the increase and crack cocaine was just coming into the city. We needed to find a more pleasant community to live in with a Houdini connection.” When they found Scranton, a city where Houdini had performed and a hotspot for travelers bound for the Poconos from New York, they knew they had found their new location. Dietrich and Brooks—along with their massive collection of Houdini memorabilia—moved out of the city and founded the Harry Houdini Museum.

Dorothy Dietrich Performs an Illusion
Houdini.org
Museum co-owner Dorothy Dietrich performs an illusion in the Museum.

When visitors step inside the Harry Houdini Museum, they are greeted by Dick Brooks and Dorothy Dietrich, who run the whole show as they have been for the past 20 years, acting as owners, tour guides, cashiers, and resident magicians. As certifiable Houdini fanatics, they’ve been on the hunt for pieces of the magician’s legacy since their first days in the Magic Towne House. “I’ve been collecting all my life,” Dietrich says. “You know how boys usually collect toys and girls collect dolls? I was collecting anything about Houdini.”

They are proud to show off the fruits of their labor during the museum tour, guiding attendees through a maze of Houdini’s original stage props, handbills, newspaper clippings, and letters. Attendee Lee Krystek featured the Harry Houdini Museum on his website of interesting museums, where he explained that Dorothy ran this portion of the tour, leading the crowd through Houdini’s life and explaining the significance of the more exciting pieces of the collection. “The tour guide invited the group to hold their breath as she talked about the can to see if any of us could match Houdini’s ability,” Krystek said. Houdini’s record stood at over four minutes. The tour group was then handed off to Brooks, who lead them to a small theatre where guests were presented with a video collection featuring the museum’s appearances on national television. Guests were also treated to a live performance by Dietrich and Brooks, who performed illusions and taught the audience a few simple tricks.

Along with normal tours, the Harry Houdini Museum is also known for its fantastic birthday parties. Jessica Kaeberry, whose seventh birthday party was held at the museum, had the amazing experience of being levitated during the magic show. She was then sworn to secrecy on the magic technique—a promise she has kept to this very day. As she told The Times Leader, “You would think nearly 20 years would be enough of a statute of limitations, but they told me a true magician never reveals their secrets.”

Houdini set to perform the Water Torture Illusion
Library of Congress
Hanging above the special apparatus Harry Houdini prepares to perform the Water Torture Cell illusion.

Every day is magical at the Harry Houdini Museum, but Halloween, as the anniversary of Houdini’s death, is undoubtedly the most important day of the year. Every October 31, Houdini fans descend upon the museum for the annual Houdini Séance, a tradition started in 1927 to channel Houdini’s spirit and challenge him to escape the clutches of death. Though Houdini disliked fraudulent mediums and spiritualists, he still wondered if there was some way to communicate from beyond the grave. Due to his distrust of fake mediums, however, Houdini worried that, in the event of his death, his wife Bess would have to deal with frauds claiming to carry messages from him. To be sure of authenticity, Houdini developed a passphrase with his wife prior to his passing. Should he be able to communicate from the other side, he would state the phrase “Rosabelle, answer, tell, pray, answer, look, tell, answer, answer, tell.” “Rosabelle” was Bess Houdini’s favorite song, and the seemingly random words came from a code she and Houdini used in their mind reading act. Decoded, the phrase means “Rosabelle, believe.”

For a full decade, Bess Houdini held a séance on October 31, attempting to contact her husband. After ten years with response from Harry, Bess was ready to move on, stating that “ten years is long enough to wait for any man.” Aware of her husband’s following and legacy, she passed the honor of performing the annual ritual to close friend Walter B. Gibson, who faithfully performed the séance in New York City until his death in 1985. Prior to his passing, he passed the rite on to Dietrich, who brought the tradition to Scranton. Since then, the museum has become a landmark for magicians and Houdini fans who wish to take part in the ritual.

A Handpost advertisez Houdini's planned act
Houdini.org
Even Houdini's advertising was amazing and can be seen at the Museum.

Every Halloween the theatre of the museum is packed with magicians, fans, and even a reporter or two. Excitement fills the air as participants eagerly await the beginning of this eighty-year-old tradition--a tradition which seems to be more of a social gathering than an occult ritual. Brooks explains, “Just before 1:26, everyone gathers around, 1:26 being the time Houdini died, and we place some of Houdini’s possessions on a table in the front. Thirteen celebrities of magic gather up around the table in the front and join hands, and we exchange stories of interest about Houdini.” Dietrich then takes a moment to explain the history of the event, tracing its roots from Bess Houdini to herself. Brooks continues, “We light candles on an antique candelabra from Houdini’s home. Dorothy acts as a medium and asks Houdini for a sign of his presence.”

Dietrich’s persona shifts from proprietor and historian to medium as she attempts to invoke the spirit of Houdini, calling on him to fulfill their annual request at last. She invites Houdini to speak, move an object in the room, rap on the walls, anything to give an indication of his presence. “I ask him to communicate and have a moment of silence out of respect for him,” she explains.

After these appeals to the magician’s spirit are completed, without response, Dietrich concludes the ceremony with an explanation of Houdini’s fervor in his latter days for debunking spiritualism. As she told The Times Leader, “[Houdini] found out that a lot of these so-called mediums were just scamming innocent people. They would create special effects to make it look and sound and feel like there was a spirit there.” According to Dr. Loren Pankratz, the hatred went both ways. “Spiritualists hated Houdini,” she says. “While they tried feeble tricks in the dark séance room, he made elephants vanish under the bright lights of a stage.”

Houdini Ad to play at Poli's in Scranton
Houdini.org
This undated newspaper clipping advertizes an upcoming show at Poli's of Scranton.

Many spiritualists believed that Houdini himself was a medium with supernatural powers, including his friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. “I know how you do it,” Doyle told him once, “but your secret is safe with me. You can materialize yourself, vanish into thin air, and then rematerialize somewhere else.” Houdini, however, did not appreciate such theories. “Houdini denied it,” Dietrich told The Times Leader. “He never wanted anyone to think he did anything supernatural. He may have been superhuman, but he wasn’t supernatural.”

Magic is something of a tradition in Scranton. Long before Houdini became a celebrity, the city was famous for a different sort of magic—its electric streetcar system. However, while electricity is now taken for granted, the magic of Houdini is still going strong. Even today, nearly a hundred years since his final performance, Houdini still has adoring fans. He continues to inspire budding magicians, and the Halloween séance has been faithfully performed every year since his death. So long as the Harry Houdini Museum preserves Houdini’s legacy, the magic in Scranton will never die.

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