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Artifact in Harry Houdini scrapbook collection highlights career of mind reader “The White Mahatma”

By Helen Baer

The Ransom Center recently launched a new platform of digital collections on its website, which includes the Harry Houdini scrapbook collection. More than 50 items from that collection, including the scrapbook highlighted in this blog post, can be viewed on the new platform.

 

American magician S. S. Baldwin (1848–1924), also known as “The White Mahatma,” was a celebrated mind reader or “mentalist” who made several tours around the world, initially with his wife and partner Clara Baldwin, and later with his second wife, Kittie Baldwin. The centerpiece of his act was a question-and-answer session in which he hypnotized his wife. Under his spell, she would answer questions from the audience without having heard the questions. Like his contemporary Harry Houdini, Baldwin insisted that he did not possess any supernatural powers, and he sought to expose spiritualism as trickery.

 

In 1924 Baldwin’s daughter Shadow sent Houdini her deceased father’s scrapbook from his fourth tour around the world. This magnificent scrapbook is an eclectic mix of photographs from places he traveled, juxtaposed with printed notices of his performances and other items. Many of the images reflect Baldwin’s interest in the indigenous peoples of the countries he visited.

 

The first image shows a piece of Baldwin’s stationery from his fifth world tour, ca. 1889–1890, embellished with skulls and devils.

 

The second image features an engraved notice for Baldwin’s performances in Peking, China, in 1879, pasted above a review for an appearance at the Academy of Music (city and date unknown).  Notably, the engraving was designed and printed by a local Chinese artist, Ning Foo Shang. Also included are photographs from Burma, British Guiana, and, somewhat incongruously, England (one photograph is labeled “Castle Gate, Nottingham”).

 

Click on the thumbnails below to view larger images.

 

Harry Houdini slideshow celebrates 137th birthday

By Alicia Dietrich

The Harry Ransom Center owns a collection of materials related to magician Harry Houdini, whose 137th birthday is today. The above slideshow highlights some examples of materials in the collection.

Parts of the Houdini (1874-1926) collection pertain to the numerous magicians with whom Houdini cultivated personal relationships, but the focus of this collection is the life and career of Houdini himself. Manuscript material in the collection includes Houdini’s correspondence with magicians and writers; letters to his wife Bess, 1890s–1926; manuscript notes and revisions for A Magician among the Spirits (1924), along with Houdini’s annotated printed copy; and the correspondence of A. M. Wilson, editor of The Sphinx, 1905–1923. Houdini’s films are represented by the script for The Master Mystery (1918), news clippings and a press kit for The Man from Beyond (1922), and publicity photographs. His interest in spiritualism is documented by a newspaper clipping file on spiritualism, manuscript notebooks on spiritualism and theater, and history of magic scrapbooks, 1837–1910.

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

 

 

 

Explore the New Publication "Magic, 1400s–1950s"

By Jennifer Tisdale

The Ransom Center’s performing arts collection documents several popular entertainments, including vaudeville, the circus, pantomime, puppetry, and magic. TASCHEN Books recently published Magic, 1400s–1950s, and included more than 30 images from the Center’s collections. Edited by Noel Daniel, the 650-page book is a multilingual edition, with content in English, French, and German. The book is authored by Mike Caveney and Jim Steinmeyer, with contributions from Ricky Jay. Below are excerpts from the book, alongside images from the Center’s holdings.

From the chapter “From Black Magic to Modern Magic,” explained by Mike Caveney.

During the mid-19th century, the most influential magician in the world was a Frenchman named Jean Eugéne Robert-Houdin. On this advertisement for his appearance at St. James’s Theatre in London, he is seen producing a seemingly endless quantity of military plumes from a scarf. A skilled watchmaker as well as a magician, he often employed an artful combination of techniques to produce the astonishing results that made him famous.

From the chapter “The Supernatural and the Spirit Worlds,”
explained by Jim Steinmeyer.

At the Egyptian Hall theater, Maskelyne and Cooke produced a humorous play lampooning Spiritualism. Mrs. Daffodil Downy’s Light and Dark Séance parodied the excitable or suspicious characters in a Bloomsbury, London, séance parlor. At the climax of the play, Maskelyne’s illusions eclipsed those of any supposed medium when he produced a glowing skeleton that rattled its jaws and floated over the audience.

From the chapter “Chains, Blades, Bullets, and Fire: Daring and Danger in Magic,” explained by Jim Steinmeyer.

Houdini’s Milk Can Escape, first performed in 1908, reignited his career. It was a brilliant invention that allowed him to bring the excitement of his water escapes to a vaudeville stage. This poster captures the nail-biting terror. The central image is a special cut-away peek at the can’s interior, offering a view that was never seen onstage.