Browse The Magical Worlds of Harry Houdini’s Scrapbooks

houdini scrapbook2

Between the mid-nine­teenth and ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­turies, men and women alike made scrap­books as a way of pro­cess­ing the news. As Ellen Gru­ber Gar­vey shows in her book Writ­ing with Scis­sors: Amer­i­can Scrap­books from the Civ­il War to the Harlem Renais­sance, the prac­tice crossed lines of class and gen­der. Every­one from Mark Twain and Susan B. Antho­ny to Joseph W.H. Cath­cart, an African-Amer­i­can jan­i­tor liv­ing in Philadel­phia who amassed more than a hun­dred vol­umes in the sec­ond half of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, select­ed and past­ed arti­cles and ephemera into big books, often anno­tat­ing and com­ment­ing upon the mate­r­i­al.

The Har­ry Ran­som Cen­ter at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas at Austin has recent­ly dig­i­tized ten scrap­books belong­ing to Har­ry Hou­di­ni. The books are divid­ed into three groups: vol­umes com­piled by oth­er magi­cians about their careers; scrap­books hold­ing Houdini’s clip­pings on the prac­tice of mag­ic in gen­er­al; and books that chart Houdini’s inves­ti­ga­tions of fakes, frauds, and con­jur­ers. (Lat­er in his life, Hou­di­ni became fas­ci­nat­ed with the post-WWI fad for spiritualism—mediums, séances, and psychics—and took on a role as skep­ti­cal debunker of spir­i­tu­al­ist per­form­ers.)


The scrap­books are fun to look at on a num­ber of lev­els. First, it’s cool to think of Hou­di­ni and his magi­cian col­leagues select­ing the arti­cles and images and arrang­ing them on the page. Sec­ond, the mate­r­i­al that’s cov­ered is col­or­ful and bizarre (an arti­cle in one of Hou­dini’s books: “Tri­al By Com­bat Between A Dog And His Master’s Mur­der­er”). Third, Hou­di­ni and his cohort clipped and saved from a wide array of peri­od­i­cals; while it’s some­times annoy­ing that many of the arti­cles have lost their meta­da­ta (date and place of pub­li­ca­tion), it’s still inter­est­ing to see the range of types of cov­er­age that pre­vailed at the time.

houdini scrap 6

The book put togeth­er by the per­former S.S. Bald­win, mailed to Hou­di­ni by Baldwin’s daugh­ter Shad­ow after Baldwin’s death, is par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing.  The Ran­som Center’s intro­duc­tion to the col­lec­tion notes that some items in the Bald­win scrap­book “depict graph­ic sub­ject matter”—a sure entice­ment for this researcher, at least, to make sure to check it out. The warn­ing may refer to this amaz­ing image of the Indi­an god­dess Kali draped in sev­ered heads and limbs, or an engrav­ing of an exe­cu­tion by ele­phant. Along­side many arti­cles about his per­for­mances, fliers, and oth­er ephemera, Bald­win also col­lect­ed images of peo­ple liv­ing in the places where he performed—an approach that adds yet anoth­er lev­el of inter­est to his scrap­book.

H/T Not Even Past

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Online Emi­ly Dick­in­son Archive Makes Thou­sands of the Poet’s Man­u­scripts Freely Avail­able

The Pulp Fic­tion Archive: The Cheap, Thrilling Sto­ries That Enter­tained A Gen­er­a­tion of Read­ers (1896–1946)

 New Archive Makes Avail­able 800,000 Pages Doc­u­ment­ing the His­to­ry of Film, Tele­vi­sion, and Radio

Rebec­ca Onion is a writer and aca­d­e­m­ic liv­ing in Philadel­phia. She runs’s his­to­ry blog, The Vault. Fol­low her on Twit­ter: @rebeccaonion.

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