Harry Houdini and the Golden Age of Magic: Spectacle, sorcery and spiritualism in New York

PODCAST The history of magic in New York City — in all its peculiar varieties.

Harry Houdini became one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century, a showman whose escape artistry added a new dimension to the tried-and-true craft of stage magic. In this show, we present not only a mini-biography on the daredevil wizard, but a survey of the environment which made him — a city of magic, mediums and mystery.

New York during the late 19th century was a place of real, practical magic — electric lights, elevated trains, telephones and other wonders that would have seemed impossible just a few decades before. Those that performed stage magic in a world of such unbelievable inventions would need to up their game.

The great names of European stage magic — most notably Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin — would give rise to spectacular performances on both vaudeville and legitimate stages. Performers like Howard Thurston would dazzle New York crowds with unbelievable demonstrations of levitation while Harry Kellar and his ‘spirit cabinet’ would seem to use sorcery from other worlds.

Houdini got his start in New York’s dime museums, evolving from simple card tricks to elaborate routines of escape. He was a truly modern performer, borrowing from the magic masters and benefiting from an eager public, looking for a virtual superhero.

But stage magic had a surprising foe — actual magic or, as practiced by hundreds of mediums and mystics,  spiritualism. Suddenly, the craft of magical illusion seemed secondary to those who could practice those same arts via a connection with the afterlife. Houdini was drawn into the debate early in his career, and the conflict intensified with his unusual friendship with one of the greatest writers in the world.

LISTEN HERE:

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And we have even MORE magic in store for you!

Tickets on sale now for an evening of historical tales, magical projection and a poorly placed pun or two. A tie-in event to the New-York Historical Society’s Summer of Magic: Treasures from the David Copperfieldcollection

THE BOWERY BOYS MAGICAL MYSTERY HOUR
Tuesday, August 14th, 2018 | 7:00 pm to 8:30 pm
$20 (Members $18)

Presenting the most magical tales in all of New York City history! Tom Meyers and Greg Young of the Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast will conjure up stories of historical wizardry and superstition, from the dusty backrooms of old magic shops to the impossible feats of illusion and incantation from the Gilded Age’s most mysterious parlors. You may even see them perform a bit of sleight-of-hand themselves! Afterwards, we’ll be signing copies of our book The Bowery Boys Adventures in Old New York.

LOCATION
The Robert H. Smith Auditorium at the New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, New York, NY

TO PURCHASE TICKETS
Click HERE to purchase tickets online
By phone: Contact New-York Historical’s in-house call center at (212) 485-9268. Call center is open 9 am–5 pm daily.
Advance tickets may be purchased on site at New-York Historical’s Admissions desk during museum hours.

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Magic posters from some of the great magicians who preceded Houdini to the New York stage:

 

Martinka’s Magic Shop on Sixth Avenue — the center of the American magic community for much of the 20th century

 

At top: Harry Houdini stepping into a crate that will be lowered into New York Harbor as part of an escape stunt on July 7, 1912.

Library of Congress

 

FURTHER LISTENING

The Conan Doyle-Houdini seance was spoken about in of the official Bowery Boys Halloween podcasts: