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THE NEW YORK TIMES August 15, 1926 Page 12, Column –


Magician Has Rummaged the World for Books, Letters and Mementos of Famous People


Would you have magic? Would you have the centuries turned back? It can be done in a certain New York house that holds within its walls more secrets of magic than did ever Cave of Endor or Temple of Egypt or Delphic Oracle or the archives of medieval alchemist. And this is the house of Houdini, magician and exposer of spiritualists.

In this house Houdini practices another magic—the only branch of psychic phenomena that he countenances—the magic of communing with the spirits of the past that is reserved for those who “collect” the books and the engraved portraits and the manuscripts and the personal correspondence of the world’s great dead.

Wherever his specialized interests have led him, he has plunged into the past in search of congenial spirits—back into the simpler centuries when science and magic and alchemy and philosophy were so closely related that they hardly knew themselves apart. When you realize that he collects letters of Robert Ingersoll, the negator of the hereafter, and of Cagliostro, most magnificent and impudent of eighteenth century spiritualists, you see how wide-flung—yet how intrinsically logical—is the Houdini collection.

In the house of Houdini you may hold in your hand the famous letter written by Robert Ingersoll: “I have no evidence that man lives again…no human being knows whether there is another life”—his challenge against established belief and established religion. And the spirit of Ingersoll is invoked. You can see the great doubter pause. Even the amateur of chirography can see that the letter is written in one ink and signed with a darker ink.

Why did he pause? Did he realize how far-reaching would be the influence of those fated words on his generation? Did the old fathers of the Church who inscribed the Apostles’ Creed also pause before they dared to commit the world to belief in the life everlasting? Did the old Hebrew poet hesitate for an hour in spiritual darkness over his parchment before he hurled his faith into an ancient tragic world, “In my flesh shall I see God”? The solemnity of man’s eternal quest for knowledge of the beyond hovers in Houdini’s house like incense. Solemnity—for the reason that the magician himself is a reverent believer in the Almighty.

Intrigues of the Necklace

The house holds lighter, more cynical dramas. Perhaps the most famous diamond necklace of history flashes in its fierce radiance from yellowed letters—the necklace whose glittering stones were so fatal to Marie Antoinette and her throne. This is the necklace of eighteenth century intrigues, in which adventures, dared smirch the name of royalty, and charlatan served as high priest and confessor to a Prince of the Church. A drama of facts so intricably woven of mystery and scandal and jewels and sins and political consequences that even Dumas’ novel, “The Queen’s Necklace,” lost in glamour because he tried to decorate the romance of facts with the imagined events of fiction.

The most distinguished and valuable possession of the Houdini collection is the sheaf of original documents on this famous case, obtained from the French archives a generation ago by a “person of political influence,” and sold years later to Houdini by an English dealer. There are original letters of the Countess de Lamotte-Valois, an original letter of Cagliostro, signed court reports of the case as it was tried. A letter from the Governor of the Bastile regarding Cagliostro’s imprisonment is in the collection, one from the Chief of Police, letters from the advocates of all the prisoners.

Hold the letters in your hand, give your fancy wings, and suddenly the room, piled so high with great stacks of books that the windows almost are obscured, vanishes into unreality. It is the stage of the eighteenth-century court that the eye beholds—that exquisite stage of royalty that was “the last word of a thousand years—the fine flower of Europe’s slow civility.” It is the original cast of characters who again play their roles.

She Sold Beauty Lotions

Jeanne Lamotte-Valois, so to speak, is present, her charming little person decked out, if you please, in the fashionable creations of the Queen’s own modiste, because the unscrupulous minx had managed to spread the lie that she was a royal boudoir confidante, so that the merchants of the court competed to give her credit. A pretty, quick-witted adventuress she was, descended from an illegitimate branch of the Valois family—a woman who must live by her wits, and who wormed her way into the court boudoirs by selling the beauty lotions of Cagliostro, then the rage at court.

Or, try holding in your hand the one and only contemporary duplicate of the “bill” for the diamond necklace, which the jeweler kept in his files when he sent the original bill to Queen Marie Antoinette, because the Cardinal de Rohan was unable to meet the quarterly payments that had fallen due, thereby precipitating all the trouble, since the Queen hadn’t heard of the fatal necklace in four years, after she had reluctantly turned her beautiful royal back on its glittering temptation. How the duped Cardinal struts in his fat and his pomp and his vanity and his gullibility out of the stained old document!

Little wonder that Jeanne Lamotte was able to size up his weaknesses when the stupendous idea came to her of stealing the necklace worthy $500,000. Her plan was to convince the Cardinal that he was buying the necklace for the Queen. Did she not know that he was a disappointed man, for all his princely position, because he visualized himself as a Mazarin or a Richelieu wielding political power, and that could never be because he had made an implacable enemy of the Queen’s mother in Vienna?

The Cardinal would pay any price to regain Marie Antoinette’s favor. And did the Lamotte not know that the Cardinal de Rohan was particularly gullible? He was a disciple and devotee of the mysterious Count Cagliostro, “Grand Cophta” of the Cult of Mysticism and Spiritualism and Perpetual Youth, which was the only religion taken seriously in disillusioned court circles.

Or hold in your hand the letter of Cagliostro himself, which he addressed to the French nation in his best Arabian Nights manner, declaiming his innocence. Cagliostro, adventurer and necromancer, who for all his sins was as likable and handsome a reprobate as Casanova—who, by the way, sometimes did business with Cagliostro. Cagliostro, who claimed to have lived a thousand years and who was to live another thousand in history because of his contact with “L’Affair du Collier” in which he, in truth, played only a minor role.

Mystery is Unsolved

It was through Houdini’s interest in Cagliostro that he became absorbed in the intrigues of the necklace. Now, look into the pretty, child-like eyes of Serephinta, wife of “Count” Cagliostro, as they stare languishingly out of the rare and valuable engraving that Houdini considers one of the choicest gems of his collection. Was she or was she not the “Olivia” who masqueraded as the Queen in the garden, who stood before the Cardinal for the one minute of the promised rendezvous, convinced him that she was proud Marie Antoinette, gave him a rose and promised him forgiveness, left him pulsating with joy and ready to buy the necklace? That mystery, like so much of the intrigue of the diamond necklace, where everybody was double-crossing everybody else, Is still unsolved.

Perhaps, though, the most significant section of Houdini’s Queen’s Necklace Collection is the personal correspondence between various court persons of political importance. It is as if one overheard a whispering conversation that occurred one hundred and thirty-five years ago. One hears how the hatred against the King and the Queen grows day by day as the nine months of the trial of the Lamotte and the Cardinal and Cagliostro roll portentously on. One imagines the cries of the fishwives who believe, in spite of the evidence, that the Queen has purchased diamonds while their children want bread the fishwives who are to become presently the Furies of the Revolution.

Here you have the reputation of a Queen bantered from lip to lip—sullied under your eyes, as it were, until fifty years must pass before impartial history restores to the unfortunate Marie Antoinette her virtue as a wife.

“Do you regard an imposter like Cagliostro as severely as you do the spiritualists of our day?” I ask him curiously.

“No,” is his answer. “There was not any honest way at that time for an honest wonder-worker to make a living. Nor was the spiritualist of that age breaking the civil law as he is today.”

One of the most valuable of Houdini’s books is the “Discouverie of Witchcraft,” written in 1584 by Reginald Scott, who also wrote a learned and practical book on the science of agriculture. Its value to the collector is that this volume is one of the few left in the world, for James I, who believed blindly in witches, ordered every copy of the book burned.

A century and a half later we find the greatest mechanical genius of England hand in glove with a street-fair magician. Christopher Pinchbeck Sr., invented the famous astronomical-musical clock which “showoth the motions and phenomena of planets and fixed stars.” He was the inventor of the copper and zinc alloy called after his name to this day. He invented a dozen mechanical conveniences which have passed unpatented into the life of the people—just as Houdini in our day invented the wardrobe trunk and the typewriter-ribbon shift for his own use, without realizing their financial value.

But when it came to making a living, Pinchbeck turned his genius into magic, because magic was the most salable mechanical article of his century. The tree that bears fruit on the stage, familiar to many of us, is a product of his genius. The oldest and rarest mezzotint, anywhere, pertaining to magic, is the Pinchbeck portrait in the Houdini collection.

And take Pinetti. The collection has a delightful engraving of Pinetti, extremely valuable because it 9is the only authentic portrait of him. Decorating its frame are the crown of laurel and the geographer’s globe as symbols of the education of this eighteenth-century magician.

As often happens in the history of savants and scholars, there ran in Pinetti’s blood a love of the uncanny, with that peculiar strain of charlatanism which went to make up the clever performer of old-time magic. That same strain of mystery-lore runs through Houdini’s veins, for he, too, comes of a long line of savants and scholars. His father a rabbi, his grandfather a rabbi, the traditions of his family lead back to the secrets of the cabala, the mystic philosophy of the Hebrew religion which grew up in the tenth century and was passed down by word of mouth and by signs and symbols. It was a sacred thing until charlatans of Europe, like Cagliostro, borrowed, profaned and commercialized it.

It was not considered ethically necessary to draw that line to Pinetti’s generation. Evidently he resigned his duties as a professor for the more picturesque life of a traveling magician, and used his science to create illusions that were to be the treasure trove of magic for generations to come. We find him at the Court of Louis XVI at the opportune moment when all of Paris—and for that matter all of Europe—had been drawn inevitably to the new magic by the brilliant and eerie Cagliostro. A contradictory personality, this Penetti. Wise as a sage; handsome as a courtier, yet buffooning for his own sport—he is a vivid and italicized page of history. For instance, there is the story of a day when he took off his head just as the terrified barber was about to shave him. (Houdini took off his thumb for me at this point in the story.)

Years later we find the real Pinetti, retired with a vast fortune, which he squandered in balloon experimentation, and died a poor man for the love of science.

Foreign Students

But the collection is by no means confined to a library of magic. Houdini’s library of theatre treasures is almost as rare. Indeed, from the standpoint of the fine arts, the collection is richest in portfolios of engravings of immortal actors—also with immortal engravings of the contemporary actors whose fame has been decidedly mortal. The glory of eighteenth-century steel engraving fell impartially on ‘the great’ and on the insignificant.

I find as I write that little more than an indication of the scope of the collection is possible without page on page of printed catalogue, yet it is well that the public should have some idea of its range, for the reason that this is an “open library.” Any research worker who needs special information contained in the collection is welcome to use the library as Mr. Houdini’s guest—the only condition being that he himself be present. No one has ever been refused this hospitality.

It is desirable, then, that the public should know that there is a good collection of Americana, too: letters of Tom Paine, letters of Francis Scott Key, the signatures of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and engravings of our earliest American actors. It is desirable, also, that the public should know that the collection contains a technical library on criminology.

As to the value of the collection, such a matter can never be determined in terms of dollars and cents. Houdini carries $350,000 insurance, but there would be no such thing as replacing certain unique treasures, such as the Queen’s necklace papers.

Fortunately, he has willed his spritualistic [sic] and magicians’ libraries and letters and documents to the National Museum in Washington, where they will never be dispersed.

This article is reproduced here only for educational purposes. Please do not copy the text or accompanying images for commercial use.


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