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THE NEW YORK TIMES August 24, 1967 Page 42, Column 2


Special to The New York Times.

FORT WASHINGTON, Pa., Aug. 23–Much of the paraphernalia used by Harry Houdini in 35 years as a stage magician and escape artist lies in dusty trunks and crates in a storage warehouse in New Jersey. It is up for sale.

It is part of an enormous collection of illusory devices used by several famous magicians, including Harry Kellar and Howard Thurston, being offered for sale by Bruce Gimelson, the autograph and stamp dealer here.

There are, he estimates, roughly 5,000 items in the entire collection. Most of it is not the sort of stuff to use in a living room to “amaze and mystify your friends.”

According to the sale catalogue, “The buyer of [the Houdini] collection will unpack thousands of shackles, locks, keys, torture instruments (heavy medieval cat-o’-nine-tails, metal head devices, iron instruments of restraint), straightjackets, an electric chair, all used by Houdini in his incredible stunts.”

Famous Escape Explained

Houdini was a dedicated collector of medieval fettering and torture devices (often used for grim lobby displays in theaters where he played), and much of this material is authentic. Other pieces are ingenious fakes. They look formidable—full of massive bolts and quadruple locks and reinforcing braces—but a close inspection shows them to be secretly faulted.

Houdini won fame for his Milk Can Escape. An oversized galvanized iron can on the stage would be almost filled with water. He would be locked inside, apparently assuring death by drowning.


The collection includes a “very crude can that was probably the first one Houdini made” for the milk-can trick.

“The collection will not be broken up under any circumstances,” Mr. Gimelson said. “It belongs in a museum or institution.”

“In fact, it would make a museum in itself,” he added, setting the price as “under $100,000” and refusing to be more specific. It will not be sold at auction.

“There are very large illusions, like the Houdini Overboard Steel Tank, and I think there are close to 1,000 handcuffs and keys. It would take two trailers to move it all,” Mr. Gimelson said.

The collection is owned by Joseph Dunninger, the magician and mind reader, who estimated that it included “90 per cent of Houdini’s small objects and 40 to 50 per cent of his major devices.” He has used some of the things in his own shows.

“Some of the pieces are so antiquated they can’t be used,” Mr. Gimelson remarked. “Things that require a trapdoor on stage are not usable because no stage I know of today has a trap door, and some of it is unusable because the secret of use is not known.”

“It belonged to an era of magic that has passed,” Mr. Dunninger said. “The brass pot that Alexander Hermann used to make a rabbit disappear wouldn’t mystify anyone today. They’d know the rabbit was in the false top.”

Paul Valadon’s “Asrah” device—by which he caused a supposedly hypnotized woman to float slowly upward to a point about seven feet above the stage and then to disappear—can still be used, the owner said. He explained that it was a concealed mechanical lifting device.

Skill Is What Counts

“How well a man reproduced the illusion would depend on his skill,” he added. “You can buy a master’s violin and play it, but it won’t sound the same, will it?”

It took nearly 40 years to assemble the Houdini material, Mr. Dunninger said. “Some of it I purchased from his family, some he willed to me, and I got some from other magicians.”

His daughter Josephine, a fashion model, squirmed into a steel vest and then into a combined neck iron and fingers clamp that somewhat resembled a heavy clarinet. “Would you believe Benny Goodman?” she said.

“Do you claim the telepathic powers of your father?” she was asked.

“No, I don’t,” she replied.

“Wait a minute,” Mr. Gimelson broke in. “I call her on the phone sometimes and she says, ‘Hello, Bruce,’ before I say anything.”

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