“This book is the natural result of the moulding, dominating influence which the spirit and writing of Robert-Houdin have exerted over my professional career. My interest in conjuring and magic and my enthusiasm for Robert-Houdin came into existence simultaneously. From the moment that I began to study the art, he became my guide and hero. I accepted his writings as my text-book and my gospel. What Blackstone is to the struggling lawyer, Hardee’s “Tactics” to the would-be officer, or Bismark’s life and writings to the coming statesman, Robert-Houdin’s books were to me.
“…When it became necessary for me to take a stage name, and a fellow player, possessing a veneer of culture, told me that if I would add the letter ‘i’ to Houdin’s name, it would mean, in the French language, ‘like Houdin,’ I adopted the suggestion with enthusiasm. I asked nothing more of life than to become in my profession ‘like Robert-Houdin.’”
That is high praise indeed! But the rest of Houdini’s book is not so flattering. It exposes his hero and the source of his name as a thief and fraud. Houdini judges Robert-Houdin harshly after discovering that a number of the effects that he claimed to have invented were not invented by him at all. Houdini uncovered the evidence only after a great deal of research. He even offered a prize of $250 if anybody could name a book that had taken as much time, energy, travel and money, “with such authentic data regarding real magical inventions.” He traced the origins of some effects decades, even a century before Robert-Houdin.
Houdini built a strong case against his former hero. Effects that Robert-Houdin claimed to be his own invention were almost identical to effects invented by earlier magicians. Could he have reasonably believed himself to have created those effects? No one can know for sure. Robert-Houdin didn’t devote anywhere near as much “time, travel, energy and money” as did Houdini in researching the effects, so he may well have believed them to be his own. In any case, Houdini’s book was roundly castigated, especially in France, the home of Robert-Houdin.
Houdini could have avoided the controversy if he had simply called the book the “The History of Magic” instead of “The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin.” It contains a great deal of historical research into the illusions and effects of magic. The effort that went into it was considerable. But, it seems, Houdini wanted the public to know of his disenchantment with his former hero who he, in effect, accused of stealing and lying.
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