Courtesy the New-York Historical Society
Photographs of Harry Houdini, exhibited at ‘Summer of Magic: Treasures From the David Copperfield Collection’Courtesy the New-York Historical Society
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From Houdini to Copperfield, a Century of Jewish Magicians

A new exhibit celebrates two of the art of illusion’s greatest practitioners

Marjorie Ingall
July 10, 2018
Courtesy the New-York Historical Society
Photographs of Harry Houdini, exhibited at 'Summer of Magic: Treasures From the David Copperfield Collection'Courtesy the New-York Historical Society

On view through September 16, “Summer of Magic: Treasures From the David Copperfield Collection“ tells the history of magic as a performative art. The treasures at the New-York Historical Society, have been magically transported from David Copperfield’s International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts (a grandly titled museum and library that’s actually a locked warehouse in Las Vegas containing over 200,000 artifacts that Copperfield has collected over the years). A handful of the most mysterious items (hey, it’s a small show) are being displayed publicly at the New-York Historical Society for the first time. The society’s summer schedule is full of magic-related movie screenings, workshops, parlor mind readings with a spiritualist (a phenomenon Harry Houdini loathed, btw), fortunetellers, Victorian magic-lantern shows and more.

Of course, you can’t tell the history of magic without Houdini. Born Erik Weisz, he was the most famous illusionist of his time. Check out his “Metamorphosis Trunk,” in which he and his new bride Bess mysteriously traded places. Ooh and aah at a glamorous costume Bess wore in performance. Study vintage posters, a milk can from which Houdini escaped; a regulation straitjacket from which he also escaped; vintage films of Houdini escaping from a straitjacket while hanging from his feet outside a building; and the “inescapable” handcuffs that nearly proved the end of Houdini’s career.

One of Houdini’s customary bits was to invite audiences to present him any pair of handcuffs; the “Handcuff King” would escape every pair nearly instantly. But In 1904, at the height of Houdini’s fame, the London Daily Mirror issued a challenge, presenting Houdini with a pair of inescapable steel handcuffs crafted by a Birmingham blacksmith, featuring a lock “no mortal man” could pick. Houdini took one look and refused (he argued that he meant he could escape any regulation pair of handcuffs) but with the paper goading him regularly, he finally accepted the challenge, at the Hippodrome, in front of 4,000 fans. A band played as Houdini stepped into his “ghost house”–a painted wooden cabinet. At first it seemed as though he was truly stuck, but after an hour and 10 minutes he emerged, uncuffed, from the box, with tears and sweat pouring down his face.

The morning of the historical society’s exhibit opening, Copperfield himself (born David Seth Kotkin in 1956) led a tour for a group of journalists. Dressed in head-to-toe black, he shared stories and history as I stared mesmerized at his jet-black hair. Copperfield originally wanted to be a ventriloquist, but quickly discovered that he was terrible at it. “It couldn’t be me!” he said, self-deprecatingly. “It had to be the dummy!” His mom took him to Macy’s to buy him a better dummy. But the dummies were sold at the magic counter, “and I fell in love with magic.” He was good at it, too, inventing tricks from an early age and performing widely as The Great Davino at age 12. “Magic was one of those things that came very easy to me,” he recalled. “I was very polished at 12. I sucked at everything else, but I had a very easy way with invention.” He became a habitué of small Manhattan magic shops; there’s a replica of one in the show. Today, he noted, “There are fewer and fewer magic shops because of the internet.”

Copperfield was specifically interested in the history of escapes, noting “escape was a metaphor that people could understand at the turn of the century.” The museum contains a giant replica of the Death Saw, one of Copperfield’s own bravura escape tricks, along with a video of him performing it back in the day. A young Copperfield, in a filmy, oversize white shirt, hair blowing in the breeze like a romance cover model’s, is strapped to a steel table. A giant whirring steel wheel slowly lowers. At first Copperfield seems to be escaping, but something goes wrong! He’s stuck! He’s tugging ever more frantically at his bonds! AND THEN HE ARCHES AND SCREAMS AS HE IS CUT IN HALF! We, the jaded press, also screamed. The in-the-flesh Copperfield smiled.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.