Houdini’s escape coffin in the Houdini Museum (all photographs by the author)
Today marks 140 years since Harry Houdini was born as Erik Weisz in Budapest. The Hungarian would later move to the United States and transform into the great escape artist named for his early idol — magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. As Houdini he conquered the confines of handcuffs, strait jackets, and coffins, living much of his life in Harlem.
Few who walk the busy blocks around Penn Station in New York likely notice the small signs for a magic shop below the scaffolding on Seventh Avenue. Yet go through the nondescript Midtown lobby and take the elevator to the third floor and you’ll find yourself in the Houdini Museum. The museum, opened in 2012, is within the Fantasma Magic shop and has a couple hundred objects on display, as well as some 1,500 items in its archives. Most is from the private collection of Fantasma’s CEO Roger Dreyer and has rarely been on public view, although you may have seen the metamorphosis chest in the corner at the Houdini: Art and Magic exhibition at the Jewish Museum.
On my visit to the one-room shop and museum, a child’s birthday party was just wrapping up and there were magic tricks being demonstrated at the store counter. It’s hard to imagine a more inspiring array of artifacts for aspiring young magicians, with everything from framed handcuffs to remains from the water torture cell that were salvaged from a fire. There’s even the 1976 replacement bust from his grave in Machpelah Cemetery in Queens on loan from Society of American Magicians, a substitute for one that was stolen. (This bust was also later stolen and then recovered.) You can peer into the 1907 escape coffin where Houdini emerged from the lid banged down with six inch nails in 66 minutes, the burial box itself decorated with illustrations of the achievement. There are also movie posters from his film career, photographs from his life, his relics of debunking spiritualists for their frauds, and an x-ray of the bullet lodged in his hand.
The museum is free, so keep an eye out next time you’re in the Penn Station area, as even streets like Seventh Avenue that seem on the surface to be far from magical often have their hidden wonders.
Detail of the escape coffin
Artifacts in the Houdini Museum
The bust of Houdini once on his grave in Queens
Handcuffs used by Houdini
The metamorphosis chest (on the left)
An array of promotional materials and memorabilia from movies
The charred remains of the water torture cell
A straitjacket used by Houdini
A movie still and his hand x-ray
A publicity poster for the water torture cell and other artifacts
Spiritualist & medium debunking artifacts
A spiritualist photograph
The entrance to the museum and magic shop
The Houdini Museum is located in Fantasma Magic at 421 Seventh Avenue, Third Floor, Manhattan, NYC.