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    Houdini’s Big Little Book of Magic

    It would take more than magic to put this little book back together again. Its spine was torn, its cover was marked with a jagged water stain, and its cover was slightly ajar. The word “MAGIC” had eerily disappeared from its title, but the name Houdini was in large bold letters.

    It was a Big Little Book, one of the palm-sized books made by the Whitman Publishing Co. starting in 1932. From what was printed on the cover, the book – which had been tossed among other incongruous items on an auction table – contained 145 magic tricks by Harry Houdini and other magicians.

    The book had a copyright date of 1927 by Beatrice Houdini, the magician’s wife and executor of his estate. It was described as a book with “fascinating puzzles, tricks and mysterious stunts.”

    Houdini magic trick

    The front cover of the Houdini Big Little Book of Magic published in 1933.

    I obviously wanted to see what some of these tricks were, so I hastily started turning pages. The first few offered magic tricks and their secrets that were much too simple for Houdini or any other serious magician. These were more stunts than magic, but they did appear to be engaging.

    The book was one of several to be published by Houdini and another magician, but Houdini died of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix in 1926 before the first one was published. His wife Bess ended up doing her own book of his magic tricks in 1927.

    Bess Houdini had been his stage assistant, confidant, and along with his mother, his sweetheart. She and Houdini had met in the early 1890s while he was performing in a magic show with his brother Theo at Coney Island. Theo had first dated her, but she and Harry got together and were married three weeks later. At the time, Wilhelmina Beatrice “Bess” Rahner was a member of a song and dance group called The Floral Sisters.

    Houdini magic trick

    Harry Houdini and his wife Bess captured on a cabinet card, along with the inside cover page of the book.

    The Brothers Houdini dissolved, and Bess became Harry’s assistant. He gave up the magic and became an escape artist – a move that sealed his legacy after he made it big in 1899. He had developed an interest in magic years before after reading about a French magician named Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, from whom he borrowed his new name. Houdini was born Erik Weisz (and renamed Ehrich Weiss by his immigrant parents after moving to America) in Budapest, Hungary, in 1874; he came to this country as a child in 1878.

    As for the books of magic, Houdini’s plan was to write them for beginners and professionals with ghost-writer/magician Walter Gibson. The two met often, with Houdini deciding on which of his tricks to include. Gibson completed the first book and decided to finish the second before sending them to Houdini. The magician died before seeing either of them.

    Houdini coin trick

    Houdini dice trick.

    Gibson wasn’t sure what to do with the completed first book, so he asked Bess, who said she was too busy with her husband’s estate (For the next 10 years, she held séances to try to speak to him). She gave Gibson permission to publish the first book under his own name. Titled “Popular Card Tricks,” it came out in 1926. None of the other books as conceived by Houdini and Gibson were ever published.

    Twenty years later, Gibson printed the tricks that were to be the second book as articles in the revival of a magician’s magazine that Houdini had founded in 1906 (and stopped publishing two years later).

    In 1927, Bess Houdini published “Houdini’s Book of Magic and Party Pastimes” after finding a manuscript among his papers. The Whitman company obtained rights to the manuscript with plans to publish it as a Big Little Book – its series of compact 3 5/8″ x 4 ½” books that sold for 10 cents. There was not enough material available, so the company filled out the pages with the works of other magicians. More than 100 pages from the book, which was published in 1933, are from Houdini. Whitman also retained the 1927 copyright date.

    Houdini glass/coin trick

    Houdini glass/coin trick.


    Houdini coin trick

    Houdini trick to rearrange pennies.


    Houdini magic trick

    Houdini hat trick.


    Houdini magic trick

    Houdini magic trick for making coins disappear.

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