March 23rd, 2007
HOUDINI: AMERICA’S FIRST SUPERHERO. PART 2by Chip Maloney
Part One of this two-part interview may be read here.
Best-selling author Larry “Ratso” Sloman’s latest book, “The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero,” makes several bold new claims regarding the storied life and mysterious death of the mythic magician and escape artist. Among those claims is that Houdini was a spy who operated at the very top levels of both the United States and England’s thenfledgling intelligence communities, and that he may have been assassinated by powerful rivals with their own political connections for his passionate personal crusade against phony psychics and spiritualists. Sloman and co-author William Kalush have ripped away the veil of secrecy surrounding Houdini and thoroughly dispelled the abundant falsehoods about Houdini’s unusual activities and equally extraordinary career with irrefutable evidence culled from exacting and unprecedented research that began in SoHo.
SoHo Journal: Did you discover if Houdini was paid anything for his espionage activities?
Larry Sloman: Well, there was no money involved. These intelligence services were just starting at the time, and they had no budgets or organization on the level they have today. Houdini began his covert activities early in his career, and he got a tremendous boost of publicity from people like Scotland Yard’s Melville, who endorsed him. When Melville said “An absolute miracle,” about one of Houdini’s escapes, that really meant something. This was Scotland Yard’s “super” cop saying that, and this was a boon to Houdini in terms of attention and press. Houdini also considered himself a super patriot and felt that England and the United States were sister countries. He loved England as much as he loved America. Though he was a naturalized citizen who was born in Hungary, he told people he was born in the United States. He was very proud of America.
It’s not surprising then that someone probably wanted Houdini eliminated.
We didn’t find that Houdini’s covert activities contributed in any way to his death. Very few people knew anything, and even fewer would have believed it anyway. Houdini was the biggest star in the world and was beloved. However, his very public crusade against phony psychics and mediums, and his numerous clashes with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Spiritualist Movement may very well have brought about his end. Houdini received daily death threats from the numerous con artists he put out of business even though he had supported himself as a phony medium for a time early in his career. In archives that hadn’t been seen in 80 years, we found information that one person had the motive and the means to do harm to Houdini in a credible way. He was a Boston Brahman and doctor who was the husband of famed Boston medium named Mina Crandon. Crandon had risen to great acclaim working under the name “Margery,” and the Crandons were close friends of Spiritualist Movement leader Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle had attempted to convert Houdini to Spiritualism, and after that attempted conversion failed miserably, Doyle and Houdini were at odds. Houdini went on to expose Margery as a fraud, but more importantly, Houdini also used his contacts within the Secret Service and the British government to launch an investigation into the activities of Margery’s husband upon discovering that he had adopted several orphaned English boys of similar description and age over a period of several years, who had gone missing. Crandon immediately suspected Houdini was behind the investigation, and within months, Houdini met his mysterious end after being assaulted in Montreal by what was purported to be an overanxious “college kid.” This kid had punched Houdini in the stomach before he could prepare for the blow, a feat he often performed for fans. In fact, in the months before his death, Houdini suffered from several mysterious episodes of “food poisoning.” Days before his death, Houdini’s wife also came down with a case of what was deemed by doctors as “food poisoning,” and both were hospitalized in the same hospital, her condition far more serious. No autopsy was ever performed on Houdini, and the cause of death listed is “traumatic appendicitis.” This is a condition that’s not only a medical impossibility, it simply doesn’t exist. None of this information has ever been thoroughly investigated until now, and we’re just scratching the surface on that front. Whatever that eventually may lead to is unclear, but what is clear is that Dr. Crandon certainly had the motivation and means to kill Houdini, and he also had enough connections within the governments of the U.S. and Canada, who, according to Houdini, were being run by Spiritualists, to pull it off and cover his trail.
The story sounds like a conspiracy worthy of an Oliver Stone film. What’s next for you?
It does, and that’s funny because there are already a couple of Hollywood studios who have expressed interest in optioning the book. However, they have yet to appeal to either our creative or, um, financial sensibilities. As for me, next, I’ll probably do another celebrity autobiography, but first, I want to spend a month on a remote island somewhere.
What drew you to live in SoHo?
When I got out of college, I didn’t want to move back to Queens where I had been raised, and I was able to “crash” with my friends from the Yippie movement, Jerry Rubin and Phil Ochs. After the Vietnam War had ended, Jerry decided he was going to go to California, renounce his radical ways, and start a vitamin corporation. Jerry asked me if I wanted to take over the apartment, a duplex with a basement. I said I did, and so I got a college buddy of mine to share the rent.
Phil Ochs and Jerry Rubin were your roommates?
Yeah, Phil ended up hanging himself. That’s a terrible story.
Do you want to talk about it?
Well, after Jerry left for California, Phil had nowhere to go, so we let him stay in the living room. Phil had gained quite a bit of notoriety in the sixties as a radical, folk singer and author, but by now, 1976, his mental state had begun to deteriorate from what I believe was manic depression. Phil would often talk about killing himself, and would even read a fake obituary to us as he thought it would appear in the New York Times. He said, “I can see it now, Folk Singer Found Dead!” Well, my other roommate was a pretty caustic guy, and he would tell Phil to stop talking about killing himself and just do it. He said, “Phil, you could go out in the hall and hang yourself from the banister and that would be that.” Anyway, that night, he and I went out, and when we came back, the fucking banister was broken. Phil had tried to hang himself. Luckily he was not successful. Phil then went to Queens to stay with his sister after that, and a month later, he successfully hanged himself. So, I had to get away from this roommate because I just couldn’t be around him anymore, and I ended up giving him the apartment. I then lucked into the apartment on Prince Street, and it was rent stabilized, so I’ve been a prisoner of SoHo ever since.
Besides stabilized rent, what do you love about SoHo?
SoHo’s great. It’s wonderfully centrally located between the Village, Little Italy and Chinatown, and you can walk to any of them in just a few minutes. SoHo has a neighborhood feel even though it’s in the heart of Manhattan. It’s gotten much more populated since I moved here, so I had to get a little place on the beach out on the South Shore overlooking Fire Island to get away from the weekend borough-trash and Euro-trash. Now, I’ve got a little Yin and a little Yang.
Before you ship out, can you tell us where to find “The Secret Life of Houdini?”
Any bookstore should have it, and you can also find it on www.amazon.com or www.barnesandnoble.com. If you want to contribute to a good cause, go to www.houdinithebook.com, or www.conjuringarts.org to get an autographed copy of the book with the proceeds going to the non-profit Conjuring Arts Research Center.
Books by Larry Sloman:
“Thin Ice: A Season in Hell With the New York Rangers”
“Reefer Madness: The History of Marijuana in America”
“On the Road With Bob Dylan”
“Private Parts” w/Howard Stern
“Miss America” w/Howard Stern
“Steal This Dream”
“Mysterious Stranger” w/David Blaine
“Scar Tissue” w/Anthony Kiedis
“The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of
America’s First Superhero”