“Andre Malraux said, ‘You are not what you show; you are what you hide.’ This is a blog for magicians who regard the art of magic, and how its history is still an important element of that art.” —Jim
HOUDINI’S LONG LOST ILLUSION
Amazingly, Houdini’s final illusion managed to evade the history books and has been forgotten. It was an unusual, improbable feat that Houdini called Walking Through the North Pole, performed only once, on June 4, 1926, at the McAlpin Hotel, for the Society of American Magician’s Annual Banquet. The Sphinx review of the show by Max Holden gave a brief account:
“Harry Houdini next presented an illusion with two bare wood tables in the routh [presumably “rough”], and a piece of pole. He said it represents the North Pole. A dainty little miss was placed on one table, a screen placed round table; likewise a screen was placed around other table, and on screens being removed there was the dainty miss on the other table. …How that dainty miss traveled invisibly through the air over that North Pole is beyond me.
One other account appeared in Billboard.
“Houdini’s latest illusion [is] called “Walking Thru the North Pole.” In full view of the audience he somehow managed to transfer a little girl from a table at one end of the log, which represented the North Pole, to a table at the other end.”
It inspired little interest from magicians, certainly little enough that Houdini put the apparatus back in the warehouse. When he died less than five months later, Walking Through the North Pole, his last illusion, was just a mystery. Recently, I wrote about this illusion for John Cox’s “Wild About Harry” blog and for James Hagy’s April 2022 collection of “Perennial Mystics, Squared.”
So let’s take a careful look at it. Admiral Byrd had just flown over the North Pole months earlier, so Houdini’s title was a typical, topical bit of showmanship. Still, the mythical North Pole is pictured as a vertical place marker, standing upright in a glacier. Houdini’s horizontal pole didn’t remind anyone of The North Pole, nor was it logical that a full-sized person would be “walking through” such a pole. It was an awkward trick that, unlike his famous Brick Wall trick, didn’t offer the audience any clear visual imagery to make it appealing.
My drawing is a reconstruction, based on the descriptions. There were two tables and Holden noted that they were “in the rough.” Borrowed hotel tables, for example, would have been finished, so Houdini must have had the tables built especially for this trick, and tried to make them look innocent by using rough timber.
The pole was presumably about 8 feet long (we can imagine the proportions to look right with a typical 30-inch-tall table), and 5 or 6 inches in diameter, since it was perceived as either a “pole” (Houdini’s title) or a “log” (according to Billboard). It was positioned between the tables (“a table at one end… a table at the other end,” according to Billboard; the lady “traveled… over that pole,” according to Sphinx).
So now we can imagine the illusion. The tables were shown and separated. The pole was lifted horizontally by Houdini and an assistant, and laid across the tops of the tables, so that there was a “route” from one table to another. In this position the pole would have locked in place, so there was no danger of it rolling off a tabletop, or skittering and dropping to the floor. Hardware on the table would have made a simple job of this.
The lady took her place atop one of the tables. Two screens (presumably about six feet high) were put in place in front of the tables, one blocking the lady’s table and the other obscuring the matching table. The lady ducked down, so that she was no longer visible over the top of the screen. The orchestra offered a drumroll. The screens were pulled away, and the lady was now discovered crouched atop the opposite table, at the other end of the pole.
How was it done? I think there’s a logical, perfectly workable method that is apparent in the presentation. It uses a principle that, in 1926, had been used by various illusionists. I won’t explain it here, but illusionists who are curious can decode this message: Tops Treasury… first effect… expanded to Houdini’s trick… Bigbee’s fake starts in the pole, or hidden behind the pole…
There. That should do it.
Was it a good idea? Almost certainly not. The effect was muddled and Servais LeRoy, who watched the trick that night at the McAlpin Hotel, wasn’t impressed. He later wrote about his friend:
“[Houdini] was in no sense a finished magician, although this detail never seemed to trouble him,” LeRoy wrote years later, recalling his famous friend. “Using other men’s ideas, he was unable to improve on the original and was forced to let it go at that, or produce something still weaker. His illusion of the North Pole was an example. The Vanishing Elephant was another. Both were perfect in their utter weakness.”
We can imagine the various details that would have had LeRoy, a famous perfectionist, drumming his fingers on the dinner table as he watched Houdini. Still, Houdini’s illusion, for its “utter weakness,” leaves us with an indelible impression of this dynamic entertainer, constrained within a mere magic trick, struggling to escape its ordinariness.