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houdinisghost
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I've been digging up stuff on the Wall.
Bayard Grimshaw, the World’s Fair, February 1, 1969
Before I comment further on the illusion and on Houdini’s association with it, I want to quote from a letter just received, as I write, from Val Walker. “You have recently graphically focused attention,” Val writes, “on the sordid question of piracy, apropos the Zig-Zag girl. I would like to direct your attention to another more subtle form of piracy practiced down the years by many performers who seem to think that when presenting an illusion not of their own invention, it adds glamour and prestige to acclaim boldly the great Houdini as the creator
“We all know that this fabled figure has been given credit the world over for exploits he had not the faculty to create or accomplish. Why then do some British magicians continue the fashionable habit of crediting this bogey with every miracle of the age?
“The travesty of this mockery was flabbergastingly displayed last Sunday by David Nixon on his ITV late show, presenting the British illusion “Walking Through a Wall.” He plainly stated it was the invention of Houdini! David, no real wizard perhaps, but a great television personality, a jolly nice fellow and very popular; why on earth should he give an American credit for a British creation? Can he possibly be so ignorant?
“Houdini has been given credit for most of my known records; I can tolerate that, but it fills me with remorse when I hear the name of my close friend Selbit dragged in the mud. Is there no honor left in this great world of magic?”
Point of difference
Now, Val Walker is one of my most valued friends, and I am second to none in my admiration of his skill and talent and his truly great achievements, which only recently, following his many years out of the limelight, have belatedly received the recognition they merit among the magical fraternity and largely through the efforts of his lifelong friend, and encyclopedic source of magical knowledge, Dick Ritson. But Val and I do not necessarily see eye to eye in all matters, and a minor point of difference is that I perhaps tend to venerate the memory of Houdini, while Val, in his more intimate and personal knowledge and for perfectly sound reasons, rates him less highly.
In defense of David Nixon, I must say that I did not get the impression that he stated categorically that Houdini was the inventor of “Walking Through a Wall.” Had I thought so I should certainly have sat up and taken notice, for I know perfectly well that he was not. Let us, in the interests of accuracy, take a look at the facts as far as we can at this distance of time.
In the Magician Monthly for May, 1914, appeared two cryptic references to new illusions. In an article about Sidney Josolyne, then a little-known magician who was presenting an Oriental act but who years later became famous for the thought transference act “La Celeste,” it was stated “. . . he also tells us that he has invented a new illusion which he believes will puzzle every living magician. . .” And elsewhere in the same issue: “P. T. Selbit is about to present an entirely new and original wonder which at the moment he entitles “the Dissolving Man.”
On June 2, 1914, Selbit gave a private performance for booking managers of his new illusion, and another at St. George’s Hall on June 16; it was not titled “Walking Through a Wall,” and “Yettma,” Hamley’s magical manager, described it in detail in his “London Letter” in the Sphinx for August, 1914. Selbit used a girl, just as did David Nixon, and apart from the missing brick and the rope and belt the presentation was exactly as we saw it last Sunday.
But meanwhile Josolyne had signed an agreement giving Houdini the right to perform his original illusion, and the bill of sale, dated May 4, 1914, reads; “I, Josolyne hereby for 1 pound received from Harry Houdini have given him the right of doing the mystery of Walking Through a Steel Wall and if he does it I am to receive what he sees fit in any form and he can perform it to be shown.” On the reverse side was written: received from Harry Houdini 3 pounds in all regarding my Walking Through a Wall of Steel illusion.”
Houdini sailed for America on June 18 and opened at Hammerstein’s New York on July 6. That week his main feature was the water torture cell, but the following week he featured the brick wall, not using a girl like Selbit but doing the “walking through” himself. It made quite a sensation, and received much publicity in the American press. But for reasons which would occupy too much space to be fully explained here, Houdini soon afterwards decided to discontinue his full evening show, and with it he abandoned the wall.

Bayard Grimshaw, the World’s Fair, February 8, 1969
Confirmation
Back to walking through a wall; Travis B. Wills, himself a well-informed magical historian, confirms my own impression of David Nixon’s introductory remarks. He thinks that the actual words used were: “this illusion has not been shown since Houdini performed it some 50 years ago,” and that David prefaced them by saying that he expected that some magical historians would write in and prove him wrong. “Trav” feels sure that it was not suggested that Houdini was the originator or creator of the “Wall” and he also makes the point, as I myself suggested, that while almost every viewer would recognize the name of Houdini the name of the actual originator would have been meaningless to any save the small minority, the students of magical history. TV time is restricted—David could not possibly have gone into all the details.
I had to omit a lot of interesting detail, of course; I didn’t want to give the matter too much space at the expense of other items. I’d like to have told something of the snag Selbit encountered with the “Wall” on tour, as recollected by his close friend of that period, Val Walker; how Val suggested one improvement to Selbit, which was actually incorporated in the Nixon version; and why, in later years, Selbit always referred to the Wall as a bad egg! But all that would be too revealing and informative to be printed here. Val Walker and Selbit were on the same bill at Maskelyne’s, and spent much time together at the time when Selbit was first devising and presenting “Sawing Through a Woman,” and when I divulge that the latter was really inspired by Val’s “Radium Girl” many of you will understand what I mean.

Bayard Grimshaw The World’s Fair, March 15,1969
Following David Nixon’s presentation of the famous illusion “Walking Through a Wall” a few weeks ago, I wrote about its history and origin on this page; the controversy around the “Wall’s” invention had also been dealt with here in the issue dated December 24, 1966. Those readers, and there are quite a number, who keep a file of “About Magicians,” can refer back. Now some further sidelights have come to hand; with these, unless some new piece of information should be unearthed from the distant past, we can leave the subject to rest in peace as one of magic’s many unsolved mysteries.
First, an illuminating note from that distinguished author, historian, and former editor of “the Magic Circular,” Percy Naldrett. “Vincent Dalban and Sidney Josolyne were two young clerks who often came into Le Roy’s showroom together,” Percy writes. “Both friends were enthusiastic amateurs. I left Le Roy’s in January 1913 and corresponded with Josolyne for some years after that.
“In 1913 he wrote me pathetic complaints that he had invented an illusion, had approached Neville Maskelyne but received very little encouragement. Then a little later he wrote that his illusion was being put on at St. George’s Hall. He was so upset by this that he made frantic efforts, and when the illusion toured he played in opposition halls. He would hardly have done this had he not been convinced that he had been forestalled. That is all I know about it.
“No one will suggest that Neville Maskelyne or Selbit were in any way dishonorable. It may have been a case of two minds thinking alike. But the fact remains that the same illusion was being presented by two performers, each claiming its origination. As both have passed on I think it should be allowed to drop, as apparently even at this late stage it is bound to remain a matter of controversy.
“But I do feel guilty that when Culpitt wrote an article in the “Magic Circular” in the “Famous Magicians” series, I did not make mention in my editorial notes of my friendship with Josolyne and my knowledge of his troubles.”
In an accompanying letter Percy adds: “the poor chap was awfully upset about it, so he must’ve been convinced that he was hard done by.” I feel the same, and had Josolyne still been alive he would have had my heartfelt sympathy. In the matter of letting an old controversy drop: I always feel that any of us who can recall, or can dig out, anything that will illuminate a dark corner of magic history owe a duty to future generations to set it down in print for their reference and information.
A note from Michael Vine: “whether Selbit did originate the “Walking Through” illusion is something I really don’t know, but as far as the future is concerned, it would seem that Josolyne’s name as the originator will stand out mainly due to articles like that in the Gresham book “Houdini.” The point I’m trying to get at is: if Selbit was the originator, it seems a shame that the name of Josolyne will stand out, thanks to Gresham, without Selbit even being given the benefit of the doubt.
Contradicting myself: surely with the evidence printed in the Gresham book of the sale to Houdini, it would point to the fact that Josolyne did invent it. Unless he was a thief the proof would seem substantial. It can also be said that Josolyne based his idea on another effect, and therefore it was not completely his own invention. This has happened before—and we still accept the name attributed to the effect. Too involved, perhaps.”
A point occurs to me here: if it had not happened that Houdini had to part for America so soon after purchasing the idea from Josolyne, and if he had instead been preparing to present the illusion in England at the same time when the Selbit presentation was first shown, the matter would surely have been brought into the open, and perhaps we should’ve known the truth of it all.
The “Wall” again
George Jenness, who has an unrivaled collection of Maskelyne material, sent a copy of a St. George’s Hall program dated August 14, 1914. In the second half: “Mr. Frederick Culpitt in selections from his humorous conjuring etc., etc., also presenting walking through a wall, the latest history, invented by Mr. P. T. Selbit.” This was not of course, as my note of February 1 shows, the first presentation, which had occurred two months earlier; but the wording is of interest.
George Blake, who I am sorry to hear is abed with a chill at the time of writing, says that Josolyne’s “Weird Wonders for Wizards” was advertised in the “Conjurors’ Chronicle” for February, 1923 as being “in active preparation,” and in that for February, 1925 as “now ready!” The price was 2/8 postpaid. I have since found that my estimate of the publication date was approximately correct, for the book was reviewed in “the Magic wand” for June, 1925
George mentions that “walking through a wall” was presented at St. George’s Hall as late as October, 1924, and he is almost certain that he saw it in 1922. And that A. G. Mills was presenting “Walking Through a Plate Glass Window” at the Alhambra, Morecambe, week of July 22, 1922. George has an idea that a film was made exposing the “wall”—I don’t recollect this, but of course an exposure of the old two girl “sawing through” was filmed. Selbit’s application for an injunction to prevent its being shown failed, on the grounds that he’d be late too long in making it. George saw the latter film; at the end he was very annoyed, because the final caption read “be sure to come next week to find out how it’s done!”

Bayard Grimshaw, the World’s Fair, About Magicians,Saturday, June 6, 1970.
. . . And what was the truth about the origin of that noted illusion “Walking Through a Wall?”
I gave the known facts about this great controversy of the time in this page in February and March of last year and previously in December 1966. Now I have further information. It comes in a letter written by a well-known magician in 1914; for certain reasons I do not propose to disclose his name at present, but it has the ring of truth and I have every reason to believe that the details given are accurate.
After giving a full account of the illusion as seen by the audience, the writer continues: “shortly after I had finished with my illusion act, a man by name of Rundle approached me with two new illusions which he wanted to sell, one of which was a man passing through a brick wall, or sheet of iron. I, of course, did not want it as I had finished with that sort of thing and I strongly suspect it was hawked around from one to the other. At any rate I know I have on several occasions in the course of talk, etc., mentioned the fact and if I remember rightly, believe I mentioned a trick of this sort being offered when I first saw you at Ramsgate. Perhaps you’ll recall.
“Well, Selbit produced this about a month ago for Moss and was immediately booked for their tour at 80 pounds per week. Devant’s brother, E. Wighton, the booking manager for Moss, was present at the demonstration and told Devant of the matter. Eventually Devant paid Selbit 300 pounds for the rights of performing the trick at the hall only and Selbit is to present it this week, Culpitt following it up.
“Now about two months ago, an amateur in the club, Mr. S. E. Josolyne, came to me and said he had invented the trick in which a man walked through a sheet of iron. I asked for particulars and eventually gleaned that the trick was presented on a large platform which had a heavy fringe about a foot thick hanging from it. ‘Nuf sed.’ I simply laughed and there the matter ended. When a few weeks later, I was at the New Cross Empire to see Houdini, I saw this amateur coming from the dressing room and Houdini told me that this chap had offered him a rotten trick in which a man passed through a sheet of iron, but that he thought nothing of it, but as the chap was hard up he had given him one pound for himself.
“Now that the thing is produced Houdini has been to the hall and frightened them out of their wits by telling them he has the sole rights of the trick which he had purchased from a Mr. Josolyne and forbidding them to do it. In this week’s ’Era’ published yesterday, you will see an advertisement which Houdini has inserted, the outcome of which is that Selbit has served Houdini with a writ. As he has sailed today, I don’t know what is to happen. He however, despite Selbit, has arranged with his agent, Harry day, that a duplicate act is to go out on July 6. Houdini also told me he has wired to his brother Hardeen in America to produce the trick there on the quick and I understand it was produced in New York on Monday.
“Now it is very plain to me the whole affair, Selbit had got hold of the trick, doubtless directly or indirectly from Rundle, and set to work making it. Josolyne must have heard of the effect and as you know what amateurs are, he got a crude thing to bring about the fact. Now, however, that the effect is produced Houdini saw the thing and spotted it and now they claim that the method is the same as theirs. Once again. treat all this quite confidentially, please.”
I have reproduced the relevant part of the letter word for word, grammatical errors included. But factual errors I do not suspect: the writer was dependable and the last man I would expect to make rash statements. At the time, of course, his request to his correspondent to treat the information as confidential was essential. Now that all concerned, including the writer and recipient of the letter, have long since passed on, there was no reason why it should not be made public and indeed good reason, in the interests of magic history, why it should.
Is this the last word on the 56-year-old controversy about the origin of “walking through a wall?”
A newcomer
In “the Sphinx” for September, 1914, E. P. Conran of Philadelphia advertised “the absolutely correct secret and plans” of the illusion for only one dollar; and perhaps to excuse himself for accepting the add, the editor, Dr. Wilson, stated in the October issue that the great Alexander had used the identical illusion as far back as December 1898! In place of bricks, Dr. Wilson said, Alexander sometimes used blocks of ice, hollow titles, or poured concrete—but the principle was the same. (Incidentally, in that same issue the “London Letter” included an enthusiastic report of the wonderful act at Finsbury Park Empire of a newcomer—guess who—yes Val A. Walker).
Meanwhile, there was a row going on in England; Selbit was booked to present the wall at the London Alhambra, and three days prior to his opening Thomas management slipped Josolyne’s presentation into the program at the Empire. Again, the full story is too long to tell here; suffice it to say that the Josolyne version faded out, while Selbit toured with his presentation and Fred Culpitt showed it on his behalf at St. George’s Hall. Selbit continued to tour with the “Wall” until the end of the year, but by that time World War I was gaining in momentum, and perhaps that accounts for the fact that I cannot find any record of the illusion being presented later than December, 1914.
So who really originated “walking through a wall”—Alexander? Josolyne? Selbit? Certainly not Harry Houdini. How can we be sure 55 years later? I wish now that the time I knew Sidney Josolyne I had got him to set out in writing his side of the matter. Whatever may be the truth about the Alexander version, my guess is that Selbit probably originated the idea independently, and that Josolyne somehow got wind of it and rather than forestall Selbit with it himself approached Houdini, knowing that he was on the point of returning to America.
As for David Nixon’s Association of the illusion with Houdini—well, it must be admitted that the names of Selbit or Josolyne mean nothing to present-day viewers, while everyone has heard of Houdini. But I entirely agree with Val Walker; it would have been nice to hear David tell the viewers how Houdini purchased the American rights (?) To a British illusion and made a sensation with it in America. Or better still—how “Walking Through a Wall” was created by the same brilliant brain which originated “Sawing Through a Woman!”

From Kenneth Silverman’s notes at Appleton
Article in Bradford Daily Telegraph, July 4, 1914 reproduced as a broadside at the Empire Theatre Leeds. Walking through a wall—some controversy over this in England between S. Josolyne, “the boy inventor,” and Selbit over who really invented it. Selbit apparently rushed on the stage of the Leeds Empire theater and called Josolyne a thief, and was thrown out of the theater. Harry Houdini seemingly got caught between them. Josolyne writes: Mr. Selbit’s statement that Mr. Houdini filed the particulars of my illusion on June 15 is correct, but it was filed in the morning before Mr. Selbit produced the illusion area did the reason that they were not filed before is that Mr. Houdini, having the American rights, had no need to file them in England until he was aware that the imitation was being produced. . . Mr. Selbit says that he will give me 1500 pounds if I can prove that I told anybody about my illusion before he produced his. The very fact of my having sold the American rights to Mr. Houdini on May 4, 1914, proves this and entitles me to the 1500.
Silverman notes:
Hardeen also did the brick wall in Boston in 1915 the wall being built on the stage.

Magic mirror, September 15, 1910
Morritt Letter to Houdini June 11, 1914
In confidence
Selbit has sold the brick wall illusion to our people at St.George’s Hall for 300 pounds. Devanrt bought for the Co.—What do you think of it—all news tomorrow.
Kindest Regards,
Charles Morritt
Moritt Letter to Houdini June 12, 1914
Well now—with reference to Joslyn he has been today to the directors of our place but Devant is away at Brighton’s. They sent me into the officeThis afternoon’s show. There was Nevil Maskelyne, Archie Maskelyne, Smedley, Selbit & Facer the secretary.
They said to me that Joselyne had been in and claimed the passing throught the wall as his and he said “I showed it to Morritt some 3 months ago, so they asked me if this was true. I of course had to acknowledge he had told me of his illusion of passing a person through a sheet of iron using a 3 fold screen at each side which of course is true. He told them he had told others including Mr. Houdini and members of the magicians club which he has. He seems hard on Josolyne to be forestalled in this way someone has given this idea away however they are in a fog about it. They are going to ask Goldston, yourself and I know Stanley Collins knows about it being Josolyne’s.
. . . As a matter of fact you and myself knew about this before Selbit. He has only just built it. Culpitt told me someone from America has offered 1000 pounds for the American rights, but you cannot get away from it but that Josolyne was the first man to have this trick.
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