WHEN ASKED WHEN his obsession with famed illusionist Harry Houdini first began, collector Arthur Moses is remarkably specific. “It’s funny how I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday, yet I can remember this very precisely,” he says. “I recall being in middle school and being bored to tears in the school library. There was like five minutes left till the end of the period, and I grabbed a book off the shelf next to me, just to thumb through for five minutes, and it was a book on Harry Houdini. I skipped the next class to stay in the library to read it. For the next 10 years or so, I managed to collect about a dozen or so books on Houdini, which at the time I thought was this big collection. It wasn’t until after I married my wife that I went to a library and started to do some actual research. I found out that there were dealers and collectors and organizations — this whole world of Houdini stuff — and came home feeling totally gobsmacked. That was really how it started.”
Now, some 40 years later, Moses has gone from part-time Houdini hobbyist to an internationally recognized collector and Houdini bibliographer, transforming his suburban home in Fort Worth, Texas, into an evolving Houdini archive that is currently home to over 6,500 objects. “The downstairs part of our home, which was my study, is now set up like a museum, encompassing the size of three big rooms. After our kids moved out, we broke through the wall of my son’s bedroom on the second floor and installed a spiral staircase, so now that’s a part of it too. Currently, about 800 square feet of our home is designated just for my collection. When people come over, I always say that if there’s something you want to see or to touch, just ask. You’re not going to hurt anything. Part of why I have all of this stuff is because I also love showing it off.”
While Moses’ fascination with Houdini might veer toward the obsessive, a quick sweep of the internet reveals just how large the famed illusionist and escape artist continues to loom in popular consciousness, even nearly 100 years after his death. A showman with panache, he led with death-defying stunts, escaping from straightjackets while being hoisted from a crane, and somehow cheating death after being submerged upside down in a locked, water-filled box or after being tossed into the ocean in a lead-lined box. It’s hard to imagine the spectacle of David Copperfield or the stunty theatrics of David Blaine without Harry Houdini having created the blueprint. Even though Houdini was hardly the first person to make magic into a career, he is arguably the first to become a globally recognized celebrity for doing so. Still, given the mainstreaming of magic over the last half century, what makes Houdini’s legacy so enduring?
“First of all, there’s the name,” says Moses. “Houdini is a fun word. It’s a very memorable word. It’s not like Smith or Jones, not that there’s anything wrong with Smith or Jones. Also, he certainly brought magic to the front of theatrical performance. He just had a magnetism and he was fearless in both his feats of escape and with his challenges to the public. ‘You bring me your ropes and tie me up,’ or ‘you bring me your straightjacket,’ or ‘you bring me your locks and handcuffs.’ Build a box and I'll escape from it. So glass workers built a glass box for him and he escaped from it. Postal inspectors challenged him to escape from a leather mail bag with a postal lock on it, which he did. He always got away with it, performing all of these challenges while also just being this huge, fearless personality that was full of bravado. There is something really captivating about that.”
While Moses’ collection includes all sorts of things you might expect — an original Houdini straightjacket, handcuffs, picks used by Houdini to escape from locks — the more fascinating pieces are some of the less expected. “To me, the $5 item is just as cool as the $1,000 item,” says Moses, pointing out his massive collection of Houdini publications. “I often say that if you need to do research or look up a specific Houdini publication, you can go to a hundred libraries around the world or you can come to my house. I’ve got close to 3,000 magazines. I also have what would be called or described as a vaudeville sidewalk stand billboard, which is 3 feet wide and 7 feet tall. And there’s only two of those in the world — mine and the one in David Copperfield’s collection.”
Copperfield’s name comes up often in relation to Houdini, not only because he could be a kind of modern heir apparent to someone like Houdini, but also because he owns what is widely considered the greatest collection of Houdini ephemera in the world. As it turns out, most of the big-ticket Houdini collectors also happen to be magicians, which makes Moses — who retired three years ago after running his family’s glass-and-tile business in Texas for 42 years — something of an anomaly in the world of magic collectibles.
“I never had any interest in performing magic and I certainly never thought I’d have any of this stuff,” he says. “Now I look at it as a kind of obligation. I have these things now; eventually someone else will have them. It’s my obligation to take care of them and to share them.” To that end, Moses spends a lot of his time maintaining a massive Houdini bibliography and database (organized, as he explains it, in an archaic Microsoft database) and writing very niche books about specific areas of Houdini lore and scholarship, which themselves become invaluable resources for magicians and other Houdini collectors.
Even though he has spent most of his life thinking, writing, and talking about Harry Houdini, Moses is still not entirely sure why the great escape artist continues to be such a linchpin in his life, though he’s given it a lot of thought. “Why does my wife like gardening? Why does my wife like knitting? Why does someone like traveling? Why do people like to bake? Why do people collect coins? You know, I’ve got a friend that collects glass insulators for telephone poles. Why? What makes anybody fall in love with their hobby? It just makes something click inside of you.”
Without skipping a beat, Moses considers the origins of that original click for him. “I think it goes back to when I was a kid and I first read about him,” he explains. “He was Jewish. I’m Jewish. Other than that, I think it was just that he was able to achieve the impossible. I was certainly a shy and sort of troubled kid. I was awkward. I don’t know if he found me or I found him, but Houdini gave me some belief in myself. I’ve got a Houdini autograph that has one of his favorite mantras written on it: ‘My brain is the key that sets me free.’ I’ve thought about that a lot. He was a fearless person. The things he was doing were really just tricks, but he managed to make people believe in the impossible. That’s pretty wonderful.”
T. Cole Rachel Writer
T. Cole Rachel is the managing editor of Departures. A Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and teacher with over 20 years of experience working in print and digital media, his writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Interview, and the Creative Independent.
Jackie Lee Young Photographer
Jackie Lee Young is an artist and photographer living and working in Austin, Texas. Specializing in film photography, her work explores artist portraits, fashion, music, design, and travel. Holding a B.A. in photography and literature/writing from St. Edward’s University, she has a special interest in documenting color, movement, and design, as well as culture and the American social landscape. Her images focus on people and their interaction with space, along with bold contrasts in music, color, and fashion.