In fact, Oct. 31 shares the day with another rather ominous event – the anniversary of Harry Houdini’s death (1926). A master trickster himself, Houdini was also committed to exposing the fraudulent methods of supposed mediums who claimed to communicate with “the beyond.” A special section on Houdini in the American Variety Stage collection in American Memory features more than 170 photographs and related items of personal memorabilia that document his career. American Variety Stage also features theater playbills and programs, sound recordings, motion pictures and playscripts.
His predecessor Harry Kellar (1849-1922), the “Dean of American Magicians” shown in the poster above, was famous for his self-decapitation effect and advancing the levitation illusion. Search the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC) for “Harry Kellar” to uncover his numerous magic posters and photos of him with Houdini.
If no tricks up your sleeve, donning fangs and cape or pointed hat and broomstick is certainly de rigueur. The custom of dressing in costume and soliciting candy can be traced back to the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain, when food and drink was left out to placate roaming spirits and demons out and about for the night. Through the centuries, people began dressing as such incarnations, performing antics in exchange for these treats. Thus, the practice of trick-or-treating evolved. Learn more about the origins of the devilish holiday by visiting the American Folklife Center.