Hocus Pocus

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Author Bruce MacNab premiered his book 'Metamorphosis: The Apprenticeship of Harry Houdini' in Springhill this week, which records the magicians travels in the Maritimes in 1896, including stops in Springhill, Joggins, Parrsboro and Amherst.

SPRINGHILL – Arguably the most famous magician in history, authors have dissected every facet of the life of Harry Houdini since his passing in 1926 except one – how Cumberland County played a role shaping his career.

That is, until now.

Dartmouth-born author Bruce MacNab, who now lives in New Ross and recently purchased a home in Cumberland County, seems to have conjured up the unique story history has forgotten. In fact, it is the culmination of six years of research, traveling across the continent and delving into the archives and personal collections of Houdini fans and those close to his family. The result is The Metamorphosis: The Apprenticeship of Harry Houdini and is a thorough investigation of Houdini’s 1896 tour of the Maritimes, when his tour with a troupe in Yarmouth, Saint John, N.B., and Halifax turned into a solo act, with the assistance of his wife Beatrice, and saw the Houdinis perform in Dartmouth and Truro before moving on to Springhill, Parrsboro, Amherst and Joggins.

“When he was in the Maritimes he really was developing his act,” MacNab said at the Springhill Miners Memorial Library, site of the former Pioneer Hall where the Houdinis performed. “He was going to police stations, inviting them to cuff him at the shows; he really was going through a metamorphosis here.”

Amongst those developments were which acts he would not include and, while not conclusive, MacNab said he imagines Springhill had a significant impact on one of those decisions.

Up until his visit, the Houdinis included a clairvoyance act, or second-sight act, where Beatrice would supposedly commune with the deceased of an area with the questions coming from Houdini.

Just five years before their visit to Springhill, though, the community had lost 125 miners in an explosion– men and boys as young as 10 years old.

“When they came here to Springhill it must have been something to pull off a second-sight act. The town was filled with widows and orphans and the Houdinis were here pretending they could commune with the dearly departed,” MacNab said. “I’m very sure Houdini looked at the (miners memorial) monument.”

Houdini would later write in his journal he was not proud of performing the second-sight act and would go on to disprove alleged clairvoyants and anyone else who claimed they could communicate with the dead.

Houdini historians will recall it was in Saint John where he first developed the idea of escaping from a straitjacket.

“He watched an inmate trying to escape from a straitjacket and something just clicked,” MacNab said. “He thought if he just dislocated his shoulder – popped that sucker out – he could get out. He couldn’t figure out why the fellow was having such a hard time getting free.”

The straitjacket act, MacNab said, was money in the bank for later but the showmanship and presence Harry Houdini is remembered for was nurtured here, something MacNab has chronicled with archival photographs, interviews and through some of Houdini’s own documents, journals and scrap books, providing a thorough examination Houdini experts have said is long overdue.

The Metamorphosis: The Apprenticeship of Harry Houdini is now available online through amazon.com and will soon be available through Cole’s in Amherst. The Cumberland Public Libraries will also have copies available.

Organizations: Springhill Miners Memorial Library, Cumberland Public Libraries

Geographic location: Cumberland County, Dartmouth, Saint John Amherst New Ross Yarmouth Parrsboro Joggins

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