AN OLD manuscript discovered in a now defunct magic shop is believed to have been commissioned by legendary escape artist Harry Houdini.

Its existence has long been speculated about but until now there has been no sign of the project undertaken by Houdini and horror fiction writer HP Lovecraft. It was thought to have come to a halt when Houdini’s life was cut short in 1926 as a result of a ruptured appendix.

Now, however, Potter and Potter Auctions in Chicago claim to have got hold of the 31-page typewritten story, which features black magic, cannibals and werewolves, and will auction it on April 9. Bidding for The Cancer of Superstition will open at $13,000 but it is expected that it could go for as much as $40,000 as scholars and collectors vie for ownership.

As well as the manuscript, the auction will feature Houdini’s handcuffs, lockpicks, personal scrapbooks, rare photos and posters and an archive of letters written by vaudeville impresario Martin Beck, whose influence helped to turn Houdini into the “Handcuff King”.


WHILE Lovecraft achieved posthumous fame for his horror fiction he was virtually unknown in his lifetime and died in poverty 11 years after Houdini when he was just 46.

He is now regarded as one of the most significant authors of his genre but few people recognised his talent while he was alive.

The Great Harry Houdini was one of the few who did admire him, mainly because Lovecraft had written a tale called Imprisoned with the Pharaohs, loosely based on one of Houdini’s alleged experiences.

The story tells how, in Egypt in 1910, Houdini is captured by a tour guide disguised as an ancient pharaoh and flung in a deep pit near the Sphinx. Trying to escape he discovers a huge cave and meets the god who inspired the building of the Sphinx.

Houdini was so impressed by the story that he started to offer Lovecraft work, including ghost writing. One project was an essay criticising astrology which apparently has not survived.

Houdini paid Lovecraft $75 for it – worth around $1,000 today – and also commissioned The Cancer of Superstition. It was thought that Lovecraft had only completed the synopsis and introduction before Houdini’s death.

In his award-winning biography of Lovecraft, ST Joshi said that not much is known about the project.

“It appears to have been a collaborative revision on which Lovecraft and CM Eddy worked at the instigation of Harry Houdini. Houdini performed in Providence in early October, at which time he asked Lovecraft to do a rush job – an article attacking astrology – for which he paid $75. This article has not come to light; but perhaps it supplied the nucleus for what was apparently to be a full-length polemic against superstitions of all sorts.”


DESPITE Houdini’s well documented scepticism about miracles, psychics and spiritualism, he did agree that he would try to communicate with his wife, Bess, from the grave. They agreed to use a secret code based on their favourite song, Rosabelle, and for ten years after Houdini died Bess tried to get in touch with him in annual séances on Halloween.

However, in 1936 after one more unsuccessful séance, Bess put out the candle she had always kept burning beside Houdini’s photograph and refused to try to contact him again.

“Ten years is long enough to wait for any man,” she said later.

However, the tradition of holding Houdini séances still continues, something the escape artist would probably find deeply annoying as he made frequent attempts to debunk such activities during his lifetime, so much so that it cost him his friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Doyle, who became a strong believer in spiritualism, was upset by Houdini’s book A Magician Among the Spirits which he co-authored with CM Eddy and which set out to show that faith in psychics and other supernatural beliefs was unfounded.


A MEMBER of a Scientific American committee, Houdini’s training in magic helped him to expose frauds that had successfully fooled academics and scientists. His committee offered a cash prize to anyone that could demonstrate supernatural abilities but the prize was never collected.

As Houdini’s ghost-busting fame grew he started to attend séances in disguise with a police officer and newspaper reporter in attendance.

However, Doyle continued to believe that Houdini was a powerful medium and was able to make his incredible escapes because of his paranormal abilities.

While that seems far-fetched, there is no doubt Houdini was a master of his craft, becoming famous by escaping from increasingly difficult scenarios involving coffins and straitjackets.

And it’s certainly apt that the newly discovered document has, until now, escaped scrutiny and will only be revealed 90 years after the great escape artist’s death.