DCSIMG

The search is on to find Houdini's plane

It was a hugely important moment in Australia's aviation history. When renowned escapologist and pioneer aviator Harry Houdini took to the skies back in 1910, he was feted for making the country's very first controlled, powered flight.

But for decades, mystery has surrounded the whereabouts of the Voisin biplane that Houdini used that day.

Now an international team of historians and aviation enthusiasts is searching for clues ahead of celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the flight at Diggers Rest, Melbourne on March 18 and believe that a Portsmouth man could hold the key.

Jon Becker from Oregon, USA says the team has unearthed a copy of a letter in which Houdini gave permission for one Donald Stevenson to take possession of the plane in exchange for paying storage fees.

Jon, an aeronautical engineer who used to work in Australia, explains:

'We know that Stevenson was a master illusionist who worked for Chung Ling Soo, aka William Robinson, who was known as 'the greatest magician of all time'.

'Robinson was a westerner who acted the part of a Chinese magician and was killed in a failed bullet catch trick in London in 1918. Robinson also knew Houdini and at one point was in business with Stevenson, forming one of the first model airplane factories.

'We have speculated that Stevenson may have acquired Houdini's airplane on behalf of Robinson, but we have no evidence of this.'

After uncovering clues which led to Stevenson, Jon got in touch with Houdini Australian Centenary of Flight organiser Rob McKay, who had organised an online search and was collating information. The international team includes members in Australia, Canada, America and the UK.

So far no photograph of Stevenson has been discovered. But research has revealed that he was a member of the Portsmouth and District Magic Circle and that he lived in the city probably from the late 1940s until his death, believed to be in September 1970.

They have uncovered articles he wrote for the city's Magic Circle group in 1951 and 1953.

Jon says he believes Stevenson was born in Highbury, London in 1883. The 1911 UK census lists his occupation as aeronautical engineer.

He had a sister called Maggie and a brother, Malcolm. Stevenson went on to share a workshop with William Robinson and created mechanical illusions for him and other magicians.

Stevenson also ran an aviation consultancy, the Eclipse Manufacturing Company, in Surrey. This tested aircraft concepts such as stability and control systems on model airplanes.

Jon says it is believed that in later years, Stevenson was a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society and worked for some of the earliest aircraft production companies in the UK, the Grahame-White Aviation Company and possibly the Blackburn Aeroplane & Motor Co.

Jon says: 'We would like to know if any of your readers knew Stevenson or knew of him and we'd like them to get in touch with us.

'Perhaps there is a family member or surviving former colleague out there who might be able to help us, or even solve the mystery.

Stevenson would have had some fascinating stories to tell.'

Houdini bought the biplane in Germany and reportedly learned to fly it in just one hour. He was going on an escapology tour of Australia and decided that he would take the biplane and make history while he was there.

After the historic flight at Diggers Rest, he flew again in Sydney at Rosehill Racecourse on April 25 before leaving for more engagements in Canada and the USA.

At some point after this, Houdini's biplane disappeared - and now the race is on to find it. Researchers believe that Houdini had it shipped to England and never flew it again.

Apparently, he gave permission for a John Bevins Moisant to use his biplane for an attempt to fly from Paris to London. This was unsuccessful and Moisant was to die crashing another plane later in 1910.

The story goes that the biplane was then held in storage at Peckham, London until 1913 when Donald Stevenson picked it up from the warehouse.

Houdini wrote a letter which he gave to Stevenson, authorising him to take the biplane from Mulliner's, a London coachbuilder who had probably carried out some repairs.

It has not been seen since - although a smaller scale replica is on display at the Brooklands Museum in Weybridge, Surrey.

For more information on the search for Houdini's biplane, go to houdini.diggersrest.com

THE MAGICIAN

Harry Houdini was born Ehrich Weisz on March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary. In search of a better life, his family emigrated to America and changed the spelling of their name to Weiss.

From a young age, he sold newspapers and shined shoes to help support the family. When not working, Ehrich practised acrobatic stunts.

By 13, he was fascinated by magic and his idol was the great French magician Robert Houdin. When Ehrich started performing magic in public, he simply added an 'i' to this name and called himself Houdini. The 'Harry' is believed to be an American version of his childhood nickname Ehrie.

He began his professional career at 17, doing magic shows in New York and teaming up with singer and dancer Beatrice Raymond, who he would later marry.

Houdini became an expert at escaping from locked boxes, handcuffs and straitjackets, taking his escapology act to Europe and becoming a celebrity.

He continued to perform shows around the world until suffering peritonitis following a burst appendix. Houdini died on October 31, 1926.

Thousands of mourners lined the streets of New York as the funeral procession passed.

 
 
 

Back to the top of the page