The Hunt for Houdini’s Airplane

Amateur detectives have found clues to the fate of the magician’s biplane.

On March 18, 1910, Harry Houdini made three flights in his Voisin, the third lasting about three and a half minutes. (NASM 2001-14087)
Air & Space Magazine

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The next lead appeared in a 1913 letter from Houdini, giving his friend Donald Stevenson the airplane—if Stevenson agreed to pay several years’ worth of accumulated storage charges.

Stevenson designed stage props for a magician named William Robinson (stage name Chung Ling Soo), but he was also an aeronautical engineer who worked for British aviation legend Claude Grahame-White and various aviation firms.

In Houdini: A Pictorial Biography, author Milbourne Christopher writes that Stevenson sold Houdini’s Voisin “to another aviation enthusiast,” but doesn’t say who. And here the paper trail goes cold.

Professional magician Paul Zenon believes that Stevenson may have sold or given Houdini’s airplane to Robinson. Zenon was in Australia in 2009 when he first heard of Houdini’s 1910 flight, and he discovered that Stevenson and Robinson were business partners: “There are magazine adverts where they offer to take on engineering work in early aviation projects,” Zenon says. Robinson was killed on stage in 1918 when a stunt went wrong, and a warehouse filled with his props remained undisturbed until 1967. Did Robinson’s possessions contain Houdini’s crated Voisin?

Zenon is convinced that some part of Houdini’s aircraft remains. “I was in Australia a couple of days after the centenary,” he says, “and they had an airshow to commemorate the date. We were standing around at the airshow, chatting, and discussing that the likelihood of Houdini’s airplane still existing is small. As we were discussing this, a jeep drives up pulling a little trailer. And on that trailer was the engine and propeller from Fred Custance’s plane. It was the real thing. The fact that that plane isn’t famous and the propeller and motor still exist is quite interesting, you know?”

Contact us at A& with any leads.

Rebecca Maksel is a senior associate editor at Air & Space/Smithsonian.

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