Saturday, March 10, 2012

New Twists on Houdini's Russian Tour

The historical record shows Houdini performed in Russia in 1903. In fact, he was appearing at the Yar Restaurant in Moscow, which was a very upscale establishment and some say the best restaurant in all of Europe and Russia at the time. His appearances here ran from May 4th-July 4th, 1903. For a panoramic view of the restored Yar Restaurant, click here.

Stage at Yar Restaurant
In addition to his Yar appearance, Houdini escaped from the Prison Transport Car during this visit, as well as numerous police restraints. None of this is new information.

But I came across something that was news, at least to me. It was a newspaper column called "The Inside Straight" by Michael MacDougall that appeared on April 18, 1954. Mr. MacDougall had a connection to magic, as he wrote several books on gambling and card technique. An earlier column, MacDougall describes some events in the lives of magicians that ended tragically. So I looked forward to the column he wrote on Houdini. He describes Houdini's visit to Russia in 1903 with detail that I'd never read before. First he says that Houdini was staying in the Grand Hotel while performing at the Imperial Theatre, both of these are in St. Petersburg. Houdini received a request to perform before the Czar and this performance could make or break his visit. If the Czar was not impressed, Houdini's contracts would quickly vanish.

This fear of loosing the contracts was also mentioned in a 1931 Omaha World Herald (2-7-31)  article about Ike Rose, who claims to have been the person who booked this tour for Houdini. Though his fear was more about Houdini getting stuck in one of the jails, more than having the Czar kick him out of the country for being no good. For the record, The Secret Life of Houdini by William Kalush says that Harry Day booked all of the Russian dates. Interesting contradiction here, though I suppose it's possible that Day worked for Ike Rose or vice versa.


So back to the appearance before the Czar. This story is one also confirmed by Orson Welles, who claimed that Houdini was one of his early magic teachers. It's the story of Houdini's incredible feat of causing a bell to ring in an old cathedral in Moscow. The 500 lbs clapper to the bell had mysteriously fallen from the bell twenty years before and killed 100 worshipers and injured even more. The Czar himself barely escaped with his life. The bell had never rung since that time due to a decree by the Czar that no repairs be done and that the bell was to never again make a sound.

On this day, Houdini had planned on causing the bell to ring via magic. He just needed the Czar to agree to the stunt. The mysterious bell ringing is described in good detail in the Kalush biography, but suffice to say, that Houdini did apparently cause the bell to ring 5 times at the stroke of 5 p.m.. The royal members were impressed. But there are some differences between the Kalush account and the MacDougall account. In the Kalush biography, Houdini presented this for Grand Duke Sergius at the Kleinmichel Palace in Moscow and Houdini was to shoot the bells of the Kremlin. Except, Kleinmichel Palace is actually in St. Petersburg and the Kremlin is very far away in Moscow. So there is no chance he shot the bells of the Kremlin. In the MacDougall version, Houdini is presenting the effect for Czar Nicholas and is indeed in Moscow. To further confound the issue, there were two Grand Dukes named Sergius. One was Grand Duke Sergius Alexandrovich of Moscow and the other was Grand Duke Sergius Mikhailovich of St. Petersburg.

Grand Duke Mikhailovich, Grand Duke Alexandrovich, Czar Nicholas II
The MacDougall version of the story also has an ending I had not heard before. Moments after the bell rang, the Czar expressed his astonishment to Houdini, but another member of the party accused Houdini of performing 'a trick'. A short time later another booming sound was heard, much louder than the ringing of the bell. All attention went to the bell tower, where they could hear and see unusual movement of the building and then, the bell broke loose and crashed to the ground. According to the story, Houdini took credit for that as well. The article goes on to say that the newspapers of the time covered the events of that evening. But I don't have access to Russian newspapers, so I don't know how much is accurate and how much is Houdini embellishment. If I had to guess though on the person Houdini presented this for, I'm going to go with Grand Duke Sergius Mikhailovich of St. Petersburg.

I found all of this quite interesting. But there was something else. Perhaps even more interesting than the whole Bell Ringing affair. Houdini did not begin his performance with the Bell Ringing, that was his conclusion. What he apparently opened with was the 'Infamous Bullet Catch' routine. What? The Bullet catch? Wasn't it the Dean of Magicians himself, Harry Kellar who once warned Houdini NOT to present the bullet catch because of how dangerous it was? Indeed.

Houdini had apparently presented the bullet catch, not once but numerous times during his career. John Cox at WildAboutHoudini has a great piece on the history of Houdini's Bullet Catch, though it does not mention the Russian incident.

According to the article, Houdini gave the Czar a repeater rifle and had him mark a bullet and load it into the weapon. The gun was handed to a marksman, who took aim at Houdini's head and pulled the trigger. Houdini swiftly reached out with his hand and apparently grasped the speeding bullet out of mid-air. The still hot bullet was checked and confirmed that it was the marked bullet.  But it didn't stop there, as the Czar wanted Houdini to repeat the effect. This time, the conditions were tougher and the Czar himself fired the rifle at Houdini. But just as before, Houdini caught the marked bullet!

Have you heard this story before? I'm unfamiliar with it and certainly do not recall hearing of the Bullet Catch being performed in Russia. The bullet catch comes from a single source, so it's hard to say where he got it. He may have heard it directly from Houdini while he was alive. Still, it does give yet another example of Houdini possibly presenting the dangerous effect. Houdini was all about danger, or pseudo danger, so it always seemed odd to me that he didn't do the bullet catch, and now, well it appears that apparently he did.

Check out this related blog article:  Rasputin and Houdini!

Thanks to John Cox at WildaboutHoudini.com for the photo of the Houdini Russian flyer.

21 comments:

  1. Wow, wow, wow. A bullet catch in Russia? Never heard this before. I also don't remember reading about the bell ringing trick in Kalush, so this all feels new to me. Great stuff, Dean. Thanks.

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  2. Citations for these sources would be great. For example, for MacDougall's article "The Inside Straight". Where did it appear on April 18, 1954?

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    1. Omaha World Herald Magazine is where I found the Inside Straight column, but it appears to have been a syndicated column and appeared in numerous periodicals. The information from the Kalush book is from the Chapter called "Taming the Bear" pg 137-138.

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    2. I actually looked for other columns he wrote just to be sure he didn't write a column of fictional stories. But other issues of The Inside Straight dealt mostly with gambling and cheating techniques,and as I mentioned I found one related to the life stories of some magicians.

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  3. Very interesting stuff. Thanks!

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  4. I wonder where he found the time to do all his SPY WORK! :p

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  5. Surprised most are not familiar with Mickey MacDougall. He was mostly not a writer or historian, but probably lucked out to get this column in a few papers. He probably never met Houdini, as Houdini would have died before his time. I would not trust his Houdini stories unless you have newspaper stories to back it up or other definitive evidence.

    He was mostly a local NYC card magic guy who gravitated to claiming to be a gambling expert as several card workers have done. He called himself a Card Detective and did club dates. Probably knew Frank Garcia. Kind of like John Scarne, but not as successful.

    He wrote books as well as contributed to others.
    Greater Magic The Four Aces reappearance in poker deal 1938

    Don't be a Sucker! (1939) MacDougall, Mickey

    Gamblers Don't Gamble (1939) MacDougall, Mickey

    Mickey MacDougall Addition Prediction involving 5x5 matrix 34
    Tarbell Course in Magic - Volume 7 1972 Lesson-84-34 Addition Prediction: 5x5 math grid Mentalism   Mickey MacDougall's Presentation

    Card Mastery, Including Erdnase's "Expert At The Card Table" ©1944 Circle Magic Shop, NY
    Reprinted ©1975 D. Robbins & Co., Inc. MacDougall, Michael:

    Micky's Trio
    © Magic Inc.
    Micky Offers His Perfect Poker Deal: performer gets winning hand four times in a row
.
    Micky Offers His Trick of the Ages: dates selected by audience divined by the cards.
    Micky Offers His Mysterious Mental Marvels: mentally selected card divulged
.
    Micky's Work on the Mexican Turnover

    I will try to find out more.

    Dick Brookz & Dorothy Dietrich

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    1. According to information I found out, he was born in 1906, which would mean he was very much alive though young, during Houdini's time. His Russia story is not too different from the Orson Welles version of same story. All the stories of the Bell Ringing I could find are similar but some say it happened in Moscow, others in St. Petersburg. Frankly, the St. Petersburg story rings a little truer than the others due to the fact the Grand Duke Sergius in St Petersburg was friendly to Jews, while the Grand Duke Sergius of Moscow was not. The only thing that sounds unusual really is the Bullet Catch, but we are discovering more and more instances of Houdini having presented it, so even that could be true. I have issues too with single source claims, but much of this made sense. I'm still researching Houdini's Russian visit, so I may yet turn out additional articles.

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    2. 1906 would have placed Mickey in the right time zone. Where did you find his date of birth?

      Keep it up. Wherever all this goes it is all interesting stuff. News from inside Russia was hard to come by. Houdini would have been aware of this and could have tried to use it to his advantage.

      Dick & Dorothy

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    3. I am Mark MacDougall , Mickeys grandson , some how stumbled across this...any questions ??

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    4. Mark, I would like to contact you in regards to your grandfather. I can be reached at bradjeffers@yahoo.com

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  6. Dick & Dorothy,
    I think you hit it on the head. 'HOUDINI would have been aware that news in Russia was hard to come by and used it to his advantage'.

    The date is from magicpedia, and I know the guy who runs it and he is an excellent researcher.

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  7. Great article! Question: why do you think H presented the Kremlin bells trick for GD Sergius Mikhailovich and not GD Sergius Alexandrovich? I've assumed that given that the Kremlin is in Moscow, and GD SA was the governor of Moscow, that the error in the Kalush bio and the sources used was simply in the name of the palace. GD SA would certainly have had a residence within earshot of the Kremlin bells (he was blown to pieces in 1905 on his way there). Just curious as to your reasoning, as it's possible I've overlooked a key detail.

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  8. Apparently, Jewish people were banned from working in Moscow without some sort of special permission. The GD in Moscow was very anti-semtic. But the opposite was true of the Grand Duke in St. Petersberg.

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    1. Hmm. That's true. Though I'd assumed that Houdini hadn't declared himself as Jewish during his trip to Russia. As a Jew he wouldn't have even been allowed to sleep overnight it Moscow, and probably not perform onstage at the Yar either. As well, if memory serves (it was in either the Kalush bio or the Silverman bio) Houdini taught the GDS Elisabeth the second sight code. GD Sergius Mikhailovich was unmarried (and engaged in a lifelong affair with his brother's wife). Either way, the Kleinmichel Palace, while in St. Petersburg, wasn't the residence of GD Sergius Mikhailovich (he lived in the New Michael Palace).

      One reason I think the location is significant is that if the bell-ringing didn't take place in Moscow, with the Kremlin bells (which could not physically ring) then the whole story is likely apocryphal. It's not much of a trick to ring bells that regularly ring.

      This is probably one question that can be answered, in that we know approximately when this took place, and through letters the movements of most of the Imperial family can be tracked. Particularly if the Czar was present. I'm going to follow up on this with a pre-revolution Russian scholar.

      This may seem like nit-picking, but I think it's a significant fact to clarify. If it was in fact GD Serguis Alexandrovich then it seems apparent that either Houdini didn't declare himself as Jewish on the entrance papers, or his entry into Russia had been arranged by John Wilkie, William Melville or one of their colleagues through Harry Day. Melville and his contemporaries would have routinely cooperated with the Ohkrana on matters related to anarchists, who had killed a previous Czar, assassinated President McKinley two years earlier, made numerous attempts on the life of Queen Victoria, and would kill GD SA two years later.

      Thanks!

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    2. Steven,
      Wow, excellent points! I'm away from all the research stuff, but just going on memory, I believe Houdini said that he did not reveal he was Jewish when he first got to Russia. But according to one newspaper report, he did bring up the issue while in Russia!

      My big issue with the whole thing are the different versions of the story and the different characters involved. It could well be that Houdini made the whole thing up. OR it could be that friends of his, after his death, like Orson Welles, Michael MacDougall and others helped to embellish the story. Then again, it could very well be true, but overtime the names were confused. It's hard to know without some sort of Russian documentation, like newspaper accounts, IF those things even exist.

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  10. Wow, can't believe I just ran across this fascinating thread. Always late to the party!

    

Been researching this period in Houdini's life, including in the Russian newspapers (there's a complete set from 1903 at Columbia). No mention of bell ringing.

    

However!... If we are to believe Orson Welles (and he'd be the first person to say we shouldn't) the bell ringing occurred in a SECOND Houdini visit to Russia, while Rasputin was present! I have seen a letter showing Houdini indeed planned such a trip, but can find no evidence (yet) that it took place. Still pursuing this.

    

About the Sergeis: SA and his wife Ella were big fans of Houdini's, and they're the ones who presented him with the Faberge ladle. They had a palace in St. Petersburg, on Anichkov Square, in addition to the official residence in Moscow. Also a little two thousand acre country place at Illinskoie on the Moscow River.

    

The Kleinmichel Palace, in St. Petersburg, belonged to Countess Kleinmichel, and was just borrowed by Sergei for the occasion of Houdini's first big command performance. This was fairly common back then.

    

SM was a childhood pal if Tsar Nicholas, and he looked after Nicholas' pre-Alexandra girlfriend, a famous ballerina. As far as I know, there was no connection between him and Houdini. He has been associated with an infamous sex scandal involving a prince (not a princess) but that's beyond the scope of this blog, right?

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  11. Here is Welles account of the event ... [url]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qaooTLg2k-M#t=236[/url]
    In this version he has Bess as the one who shoots the bell with an "air rifle".

    As to the person, who in regards to Mickey MacDougall, wrote "...he was mostly not a writer but probably lucked out to get this column in a few papers." ...

    Mickey MacDougall's weekly column "The Inside Straight" was in syndication for 18 years (1948 - 1966) and was carried by over 200 newspapers.

    In addition, MacDougall wrote numerous magazine articles for such publications as "Liberty", "Life", "Look", "Cosmopolitan" , "True", "Argosy", "Esquire", "Collier's", "The American Weekly" and many others.

    Add to this, the seven books which he authored and you have one of Magic's most prolific writers.

    As to the veracity of the accounts, whether told by Welles or by MacDougall, I have my doubts. It seems like an apocryphal tale to me.

    It should be noted that in 1969 at Rosoff's Restaurant in New York City, MacDougall related the same story to his fellow diners, only this time it was not Houdini performing the trick. In this rendition, the trick was performed by Horace Goldin and the year was 1906. ("M-U-M"magazine, August 1969)



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