|Stage at Yar Restaurant|
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|
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.