Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Houdini in Chicago

Houdini (right) in Chicago
Chicago, like Boston and NYC is another city very important in the life of Harry Houdini. His first appearance in Chicago was during the 1893 Columbian Exposition also known as the World's Fair. According to Pat Culliton Houdini was there, along with Jacob Hyman and Dash. Several of the Houdini biographies suggest that the 'Brothers Houdini' presented the Metamorphosis on the mile long midway.

However, in the Kalush Biography, he has a rather detailed account of Houdini working as a Hindu Fakir on the midway and working as a snake charmer and presenting the sword basket. Is it possible that Houdini was doing both the Hindu act & the Brothers Houdini act during the stay at the Worlds Fair?

To further confound the issue, look at the photo at the top of the page. This is a Library of Congress photograph which contains the caption, "Houdini Brothers Flea Circus in Chicago". It clearly looks like a young Houdini on the right. The person on the left could possibly be Jacob Hyman, as it doesn't look like Dash.  It's hard to make out anything in the photo let alone that it's a 'Flea Circus'. I will say that the table on the left hand side of the above photo does appear to be the same table that appears in another 'young Houdini' photo (see photo left)

I do believe the top photo is from the 1893 Chicago's Columbian Exposition.
The lower half of the photo, which I cropped out has several things written on it but they are barely readable. I think the name Houdini is on there but the only letters that can be seen are "HOUDI" the other letter possibly smeared away over time. There is another word below it which I cannot make out. At the bottom, it says "ago. i u". However, after staring at it for a long time I realized it actually says "Chicago, ILL" and there is a date next to it which looks like '93' but then again, it's so faint it could be something entirely different. The location and the age of Houdini in the photo does point to it be the Chicago World's Fair.

Later in life Houdini worked with Sol Bloom, the organizer for the Midway Plaisance at the World's Fair. Bloom would go on to become a U.S. Sentator and helped Houdini draft the Anti-Spiritualist Legislation for which Houdini testified before Congress. Bloom, according to the Kalush biography had a background in magic as well as other theatrical endeavors and this is possibly how Houdini got his act at the Chicago's World Fair. My guess is that he took on as many jobs as possible during his month long stay at the Fair in order to make an impression and make money. So it's possible that the Houdini Brothers did the Metamorphosis, and a Flea Circus presentation and even the Hindu Fakir act.

The Chicago World's Fair, also known as the World's Columbian Exposition was held to celebrate the 400th Anniversary of Christopher Columbus discovering America. The Exposition itself was located in Jackson Park, Washington Park and in between, connecting the two was the Midway Plaisance .  This mile long stretch of park was the amusements area for the World Expo.  This is where the term 'Midway' comes from. The most popular attraction to come out of the 1893 Expo was the very first Ferris Wheel. The Midway Plaisance today is part of the grounds of the University of Chicago.
The Midway as it appeared in 1893
The Midway as it appears today.
Update: If you read the comments below, you'll see that Mr. Byron discovered the word 'Middleton' on the photograph at the top of the blog. Which means that though it is from Chicago and probably 1893, it's not from the World's Fair. It's very cool when folks comment and new discoveries are made!


  1. That's so cool - particularly the bit about working out what was written on the photo.

    You've just brought up flea circuses which I hadn't thought about for years. Just had to Google them because I didn't actually know if they featured real fleas or not.

  2. WHOA! That's a pic I've never seen. That is a VERY young professional shot of Houdini. Yes, that could be at the Chicago Exposition. Great find!

  3. I've never seen that one.
    I enhanced the full photo to see the text better.

    It appears to say:
    "Bros Houdyny"
    "*** Middleton"
    "Chicago, Ill 18xx"

    The asterisks represent an uncountable number of characters. The spelling appears to be as shown.

    Puts in mind Kohl & Middleton's, no?

  4. dcbyron,

    I played with that photo forever trying to enhance it, and only got so far. I couldn't make the center word out for anything. But I think you are right about it saying "Middletons". And it would be Kohl and Middletons because he played there right after the Chicago Expo.

  5. Actually, it says "Middleton's"
    The third digit in the year has a lower loop, but I think it might be a hooked '9'.

    Here's the picture with text areas enhanced for greater legibility:

    And here's the picture intact:

  6. Tending toward obsessive, I've spent a bit more time with this. What I thought was a "y" after the "Houd" is actually an "i" followed by an "n" that begins with a low flourish. The final letter, however, still appears to me to be a "y". Thus, "Bros. Houdiny"

    Before the "Middleton's", I think I can see a lower case "a" that might belong to an "and". Southwest of that letter, just above where Chicago's "ic" would be if it were visible, there's a capital "M" that descends artfully. Maybe "Museum"?

    Finally, and this is weird, it really looks as if the first line says "Bros H Houdiny"

    Here's how my eyes are seeing it at the moment: Perhaps they're deceiving me?

  7. One last observation: I've updated the colored pic at to show what I think is going on with the date. It appears to give a month (namely, November) and a 2-digit year separated by a slash: "11/xx"

  8. Amazing. I just noticed something else about the photo. In between the two performers is the Substitution trunk! And I finally figured out what those three odd shapes are in the upper middle part of the picture. That is the edge of the curtained cabinet for the sub trunk. What do you think?

    I think you are right on with the letters though!

  9. I think I found some parts of the word "Museum". Also, I now think that instead of "Kohl and Middleton's", it probably says "at Middleton's". I've revised the coloring.

    The full text would be
    "Brothers H Houdiny
    at Middleton's
    Chicago, ILL 11/93"

    or something close to that.

    I think you're right! That sure looks like a sub trunk right next to the guy on the left (JH?) (who, by the way, appears to be the dominant figure here). And those could very well be tassels on the cabinets used for that illusion.

    This is definitely one of the most interesting Houdini photos I've seen in a good long while.

  10. I love the way this has just exploded overnight. Brilliant!

  11. Spotted the rest of "Chicago" and updated the colored text pic.

  12. Just amazing. This blog in less than a week has shot to the top 10 of my most read blogs. I just can never tell WHAT topic will take off from week to week, but am thrilled when they do! Thank you to all who have read this blog article!

  13. I'm not conviced that there's a flea circus in that second picture.

  14. One other tidbit. That is definitely the Sub Trunk Cabinet behind them. Houdini's cabinet was open at the top and had two flowers on the front of it, which this photo shows. There are three wonderful and much clearer photos if the cabinet on pages 44 and 46 of HOUDINI-The Key by Patrick Culliton.

  15. I am publishing a board game set at the World's Columbian Exposition, and I am including Harry Houdini on a Midway attraction card in the game. I'd love this group's feedback on the card image and text. (I used the photo above as a reference for the card.) Here's a link:


    For examples of other Midway attractions in the game, you can check out this blog post:

  16. I know this is old, but the date does not look like 93 to me. Is it possible that the year was 1880? And Jacob seems much older than Houdini which explains why he would be the lead in the partnership. What we know about Harry, he probably didn't take much to it.

    And one final observation, maybe the idea of the name "Houdini" was more of a joint name from the very beginning, never intending to be just Harry's name.

    The break up of the partnership meant to Harry that the "Houdini" name belonged to him. But, as we learned from Silverman's book, Jacob took exception to it. Maybe then the name was truly meant for the title of the act.