Showing posts with label Bess Houdini. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bess Houdini. Show all posts

Monday, May 6, 2024

Dr Edward Saint The Houdini Archivist & More


Let me ask you a question? What happens when someone dies? Beyond the funeral and that sort of thing, I'm thinking more of their legacy? The majority of people are forgotten over time. If they made substantial contributions to society sometimes their story lives on. Sometimes, they’re forgotten and it takes a historian or two to bring their story back to the masses. 

Let’s look at Houdini for a moment. He was a vaudeville performer, early motion picture star, grand escape artist, a pioneer aviator and more. But he wasn’t Charles Lindbergh? Nor was he Charlie Chaplin. Nor was he P.T. Barnum. And more to the point, he wasn’t exactly a magician. He built his career on being mostly an escape artist. He could have and probably should have been forgotten over time. Yes, remembered by the magic community, to some degree, but even then nothing is guaranteed. I do not mean to put Houdini down, in anyway. I just want to emphasis the fact that most people are forgotten a few years after they die. The reasons are many. A new generation of people are born, unfamiliar with that persons exploits. The deceased is no longer in the news.

But we come to Houdini. Thet man remained in the press nearly every day since he died. In fact, Houdini who died on Oct 31st 1926, had an article of his own published in November 1926!

Here is what William Larsen Senior had to say in the pages of Genii Magazine Oct 1936 “Somehow, seeing Mrs. Houdini as often as we do, hearing laymen speak the name HOUDINI so often, and being questioned so frequently about him, we can’t quite realize that Houdini is gone. Surely, ten years should reconcile us to his departure. But, it hasn’t. When he went, magic lost something, an intangible something which it has never regained. Perhaps it was prestige that we lost, or a leader, or…..and idol.”

His wife Bess certainly did some things to keep his memory alive. But there was a point at which even she got tired of it. 

So in walks Dr. Edward Saint. He becomes the Houdini archivist. He begins to amass volumes and volumes of newspaper clippings about Houdini. And strangely, Houdini’s name did remain in the press after he died. A great bit of it due to Saint’s own contributions and submissions. Houdini was no mere magician, no mere showman, no mere entertainer. But Edward Saint must be credited with helping to keep Houdini’s name alive until it became legend. Today, let’s look at the life of this unusual character, Dr Edward Saint.

He was born Charles David Meyers in 1891. 

His show business career began rather early. According to a piece submitted by his father in the very first issue of Genii Magazine Sept 1936, at age 9, Edward Saint produced and managed a company of twenty performers for one spectacular afternoon performance. It began with a parade in the neighborhood and then followed with a show in a barn. The price for admission was a whopping 5 cents per person. The show grossed 70 cents. In other words, there were more people IN the show than there were watching the show. That is unless all the family members were comped, then there would have been more there. The show consisted of clowns, tight rope walking, trapeze performers, juggling, a trained dog and more. Young Edward Saint wore a Chinese costume and performed three of the acts himself. He would continue this sort of back yard magic show concept throughout his youth.

Eventually Saint found his way into the carnival world, specifically the sideshow. Moving into this world also he created a new persona and look. One of his first incarnations was as Sir Edward St. Ra-Diem. You can see how easy it is to go from Sir Edward St.Ra-Diem to simple, Edward Saint. The prefix would change occasionally, Doctor, Professor, etc. whatever worked best at the time. He also changed the entire name. For a time he was Professor Sesrad. A fascinating point was the Prof. Sesrad usually wore a jeweled turban and had an appearance of a mystic. Even more fascinating, Sesrad is Sir Edward Saint Ra-Diem,,,the first letter of each name spells Sesrad.

One of his early acts was playing the part of a dead pan man. He offered money to anyone who could make him laugh, or smile. 

He worked 6 years for the Johnny J Jones show as psychic entertainer/mentalist. He performed this act under the title of Sesrad. He shaved his Van Dyke beard for the act, and wore a turban as I just mentioned. He discovered that he appeared 30 years younger after shaving and it made it slightly more difficult to sell his act. Clearly, he preferred the Van Dyke as he grew it back and wore it the rest of his life. 

In the 1930s Saint could be found in Florida and now he was presenting himself as a ghost hunter. Some sources would claim this is where he met Bess Houdini. That is not exactly correct. It’s likely that in Florida, is where Bess and Saint reconnected and he became her manager and in charge of the Houdini archives.

There is an article by Edward Saint in the September 1979 issue of MUM Magazine, and I’m assuming it appeared in another issue likely around 1938 as well. But the article is about the origins of National magic Day. And it begins with stating “I have the honor of recording the first publicized HOUDINI DAY which was celebrated in the Summer of 1927 in NYC.” Bess Houdini was present there because she gave away a Houdini Trophy to the winner of an underwater contest held at the Miramar Pool in NY. So the two met far earlier than I expected. Also in the article, Saint shows how he pushed the idea of Houdini Day and National magic Day to magic groups all over the country, until now we all recognize the date of Houdini’s Death as National Magic Day. 

There’s an interesting story about Saint working on the Houdini archives. He would gather every bit and mention of Houdini from newspapers, magazines, whatever. And he’d put them in a scrap book. Saint would do that while Mrs. Houdini usually played solitaire. On one particular evening Bess turns to Saint and said, “Edward, why do you keep saving those articles on Harry? He is dead and buried….why not leave him that way and quit digging him up all the time?” (from the Jan 1949 Conjurers Magazine)

Arnold Furst put forth the theory that Bess Houdini and Dr. Saint were secretly married. According to Furst, they acted as any married couple while at home. He certainly was her companion, and she didn't go anywhere without him. No evidence has been found that they were married, no marriage license. There is a mention of Hardeen being upset with Bess, "out in California living in sin".   But, Bess laughed it off saying that Hardeen should know better. 

It's certainly interesting if they were married, but it doesn't really change much of the narrative either way.

Did you know that Edward Saint had his own column in Genii Magazine that started way back in October of 1936? It was called Thru the Monocle. Much of the column featured magic news happening in California and the L.A. area, but it also contained a lot of Houdini stuff. for example listen to this, “colonel harry day, Member of Parliament, just in from England, is visiting Mrs. Houdini at her Hollywood home. Colonel Day was Houdini’s first manager in Europe; arranged for the Scotland Yard “break away” and booked Houdini in England, Germany, and Russia, with engagements running months at a time. Colonel Day, riding the crest of Houdini’s popularity, became himself a tremendous power in European Theatricals. To Quote Colonel Day, “”Houdini and I were so closely connected both in business and friendship, that I feel sure had it not been for the fatal accident which unfortunately resulted in his death, I would still have retained my interest in the Variety Agency for the purpose of carefully managing his interest instead of embarking on a political career when I did.””

Also, in 1936 is maybe the most iconic moment of Saint’s life, certainly his life with Bess Houdini. That would be the 10th and final Houdini Seance. Wow, 10th, if they only knew how many seances have been held since!  The event took place on the roof of the Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel. Saint conducted the seance. Many notables were present for the event and within the inner circle including, Carl Fleming the President of the Pacific Coast Association of Magicians,, Judge Charles Fricke a hard nosed, no nonsense judge of the California High Court and then President of the Southern California Assembly #22 of the Society of American Magicians (SAM) , Len Oliver Gunn was an amateur magician and columnist for Genii Magazine, Hereward Carrington psychic investigator and amateur magician who worked with Houdini during the investigation of Margery the Medium for The Scientific American Magazine and you can learn more about him on Ep 51 of this podcast, William Larsen Sr. editor and publisher of Genii Magazine, Jacob Hyman original performing partner of Harry Houdini and friend since boyhood, Floyd Thayer prominent magic dealer, Gerald Kosky National Vice President for the SAM, Earl Rybolt  who was a magician and collector and President of Los Magicos, Harry Mendoza who was a stage magician and columnist for Genii, on a side note Mendoza’s father was a manager for Frederick Eugene Powell. and two none magicians included Reverend Dr. Acorn of the local association of Spiritualist Churches, and Dr Vernon Herbst, phychiatrist and student of the occult sciences. and finally of course Bess Houdini and Dr. Saint. There was a total of 300 invited guests at the event.

Two ornate high backed chairs faced the crowd. The Hollywoodland sign could be seen clearly in the background. A shrine to Houdini with his photo sat between Bess and Saint. On a table were a number of items including the Mirror Cuffs, a Spirit trumpet and various other items. Dr. Saint conducted the Seance. (If you listen to episode 100 of the Magic Detective Podcast you can hear both a portion of the seance, and later the full recording) As you may know, Houdini did not return. But the memory of the 1936 Seance lives on. 

Thayer Magic Studio put out the original recording of the Houdini Seance. it was produced in 3 twelve inch records. According to the ad copy: the Final Houdini Seance just as it was actually presented, from the very beginning to the end. You will hear, in the finest of modern recordings, the clear depiction of the locale o f the seance, the playing of "Pomp and Circumstance" just as it was used by Houdini in his last performances, the introductory remarks of Edward Saint, con- ductor of the Last seance proper and the words o f Houdini's widow.

Next, William Larsen Sr, who was present at the event, put out a publication called The Final Houdini Seance. I believe this is more a magical recreation of the Houdini Seance, rather than anything to do with the actual 1936 event. And finally, in 1975 the Houdini Seance was put out on LP which had commentary from George Boston, a recording of the Seance, and Houdini's voice recordings.

In another Genii column Saint mentions coming across a bunch of letters in the Houdini archives on Payson Ave. NY, these letters were from William Hilliar’s father to Houdini. Saint had gathered them all up to give to Hilliar, when the next morning they heard the news of Bill’s death at his own hand. Saint said, “A Showman knows when an act is finished, it takes nerve to ring down one’s own curtain, but I know Bill Hilliar  was a showman.”

In yet another column he has some very prophetic words, and I do mean VERY prophetic words to the magic community. Quote”Mr and Mrs. Magus should start NOW to prepare for television. Magi in general will get the real break in Fame and Money. It will be magic’s first real come-back since vaudeville passed out. Take Warning. Prepare! Be Ready!”

In the next issue Saint mentions he just completed a 10,000 mile motor trip around the United States. Hollywood, NY, Philadelphia, Baltimore. Savannah, Miami, Florida Keys, Tampa, Mobile, New Orleans, Galveston, Houston, El Paso, Hollywood. The he mentions later that Mrs. Houdini has made California her home, she resided at 1851 Winona Blvd. Hollywood. 

Here’s a piece for my fellow Houdini historians, in the April 1937 issue of Genii page 11, in Dr Edward Saints column, it reads and I quote, “Dr. Jack Hyman, old-time magician, recalling Houdini doing the bullet catch trick in 1893 and 94!!!!! WHOA!

And speaking of surprising, in his next column we have a trick. It’s titled Sesrad’s latest trick. Effect: A borrowed can or walking stick is held horizontally, and a bright colored ball is tossed in the air and caught by the magician. He next places the ball a few inches above the cane and lets go and it appears to hover in mid-air, even a hoop is passed over the floating ball. Finally the ball is given a slap, sending it into the audience for inspection. Interesting.

Augusts 1937 Genii, Dr Saint’s column, records that “at one time Mr. W.H. Donaldson of Billboard Magazine and Harry Houdini contemplated the financing of an American Egyptian Hall on Broadway. 

In the same column, is this gem, “A number of years ago, Sesrad froze a man alive in a 1400 lbs block of ice at Walter Reed hospital in Washington DC, before an estimated crowd of several thousand…………..Sesrad had the time clocked from the time the subject was frozen at the ice plant, miles away, to the time the subject was chopped out under hospital supervision. Time in Ice, two hours and seven seconds.

Every column featured little bits of news, much like many columns from that time period. Example, “Hardeen feature with harry Gourfain’s Jamboree Road Show, 35 people. Not a lot of detail there, but lets you know Hardeen is still working. He also mentions this, “Judge Charles W. Fricke, magician and criminologist lectures interestingly about ‘Magic in Crime vs. Crime in Magic.” now there is a lecture I’d like to hear.

By the way, the 1937 November issue of Genii Magazine features non other than Dr. Edward Saint on the cover!

January 1938, we learn that Houdini had secret marks in two places in each of his more valuable magic books. The marks are still there, according to Saint. But not sure the purpose, other than for Houdini to identify them as HIS of they were borrowed or stolen, I guess.

We also learn that, quote, ‘ a local spiritualistic medium tried to TAKE Mrs. Houdini for 40 grand recently. Part of that story went coast to coast, New York Journal ran a photo. This is Jan 1938 if you want to dig further.

There is a mention of Robert Nelson, who owned the company that sold a ton of mentalism effects and props. He apparently wrote an expose on the Fox Sisters home and how it has been turned into a sideshow at Lily Dale. The article appears in the Nov Linking Ring 1937. Saint says, “the story should be in the files of ever psychic entertainer.;’

February 1938 there is no regular column by Saint. Instead there is an article titled, ‘I CHALLENGE” and it has to do with what he refers to as the humbug of telepathy.  He mentions tests made at college campuses and such and the results showing no proof that the phenomenon is real. He is a bit harsh at time referencing Dr. Rhine at Duke University and others on the proper way to conduct their tests. It’s a fascinating article. Say what you want about Dr Saint, he sure knows his stuff when it comes to this area of magic.

Then in March 1938, he goes back to his regular column, Thru the Monocle by Dr. Edward Saint, however the entire piece seems a continuation of his article the month prior. It is not the standard Monocle column at all.  Then April 1938 we see this,”Answer to Dr. Saint” by Wallace Lee. In his ‘answer’ he goes on to point out mistakes Saint made in his assertions and point out that he believes there is esp/telepathy and it’s been proven. And then in May he writes his final article for the magazine, Magicians on Guard, which further continues his message about no proof of real telepathy and esp. and further debunking of Spirit mediums. 

John Booth shares an interesting story of a visit to Bess Houdini’s home in California. He said, “I was absent-mindedly gazing up at a heroic sized portrait photograph of Houdini, on the wall opposite, when I became aware of other voices in the room. They were coming from an indeterminate source. My friends (that would be Bess and Saint) stopped talking. We listened. It was as thought radio voices had suddenly began to penetrate the air around us. I was frankly puzzled and said so. But I noticed the trace of smiles in the expression of Mrs. Houdini and Mr. Saint. Then, I recognized my own voice. I was chatting with a woman. What? When did this happen? What was the subject? Where was the chatter originating? Then I heard myself making a date with the woman. And she accepted!!! Of course! it was the recording of my telephone conversation with Madame Houdini the previous day. They had discreetly recorded that conversation and many others. Apparently, they were making a collection of records of bess’s conversations with various leading magicians.  They had recorded seven such records by this time. After Bess passed away a short time later, John Booth attempted to get these records but they couldn’t be found. They had been lost forever.

It’s interesting to note that many assumed Bess and Dr. Saint were of the same age. His van dyke beard, his immaculate way of dressing, and the fact he walked with a can, exaggerated his age. He was only 51 when he died. Bess was 67.

The last days of Edward Saint’s life were captured in a memorial piece by William Larsen Sr. He mentions that the day Ed got sick, he was sitting in a chair directing Anna, who was Bess Houdini’s housekeeper, directing her how to iron his turban. An upcoming meeting of the local SAM Assembly was having ‘Oriental Night’ and Ed had something special in store. Apparently, he never turned down an opportunity to perform. He was known to present very original material whenever he shared some magic. Sadly, the day Ed was supposed to attend the meeting, he instead was in the hospital. And ever the trooper, he still brought magic to show the nurses and doctors. Edward Saint, carnival man, Houdini Archivist, showman, companion to Bess Houdini passed away Oct 22, 1942. I just learned there is a bit of conjecture as to how he died. The newspapers of the time say he died from pneumonia, John Cox from WildAboutHoudini, heard from Marie Blood, Houdini's niece, that his death was from tuberculosis. Both are respiratory diseases. Saint also had asthma. Im trying to find the death certificate to verify which one is correct.

In the same piece by William Larsen Sr. he mentions that all of the Saint scrapbooks where he had gathered countless stories about Houdini, were to go to the Library of Congress. On my very first visit to the Library of Congress to see the Houdini scrapbooks, the first scrapbooks brought out to me turned out to be Edward Saint's. I pointed this out to the Librarians, and they inquired how I knew and I showed them where Saint's name was written on nearly every page, plus the dates of the articles were all after 1926. I was just a teenager at the time, I think they were surprised at my knowledge. 

That concludes the story of Dr. Edward Saint.

(this is mostly a transcript of Episode 100 of the Magic Detective podcast. A few additional items were included here that did not make the podcast)

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Houdini and Bess Dolls


I just stumbled upon this site by accident. These are hand painted Harry and Bess dolls. I'd say it's a rather good likeness of the loving couple. They are bit pricey but hey, where else are you going to find dolls that look like Harry and Bess???

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Magic Detective Podcast Ep 7-Houdini & Congress 1926

Seeing as we are on the eve of a big congressional election, I thought I'd share a podcast about the time Houdini testified before Congress on behalf of an Anti-Fortune Telling Bill. It was quite a wild affair, with Houdini bringing in some of his top notch investigators like Remegius Weiss and Rose Mackenburg. It's clear from the transcripts that some of the congressmen were not taking this seriously. Still others were dead serious about the testimony.

My guess is that Houdini must have had a hand in crafting the bill, which was another reason he was brought in. There are a number of surprises that come up over the several days of testimony. Much of this episode comes directly from the Congressional Record. And it also comes from several articles that appeared right here, in TheMagicDetective blog!

A side note, earlier this year (2018) I actually was involved in a video documentary about Houdini's time before Congress. The video was made for a French Language TV Show, so despite my excitement, it will all get dubbed over. I don't think it's aired yet, but when it does, I'll let you know. I'm curious how some of the magic turned out as the humidity that day was wreaking havoc on some of my sleights and flourishes, including a coin roll (the coin kept sticking to my fingers)

This episode runs almost 40 minutes and will be the last FULL Houdini Episode for a while. At least, that is the plan at the moment. Because it's my podcast, I could easily go back on that, lol. But I'm hoping to make the next podcast about Harry Kellar. For now, please enjoy Episode 7!

Friday, October 27, 2017

Houdini's Money Was Always Safe!!!!

One of Houdini's unique strategies to get people interested in his escapes was to offer a money challenge. He'd offer a certain dollar amount as a reward to someone who could find, discover, or uncover something related to his escapes. A perfect example is the poster above for the Prison Cell and Barrel Mystery. Look closely at the wording at the lower part of the poster (see below)
100 pounds Will Be Paid To Anyone Finding Traps, Panels, Or False Doors In the Cell. And I'm sure there were none, otherwise he would not have risked a financial loss.

The flyer to the left is interesting. It actually contains two monetary challenges. But it's also different from most of Houdini's offers of this kind. In this poster, his first offer is $100 to anyone who can release themselves from all the cuffs that he carries, and from which he releases himself. This is pretty bold and like many of his challenges covers himself fairly well. He points out that he allows the key holes to be stamped and sealed and will bring out all the cuffs interlocked, proving he does not slip the cuffs of his wrists without unlocking them.

He further ads, he carries a very rare curious and costly collection of torture, antique and modern handcuffs. This line is likely to deter any would be takers. Finally, at the end Houdini offers a second challenge of $50 to anyone who can escape from the Bean Giant cuff with those cuffs strapped behind the person's back. This challenge is not quite as safe as the previous, so the reward is less.

One of his most unique money offers was with the Water Torture Cell. The exact wording on the poster, "...Reward To Anyone Proving That It Is Possible To Obtain Air In The UP-SIDE-DOWN Position In Which Houdini Releases Himself From This Water-Filled Torture Cell"

In England the reward was 200 pounds. In Germany, the reward was 5000 marks, In the United States it was $1000.  And the truth was, he could have offered any amount of money as the money was never in any danger of being lost. The reward doesn't say to prove it's possible to obtain air while inside the cell, it says prove its possible to obtain air IN THE UPSIDE DOWN Position. That's the key phrase and it's the one that keeps his money safe!

The allure of winning money is a very power motivator for people. Look at all the people who buy lottery tickets. Well, Houdini wasn't gambling with his money. He clearly worded things very carefully to keep his money safe.

Houdini didn't restrict his Money Challenges to his act. Below is an ad for his movie, The Grim Game where he offers yet another reward. This time, it's a $1000 reward to anyone who can prove that the airplane accident in the movie didn't take place.

Later in life, he did step it up a bit. When he launched his campaign to fight fraudulent spirit mediums the offer became $10,000 to any Medium who could produce any Physical Phenomena that he cannot reproduce or explain by Natural means. Houdini's wife Bess kept this $10,000 challenge going after Houdini's death. According to Joseph Rinn, friend of Houdini's and fellow paranormal skeptic, Bess Houdini offered the reward to any medium able to prove, to her satisfaction, the survival of her husband in the spirit world. It looked like in 1928 Arthur Ford might have won the reward after revealing the Houdini code. Even Bess came out and said it was genuine. But days later, after the media fire storm, they began to debunk it, along with Dunninger and others, Bess finally recanted saying there were ways Ford could have discovered the code. She continued doing her Seances to reach Houdini until the Final Houdini Seance in 1936. After that, fans and friends of Houdini have picked up the ball, and though no reward is offered, Houdini has yet to show up.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Houdini: Cold As Ice

I'm going to explore Houdini's interest in ice. What, you might be thinking? Yes, Ice. It's not something I really thought of until recently. There are several instances in his career where ice was a factor.  For example, who can forget the scene from the Tony Curtis Houdini movie where he is in the bathtub filled with ice cubes. So iconic was this scene that a similar scene was added to the Houdini movie starring Adrian Brody. And this very activity confirmed to have actually happened by biographer, Kenneth Silverman.  Another ice scene comes from the Curtis movie as well, with Houdini trapped under the ice in Detroit. And again, a similar scene in the Brody movie version. These are based on stories that Houdini himself told about having to cut a hole in the ice for a particular escape. Historians are unclear as to whether this truly took place, though the consensus is they did not.

In the book, Houdini's Escapes and Magic by Walter Gibson, there is a a curious escape listed as "Escape From A Block of Ice" It reminds me of the Milk Can with a block of ice around it. It reads as a very interesting escape idea. But after reading the method, which is diabolical, I also think it wouldn't work. The weight of the ice is going to cause some issues that I'm not sure can be overcome with the method suggested. Still, if it were actually made, I'm sure they'd soon find this out and come up with an alternative method of escape, equally as diabolical.

Next we come to an interesting idea that Houdini had, being frozen in a block of ice, or having an assistant instantly frozen in a block of ice. It's something he was never able to accomplish during his lifetime. But only a year after his death, his wife Bess had the whole thing put together. It's actually Bess's presentation that I want to focus on.

I found a description of the effect as witnessed by Guy Jarrett, the brilliant illusion designer. Jarrett had a way of thinking about illusions that was really beyond what almost everyone else was doing. Just look at what Houdini created to make an elephant vanish vs. what Jarrett created. There is a lot of speculation about Houdini's exact routine, but it's a pretty universal opinion that it wasn't his strongest effect. But what about Jarrett's illusion? If only you could see Jarrett's Elephant Vanish? Well, his version was used by Siegfried and Roy and proved to be an amazing spectacle and you can.

But let's get back to Freezing a Man in Ice. This description comes directly from The Jarrett Book. The dimensions of the tank were 4ft square by 7ft tall. They sides of the tank were made of wood. A hose went into the tank to fill it with water. Then a man in a rubber suit was lowered into the tank. Finally a lid was put on the tank and it on top of the lid was mounted some sort of ice machine. This was supposed to cause all the water to freeze into ice in a short period of time. After a bit,  the lid and sides were removed leaving a person who could be seen frozen within the block of ice. According to Jarrett, at this point the illusion "was great, it was grand, it was damn good!"

Now, I'm stopping there to let this image sink in.  Guy Jarrett was the person who made fun of most other magicians and their illusions because in his opinion they didn't fool the audience. And here he really liked this first part of the Frozen In Ice Illusion. Unfortunately that was not the end of the trick. The conclusion of the illusion really ruined it for Jarrett and for the audience apparently too.  But reading the description above, it sounded like Bess Houdini, and if he had lived, Harry Houdini, would have had one truly mind boggling new illusion on his hands.

The illusion by the way was built by Rudy Schlosser, a NY magic dealer. According to The Complete Jarrett by Jim Steinmeyer, "he specialized in feather flower effects, and produced a number of pieces of apparatus for Houdini's Final Tour.  The Frozen In Ice Illusions appears to have been presented only a few times. First time for the United Booking Office, who declined to pick it up for Vaudeville. Second time was for Loew's theater in NYC, which is the location where Jarrett watched the mystery. Then after the first of the year, at the Longbranch Theatre in New Jersey.

Photo courtesy WildaboutHoudini

John Cox also covered this Frozen In Ice Illusion way back in 2011. For a more complete overview of the trick, please check out what he had written.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Houdini & Queen Victoria's Dress

I sure named this blog correctly when I called it, TheMagicDetective. I never know what rabbit hole I'm going to have to go down and how much searching and detective work I'll need to do. As my fellow Houdini bloggers know, the slightest thought can take you places you never expected. Today, we look at Queen Victoria, specifically, her dress.

Queen Victoria reigned over the British Empire for 64 years. She died, coincidentally enough on Bess Houdini's Birthday Jan 22, 1901. According to the Kellock biography, Houdini His Life Story, Houdini, who was in London at the time, saw a dress, designed for Queen Victoria, in a shop window. The Queen died before taking possession of the dress however.  Houdini wanted the dress for his mother, who he thought was the same size as the Queen. (really? I don't think so, she had a size 43 waist!) He went into the shop and at first the shop keeper did not want to sell the dress. According to the Kellock biography, "one did not sell her Majesty's relics." But Houdini was persistent and explained the dress would be for his mother. The shop keeper eventually agreed to sell the dress on the condition that it would never be worn by anyone in Great Britain. Kellock says the dress sold for 50 pounds, though the Christopher book, Houdini-The Untold Story has it at 30 pounds, and the newest book by Derek Tait, The Great Houdini His British Tours, also has the dress listed at 30 pounds. Christopher adds this was approx. $150 (at least in 1969).

For a long time I thought this story was simply a fable. It sounds like something Houdini might make up. But the story is true.

I believe Cecilia Weiss is wearing the dress in the photo to the left. This picture appeared on the
November 1902 issue of Mahatma Magazine on the cover. Within the text it reads "this photograph was taken in Essen Ruhr, Germany, in May 1901, during the visit of Houdini's mother, who came all the way from America to share the triumphs of her son." That makes this the precise time when Houdini would have given the dress to his mother.

(Library of Congress photo)
Pat Culliton, in his fine book, Houdini The Key, has a photo that he believes could be the dress. And it's similar to this one, at least in black and white it looks similar but it's not the same dress. The one similarity is that Cecilia is wearing the circular brooch around her neck with Houdini's picture in it, in both photos.

The only reason I don't think it's the dress is because it appears to be a little too stylish for the Queen. She was known to wear rather drab styles at this point in her life.

One of the curiosities I had about the dress was the color. I imagined a midnight blue or even deep purple perhaps. Then I found out this bit of information. When Prince Albert died in 1861, Queen Victoria went into mourning and wore black clothing. She continued to wear only black until the day she died. There were dresses that contained accents of white, so again, it makes Pat's suggestion still plausible. The photo at the top of the page was a dress for her Diamond Jubilee and it contains a great deal of white, more than is usually seen in her dresses, but this was also for a special occasion.

From the book, Houdini A Mind In Chains
Queen Victoria was a big woman, Cecilia Weiss was not. There is another photo of the dress that I think is the one, and you'll notice the amount of extra fabric. Now, I did read that Bess helped to alter the dress to fit Houdini's mother. IF you look at the photo to the left, it's the same dress that is in the photo from the cover of Mahatma. You can tell the dress has lots of extra fabric, but also fits Cecilia around the waist. I think that is Queen Victoria's dress! (ed.note: This photo comes from Houdini: A Mind In Chains, and the caption reads "Queen Victoria's Dress, Essen, Germany 1901" so that confirms it!*)

This now brings me to the whole reason I started this quest. I wanted to know, a. if the story was true, then b.  where was the dress today. If it truly was Queen Victoria's dress then it must have survived. I wondered if Bess got it. In the movie, The Great Houdini's with Paul Michael Glaser and Sally Struthers, Harry asks Bess what she wants, and she replies quite emphatically, "Queen Victoria's Dress!" But I don't think this moment actually occurred in real life due to the next bit of information.

This information came from Harry Hardeen to Jon Oliver to John Hinson, then to me. So I'd say it's pretty accurate. The location of the dress today....Cecilia Weiss was buried in Queen Victoria's dress.
And to add just one more bit of trivia, Cecilia was also buried with a pair of slippers that Houdini purchased in Bremen. When Houdini was leaving on July 8th for Europe, his mother asked him 'to bring back a pair of the warm woolen house slippers'. This according to HOUDINI His Life Story by Harold Kellock.  Houdini stopped on his return voyage to specifically pick up the slippers and be sure she was buried with them.

*Special thanks to John Cox for helping me find the final photo of the dress. Also, thanks to Joe Notoro who first posted this image on his blog, The caption, confirmed what I was thinking!!! Also thank you to John Hinson and Jon Oliver for getting me the info on the final destination of the dress!

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Happy Birthday Bess Houdini!

Bess Houdini was born January 22, 1876, which makes her 141 years old today. She honestly doesn't look it! In November, I attended the Yankee Gathering in Massachusetts and in attendance was John Hinson, Great Nephew of Bess and Harry Houdini. John is just the coolest guy. He clearly has a passion of magic history and especially the Houdini family. He loves to share the stories of his family and share rare photos, many that have NEVER been seen in print before.

John graciously has allowed me to share some of these pictures with you in the coming months, and I am very excited to be doing so. I don't yet have those pictures from John, but I know he's been busy so you'll get to see them soon enough.

For now we wish Bessie a very Happy Birthday!!!

HOLD THE PRESSES!!!! Bessie can have some cake today if she likes, but ole John Cox pointed out to me that John Hinson (the very same I mentioned above) showed him proof that Bessie was born on Jan 23rd!!!!!!!! Honestly though, having gone through many census records and birth records from the 1800s and seeing how dates change and fluctuate, its a wonder we have an accuracy at all. But, then again, if it comes from John Hinson's collection, I'm going to believe it! So 23 it is!!!!!!!!!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Bess Houdini's Costume

The Potter and Potter Auction that is coming up on August 23rd, features a costume apparently worn by Bess Houdini. It is Lot #77. The piece has a nice description of the costume and some information on who Bess gave the costume to and how it has survived. The estimated value is $7000 & $9000.

John Cox over at wrote about the costume. And he provided a photo of Bess wearing the costume from an old postcard. However, to my knowledge, no one has given much more information than that. Until now.

This is the costume Bess wore around 1900+ when she performed the Metamorphosis with Harry. I'm not sure if that adds more value to the costume or not. She probably wore the costume throughout the whole act, but for sure she wore the costume during the Metamorphosis. And how do I know this???

In the book, Metamorphosis by Bruce MacNab, on the Table of Contents page near the front of the book is a photograph, actually a series of photos (4) of Harry and Bess presenting their Metamorphosis routine. Bess can plainly be seen wearing this incredible costume. The photos are from the Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library. Try as I might, I couldn't dig them up online.

But if you turn to the Table of Contents in this book, assuming you have a copy, you can see Bess wearing this incredible costume in action, for yourself!

Friday, July 26, 2013

Happy 104th Birthday Vivian Vance

Vivian Vance, the well known side-kick to Lucille Ball, was born July 26th, 1909. Her connection to magic was via the movie The Great Houdini's with Paul Michael Glaser. Vance played the part of Minnie who was Bess Houdini's nurse. She was also known as a bouncer in the house of ill repute (in the movie).

The Great Houdinis was a made for TV movie that appeared on ABC on October 8th 1976. Vivian Vance also was the narrator for the movie. The Great Houdinis is probably the most historically accurate of all the Houdini bio-pics.

Vivian Vance died from cancer on August 17th, 1979.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Houdini and the Welsh Brothers Circus

(library of congress photo)
Today, May 1st, marks the 118th Anniversary of the first day of work for Bess and Harry Houdini with the Welsh Brothers Circus. According to the fine book, "Metamorphosis" by Bruce MacNAB, they signed for a 5 month tour with a weekly salary of $25.

The circus was run by John and Michael H. Welsh and based out of Lancaster Pennsylvania.  The Houdini's presented their Sub-trunk Routine along with a second sight demonstration. They also had other duties as well, among them A Punch & Judy Show, Bess as a singing clown and Harry's work as a Wild Man.

In the beginning of the movie "HOUDINI" starring Tony Curtis, we see Harry pretending to be the Wild Man of Borneo. Apparently, the real Houdini played 'Projea, The Wild Man of Mexico'.

The Houdini's presented their act 226 times in that five month period. And according to Harry the Welsh Brothers "fed their performers extra well."

Harry and Bess would return to the Welsh Brothers at a later date, but on far different terms.
A building that was 'papered' by the Welsh Brothers Circus Advertisements