Saturday, March 12, 2011

Did Houdini do the bullet catch in the 1890s?

The bullet catch is generally considered the most dangerous trick in magic. The danger is pretty well spelled out in the title of a book about the effect by Ben Robinson called, Twelve Have Died.

Houdini's association with the bullet catch is well known. In 1918, Houdini announced that he would do the infamous trick after his friend and fellow magician Chung Ling Soo (William E. Robinson) was tragically killed onstage while performing it in England. But in a letter, Harry Kellar made an impassioned plea for Houdini not to do it:

Now, my dear boy, this is advice from the heart, DON’T TRY THE D—N Bullet Catching…no matter how sure you may feel of its success. There is always the biggest kind of risk that some dog will “job” you. And we can’t afford to lose Houdini. You have enough good stuff to maintain your position at the head of the profession. And you owe it to your friends and your family to cut out all stuff that entails risk of your life. Please, Harry, listen to your old friend Kellar who loves you as his own son and don’t do it.

Moved by Kellar's words, Houdini cancelled the performance. This just added to the legend of the bullet catch -- a trick so dangerous even Houdini wouldn't try it.

But now handcuff and restraint expert, Joe Fox, has discovered this intriguing nugget in the April 1937 issue of Genii. This appeared in Edward Saint's regular column, "Thru the Monocle."

Genii The Conjures Magazine, April 1937

Jack Hyman was Houdini's close friend and original partner in The Brothers Houdini, so he's a VERY credible source for this info. Also, Ed Saint reporting this somewhat gives it the tacit approval of Bess. Houdini expert Patrick Culliton says he is familiar with this claim, and he wonders whether it was from this, not gamblers, that Houdini received the bullet in his hand that he is said to have carried all his life (for an X-ray photo visit Houdini Himself).

However, it's always possible this is just Ed Saint doing what he did best -- building up Houdini's legend. I should point out that in this same column he claims, "Houdini's Uncle Newman invented Fleishman's Yeast." (?) But while Saint was not shy about endorsing Houdini-created myths, I don't recall any instance where he generated his own fictions. He didn't need to. And why would he pull Jack Hyman into it?

So what do we think? Could this be true? Did Houdini do the most dangerous trick in magic at the dawn of his career?

An Australian magician performs the bullet catch in 1905

UPDATE: Patrick Culliton checks in with further evidence that Houdini did the bullet catch early in his career. On page 77 of his book, The Tao of Houdini (1997), Patrick reproduces what Houdini himself told the Club of Odd Volumes in Boston in 1922:

"I had a rather unique experience performing the bullet-catching feat. It was customary for me to present this with a large horsepistol, allowing the committee to load it with a marked bullet, so that I never really touched the gun. There was a thick plank on the table leaning against the back wall. The committee were given the option of firing at the board, which would be smashed to splinters, or at me. However I exacted the promise that, once having announced their decision, they would not, on their word of honor, change their minds. For the infinitesimal fraction of a second there would be an awe-inspiring and breathless silence after the resounding crash of the bullet had made havoc of the plank, which brought home to the committee the seriousness of their decision, had I been chosen as target. The effect of the illusion showed the miraculous appearance of the bullet between my teeth, after having smashed the plate which I held in my hand. Never once, in all my experience, has the committee failed to fire at the boardfirst."

Patrick also informs us that Houdini's uncle did indeed "invent" Fleischman's Yeast.

20 comments:

  1. Houdini's uncle did "invent" Fleischman's Yeast.
    One of Celia Weiss's two sisters married a man named Newman who had brought a centuries old yeast to America. You've seen the title "Newman's Yeast"--Jake and Harry dissolved their partnership on Newman's Yeast stationary.
    Cousin Harry Newman co-produced the American Gaiety Girls Burlesque Show with Houdini in 1896. The Newmans' granddaughter married Moe Howard.
    When Ed Saint published the bullet-catch story, he and Jacob Hyman were pals--hanging out. He wouldn't misreport what Jake told him.
    And Jake had no reason to lie.
    Houdini himself (that's a plug for Kevin Connolly) wrote about doing the bullet catch. I think it was something about a spectator wanting to use his own, deadly, revolver--that might be a ghost story, but, we have to classify it as apocryphal because it also might be true.
    I don't think Ed Saint was inventing anything to build up Houdini's legend except for the promotions he put together for Bess.
    Like you, John, he was turning up facts and stories and putting them out there. Very much as you're doing now.

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    1. Hello Patrick

      I had heard of the family connection to Fleishman's Yeast through my late father, William Newman Kalfon. He was the son of Fanny Newman Kalfon, who was the daughter of Simon Newman. Fanny's mother was Rose Steiner Newman, sister of Cecelia Steiner Weiss. I was not aware they had a third sister.

      FYI: I have a family picture of Houdini, Bess and their mothers at a family function dated Jan. 23, 1912. Also an unpublished advertising photo of Houdini and Theo as teens posing for the Metamorphosis act. Plus a few others of Theo. Also there is a photo of Cecelia, Rose as young women and their mother taken in Hungary. The third sister is not in the photo.

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    2. Wow. I would LOVE to see those photos. If you'd be willing to share them, please get in touch with me via my Contact page above.

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    3. will have to have the photos scanned, John

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    4. That would be wonderful! CLICK HERE for my email.

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  2. Great piece John. And great comment by Patrick with additional historical info. Love this stuff.

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  3. Thanks for the info re Fleischman's Yeast, Patrick. Now that you mention this, I think I have heard this before. Maybe from you!

    Yeah, I don't think Saint created this. I just had to write that as a possibility. I don't think he needed to -- Houdini's life was rich enough without invention.

    Do you recall where Houdini wrote about this? The audience member with the gun sounds very familiar.

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  4. Houdini may have written about this in one of his diaries?

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  5. Brilliant - really, really good.

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  6. Houdini told about performing the bullet catching trick to the Club of Odd Volumes in Boston in 1922. It's on page 77 of Tao of Houdini.
    "I had a rather unique experience performing the bullet-catching feat. It was customary for me to present this with a large horsepistol, allowing the committee to load it with a marked bullet, so that I never really touched the gun. There was a thick plank on the table leaning against the back wall. The committee were given the option of firing at the board, which would be smashed to splinters, or at me. However I exacted the promise that, once having announced their decision, they would not, on their word of honor, change their minds. For the infinitesimal fraction of a second there would be an awe-inspiring and breathless silence after the resounding crash of the bullet had made havoc of the plank, which brought home to the committee the seriousness of their decision, had I been chosen as target. The effect of the illusion showed the miraculous appearance of the bullet between my teeth, after having smashed the plate which I held in my hand. Never once, in all my experience, has the committee failed to fire at the boardfirst."
    houdinisghost.com

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  7. Oh, wow, thanks, Patrick. Looks like Houdini did indeed do the bullet catch early in his career. :)

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  8. I've updated the article with the quote from Patrick. This is all pretty good evidence. I don't think the bullet catch can be called "the trick so dangerous even Houdini wouldn't try it" anymore.

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  9. It's got to be the scariest thing he's ever done and that's saying something. I'll bet Bess didn't sit around offstage for that one.

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  10. This is fascinating. Thanks for sharing it, John!

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  11. That's an interesting presentation of the bullet catch. Did other performers do it that way? I'm referring to demonstrating the authenticity of the gun by first having a bullet filed at a plank of wood.

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  12. I've never heard of anyone doing that. Pretty effective. Once again we see Houdini -- "the bad magician" -- innovating a trick in a very clever and modern way.

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  13. I just noticed the update. It never quite made sense to me that Houdini didn't ever do the Bullet Catch as he was fond of that kind of magic, edgy, realistic, dangerous. This now clears it up. Great work as always.

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  14. Is there one shred of evidence, in a program, or newspaper article from an eye witness or reporter that suggests Houdini did the Bullet Catch? Garry Hayes

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    1. Not really. Just what I've posted above.

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