Thursday, June 19, 2014

Houdini's greatest secret

Today it is general knowledge that Houdini was born in Budapest, Hungary, and immigrated to America along with his family as a child. Houdini's story is a classic tale of an immigrant making good, and today it is fashionable to say that part of Houdini's appeal was that he symbolized for his audiences the immigrant/individual who was able to break free of the "bonds" of oppression. But that might actually be a very modern read on Houdini.

Because during his own career, Houdini always claimed to be an American -- born April 6, 1874 in Appleton, Wisconsin.* In fact, it's more likely Houdini symbolized for his audience a new breed of 20th Century American supermen. This was especially the case in Europe where Houdini was billed as "The Elusive American" and had posters that showed him wearing shorts made of the Stars and Stripes (and this before Rocky Balboa). An American superman was certainly how Houdini wanted to be seen.

So it must have come as a surprise to those who had known or had seen Houdini in life to learn that he wasn't an American after all. Many first learned the truth of Houdini's Hungarian birth 33 years after the magician's death with the publication of Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls by William Lindsay Gresham in 1959. Some in the magic world still didn't accept it until 1972 when the S.A.M. National Council investigated the issue and published their conclusions in The Houdini Birth Research Committee's Report (above).

But the truth of Houdini's real birthplace and birth date was actually first uncovered and revealed in December 1932 in a German magic magazine, Die Magie. Patrick Culliton recently translated and reproduced that historic article on his website, Houdini's Ghost. It makes for interesting reading, especially the passage below in which the author talks about trying to publish this historic finding in an American magic publication and being rebuffed:

I believed that I was rendering our American friends a service and sent the original excerpt from the register together with the reproductions of the above-mentioned letters and pictures, to the S. A. M. [Society of American Magicians] for publication in SPHINX. To my great astonishment, I received from Mr. B. M. Ernst, President of the S.A.M. a cool letter of rejection with the statement that he could in no case accept that my conclusions were correct, and since it could only have been an error, he also advised me, in a tone that seemed disconcerting, against the publication of this material.

What the Die Magie writer apparently didn't know was that Bernard Ernst (right) was Houdini's lawyer and close confidant who continued to look after the Houdini estate and Bess at this time. It has been said that Ernst and Bess feared that the Life Insurance companies who had paid out on Houdini's policies (Bess' main income) would have grounds to void the policy and stop payments if it was shown that Houdini had "falsified" his nationality on the original application. This could very well be. But could Ernst have also been protecting the myth of Houdini as an American superman? He might have had unique knowledge of how important this was to Houdini. Regardless, it's very interesting to see proof of a genuine conspiracy of silence on the topic of Houdini's birth at this time.

Here's another related thought. Before 1900, Houdini would list the year of his birth as 1873. This changed to 1874 with the new passport application he filed in Europe when he officially designated Appleton/America as his birthplace (Hardeen did the same thing). Why the change? Could it be that Houdini got a look at his birth certificate when he travel to Budapest during his European tour and discovered his real year of birth? If it was easily accessible in 1932, it would have been no problem for Houdini to get a copy in 1900. It must have come as a shock for Houdini to learn that he was actually a year younger than he always thought.

Below is copy of the birth record taken at the Registrar's office at the Pest Jewish Community on November 9, 1932 and referred to in the Die Magie article -- the document that revealed Houdini's greatest secret.

Click to enlarge.
Check out the full Die Magie article at Houdini's Ghost.

* Before 1900, Houdini did acknowledge his European birth. He said he was an Austrian. His American identity came with his fame.

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20 comments:

  1. Mulholland got the word about the true birthplace from Ottokar Fischer right after Houdini died. He told Ernst. Ernst told Mulholland to keep it under his hat because the estate was in delicate negotiations over Houdini's life insurance policies and if Houdini had misstated his birthdate -- even by mistake -- it could upset things.
    It never registered with me that when the story broke from Hungary, Ernst sent a "lawyer letter" very much like the "lawyer letter" he sent to New York Life. Remember, "lawyer letters" are not evidence. They are not subject to any perjury laws. They are, essentially, a scare tactic -- which can usually be ignored.

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    1. Interesting about Mulholland-Fischer-Ernst. Thanks Patrick.

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  2. That was great! Thank you John and Patrick. Now I see Houdini's birthday on that certificate as March 24th, but where is the year?

    That photo of Houdini and Ernst, I believe was taken at Ernst's home in Long Island. Probably around 1925 or 26. I remember seeing it in a 1930s issue of The Sphinx.

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    1. Yes, that photo comes from the October 1926 issue of The Sphinx. Caption says the pic was taken Ernst's country home at Sea Cliff, Long Island.

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  3. Nice to see the translation. Thanks John and Pat for this great piece.

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  4. He means the October, 1936 issue of Sphinx which is one of the very best Houdini memorial issues.

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    1. Oops. Yes. Meant October 1936. (Not '26.)

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  5. Interesting thought that HH may have discovered his real year of birth during his European tour. Kalush surmises that most likely his mother, corrected him. Also, it is worth noting that before leaving on his first trip to England, he stated his birthplace to be Buda-Pest, Hungary, but 3 months later in London is when he becomes American and states Appleton, Wisconsin. On a side note: The US citizenship certificate of Houdini’s father stated that Meyer Samuel Weisz was from Austria and his death certificate refers to Hungary. Apparently, Hungary and Austria had changing boundaries.

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    1. But why would his mother wait until 1900 to correct him? And why wait until he was an ocean away? It seems far more logical that Houdini discovered this info himself while in Europe.

      Yep, I put in an asterix and explained that Houdini did acknowledge his European birth before 1900. It was too unwieldily to put all that in the opening paragraph. Check out the Henning book and read some of his early clippings. He's described a being an "Austrian." Hungary was part of the " Austro-Hungarian Empire" until 1918, so that's why we see HH and his father designating Austria as their country of origin.

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  6. Thank you Patrick. Yes, it must have been that 1936 Houdini memorial issue in The Sphinx. You can see in that photo that they were good friends. It explains why Ernst continued to protect Bess' interests in the life insurance payout,

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    1. Yes, my mistake. It's the Oct 1936 issue. The photo illustrates an article about Houdini written by Ernst. In it he describes the time Houdini stopped a rain storm on command. I should do a post about that. It's a good story.

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  7. He was four. He remembered coming over on the boat. In my book, I devoted a page to newspaper clippings pre-1900 that refer to him as a "young Hungarian" or "Austrian." I titled the page Hungarian and proud of it. I personally see only one way that Houdini could hand in the original passport that stated the facts of his birth and of his immigration and citizenship, and get a new passport that says he was born in Wisconsin, USA, and that is that he was involved in some secret work.

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    1. But Hardeen did the same thing. Was he a spy as well? That's one of my MANY problems with the spy theory.

      I just think it's more likely Houdini slipped the guy £10 and filled out the passport application as he wanted and naturalized himself. And then Dash did the same thing. I think that was a perk of being rich and famous. It's wasn't like they had computers to cross check info. across the ocean. I think this is how things worked back then. A much different world than today.

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  8. Houdini was not rich and not famous. Getting there. Hardeen didn't have a correct passport to hand in in exchange for a false one. Around the time that Hardeen's boys were entering the military, he came up with a very bogus looking birth certificate from Appleton. Now, if it came out that Houdini and Hardeen were brothers, then, Houdini couldn't be born in America and Hardeen in Hungary. And giving him the arbitrary birthdate of Feb. 29th! How about that? By the way, Houdini then had to cover his tracks as a Hungarian or Austrian as he cheerfully identified himself before 1900. We certainly fall on opposite sides of the "spy" angle, John.

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    1. Yes we do. :) But that's okay. It's fun to debate the spy question. And I feel like there's still some discoveries to be made. I'd love it if Bill would publish an update or do a lecture on any recent discoveries. Another reason I'm reluctant to believe the spy stuff is there was a implied promise that this revelation was going to crack open the flood gates of new evidence. But this theory hasn't moved an inch since 2006, as far as I know. Except for helping set up a movie.

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  9. Is it known that the passports that reveal their European origin were handed in when they applied for replacements? It's not that hard to lie: "I'm sorry-- I no longer have my expired passport."

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  10. Thanks for the link to Patrick's website - What a fascinating find. As someone who was born on March 24th, this area of Houdini lore as always intrigued. I still have my copy Houdini Birth Research Committee's Report in my library.

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  11. While it's not related to Houdini's birthplace, the Ernst saga after Houdini's death was interesting. Ernst evidently had Bess Houdini's best interest at heart when performing his fiduciary duties, but the family didn't see it that way.

    As is well known today, Bess moved in with sister Marie, the latter's husband John Hinson, and their children not too long after Houdini's demise. Reportedly at Ernst's insistence, an apparently large portion of the money Bess contributed to the household, and John and Marie's savings, were invested in real estate. The decision proved to be disastrous, as all the funds were lost when the market crashed (as happened with the real estate market in modern times when the market too a dive).

    John and Marie (and Bess) greatly resented Ernst as a result of this, especially given the fact that Ernst came out of the deal "smelling like a rose," as the younger Marie (the Hinson's daughter) put it. They believed Ernst pocketed a large portion of the funds, and despised him, reportedly, from that time forward.

    Be that as it may, like so many of us, Bess proved to be a very poor money manager (a habit she shared with her famous husband). These reported facts would have, of course, exacerbated her situation.

    Like so very many Houdini biographies, the book Ernst co-authored with Hereward Carrington - Houdini and Conan Doyle, Story of a Strange Friendship - contained significant inaccuracies. I have Houdini's copy of a letter Doyle wrote to Houdini (the first, apparently, in which Doyle accused Houdini of having supernatural powers), which appears in the book - partially. While the cover page of the letter is quoted accurately, somehow Ernst and Carrington picked up the text of another letter (I guess, I've not seen the latter), and quoted it in the book as containing the original text.

    I'm a big believer in not believing ill of the dead, and I think Ernst can be forgiven, of course, the faux pas in the book, and any other it contained. Did he really capitalize on his friendship with Houdini to rook Bess and family out of income? Maybe, but it's understandable that they would harbor ill feelings toward him after the financial debacle, and perhaps a little unfairly, as he escaped the calamity essentially unscathed, or so they thought.

    If Conan Doyle were still among us, we could ask him to contact the spirits in question to sort out the facts. As it happens, we'll just have to let history, based as it is upon opinion as much as anything else, speak for itself.

    One good thing came of this situation in any event; had Bess not been financially lacking, she may well not have engaged, with Ed Saint, on the great Houdini promotion tour which lasted for over a decade. Who knows, if it weren't for this, Harry Houdini might today be no better known that other conjurer's of his era?

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    1. Really interesting info. Thank you, Gregory.

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    2. BTW, I've never bought into the idea that Houdini would not be known to us today if it weren't for Bess and Ed Saint. It's like saying no-one would know or care who John Lennon was today if it weren't for Yoko Ono. The only thing Bess and Ed ever did that broke into the public sphere was the Final Seance, and that was a one day story. In fact, in most of their efforts, they failed. They never got a movie made, which is a huge part of cementing a legend, and they weren't responsible for the publication of a single book (Kellock was pre-Saint). Houdini was one of the most famous men of his time, and there was always going to be a Kellock bio, a Gresham bio, the '53 movie, and all that came after.

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