Monday, July 20, 2015

"I don't drink, smoke or chew"

Last month I saw the Houdini miniseries receive an IIG Award at the Los Angeles Center For Inquiry. During the reception, I was excited to discover that the CFI has several framed letters on display from Houdini's early career. These are copies of originals from a rare document collection in Santa Barbara, and are letters that I've never seen before.

The letter below I found especially interesting. It appears to be the second page of letter in which the young Houdini pitches himself for work.

Click to enlarge.

There's a lot to love here. It's a really interesting mix of bravado and humility. First off, notice that the stationary says "6th Annual Tour - 1890 to 1896." The Houdinis act began with their marriage in 1894, only two years earlier. Possibly Houdini is including his own first appearances on stage, which were around 1890. But this shows just how important it was at the time to be perceived as a "seasoned" act.

I'm also intrigued by the claim that "Herrmann the Great stole the idea for our act from us and he featured it." Alexander Herrmann was by far the most famous magician of the day (and was also indirectly related to Houdini). It's hard to know exactly what "act" Houdini is referring to here. The obvious candidate would be Metamorphosis. But while Herrmann did substitution illusions such as Indian Mail, Asiatic Boxes, and Lost Strobeika, they don't seem similar enough to be considered a lift. It's possible Houdini is referring to the mind reading act he did with Bess, a version of which Herrmann did perform. But claiming this as an original creation is a stretch. So this accusation is a bit of mystery. (Herrmann would die the year this letter was written.)

Finally, you gotta love Houdini's line: "I don't drink smoke or chew and we are good useful people, dress fair and willing workers." This really gives a feel for the frontier world Houdini lived and worked in at this time.

Today we tend to think of everything before 1900 as a prelude to Houdini's real career -- the struggle. We also tend to ascribe this thinking to Houdini himself, that all was in service of some future point of success and fame. But the sense I get from reading this letter is that Houdini already considered himself a success. The kind of worldwide fame Houdini would later achieve was born of 20th century mass media and might have been inconceivable in 1896. Houdini couldn't see the future (as far as we know!), so his life on the road with Bess at this time was his career -- his 6th Annual Tour, in fact. So successful even Herrmann The Great steals from him!

A fascinating letter and a nice surprise discovery at the CFI.

Thanks to Herrmann expert James Hamilton for help with the Herrmann info.

UPDATE: In the chapter about Metamorphosis in Houdini's Fabulous Magic, Walter Gibson refers to Herrmann's "Asiatic Trunk Mystery" which he was "presenting at the time of his death in 1896." Hermann billed it as his "Original Oriental Mystery" -- words that seem very similar to what we see on this stationary. I'm now convinced the Asiatic Trunk Mystery was the act that Houdini felt Herrmann stole from him.

Related:

13 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    1. Hey, that's a very interesting theory. Maybe.

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    2. I'm sorry Jack appears to have removed his comment. I forget now what his interesting theory was. ???

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  2. Really great letter

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    1. It really is. Would love to read the other pages.

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  3. Could also be that HH was not happy that Herrmann did not respond to his letter offering his services as an assistant. He had also written to Kellar, who did send a reply that he had enough assistants. I firmly believe that one of the reasons HH admired Kellar was the fact that Mr. K took the time to respond to his letter when HH was an obscure magician.

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    1. Could be. What year did HH write that letter?

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  4. That letter is amazing.
    In 1896, Houdini and Bess were touring with the Marco Magic Company. It’s interesting he would claim that “Herrmann the Great stole the idea of our act from us and he featured it”.
    According to Bruce MacNab’s book, The Metamorphosis: “The entire Marco production, except for Houdini’s escape act [including Metamorphosis], was little more than an amateur knock-off of Herrmann’s celebrated show [which included a Trilby levitation, Decapitation, and Mind-Reading routine]
    BTW: Alexander Herrmann died at the age of 52.

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  5. HH got the cold shoulder from Herrmann. That he would swing back was part and parcel of the man. He wrote the letter to Kellar sometime between the summer of 1896 and the end of 1897. The letter to Herrmann obviously had to have been before the letter in the CFI collection. I believe the Herrmann/Kellar letter episode is in The Untold Story, and Silverman mentions the letter to Kellar on page 17.

    Christopher mentions that Herrmann did not respond but nothing about HH getting upset about that. Speculation on my part, but if HH was accusing Herrmann of stealing from his act, what else could it be? He never forgot a slight.

    Kellar's answer is reprinted in Culliton's The Key, and his response is friendly. It went something like: "Thank you for offering your services but I have enough assistants for this season. Wish you best success." It made it all the way to Culliton's book, so that letter must have meant something to HH.

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    1. It seems to me that HH had this stationary printed up specifically for his "6th Annual Tour", which is 1896. And that fact that Herrmann died in December means it was written before.

      As Joe pointed out, HH and Bess were with the Marco Co in 1896. Could HH have written this from Canada trying to secure bookings back home ("back East")? As we know, when Marco gave up the show, Harry and Bess took over the tour and also much of his act, including the Trilby levitation. Bruce MacNab says the Marco show was an imitation of Herrmann's, so maybe that accounts for Harry's claim that Herrmann stole their act. He's trying to explain why they have an act so similar. Pretty brash untruth if that's the case.

      The center has one other early letter on display, but it appears to be written at an earlier date. Different stationary. I'm going to to give a talk at the CFI in October. Hopefully I'll learn more then.

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    2. You know, the more I think about this (and having re-read THIS POST from 2012), I think there's a real possibility the "act" HH is referring to could be the Trilby levitation. It really depends on when this letter was written.

      I've also shot an email to Bruce MacNab. He is THE man to consult when it comes to Houdini's early career.

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  7. In the chapter about Metamorphosis in Houdini's Fabulous Magic, Walter Gibson refers to Herrmann's "Asiatic Trunk Mystery" which he was "presenting at the time of his death in 1896." Hermann billed it as his "Original Oriental Mystery" -- words that seem very similar to what we see on this stationary. I'm now convinced the Asiatic Trunk Mystery was the act that Houdini felt Herrmann stole from him.

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