Monday, April 4, 2016

Houdini and his electric chair


In the 1998 Houdini cable movie starring Johnathon Schaech, there are two scenes showing Houdini sitting in an electric chair in his home. This begs the question; did Houdini own an electric chair? The answer is yes.

Houdini's electric chair, said to be the world's first, was originally displayed at Huber's Dime Museum on 14th Street in New York City where Houdini performed in his early years. According to Kellock's Houdini His Life Story, Houdini and the chair both made their debut at the museum at the same time:

On Houdini's first engagement there, he arrived simultaneously with the first electric chair, acquired by Huber from the Auburn prison, where it had first been used to kill [Kemmler], the murderer, in 1890. When Huber's and its effects were put on the auction block in 1910, Houdini, the indefatigable collector, parked himself at the sale, and the first day he came home in a cab triumphantly bearing the historic chair, which he had acquired for a bid of $6.70. His wife was never able to get this gruesome and unlovely relic out of the house. Whenever she had it quietly removed to the cellar, Houdini missed it and had it brought upstairs again. 

Houdini said of his purchase: "I want this chair for sweet sentiment's sake. It came while I did my first week at Huber's." At the same auction, he purchased an Egyptian mummy for $3.



I don't know what happened to Houdini's "sentimental" electric chair (or mummy). But if it was still in 278 after Houdini's death, it's unlikely it was something Bess kept.

So what did Houdini's electric chair look like? If Huber's did indeed get the chair from Auburn Prison, and it was the first, then it is the chair pictured below. A "spare chair" from the prison today resides at Swaby's Tavern in Auburn and can be seen HERE.


Despite the inherent drama, Houdini never performed an electric chair challenge escape, as far as I know. His only encounter with an electric chair came in his 1918 movie serial The Master Mystery. In fact, the chair we see in that scene does bear a resemblance to the Auburn chair. Could it be Houdini's own?


Thanks to Bill Mullins. The photo of Houdini in the electric chair above is Lot 192 in Potter & Potter's upcoming Houdiniana auction.

UPDATE: We now have the answer to what happened to Houdini's chair and also a photo! Check out: Houdini's electric chair - the shocking truth.

Related:

14 comments:

  1. Great stuff John! That might be Houdini's own chair in the Master Mystery. It was filmed in Yonkers, I believe, so he could have had it shipped to the filming location. This was back in the days before the big time studio warehouses that were filled with props.

    Boy, your blog has me reading the Kellock book again. Lots of interesting things in there and lots of excerpts from HH's diaries. Apparently, Bess allowed Kellock access to them. This had to have been before the diaries began to scatter around to collectors sometime after 1928. Kellock describes many diaries of different shapes and sizes.

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    1. Kellock is really wonderful. Yes, it's "full of lies", but it's also full of gems and you really get a great sense of Bess.

      The Master Mystery chair and the chair we see in the Auburn pic are a little different. The base between Houdini's shins is shaped a little differently. But maybe the chair that went to Hubers and Houdini wasn't actually this first one.

      You know, the chair at Swaby's Tavern that I've linked to actually looks more like the Master Mystery chair. Could Swaby's chair be Houdini's?

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  2. I believe Houdini gave his electric chair to Walford Bodie who Hounded Houdini for it.
    Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz
    Houdini Museum
    Scranton PA
    the only building in the world dedicated to HOUDINI

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    1. You're quite right, D&D! I'm working on a new post updating with some more info.

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  3. After a closer look, I also realized the two chairs are not exactly the same. The backboards of each chair are also carved a bit differently. By the way, mummies were cheap and plentiful at the turn of the 20th century. Hundreds, if not thousands of mummies were unearthed in Egypt around then.

    Can D & D tell us more about that transaction? Who was Walford Bodie and when did HH give him the chair?

    The value of the Kellock book (for me anyway) is in the diary passages that Kellock quoted often. There are passages that can still only be found in this book. There are also rare photos that were from B. M. Ernst's collection that are nicely reproduced on glossy paper.

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  4. Go here for Walford Bodie info
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walford_Bodie
    One of the highest paid performers of his time.
    Did an electric chair routine in his act.
    Claimed to cure people and had them walk away from crutches as faith healers do today.
    Packed them in.
    We do a similar electric chair routine as he did in our Halloween shows. But, no crutches.
    Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz
    The Houdini Museum
    The Only Building in the World Dedicated to Houdini
    Scranton, PA

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  5. Kellock says "Kimbler, the murderer." But his name was Kemmler:
    http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030193/1890-08-06/ed-4/seq-1/#date1=1836

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    1. Thanks Bill. I've also noticed that subsequent bios drop the sale price to $6.50 instead of $6.70 as Kellock has it. Not sure why.

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  6. Thanks D & D! Will look up Bodie. I wonder how he found out HH had an electric chair. I'm sure HH didn't advertise this fact in the papers. Or did he?

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  7. Edison built the first electric chair in an attempt to battle Westinghouse and Tesla using AC alternating current.
    He attempted to prove AC was dangerous and even demonstrated using a dog.
    If Houdini owned the first electric chair it would have been Edison's creation.

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  8. I think it was the first electric chair owned by Auburn prison, not THE first electric chair that was put ever into production.

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    1. The first electrocution by electric chair was at Auburn:

      http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/first-execution-by-electric-chair

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  9. The electric chair at Auburn used to kill kemler was Edison's: http://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/first-execution-electric-chair

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  10. You're right H & H! It looks like HH's chair was the very first electric chair built in Edison's workshop. The History Today website noted that Edison's biographers were embarrassed to include it in their books.

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