Today is the 122nd wedding anniversary of Harry and Bess Houdini. The couple married on June 22, 1894. Or did they? In recent years, historians have pointed out that there's something fishy about the official story of the Houdinis marriage. While there is no doubt Harry and Bess lived and traveled together from that June day, some have questioned whether they were ever actually legally married at all.
As the story goes, Harry and Bess met in Coney Island where they were both performers, and after knowing each other for only a week, they married. The famous Coney Island boss John Y. McKane performed the civil ceremony. They later repeated their vows in two more ceremonies, one with a Rabbi (for Harry's family) and again with a Roman Catholic Priest (for Bess's family). This led to Bess saying, "I’m the most married person I know, three times and to the same man."
But the late great Houdini historian Manny Weltman found problems with this story. In his book, Houdini: Escape into Legend: The Early Years (1993), Weltman revealed that John Y. McKane could not have married Harry and Bess as he was in Sing Sing prison at the time. There were also plenty of rackets on the Bowery in those days, and it's possible whatever marriage license the young couple purchased (for $2.00 -- Bess paid) might not have been legit. In Houdini His Life Story, Bess admits: "How people went about getting married was a mystery to both of us."
As to the later ceremonies, Weltman (and later William Rauscher) argued that no Rabbi or Catholic priest would have performed a mixed faith marriage in 1894 as it was prohibited by both faiths at that time. Houdini said they were married by Rabbi Tintner of Mt. Zion Temple -- "The man who married me to the woman I have never ceased to love." Trouble is, Rabbi Tintner would have only been 14-years-old in 1894. The Priest who did the Catholic ceremony was said to be Rev. G.S. Loui of Brooklyn. But Weltman could find no priest by the name of Loui (or Louis) in the records of the New York Roman Catholic Archdiocese, nor in the 1894 phone book. To top it all off, no record of the Houdinis marriage certificate has ever been found.
So this is what leads some to question whether Harry and Bess Houdini were ever legally married. Another possibility is that they got legally married later in life in secret ceremony. That's the theory that comes to my mind when I look at the photo below from Houdini His Legend and His Magic by Doug Henning. Is this the smoking gun evidence that has been hiding in plain sight all these years?
This photo comes from Bess Houdini's own scrapbook, and was among several other "anniversary" pictures. (The Houdini's took an anniversary photo every year, in Coney Island if they were in town.) On the photo is written: "Houdini and wife, married 7 years." So at first sight, this appears to be their 7th anniversary photo. But look at what's written at an earlier time in ink that is fading: "1901 Wedding day." That could be just another way of referring to an anniversary. Or it could literally mean their Wedding DAY. It also happens to be the first such photo in the album.
Is it possible this photo was actually taken on their legal Wedding Day in 1901? They are certainly dressed for it. Rabbi Tintner would have been old enough to conduct the ceremony, and the secret of the missing wedding certificate might be a simple as no one has looked for it in the year 1901. It's also possible the marriage took place in Europe, which is where the Houdinis spent much of that year.
Later, when this annotated "wedding day" photo was added to the album, it was re-annotated as an anniversary photo along with the other pictures, as by that time Houdini was establishing his official biography and mythology. Recall that the Houdinis also created a romantic fiction about how they first met.
Anyway, this photo and the "Wedding Day" annotation has always given me pause, so I thought today was a good day to throw it into the stew of speculation about the Houdinis mysterious marriage.
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- Full Bibliography
- By Houdini
- For Kids
- Wild About Harry Bookshelf
- Houdini His Life Story (1928)
- Houdini The Man Who Walked Through Walls (1959)
- Houdini The Untold Story (1969)
- The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini (1993)
- Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss (1997)
- The Secret Life of Houdini (2006)
- The Metamorphosis: The Apprenticeship of Harry Houdini (2012)
- The Witch of Lime Street (2015)
- Houdini interviewed by Louella Parsons (1918)
- Marie Rahner Hinson (Bess Houdini's sister)
- Karen Mann (Daughter of Jack Price)
- Anna Thurlow (Great granddaughter of Margery)
- Dorothy Young (Houdini assistant)
- Theo. Hardeen (radio interview)
- Rick Schmidlin (Grim Game restorationist)
- Michael Weston (Houdini & Doyle)
- Roger Dreyer (Houdini Museum of New York)
- Los Angeles Conference on Magic History (2015)
- Official Houdini Seance, San Francisco (2015)
- Houdini Historical Roast (2015)
- Midwest Magic History Weekend, Marshall (2015)
- The Grim Game premiere in Hollywood (2015)
- Houdini at Hollywood Heritage (2014)
- Official Houdini Seance, Fort Worth (2012)
- Magic Collectors Weekend, Chicago (2011)
- Houdini Art and Magic exhibition (2010-2012)
- Tony Curtis at The Magic Castle (2009)