Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Did the Houdinis marry in 1901?

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.

Related:

17 comments:

  1. Someone needs to look for a 1901 marriage certificate then!

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  2. Really interesting theory. And Bess does appear to be holding a bouquet of flowers.

    Seriously though, I don't believe that two kids from such strongly religious households would have entered into the married state without at least thinking they had been legally wed, and yes, it was possible to have a rabbi or priest preside over a mixed-faith wedding, though most couples, especially New Yorkers, went with the simpler and cheaper civil ceremony. See Maurice Fishberg's "Jews: A Study of Race and Environment," 1911.

    There's a love note from Harry to Bess on June 23, 1918 in which he enclosed some money as repayment for the cash she "slipped" him on their "maytime" and "eventful day" twenty-four years before. It's entirely possible that Harry and Bess didn't realize their license was invalid until 1901, much like how Harry later discovered his birth certificate, and they simply decided to rectify the situation.

    Bess's writing on the bottom seems to confirm that the photo was taken on June 22. Based on the time-frame, Mrs. Weiss and/or Theo would probably have known about it. I wonder if they tried to cover by claiming they were renewing their vows?

    -Meredith

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    1. I agree with you Meredith. They might have thought they were married and only discovered later that their marriage certificate came from a Coney Island joke shop. Somehow I don't think Harry ever kept secrets from Dash or Mama. They were confidants in all matters, it seems.

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    2. If that photo is June 22, then they were in Osnabruck, Germany, according to Koval. But they could have done the legal ceremony anytime, but still celebrated the Coney Island date as their true anniversary.

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  3. Strange how Houdini and the family kept nearly every document imaginable, but no marriage certificate? Bess gave a name of a man who married them, however that man was in jail at the time. Another name of a priest was mentioned.....never existed. Harry and Bess were never officially married. But in their hearts and minds they were.

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  4. Wow, this has me intrigued.
    According to Silverman: The rabbi who married Bess and Harry was not Rabbi B.A. (Benjamin Abner) Tintner who was 14 years of age in 1894 and 21 years of age in 1901, but his father, Rabbi Moritz (Morris) Tintner. However, there is no source or date mentioned.
    Today, I believe you have to be at least 22 years old to be eligible to become a rabbi.

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    1. Weltman speculates about it possibly being the senior Tinter. But Houdini was clear that it was the son who married him in his instructions for his own funeral. He wanted Tinter to do the funeral service, which he did. But because the son was too young, Silverman might have just made the leap that it must have been the father. I don't think he gets into the controversy in his book.

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  5. Silverman doesn't get that far into the marriage controversy. It's still unexplored territory, but then I have still haven't received my copy of Eduardo's Houdini bio. He may have something to add.

    We here in the U.S. need our bruddas and sistas in Europe to check the 1901 marriage records. They might now be digitally stored which could make things a bit easier.

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  6. Nov 1991 Genii
    LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
    HOUDINI WAS MARRIED!
    Dear Editor,
    When I was a resident physician at the Brooklyn VA Hospital, Rabbi Tintner was the hospital chaplain. We often ate lunch together. He learned of my interest in magic and he told me that the ram's horn (shaper) which he used on the High Holidays when he conducted services would be of special interest to me.
    He told me the following interesting story which I have no reason to doubt since Rabbi Tintner was a man of great integrity.
    The rabbi's father was also a rabbi and a close friend of Houdini. He converted Houdini's wife to Judaism and married them. Houdini was so delighted that he gave him his father's ram's horn as a gift. His father was Rabbi Weiss. Rabbi Tintner subsequently inherited the ram's horn which he always treasured. Very truly yours,
    Mendel Krim M.D.
    This was in reference to the article Was Houdini Married? in April '91 issue

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    1. Thanks Pat. But Bessie converted to Judaism? Guess it didn't take. :)

      Did you ever talk to Manny about all this?

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    2. Thank You for sharing the references, Patrick. The April, 1991 issue asked the question: “Could it be that sometime in their lifes, B.A. Tintner performed a secret marriage for the couple somewhere outside of New York to legitimize their union? B.A. Tintner’s daughter didn’t think so.”
      And the Nov, 1991 issue corroborates what Silverman said and what Weltman speculated.
      Great post John, I love this kind of stuff.

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  7. FWIW: If you compare the hhbess1901 image with the hhbessmom image found at the following link:
    http://www.houdinitribute.com/img/hhbessmom.jpg
    You will notice they are taken at the same place, which had to be during his mother’s infamous 1901 summer visit to see him perform in Germany and play queen for the day in Budapest. So the photos could be from Germany or from the Gardens of the Royal Hotel in Budapest, where Houdini’s mother held court wearing the gown possibly designed for the Queen of England.
    On page 2 of Houdini A Mind in Chains, Meyer makes an bizarre statement: “To capture the full flavor of this tasty vignette [playing Queen for the day], it needs to be pointed out that not only was Houdini married at this time but his twenty-four-year-old wife, Bess, was a member of the happy party.”

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    1. The 1901 portrait above was taken in Essen, Germany according to Christopher’s The Untold Story which would make sense. Cecilia was Queen for the day in Budapest, then traveled back across Europe for his opening at the Colosseum in Essen. Cecilia sailed for New York before her son’s exciting closing night in Germany. So the picture was taken in May 1901.

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    2. Nice catch, Joe. Quite possibly, HH and Bess were not married before May 1901. The question here is: Did they finally really marry in Europe around May 1901?

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  8. Sorry, but Harry and Bess were never married. I know you want to re-write history and it's a great story, but at that time they did not get married. I do genealogy and family history research for a living and there are many aspects to this I have researched. A 1991 article does not cut it, and most of know this. I understand there is a need for us Houdini fans that want the marriage to be true, but officially it was never conducted and didn’t happen as the lack of evidence clearly shows.

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    1. So you've done some research on this yourself? Would love to know what you've uncovered (or not uncovered). Also, sounds like you know your stuff. Not sure if you are the same Anonymous who has been posting a lot lately, but maybe you could tell us who you are?

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