Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The doctor, the nurse, and the Bible of Ehrich Weiss

Strap yourselves in, because what I have to share today is exciting on many levels. Not since the Houdini spiritualism scrapbook have I felt like I've stumbled on a bigger Houdini "scoop" in regards to an hitherto unknown artifact and some juicy Houdini family history. So here we go.

Let's start with the artifact. The photos below were sent to me by musician Tara O'Grady. This Bible, published in 1883 by The American Bible Society, has been in Tara's family since the late 1970s. As you can see by the inscription, it once belonged to Houdini's father, Mayer Samuel Weiss. In 1893, it appears to have became the personal Bible of 19-year-old Ehrich Weiss. He had already adopted the stage name "Houdini", but still used his real name on meaningful things such as this.

This is an incredible find and an important piece of Houdini history, and the story of how it came to be in Tara's family is just as incredible. But first, enjoy these photos of the Ehrich Weiss Bible.


Okay, now the history.

Houdini's brother, Dr. Leopold Weiss, was a successful New York radiologist. For a time he even ran his practice out of Houdini's home in Harlem. Around 1916, Houdini and Leopold had a falling out when Leo married Sadie, the divorced wife of another Weiss brother, Nathan. Speculation is that Houdini conflated the strain of the family scandal with his mother's death (even though his mother had died three years before). Houdini turned against Leo, banishing him from the family cemetery plot and even cutting his head out of family portraits. The brothers never reconciled.

Leopold continued his medical practice in New York City. His nurse was named Marguerite Elliott. And that's where Tara picks up the story:

Mrs. Marguerite Elliott lived across the street from me growing up in New York. She was a nurse and began working for Dr. Leopold Weiss from the moment she graduated nursing school until his retirement in 1949 due to blindness. Leo always showered her with gifts and her husband Robert did not appreciate it. He was quite jealous and he knew the doctor was also a married man. It was obvious Leo was in love with my neighbor. He gave her six plates that he purchased at auction, Myott Staffordshire China, made in England with gold trim. He also gave her his family bible, signed by his father Rev. Dr. M. S. Weisz, and his brother, Ehrich Weiss.

Houdini and Leopold Weiss.
According to Tara, one of the things that Marguerite remembered was that Dr. Weiss did not speak well of his famous brother. Leopold said Houdini "was an embarrassment to the family because he was a magician." Possibly Leo felt entertainment was a lowly profession compared to his own. Or maybe the hard feelings between the brothers went both ways. But it's fascinating to hear what Leo had to say because, until now, we've only heard Houdini's side of the feud.

In 1962, Leopold, elderly and now blind, killed himself by leaping off the roof of his apartment. He left all his belongings to Marguerite Elliott. But Marguerite's husband forbid her to accept, and what might have been left behind by the final Weiss sibling is now long gone. Marguerite's husband died in 1969. Marguerite, who never had children, lived alone.

Tara continues the story...

My parents moved across the street from [Marguerite] in 1970. My mother was a caring Irish immigrant who befriended the old nurse and took care of her when she needed help.
One day, around 1978, my mother was in the basement of Marguerite's house and asked her what the large book on the floor was. It had been sitting on her basement floor for 30 years. It was Houdini's bible, and she gave it to my mother because she had no value for it, and she said perhaps mom could get a "couple of bucks" out of it. She also gave mom the six English plates.

Marguerite Elliott died in 1982. The Weiss family Bible lived on in the home of the O'Grady family, as Tara recalls:

Throughout my childhood, I would occasionally point out the signed bible on my parents' bookshelf to my friends and claimed it was Harry Houdini's. But no one really showed any interest. My parents didn't even show much interest and didn't bother getting it appraised because they didn't know how to go about it. They also didn't know why a Jewish family would own a bible, and since it didn't say Houdini, they thought it wasn’t worth much.
So it sat on their bookshelf for another 30 odd years.
I finally looked into it the other day because I was walking in a Queens cemetery and posted a photo of a tombstone on Facebook. A friend commented asking if Houdini was buried there, and I replied no, but I had his signed bible. The friend asked if I would sell it to him. I said I'd have to research. That's when I realized it was worth a bit more than "a couple of bucks."
Thanks, Mrs. Elliott.

And that brings the story to all of us today. Having explored their options, Tara and her family have decided to sell the Bible privately. So if you are interested in adding this to your collection, EMAIL ME and I will put you in touch with Tara.

My thanks to Tara O'Grady for allowing me to "break the news" of this remarkable Houdini artifact here on my blog. Here's hoping the Houdini Bible will find a good new home.

UPDATEThe Ehrich Weiss Bible is going to Budapest.

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25 comments:

  1. Wow! What a story! So Leo was a tomcat....
    Do we know the publishing date on the Bible?

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    1. Ah, yes, sorry. Published in 1883 by the American Bible Society of New York. I added the date to the story.

      The Leo stuff is fantastic, isn't it? :)

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  2. Yes, the plot thickens. Do we have evidence of a split between Harry and Leo before the Sadie thing? Or were they close til then? Any idea when Leo began dissing Harry?

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    1. They were close at one time, but exactly when it started going south isn't all that clear. This is the first diss from Leo I've ever heard.

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  3. Is it not strange that an old world Rabbi, and his son, would have and cherish(?) a Bible with the NEW and Old Testaments? Especially one published by The American Bible Society, whose mission is to give/distribute Bibles to spread the Gospel? (It is possible that this Bible was kept for knowledge of the New Testament, as an object of study/reference, rather than reflecting belief/acceptance of it's contents?)

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    1. I think Rabbi Weiss would certainly have a Bible for reference and study. I would think he'd have copies of all religious texts. Houdini always characterized him as being a scholar.

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    2. Also check out "Houdini's Bibles" in the related links. Rabbi Weiss had old and new testaments in different languages.

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    3. That Bible was published in 1883, the year Samuel lost his job as rabbi in Appleton - some say because he did not speak English. So maybe he got that Bible to study English? The American Bible Society gave away thousands of Bibles, and was the first to put them in hotel rooms, so it would have been easy and cheap for him to get one. He took a trip to St. Paul in 1883 (looking for work?) and probably stayed in a hotel....

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  4. Actually, the Jews do use the Bible, but only the Old Testaments. Obviously, having the New Testaments in the same volume didn't hurt.

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  5. Great stuff John! Leo told the nurse Harry was an embarrassment to the family because in all likelihood he did not want to reveal their blood feud. Since he outlived HH, he got the last word. Too bad they did not reconcile before HH's death.

    Quite possible that HH blamed Leo for stressing Mama to her grave. His affair with Nat's wife may have started before 1913.

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    1. This is off the top of my head, but I believe Silverman mentions the possibility of an earlier affair and that the divorce papers might reveal more details, but they were still sealed under NY law. I believe they are now unsealed.

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  6. Houdini new Sadie was a gold digger. One of the reasons she left Nate. Houdinis being upset about Sadie and Leo were to protect a young guy in love.
    Also Houdini was told by Nate, and everyone else the family was ok with Leo going with her. Again he (Houdini) felt she want to ride on his fame. The marriage did not last long, thus Marguerites husband was wrong, for Dr Weiss was single. His attentions for her may be just that of a lonely old man
    Jon Oliver

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    1. Thanks Jon. So when did Leo and Sadie split? I know so little about the timeline of Leo's life. One of the many things I love about this story is it helps with that. I didn't know he retired in '49, for example.

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    2. A 1940 census shows Leo and Sadie still married and living together as of 1935.

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  7. Another great Houdini story! The photo of HH and Leo is also very interesting. Harry looks a little uncomfortable. Legs crossed, he looks small under the towering Leo.

    “Leo always showered her with gifts…”. What else might be hidden in Marguerite's basement?

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    1. One wonders! I believe the set of plates were the only other thing that Tara's family took. At first we wondered if they had come from the Houdini family as well. The set was not compete and Tara beat me to the joke -- "Maybe Sadie threw them at Leo." Ha! She sent me pics of those as well.

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  8. Not sure about when Leo and Sadie split. But Harry Hardeen said they lived together less then five years. Kind of showing Leo Houdini was right. Let me try to track down some notes. However from 2 different people who both new Houdini and Hardeen, I was told that by mid 1926 both Houdini and Leopold were starting to make up. If Houdini had not died they would have made up completely.
    Jon Oliver

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    1. According to Silverman, Leo never came to the hospital. But he did "by at least one account" attend the funeral.

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    2. I just read an article in a the Bridgeport Telegram for November 16, 1926 ("Houdini cuts off sister-in-law who divorced brother") that seems to indicate Leo and Sadie are still married: "Dr. Weiss and his wife have a beautiful summer home on West Mountain, Ridgefield. They are well known both in Ridgefield and Danbury."

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    3. Great catch John. Amazing that something like this made the newspapers. Did this mean that HH cut her off his will? He would have done this long before 1926 since L & S "misbehaved" back in 1914.

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    4. Yes, it was done long before, but the details of the Will became publicly known only after his death. I'll have to share this article in a post. This seems to be the summer of Leopold!

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  9. What did Sadie do that made Harry suspect she wanted to ride his coattails to fame?

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  10. i seem to recall Houdini had in his will that Leopold was not to be buried at the family plot. Yet he is buried there or i would guess so, since we saw the damaged marker.
    Dick Brookz

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    1. Yep, Leo got in. I'm wondering if whoever ran the cemetery at that time might have shown compassion. Sounds like he died penniless. Or maybe he worked out a new deal when Gladys died. Maybe he paid in advance for both their burials. That's why they both have the modest stones -- which I'm still hoping to see back in place at some point.

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  11. It could also be that when HH originally purchased the plot, there was enough room for everyone in the immediate family. When HH & Leo had their falling out, HH stipulated that his brother would not be allowed into the plot.

    By the 1960s, HH's stipulation may have fallen by the wayside, or gotten lost in the paperwork.

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