Friday, December 11, 2009

The mystery of Franz Kukol

Houdini buffs are well aware of Franz Kukol, Houdini’s first chief assistant who served the great magician from 1903 to 1914. As the story goes, with the outbreak of World War I, the Austrian-born Kukol returned to his homeland to serve in the Army. Some say Houdini fired him because of his nationality. Either-way, Kukol abruptly leaves the Houdini story at the mid-point of Houdini’s career.

I’ve always found this a rather sad end to what must have been a very close personal and professional relationship. Afterall, Kukol thought enough of his boss to name his son Harry Houdini Kukol (born May 24, 1909 in Austria).

But now Houdini expert Patrick Culliton has uncovered what he believes to be a new chapter in the Franz Kukol story. According to Patrick, Kukol never left Houdini’s employee or his side (right to the grave). Houdini simply turned him into a new person: Frank Williamson.

In a detailed posting on the Genii Forums, Patrick (who has the ironic advantage of having played Kukol in the ABC TV movie The Great Houdinis), states; “On August 25, 1914, ‘Frank’ Kukol applied for naturalized citizenship. He renounced all foreign governments and signed an oath of allegiance to the United States. His application was rejected: ‘not enough information.’ In it, he documented that his wife Anna and their two children, Marie and Harry were living in Austria.”

Following this, the Conjuring Record for Sept 3, 1914 reported that Kukol left Houdini’s employee. In a story headlined, OBEYS CALL TO WAR; HOUDINI LOSES ASSISTANT it’s reported that “Mr. Franz Kukol, one of Harry Houdini's chief assistants, was called by his country, Germany, to the front. He left at once to fight for the cause of the Fatherland. Kukol assisted Houdini in his escape from the water cell and other experiments.”

Franz Kukol at work. Photo from Houdini Unlocked by Patrick Culliton.

However, Patrick notes there is some clear evidence that Kukol continued to work with Houdini, at least until America entered the War. While Houdini was playing the Maryland Theatre in 1916, a newspaper article noted: "Three of Mr. Houdini's assistants are Englishmen. The fourth is a German. 'I do not have to read the newspapers to learn about the war,' he said. 'Every once in a while I have to rescue the German from the Englishmen. They actually get to the coats-off stage in some of their arguments. It's all very funny to me, but they are not joking about it.'"

Furthermore, on Sept 12, 1918, both Harry Houdini and Frank Kukol registered for the draft at the same New York office. It’s at that moment that Franz AKA Frank Kukol disappears.

Patrick continues:

“I was told that the $500 bequest that Houdini left to Franz Kukol was sent to a New York address. If Franz was in New York when Houdini died, he would have to have been a pallbearer. Unless, perhaps, he was afraid of being picked up. Franz wasn't a pallbearer, but, Frank Williamson was.
I thoroughly believe that Frank Williamson was Franz Kukol.
After the funeral, Frank Williamson disappears from history -- so far. I think Houdini made Franz disappear. That rejected application for naturalized citizenship along with the signed loyalty oath kind of made Franz a man without a country.”

Patrick points to two photos of Houdini performing his 1925/26 full evening show which show an assistant who resembles Kukol without a mustache. Says Patrick, “He is standing by the Morritt Hello Summer illusion in the Big Show Photo in the Henning book; and he is holding Vickery's severed arm in the Paligenesia photo in the Kellock book.” That assistant is identified as Frank Williamson.

Is this Franz Kukol in action in Houdini's 1925/26 show?

Interestingly, this is not the first time this name shows up as an alias. In Houdini’s Conjurers Monthly Magazine there is a letter from a Frantz Williamson of Elberfeld, Germany (Houdini frequently misspelled Franz as Frantz) questioning the origin of the packing case trick (and allowing Houdini to establish a claim on the effect).

Patrick Culliton as Kukol in
The Great Houdinis (1976)
Also, in 1924, when a photo of Houdini and Teddy Roosevelt was disputed, Houdini states in a letter to R.W.G. Vail (now in the collection of Frank Saltman) that Franz will personally come to The Roosevelt Memorial Assoc. in N.Y.C. to swear he took the photos. This proves that Franz was still in the U.S. and a part of the Houdini organization well into the ‘20s.

Patrick concludes, “As to Frank Williamson being Franz Kukol, this is Culliton talking, I don't say this lightly, you can take it to the bank. The photos don't lie. Frank Kukol worked the full-evening show as Frank Williamson. Then they both REALLY disappear. So far. I never thought we'd come this far.”

UPDATE: Latest updates in the mystery of Franz Kukol.


  1. Amazing and very possible considering how much he loved a nice bit of deception ... I wonder how much teasing Harry Houdini Kukol copped at school?

  2. Wow, that's a very cool story. Makes sense too...why would Houdini lose his best assistant when he could just hide him under a new name?

  3. Hi, I have a guest house visitors' book from early 1900's. A relative kept 'digs' for visiting artistes who played at Portsmouth & Southsea theatres in the UK
    One page contains the hand-written note of Franz Kukol,a thank-you note for the clean accomodation & 'A1 cooking'. in equisite copper-plate writing, along with a 14 x 9 cm clear and unblemished sepia photo of Kukol relaxing in his rooms in Southsea.
    He has dated the page 'Week of May the 24th, 1909'.
    He appeared at The Hippodrome' Theatre. in Portsmouth.
    I intend to eventually sell the item, hopefully to someone who will treasure it, as I have done, but for the meantime, I hope this information might be of some academic use.I will happily paste an image here if I am requested.The photograph I have, closely resembles the 'Frank Williamson' ones.

  4. i am a kukol and 2 of the dates match weird

  5. i have escaped danger may a time