Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Houdini's pets

Houdini & Charlie
Harry and Bess Houdini had no children. Maybe because of this, they lavished paternal attention onto their pets, particularly their dogs, Charlie and Bobby. We don't know too much about these fury members of the Houdini family, but what we do know is charming.

Charlie, a small white Pomeranian, was given to the Houdinis by the Grand Duke of Russia in 1903. Charlie accompanied the Houdinis on their first European tour. At certain points, the dog needed to be smuggled across international borders, which according to Ken Silverman in Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss, Houdini accomplished "using one of Ching Ling Foo's conjuring methods." Houdini would write that he was "scared to death for fear of detection."

The Houdinis had Charlie for eight years and adored the animal. The dog appears in many family portraits, and when Houdini's mother visited him on tour in Cincinnati, Houdini noted that "Charlie the dog went wild for thirty minutes with joy." When Charlie died in 1909 they were both shattered. "Charlie, our dog, dying," Houdini wrote in his dairy. "Have taken him away from Surgeon Thompson so he can die at home. Bess crying. I don't feel any too good."

Houdini & Bobby
Charlie's successor was a fox terrier named Bobby. Bess later told the story of how she discovered Bobby in a Harlem butcher shop and tried to feed him a bone. When the butcher would not let her, Bess bought the dog in order to feed it. Houdini taught his "frisky" new dog how to escape from a pair of miniature handcuffs and a straitjacket and touted him as "Bobby The Handcuff King." He also claimed Bobby was "the greatest somersault dog who ever lived." Bobby's escape act headlined at the 14th Annual Society of American Magicians dinner in 1918 when Houdini was President.

Bobby died on December 15, 1918. As with Charlie, they had the dog for eight years. Houdini wrote an affectionate eulogy for his "good faithful Bobby" that was published in MUM Magazine. (It's reprinted in Gibson's Houdini on Magic.)

According to Ken Silverman, the Houdinis at one point also had another dog named "Eric", but I could find no info on that canine member of the family.

The Houdinis appear to be dog-less by the late 1920s, but they still kept a menagerie of other pets inside 278. Marie Blood recalls a six foot square aviary filled with birds, a talking parrot named "Laura" who lived in the Houdinis bedroom, and a pet turtle named "Petie" who she would "chase around the flower beds" behind 278. I've also heard mention of a parrot named Polly, a canary named Houdini, and a large rabbit named Rudy. And while not strictly a "pet", one cannot discuss Houdini and animals without making of mention of his famous vanishing elephant Jennie, whom Houdini said was "as gentle as a kitten." There was also his patriotic appearing American eagle, "Abraham Lincoln".

One final pet tale. After Houdini's death, when Bess was living with Ed Saint in California, she boarded their 25-year-old pet parrot named "Pat Houdini." But having "learned to pick locks while watching his master during his escape acts" (so claimed Ed Saint), Pat picked the lock of his cage and disappeared into the Hollywood Hills. According to the New York Times account of the daring escape, Pat was "singing as he soared away."

This post is in preparation for a much more serious blog that I will unleash on the issue of the Houdinis childlessness. It will reveal information that I don’t think has ever been revealed before. It's personal, and it might be controversial, so I'm working to present it in the just the right way. But, for now, I hope you enjoyed this look back at the Houdinis "kids", and watch for The problem with Bessie this weekend.


  1. As always, nice job. Personally, I'm looking forward to the 'Bessie' blog as I have no idea where you're going on that but it sounds fun.

  2. Thanks, Dean. I may get Bessie up as soon as Friday. Not sure yet.

  3. Wow, *new* info on Bessie + childlessness? :O I'm looking forward to this!

  4. Wow I love it great peace of work

  5. Bobby looks like my dog Socrates. Only Socrates is a smackabee (Siberian husky/Jack Russell terrier/beagle) and Bobby was a JRT. Hmmm I wonder if one of Bobby's siblings ended up in Georgia and had descendants.

  6. Is there any print or higher resolution copies of the photo with Charlie available? I would absolutely love to have that.

  7. _The Vaudeville News_ 4/8/1921
    An epidemic of the death of artists' pets was in vogue recently. Harry Houdini's prize parrot passed away unexpectedly a few weeks ago. Mr. Houdini received as a present four new baby canaries the following day.