Sunday, September 18, 2011

Houdini's wristwatch

In my recent post about Houdini's third buried alive test, an eagle-eyed reader spotted what appears to be a watch on Houdini's wrist and posted in the Comments section:

"The first pic of Houdini standing by the pool I see he is wearing a wristwatch and this is the only pic I have ever seen of Houdini wearing a watch that I can remember. Does anyone know what brand of watch Houdini wore? (watch enthusiast here)!"

At the time I didn't have any information for him, and I even doubted whether it was a wristwatch. We all know of Houdini's pocket watch (a present from Bessie which famously contains his actual birthdate), so I wasn't convinced Houdini ever wore a wristwatch. I thought maybe this was a band to monitor his pulse during the Shelton buried alive test.

But now, thanks to The Culliton Papers, we have information on, yes, Houdini's wristwatch!

According to an article which appeared in The New York World under the terrific headline: "Dainty Darby Grips Iron Wrist Of Houdini In Resistless Clutch", Houdini was given a wristwatch by The World editors during a birthday luncheon at Moneta's restaurant at 32 Mulberry Street in New York City in commemoration of his first year "as a newspaperman".

Click to enlarge
The reference here is to Houdini's weekly Red Magic insert, a collection of puzzles, brain teasers, and magic tricks "Edited by the World Famous Houdini" that ran in The New York World and syndication from November 16, 1924 to February 22, 1931 (328 issues).

The article notes that this is the first wristwatch Houdini "has ever had on -- his wrists are more familiar with the grip of the handcuffs from which he so easily escapes than the gentler grasp of a leather strap". It goes on to quote Houdini as saying it is "one fetter from which he will never be freed by any action of his own."

The clipping is without a date, but as Red Magic started in 1924, we can assume Houdini received this watch in 1925 (presumably April 6). This means it is almost certainly the watch we see in the Shelton photo, which was taken in August 1926. Unfortunately, the article gives no indication of what kind of wristwatch was presented to Houdini that day, but our eagle-eyed reader offers up one suggestion:

"I actually have a watch that looks similar to the one Houdini appears to be wearing. Its a 1925 Waltham in a tonneau style case. I cant say its THE watch but sure does look similar."

Of course, this raises the inevitable question. Where is this wristwatch today?

By the way, Moneta's remained in business until the 1940s, and the original Moneta's name could still be seen on the building at 32 Mulberry Street until at least 2010 when it was converted into a Parisian nightclub called La Baron.

Publication dates for Red Magic came from the invaluable Houdini Periodical Bibliography by Arthur Moses.

Also enjoy:


  1. The watch in my collection is a 1925 Waltham cased in solid 14k gold. The case is Tonneau shaped. It of course is not THE watch as mine was given as a NYAC Boxing show award. Looking at that one pic of Houdini I can only say that the watch is definitely not round or square but instead Tonneau style. More than likely Houdini's watch is made of some base metal and not gold since I would expect that the watch would have been mentioned as being gold in this article if it was in fact gold. Waltham was the leading watch producer in the 20's so its a good bet Houdinis watch was indeed a Waltham. As to where the watch currently resides I would expect it was given to Hardeen after his brother death. Possibly it could still be in the family?

  2. Thanks for chiming in, Anon. I hoped you would. :) You know, this image is from Corbis. It's a low res freebie, but a higher res can be purchased for $35. That could be a way to get a better look at the watch. There's also at least one other shot where the watch is visible.

  3. How about looking at pics of Hardeen after 1926 to see if he is wearing this watch?

  4. I just took a look at a few Hardeen shots and saw no watch.

    I have found an 8x10 of the Shelton test from my own collection where you can see the watch. It's shot from across the pool so the image is small, but I'm scanning it at a super high res to see if I can bring out the watch. I can share it with you if you care to shoot me your email via my Contact Me page.

  5. I've added the high res scan to the story. Anything there?

  6. In his letter to Dr. O'Connell describing the three underwater burial tests, Houdini said something like, "I was wearing a watch with a radium dial." That's not quite what it said but close. It's in my book.
    And on line.

  7. That sounds familiar, but I couldn't find any reference to a watch there.

  8. Its hard to make out any details so impossible to say exactly what he is wearing. However the watch definitely has a big crown, the case is either tonneau OR cut corner and the dial is two tone with a center darker area surrounded by a lighter one. My watch also has a big crown and a two tone dial along with a tonneau case so its similar. It would be great to have someone enhance that photo so more details can be seen.

  9. Also....has anyone gotten anymore info concerning Houdini's third buried alive stunt? Was that a dead Houdini in that box or alive doing his buried alive in front of a furniture store? NOTE...there is no watch on those wrists!

  10. I found an example of a 1925 watch that I believe is similar to the one HOUDINI is wearing. This one is gold however but at least everyone can get the idea. Can I post the web site? I tried cutting and pasting a picture but would not work. I am not affiliated with the web site in question!

  11. Sure, just post the link. It won't hyperlink, but we can copy and paste into our browsers. Thanks!

  12. I can't post the link for some.reason. Go to Strickland vintage watches. Hit new additions and on One of the first few pages is a gold 1925 cut corner Waltham. In my estimation a similar watch as compared with what Houdini is wearing.

  13. Here we go.!xQicp!xE11!xAviewmode!xE!xAaction!xElookup!xAgallery!xE!xAtimestamp!xE20110918222104!xAyear!xE

  14. As usual, you're looking in the wrong place.,gottscho,detr,nfor,wpa,aap,cwar,bbpix,cowellbib,calbkbib,consrvbib,bdsbib,dag,fsaall,gmd,pan,vv,presp
    This is the letter to Dr. O'Connell about the two training tests and the Shelton pool test.
    In the glass topped coffin, he didn't need a glow in the dark watch.

  15. Isn't that the same letter? Just on the other site it's transcribed.

  16. I bet that Wrist watch would fetch a lot of money if somebody found it since Harry Houdini was a great magician.

    michele watches

  17. The New York Times coverage of the Shelton stunt says "He wore a wrist watch with a radium dial."