Monday, January 2, 2012

Uncovering the grave of Houdini's first "Brother"

Jacob Hyman aka "J.H. Houdini"
On December 26, 2011, I went with Houdini author Patrick Culliton, handcuff expert Joe Fox, and collector Mark Willoughby, in search of a Beverly Hills physician who was one of the most important men in Houdini's life. Indeed, it's possible that without this man, there would have never been a "Harry Houdini".

It was a stunningly clear day when we met at the gates of Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, CA, a beautiful cemetery which holds the final resting places of Walt Disney, Mary Pickford, Clark Gable, Michael Jackson, and many other celebrities and notables. (Ronald Reagan married Jane Wyman in a chapel here in 1940.) As this was the day after Christmas, the cemetery was untypically filled with flowers and visitors.

Patrick had been to the grave before, but he wasn't sure exactly where the marker was. Forest Lawn is over 300 acres, so we got a map with directions from the helpful information booth. We traveled by car to a section called Graceland, parked, and started the search. This was a much older area of the cemetery, and here we found ourselves all alone. After a few fruitless minutes of searching, we wondered if maybe we had taken a wrong turn.

But armed with information from magician Lisa Cousins -- who had visited the site with Patrick before -- that we would find our man "under a tree", I kept searching. I traveled higher up the hill, looking specifically at graves within the shade of trees. Suddenly, I spotted the name of Lyda Hyman. Next to her was a marker that was almost completely covered with soil. Even before I brushed it clean, I knew we had found our man.

We had found the grave of Dr. Jacob Hyman.

Jacob Hyman's grave in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glenda, CA

In 1889, a teenage Ehrich Weiss, who was probably going by his Americanized name of "Harry" at that point, got a job at H. Richter's Sons tie-cutting factory in New York City's garment district. The young Harry had a keen an interest in athletics, acrobatics, spiritualist trickery, and magic. Working at another bench was a boy two years his senior who shared many of the same interests. His name was Jacob or "Jack" Hyman.

Legend has it that one day Harry told Jacob that he had just read The Memories of Robert-Houdin, the autobiography of the great French conjurer. Jacob said that if Harry added an "i" to the last name of Houdin, it would mean "like-Houdin" in French. He wasn't right about that, but it didn't matter. The name HOUDINI was born.

In 1891 Harry and Jacob quit their jobs at the tie factory and set out to pursue magic as a profession as "The Brothers Houdini". Together they are said to have performed at the Chicago Worlds Fair in 1893. But Jacob left the act in 1894, and at some point joined the Army ("Possibly just to get away from Houdini," joked Patrick). Harry enlisted his real brother, Theo, and the now authentic "Brothers Houdini" went on to play Coney Island where Harry would meet his final partner and wife, Bess.

Joe Hayman is also in Forest Lawn
Interestingly, Jacob Hyman's younger brother, Joe, is said to have played in the Brothers Houdini between Jacob and Theo. Joe Hyman (later spelled Hayman) went on to become a popular comedian. His record Cohen on the Telephone was the first comedy record to sell a million copies. Joe is also buried in Forest Lawn. It took us a little more work to find him in the cavernous mausoleum, but eventually we did discover the more obscure "Brother Houdini."

But the Jacob Hyman story did not end after The Brothers Houdinis disbanded. While Houdini was in Europe making his name, Jacob was making his own name as "Houdini" back in the states. Jacob continued to perform as "J.H. Houdini", and even used the "King of Handcuffs" moniker. He argued to a New York theatrical paper, the Dramatic Mirror, that he had as much right to use the name as his former partner. Jacob even performed an impressive barrel escape, "The Barrel Mystery", and sometimes did the sub trunk with brother Joe.

In 1903 Houdini decided they needed to hash out the issue of there being two Houdinis. With the help of his brother Leopold, an attorney named Louis Spiegel, and a pair of handcuffs from which Jacob couldn't escape, Harry reclaimed the Houdini name and also came away with Jacob's barrel escape, which he turned into his Prison Cell and Barrel Mystery. Jacob went to medical school at Ohio University (using the money Harry had paid for his name and act maybe?) and became a successful physician in Los Angeles. Despite the feud over the name, Harry and Jacob remained close friends and fellow Masons (note the symbol on Jacob's headstone).

After Houdini's death, Jacob continued a friendship with Bessie Houdini and Edward Saint, especially after they moved to Hollywood in the 1930s. He can be seen in many group photos taken at parties at Bess and Ed's various Hollywood homes. Jacob was also part of the inner circle at the Final Houdini Séance in 1936.

Jacob Hyman died in 1942. His wife Lyda -- an actress who went by the professional name of Dorothy Dale and had a supporting role in the original The Ten Commandments -- died tragically in a house fire in 1957.

Jacob is buried beside his wife Lyda

Having retrieved a bottle of water and paper towels from his car, Patrick knelt down and cleaned off the grave markers, bringing Jacob Hyman, Houdini's first "Brother", back into view. As we stood looking at the grave of Jacob and Lyda on this beautiful day in December, we could all sense that we had found something very special. This was no ordinary Houdini acquaintance or another magician from Houdini's time. If it weren't for Jacob Hyman sitting across the work bench from a young Ehrich Weiss and suggesting his professional name, the world may have never known HOUDINI.

Thanks to Dean Carnegie of Magic Detective for getting the ball rolling on this search and for the use of the photo of "J.H. Houdini." You can also read Patrick's own account of this find and more about Hyman at his website,


  1. Thanks, melbo. This was a great day and a great discovery.

  2. Dick Brookz & Dorothy Dietrich here.

    Here we go again.

    We have not finished this, but our research has some notes on adding an i at the end was not a French custom but a Jewish one, which they both were.

    Looking for some input on this. If you need our reasons or sources I will look it up.

    Dick & Dorothy

  3. First off, Bravo! Great read. Second, thanks for finding it, now I don't have to hunt forever when I go to LA to find it, lol.Third, thank you for going to take care of his grave and clean it up. That is something so often overlooked and sorely needed.
    This was excellent and well worth the wait!

  4. Dick & Dorothy - Really? That's interesting. I've never heard anything about that being a Jewish custom, but that makes some sense. BTW, Ken Silverman questions the entire name origin story. He says adding an "i" to a name was something that was pretty common in showbiz.

    Thanks, Dean! When you come to LA, we'll go out and see him.

  5. Just some incredible stuff here. This web site is the best. Why do cemeteries let this happen to interments? Houdinis gravesite was in poor shape when I visited years ago and it took outside help to clean it up recently. Here the only remnants of these two people were perhaps obscured forever if it were not for you and Patrick. To me there should be a law that once a person is buried at any cemetery that perpetual care must be provided. Keep up the awe inspiring work!

  6. Thank you, Anonymous. The grave wasn't really neglected. It's just near a tree and over the years the roots have caused a bit of a slope, so mud will flow over it in a heavy rain. That's why it was partially covered. I expect the cemetery would have cleaned it in time. We just got there first. :)

  7. Great work guys. I'm glad to see you're keeping up the good work. I only wish I could have been there with you.
    I too managed to visit a grave linked to Harry today. It took a while to find it, but it was worth it!

  8. Very nice find!
    I wish I had been there with you guys.
    If anyone returns to any of the grave sites, please leave a pebble or penny on the marker.
    In the Jewish tradition, this is a sign that someone who is fond or loves the interned, had visitors.
    If you recall Schindler's List, the final scene had all the people he saved, place a pebble on the marker.
    I am not sure if some of the rubble you guys cleaned off was due to this loving gesture or not, but I mention this as this custom is not generally known by those not of the Jewish faith. People of all faiths are allowed to "place a pebble" to remember their honored ones.

  9. Oh, I never thought about doing that, Mark. Yes, I'm aware of the custom. Houdini's grave is covered in pebbles, etc. And don't worry, what we cleared away was all mud and grass, no vistor mementoes. (And Joe Fox did lay a pair of handcuffs on the grave for a pic, so maybe that counts.)

  10. Like Houdin in French would be "Comme Houdin". I guess that would not have been a good stage name.

    More than likely Jacob took the "i" from Torrini, which the boys thought was a real person, and put it at the end of "Houdin" as the ultimate tribute to both.