Thursday, December 3, 2015

Houdini vs. the Pottawatomie Giant

Boxing has been given its worst black eye here to-day by none other than Jess Willard, heavy-weight champion who was so badly worsted to a wordy clash with Harry Houdini, a performer at the Orpheum Theater, last night, that the audience hissed him from the house.
- Los Angeles Record

It was 100 years ago this week that Houdini had his famous encounter with heavyweight champion Jess Willard at the Los Angeles Orpheum Theater. But this battle was not with fists or even handcuffs. It was an unscripted verbal joust that, in today's parlance, went viral.

Houdini had just begun a two week engagement at the Los Angeles Orpheum (which still exists today). On the night of November 29*, 1915, Jess Willard was in the audience. Standing 6' 7" and weighing 256 pounds, Willard was known as the Pottawatomie Giant. He had knocked out heavyweight champ Jack Johnson in the 26th round of a bout in Havana to win the title in April of that year.

During his performance, Houdini called for a volunteer committee to step on-stage during an escape (the Water Torture Cell?). After several men volunteered, Houdini came to the footlights and said, "Now I need three more gentlemen on this stage and there is a man here to-night who doesn't know I'm aware of his presence. He will be enough for three ordinary gentlemen if he will serve on this committee. He is Jess Willard, our champion." The audience broke into applause.

But Willard did not leave his seat. Instead he called out, "Awm g'wan with your act. I paid for my seats here." When Houdini tried to persuade him, Willard cut him off, barking: "Give me the same wages you pay those other fellows and I'll come down."

With the audience now uncomfortably quite, Houdini answered, "Sir, I will gladly do so. Come on down––I pay these men nothing." He then may have baited the boxer by adding, "Don't crawfish."

Willard got to his feet and roared, "Aw' g'wan with the show!" He then added insults which the Los Angeles Record reported sounded like "four-flusher" and "faker."

Willard's response jarred the audience from their silence. Some began to hiss. Houdini quieted them. By his own account, he was "white with rage." He then said to Willard:

"Look here, you. I don't care how big you are or who you are. I paid you a compliment when I asked you to be one of my committee. You have the right to refuse, but you have no right to slur my reputation... let me tell you one thing, and don't forget this, that I will be Harry Houdini when you are NOT the heavyweight champion of the world."

A great wave of applause erupted. Willard attempted a response, but was drowned out by "hoots and groans." Houdini delivered a final blow by turning to the audience and saying, "I made a mistake. I asked for GENTLEMEN to step on this stage and GENTLEMEN only."

The audience again roared their approval, during which Willard left the theater.

The incident at the Orpheum captured the imagination of the city. The front page of the Los Angeles Record was headlined: 2,000 HISS J. WILLARD. The story was picked up nationally, with the Washington Times reporting: CHAMPION WILLARD HOOTED BY CALIFORNIANS.

Three days later, on December 3, Willard tried to defend himself in an open letter to the Los Angeles Examiner, which he called "the one fair paper in Los Angeles." Refusing to acknowledge Houdini by name, he referred to his act as "moth-eaten" and stated:

When I declined to come down to the stage, this should have settled the matter and the stage "hero" should have gone about his work. The only reason in the world he "worked up a scene" was because he knew my name would be a boost for him.

The newspapers continued to hound Willard who eventually left town ("Driven out" the papers reported). Houdini gleefully wrote to his sister, Gladys, that he was now greeted in the streets with, "Hello Champion" and "How is the Champion today?" Even a local business got into the act by taking out an advertisement playing on the encounter:

In Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss, biographer Kenneth Silverman offers up a different perspective on Willard's actions that night. He speculates:

Willard's grumbling may have been nothing more than a cover for stage fright. Although he had once killed another fighter, Bull Young, in the ring, he was known to have a peaceable disposition and to be embarrassed by his awesome size. Some even thought he lacked fighting spirit.

But Houdini expert Patrick Culliton speculates that Willard's words might have been more offensive than "four-flusher." Patrick thinks he might have hurled an anti-Semitic slur across the theater. In interviews, Willard expressed views consistent with white supremacy. This might help explain the intensity of the reaction against Willard.

Willard promised to turn the matter over to his attorney, Earl Rogers, saying, "I do not believe the laws of California permit of a theatrical management signaling out a patron for the abuse that I have had to stand." But there appears to have been no legal action taken. Houdini himself delighted in the avalanche of free publicity. "I have received at least a million dollars advertising space from this fray," he told his sister.

Jess Willard lost the heavyweight title to Jack Dempsey in 1919 in one of the most severe beatings ever in a championship bout. In 1923, at age 41, he made a surprise comeback by defeating Floyd Johnson at the newly opened Yankee Stadium. After being knocked out by Luis Ángel Firpo that same year, he retired.

Jess Willard died on December 15, 1968.

The poster image of Harry Houdini vs. Jess Willard is from the back of the book, The Pottawatomie Giant and Other Stories by Andy Duncan. The Huffman & Grant ad comes from Carnegie: Magic Detective.

* UPDATE: Many sources identify the date of this encounter as November 30, but I have found compelling evidence to support November 29 as the true date.



  1. I always wondered what Willard actually said; whether the papers euphemised it or not.

    1. I was surprised to see, when I looked back on it, that the LA Record was noncommittal about what Willard said. They said it "sounded like" four-flusher and faker.

  2. Great article, John!!
    Houdini beat Willard again when The Grim Game was a huge success while The Heart Punch starring Willard -released that same summer of 1919- was a bomb. Willard's only success on film was the footage of him losing his title to Dempsey.

    1. Yes, I considered mentioning Willard's 1919 film, but I thought it was called The Challenge of Chance?

    2. Challenge of Chance was also made in 1919, both for Universal. "Gentleman Jim" Corbett did a serial at the same studio/same year called The Midnight Man.
      i really like the picture of Willard at the top of this article. The camera is looking up at him, much like the view Houdini would have had if they faced one another.

    3. Great little story.
      I was a fan of Houdini's for a long time and when I about this incident, I became an even greater fan.
      Harry didn't have to say, years later, "I should have said"
      He had the guts, the grit, and the gumption to say it when it needed to be said,

      john C. Anderson
      ther Master of the Mississippi

  3. I always wondered how HH learned that Willard was in the audience that night. Not difficult I suppose. Interesting that Willard accused HH of surfboarding on his name to get more attention. He should have known better than to publicly criticize HH right after receiving compliments from the Handcuff King.

    1. Oh, I'm sure word spread quickly backstage. No doubt Willard was recognized the second he entered the building.

  4. Roger Dreyer has a full front page that Stanley Palm sold him. The banner headline is "HOUDINI KOs WILLARD." I asked Roger if he could send me a scan but he said he'd sealed it in plastic. Work on him, John. Get him to figure out a way to show it on your site or his.
    I've said this before. My heart is with Willard in this matter. How did Houdini know that Willard was in the audience because he kept track of such things. Also, Willard was sitting alone in a box and he was 6' 7" and 280 pounds

  5. Great article, John. I didn't realize Willard was such a huge person. It must have been quite a sight to see all 5' 6'' of Houdini talking him down. It makes the part in Harry's letter to his sister where he mentions Bess standing red-faced in the wings, sure she was going to give him the "dickens" for picking a fight with a prize-fighter, and feeling more afraid of her at 4' 11' than Willard, even more ironic.


    1. Thanks Meredith. I'd forgotten about that moment with Bess. Love that. :) I wonder who owns that famous letter? I've never actually seen it. I've only read excerpts.

  6. I think the letter is printed in nearly its entirety in Kellock's book. Being the recipient, you'd think Gladys would have kept it, but who knows how many times it may have changed hands since then.