Sunday, October 16, 2016

How "The Houdinis" became "Houdini"

When Harry and Bess set out on their showbiz careers in 1894, they billed themselves as "The Houdinis." But by the time they achieved their first success under Martin Beck's management in 1899, the act was now billed as just HOUDINI.

I've often wondered how and when that change occurred? Was it Beck's idea to sideline Bess in the billing? That might have been an awkward conversation, especially as we know Houdini feared Bess's "brainstorms."

But now I've stumbled on an article from the March 15, 1908 Pittsburgh Post Gazette Sun which, incredibly, describes that very conversation. As with other articles that focus on Bess -- "a little brown-haired bit of humanity" -- it's filled with oddities. Houdini introduced her onstage as his sister? But it also features a knockout shot of Bess and their dog Charlie that I've not seen before.

I know the image quality is poor, so I've also excerpted the relevant paragraph below, but the entire article is worth the read if you can.

Click to enlarge.

"Harry," said the wife one day. "I have never known a act billed as 'Mr. and Mrs.' to succeed. Can you think of one?" He thought awhile and then shook his head in negation. "Well," said she, "suppose you bill yourself just as Houdini and leave me out of it." To make a long story short, the following week, "Mr. and Mrs. Houdini" disappeared from the program and the single word Houdini had taken their place. From that time dates the rising tide of Houdini's fortune.

So is this true? Who knows. Bessie was as much a myth-maker as her husband. Remember the interview in which she talked about her daughter? But it's still a great tidbit.

Check out the links below for more tales from The Houdinis early career.



  1. Very interesting tidbit indeed!
    According to The Essential Houdini by William Pack, “Beck stopped billing the act as The Houdinis. It became Harry Houdini or Houdini. He tried out various appellations, such as The Wizard of the Shackles, The King of Handcuffs, or, my favorite, The Celebrated Police Baffler. Bess’ billing dropped to assistant; mostly she was not even billed at all. Except for the trunk trick, her role in the show was relegated to mostly standing off to the side of the stage looking worried.”

    1. Interesting. But "Wizard of Shackles" shows up before Beck. I posted an advert (provided by Bill Pack, actually) from Feb 1899 here. Beck shows up in March. Houdini himself might have tried these all out pre-Beck when he would perform the handcuff act solo in Dime Museums. Maybe Beck helped him settle on "Handcuff King." It's possible it was an evolution. But certainly "The Houdinis" billing is gone after Beck.

    2. Excellent points! FWIW: I found that same "Wizard of Shackles" ad as early as January 8, 1899

    3. It would be an interesting project to try and find the earliest "King of Handcuffs."

    4. According to Kalush Laid Bare, the first known time Houdini used this title was in Joplin Missouri and was reported in “The Pavilion Opening,” Joplin Daily News, May 15, 1889.

    5. Wow, that's pretty early! ;) (Maybe 1898?)

    6. Laid Bare says the clipping is in the Houdini Pressbook 1894-1899 in the collection of the HHC, so it is possibly that 1889 is a typo and is 1898. That said, I found a Kansas newspaper (The Columbus Daily Advocate), dated Dec 28, 1897 that used the title: Houdini, “The King of Handcuffs,” is a wonder. However, 1899 is where it seems to show up quite a bit in the newspapers.

    7. Yeah, 1889 has got to be a typo as he wasn't even "Houdini" yet. But good job on the 1897 find! I'd say that's officially the far.

    8. Well, just checked the Research Diary and HH was in Joplin, MO in May of 1899, so 1899 is the correct date for the Laid Bare Reference. The Dec 28, 1897 reference could just be the newspaper referring to him as “The King of Handcuffs”. So the first time, Houdini used the title could very well be May 15, 1899.

    9. Good work. That 1897 reference has me very intrigued.

    10. From my own research, it doesn't seem like Harry stopped including Bess in the billing until right up until their opening in London, so the story that she made him change it while touring with Dr. Hill is probably false, but I wouldn't be surprised if she was a bit superstitious that having both their names listed was contributing to their low fortunes.

      As to the "sister" thing, I get the idea it was just another one of their private jokes that came about as a result of not knowing what to call Bess now that she was no longer "Mrs. Houdini" on stage.

      The same article was published in a non-abridged version in the Pittsburgh Daily Post on October 11, 1906. The journalist notes that while Harry is calls her "his sister," the "gentleness and affection" between them was "altogether too warm for brotherly and sisterly attachment."


  2. Thanks Meredith. I just got a look at the non-abridged version myself (thanks to Bill Mullins).

    The "sister" thing is so odd. I can't recall it ever being mentioned in any book.