Friday, March 3, 2017

Houdini in 1901

When England's Queen Victoria died on January 22, 1901, the 26-year-old Houdini was performing his second record breaking engagement at the Alhambra Theater in London. The Queen's death brought an end to the 64 year "Victorian Era" that had transformed England into a great empire. If Houdini had any reaction to this historic moment, it has gone unrecorded by biographers. But he did buy a dress said to have been designed for the Queen before her death. He thought it would look good on his mother.

Houdini enjoyed England. He told a reporter, "If I had my choice, I should prefer to be native of this country. The people here are very kind to me." Typically he and Bess stayed at a boarding house on 10 Kepple Street, a hub for magicians such as Howard Thurston, T. Nelson Downs and William Robinson (aka Chung Ling Soo). But at some point they moved into a flat at 84 Bedford Court in fashionable Bloomsbury. Houdini was also establishing important relationships in the UK, such as with magic publisher Will Goldston. (Whether or not he was also learning spy craft from Superintendent Melville of Scotland Yard is open for debate.)

After his Alhambra engagement, Houdini set out to play the English provinces. At first managers feared an escape act would be too "exotic" for working class audiences who preferred more traditional fair. Houdini played one week at the "People's Palace" in Bradford. He was so popular, standing room sold for 10 shillings and seats were sold on the stage. Even then, Houdini noted, "hundreds were turned away."

Growing annoyed by the increasing amount of imitators, Houdini now threw down a $5000 Challenge ($175,000 today) to anyone who could duplicate his escapes "under test conditions." Considering one of those conditions was be to have ones mouth "sewed shut," it may not come as a surprise that his challenge had no takers.

In February Houdini traveled back to Germany where he had been a sensation the summer before. He opened at the Crystal Palast in Leipzig before moving on to the Apollo Theater in Dusseldorf. As with England, Houdini spoke highly of Germany, calling it "the greatest country in the world for performers" and the cooking "second to none." However, he disliked their policy of mandatory military conscription. "I would never live in a country where your right is not your own," said the man who on many levels embodied the idea of freedom.

While playing the Frankfurt Orpheum on Main, Houdini received word from his mother in New York. With money he had sent, she had booked passage for Hamburg. Cecelia Weiss arrived in April while Houdini was appearing at the Hansa Theater. The theater was sold out on her first night in town, so Houdini arranged to have an extra seat installed for her in a box. (Kellock says Houdini refused to take the stage until a seat could be arranged.)

After completing his month long engagement at the Hansa, Houdini and his mother traveled to Budapest. Here Houdini threw a lavish reception with relatives at the Palm Garden salon of the Royal Hotel with his mother dressed in the gown that had been made for Queen Victoria. For Houdini it was the culmination of the deathbed promise made to his father to always look after his mother. After "two ecstatically happy days", they had to rush back to Germany so Cecelia could catch her ship back to New York and Houdini could open at the Colosseum in Essen Ruhr.

It was in Essen Ruhr that Krupp Steel Works, Germany's leading munitions manufacture, challenged Houdini to escape from a special handcuff made by their machinists (he had declined their original challenge to solder him inside a cannon). The firm bought out the entire Colosseum for their employees on the night of the challenge, causing the public outside to "riot for tickets." The special cuff took 20 minutes to lock, and the bolt was screwed down so securely onto Houdini's wrists that it caused him excruciating pain. He freed himself in 30 minutes. He then repeated the feat the next day for the general public. But he wrote to a friend, "The Krupp man has maimed my right hand so that I am unable to work, and it will be a week or so before I can have a cuff locked on me."

So popular was Houdini at the Colosseum that the front doors had to be removed and a side wall pulled down to accommodate the crowds. At the conclusion of his engagement, managers Schultz and Wolf presented him with a solid silver trophy bowl (below).

In May Houdini began penning a regular column for the New York Dramatic Mirror about the various variety acts and performers working in England and abroad. While one might expect him to fill his reports with tales his own triumphs, he was uncharacteristically restrained in this regard. His columns, which he'd write until 1905, provide a fascinating snapshot of music hall life at this time, including colorful accounts of sensations such as the Loop the Loop that was sweeping Europe.

In June Houdini was approached by the manager of the Corty-Althoff circus. The circus had lost its prize horses to disease and was facing bankruptcy. In a bid to save his business, the manager offered Houdini far more money than he would make performing in any theater. So for the first time since the Welsh Bros in 1898, Harry and Bess found themselves part of a traveling circus troop (but no doubling as the Wild Man this time). The tour lasted four weeks with shows in Dortmund, Bochum, Osnabruck, and Cologne. A highlight was when Houdini escaped from irons that had been worn by "the murderer Glowisky" while he was beheaded. The circus cleared more than 100,000 marks profit and was saved. The experience seemed to have been a positive one, for Houdini would make appearing with the Corty-Althoff a regular part of all his German tours.

At this time, Houdini was still under contract to Martin Beck in America, although he had been acting as his own manager for more than a year and had no immediate plans to return to the U.S. In July he wrote to Beck and asked what it would cost to get out of his contract. The men agreed on the price of $500 ($13,447 today), which Houdini paid over several months. The break was amicable, and Beck would remain an important business associate and friend for the rest of Houdini's life.

On July 25, 1901, an article by a German police officer name Werner Graff appeared in the Rheinische Zeitung. Graff claimed Houdini was a fraud and that the Handcuff King had attempted to bribe him. Houdini demanded a retraction. Graff refused and his article was picked up by more papers. Houdini had faced exposure articles before. He even created some himself for publicity (remember Professor Benzon?). But this one he found a serious threat to his reputation. He engaged a lawyer, Herr Rechtsantwalt Dr. Schreiber, and filed a libel suit against Graff. A court date was set for February the following year.

Houdini appears to have taken a much needed break in August (at least his travels are unrecorded), but in September he reappears at Tichys in Prague, his only performance in that city, possibly because he admittedly "broke no records." He then played the Mellini Theater in Hanover, where on September 17 a challenge straitjacket escape took him over an hour and a half. In his pitchbook, Houdini credited the photo on the right as being the jacket that gave him so much trouble.

October found Houdini at the Scala Theater in Copenhagen and the Saalbau Theater in Mannheim. In November he appeared at the Circus Carre in Bremen were he drew crowds so large that the police stepped in and stopped the sale of tickets.


Houdini would end his busy year performing for the first time in Paris, France. But all did not go smoothly. Originally booked to open at the Folies Bergère, on his arrival he learned that the owner had been "taken to the insane asylum" and the theater sold to the proprietors of the Olympia who offered him less money. Houdini held out and the managers eventually relented. So it was at the Olympia that Houdini opened on November 29 (with his named misspelled in the program). Legend has it that during their opening night performance, Bess forget her French during Metamorphosis. This was amusingly dramatized in The Great Houdinis (below).

Another hitch was that French police refused to cooperate with any jail breaks (Houdini had wanted to break out of Devils Island). So instead Houdini arranged a different kind of outdoor stunt. He hired seven bald men sit along a crowded Parisian boulevard, occasionally doffing their hats and bowing their heads to reveal H-O-U-D-I-N-I painted on their scalps.

Few challengers came forward at the Olympia, mainly because Parisians were still largely unfamiliar with handcuffs. At this time, the police still used chains to secure prisoners. Ironically, it was Houdini's card magic that wowed French audiences and even French magicians. In Paris, the King of Cards trumped the King of Handcuffs.

Houdini's brother Theo, who had been performing successfully as "Hardeen" after Houdini set him up in business in November of the previous year, joined the Houdinis in Paris for the holidays. Dressed in their finery, the former "Brothers Houdini" posed for photographs at J Lavier studio at 19 Rue Drout on December 15.

Renting a flat at 32 Rue Bellefond -- "a little home of our own" -- Harry, Bess and Dash rang in the New Year in Paris. It had been a year filled with triumph and success with Houdini firmly establishing himself as a European superstar. Little did he know that the year to come would be one of the most combative of his career.

Special thanks to Ken Trombly for the use of his beautiful original cabinet photo of Harry and Bess from 1901.



      1. Another great year in the life of Harry and Bess. Thanks John, bravo!

      2. Wow, this is great. What a year. I love the “seven bald men” bit. That has to be put in a future biopic: Houdini examines the man’s bald head from all angles, then tells his baffled assistant, “Perfect, now get me six more.”

        1. Ha! I like that idea. They did show the bald men briefly in the TNT biopic. You can watch it HERE.

      3. Son of a gun, I never saw that movie. We gotta watch it next time at the King’s house.

      4. John when you're finished with these year posts, you have to publish it into a book. A real book with photos and paper.

        1. Yeah, that's a good idea. But I probably won't be finished until 2026. But at some point I'll do some kind of book version of this blog.

      5. Excellent. Thank you.
        "trains difficult and unreliable"...still the same... :-)

        1. I didn't go back and review the full quote, but he had very specific complaints about train travel in the UK, how you had to continually switch trains, etc. For an entertainer who has to travel with a large amount of props, you can see how this would be frustrating.