Thursday, November 23, 2017

Houdini in 1903

By 1903, Houdini had established himself as a very successful performer with a wildly popular specialty -- the handcuff act. But had he retired at this time, as he often threatened to do, he would not be known to us today. But in 1903, he would perform feats and cement his image in a series of famous photos that still resonate more than a century later. It could be said 1903 was the year Harry Houdini became an icon.

Houdini began the new year in rough water -- literally. His passage across the English channel to Holland was done in a storm "in which we all nearly lost our lives, the captain saying that in his thirty-four years of service he never had the misfortune of making such a terrible trip."

Houdini opened at the Rembrandt Theater in Amsterdam. During his month long engagement, he escaped from the Amsterdam Prison in 15 minutes, a feat he immortalized with a well-known poster (possibly his first escape specific poster). He then traveled to Hanover for a return engagement at Mellini’s Theater. He "packed them in as usual", but failed to break the house record he set in 1901.

In March, Houdini played with the Circus Carre at the Reichshallen Theater in Cologne, the city where he had recently scored his great legal victory over Werner Graff. It was here that Houdini hired a new chief assistant, Franz Kukol. The Austrian-born Kukol was the first of what would become a team of all male assistants who would play a major role in Houdini's life both onstage and off. Kukol signed his secrecy oath on March 2, 1903.

Part of the reason Houdini brought Kukol onboard was because Bess was tiring of stage work. While she still appeared in Metamorphosis, Kukol inherited her other assistant duties. "My wife says she wishes she could raise children and stop working," Houdini wrote to a friend that year, "and perhaps in 1905 we may rest long enough to raise one of them things called children ourselves."

Alexander Heimburger
But for now, magic remained the focus of Houdini's life. While in Cologne, Houdini discovered that the great German conjurer, Alexander Heimburger, long thought dead by the magic community, was alive and living in Münster. Houdini visited the 83-year-old Heimburger, who was flattered that the young magician knew so much about his career. Heimburger was the first magician to perform at the White House. He had also known Robert-Houdin. He told Houdini that the Frenchman was not the great inventor that he claimed to be. Even his celebrated autobiography, which had set young Ehrich Weiss on his career in magic, was largely the work of a Parisian journalist. Houdini said the meeting "was like having the history of magic unrolled before my eager eyes."

April saw Houdini back at the popular Wintergarten in Berlin. Here he performed his challenge packing crate escape, which he had first introduced in Essen Ruhr in 1902. He also attended the trial of Anna Rothe, the celebrated "Flower Medium," who had been caught using trickery in a police raid. Houdini wrote about the trial in his regular New York Dramatic Mirror column (perhaps his first writings on the topic of Spiritualism). With a surprisingly sympathetic tone, he wrote that the medium's ultimate conviction was "a sad blow to the cause of spiritualism."

On May 5, Houdini, Bess, and Franz Kukol set out for Russia. (Because the country was still on the Julian calendar, they arrived on April 23.) Houdini opened on May 4 at the Yar, a popular Moscow dinner theater frequented by high society. He was an instant hit. Looking to promote his appearance with a jail escape, he visited Moscow's Butyrskaya Prison. There Chief of Police Lebedeff suggested he try to escape from their Siberian Transport Prison Van, a rolling "safe on wheels" used to ship prisoners to Siberia.

On May 10, Houdini performed his miraculous escape after receiving the most through strip search of his career. But Lebedeff refused to provide an affidavit, and no Russian newspaper reported the escape. Nevertheless, word spread and Houdini's Russian tour was extended for a second month and his salary doubled. During this time he also performed for the Grand Duke Sergei Aeksandrovich and the Grand Duchess at Palace Kleinmichel in Moscow. The royal couple gave the Houdinis gifts, including a white Pomeranian that the Houdinis named Charlie. Houdini then went on to play the Ermitage and Zoo Gardens.

Houdini had some unusual experiences in Russia. One night at the Yar, an Army Officer decided to stand center stage, blocking the audience's view of Houdini's act. The officer cited his right to do so was allowed by his superior social status -- the status of entertainers being considered quite low. When Houdini explained that in America he was considered a "millionaire", the officer apologized and moved aside. Houdini was also hired by a Moscow locksmith to open a safe that had defeated their best efforts for 14 years. Houdini opened the safe in nine hours, revealing a treasure trove of jewels inside. He was paid $750 for his work.

Houdini and Bess spent the Fourth of July (June 21 in Russia) with a group of fellow Americans at the American Consulate. Houdini wrote; "There were many speeches, but not a single firecracker or report of a gun was heard, and without these it did not seem at all like the Glorious Fourth to me." Below is a photo of that gathering, which (at the moment) is the only known photo of Houdini and Bess in Russia.

Houdini then traveled to the sea side resort town of Nizhny Novgorod to play their annual August festival. The city had laws against female performers, so a special show had to be performed for the police, who afterwords gave Bess a special license to appear. Despite a law forbidding smoking on the street, Houdini wrote; "Everything is allowed in this city, and some of the 'goings on' would make the slums of Budapest, Whitechapel, London, and the Cafe Chantants in some parts of Germany look like orphan asylums."

Houdini had planned on traveling to St. Petersburg, home of the Tsar, but he never made it. There are conflicting accounts why. Houdini said that managers in Holland refused to postponed his return engagement to accommodate an extended Russian tour. But biographer Ken Silverman claims that the eccentric promoter who arranged the tour mysteriously vanished after a celebratory dinner in Moscow. Whatever the case, Houdini wrote that, "I will have to open in Holland and return to Russia next Spring."

But he would not be back. Having spent a total of four months in Russia, Houdini was relieved when he left. He recorded in his diary that he felt the country itself was "some sort of mild prison" from which he had "managed to escape."

In September, Houdini toured with the Circus Carre in Holland. In Dordrecht, he escaped from "The Old Prison." But it was what Houdini did in Groningen that would have the most indelible effect on his legacy. He posed for a series of publicity photos at the studio of J.F. Blöte, located at Oosterstraat D 18. These shots, which showed the muscular magician in a loincloth shacked with an assortment of manacles, would become among the most iconic images of Houdini ever produced. To this day they are used to illustrate Houdini in his prime, and even actors who portray Houdini are tasked with reproducing the most famous of these images, with varying degrees of success.

A selection of shots from the J.F. Blöte photo shoot in Groningen.

Houdini turned down a tour of Italy with the Circus Carre, and instead spent October at the Central Theater in Dresden. Houdini boasted that the theater drew the best business since his departure in 1900. On October 8, he paid his famous visit to magician Wiljalba Frikell, whom many considered to be the first true modern magician (it was Frikell, not Robert-Houdin, who first rejected the wizard robes in favor of evening dress). But when Houdini arrived, he found the great man sitting dead among his artifacts, having been struck down by a heart-attack just two hours before. Houdini attended his funeral on October 13, placing a wreath on his grave on behalf of the Society of American Magicians.

Houdini's visits to past master magicians, such as Heimburger and Frikell, as well as his pilgrimages to the graves of dead ones, were inspiring him to write a book on the history of magic; if for no other reason than to redeem the contributions by a generation of magicians who had been overshadowed by Robert-Houdin. (The irony being Houdini would overshadow his own generation, if not the entire history of the art.) To this end, he began to collect enormous amounts of material, sometimes buying whole collections at a time. He would never shake or satisfy his enormous collector instinct.

In November, Houdini returned to the UK, committing to a six month tour. His first engagement was at the Pavilion Theater in Leicester. Sharing the the bill were the famous cake-walkers of Leeds. Houdini wrote: "The business is record breaking and the only mystery apparent is, who is doing the drawing––is it Houdini with his $800 weekly salary or the cake-walkers with their $8 'cold' watches." On November 9th, he escaped from a military prison in which Oliver Cromwell had held his prisoners.

It was during this tour that Houdini published his first biographical pitchbook: America's Sensational Perplexer! The 12-page booklet featured the first appearances of his Groningen photos, said to depict feats in Berlin, Cologne, and Moscow. The pitchbook was another important part of his legacy. After three years as a headliner, Houdini now had enough to begin to build a biography of his career success. He would continue to expand and update this base pitchbook for the rest of his life.

After Leicester, Houdini appeared at the People's Palace in Halifax, where he had an onstage encounter with a rival Handcuff King named Pollard. The Empire in Huddersfield followed. It was there Houdini learned of the death in Australia of another rival, Cirnoc, who had so memorably disrupted his Alhambra debut in 1900.

It was then back to "the wretched town" of Blackburn, site of the painful Hodgson challenge the year before. Here Houdini had to deal with "a heel named Wilson" who turned the audience against him during a challenge. Even though Houdini was successful in defeating Wilson's doctored handcuffs, he was booed. This seemed to again trigger thoughts of retirement in the 29-year-old, as the Blackburn papers reported:

I hear that Houdini having made his 'pile' tends shortly to retire from the stage, for the demands made on him by his performances and the brutality to which he has not infrequently had to submit, are making inroads to his health.

Houdini and Bess spent Christmas in Hull. With the theater closed and "London too far to go for a single day", Houdini spent Christmas writing his Dramatic Mirror column. He then closed out the year in Birmingham where police refused to allow him to escape from their jail.

Thanks to John Bushey for the pitchbook image.



    1. Thanks John! Another great year in the life of HH! I now realize it was 1903 where Bess pretty much had enough of show business and her maternal instincts rose to the surface.

      1. Yeah, and then in 1904 Harry replaces Metamorphosis with the Barrel Mystery and Kukol takes over her role in that. But she would continue to make periodic returns in Metamorphosis throughout Harry's career. I've never head of anyone but Bess as his partner in that.

      2. I recently discovered Bess officially retired from the act in 1908.

    2. Great overview!

      Which figures in the Russia photo are supposed to be Harry and Bess?

      1. Oh the right side of the photo, count back two people and there's Bess and Harry. Harry is leaning forward. Very recognizable.