Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Newsweek mischaracterizes Houdini's Wild Man as a geek act

Newsweek has released a special issue celebrating P.T. Barnum and "The Circus - 110 Years of the Greatest Show on Earth." In an article titled "The Circus Hall of Fame," Houdini is featured along with a nice two page photo (from The Grim Game). The accompanying paragraph discusses how Houdini once performed as a "Wild Man" at the Welsh Bros. Circus during his struggling days. That part is true.

However, it then goes on to say Houdini's Wild Man was a "geek" act, in which one bites the heads off live animals. That is not true. Nowhere is it said Houdini's Wild Man was a geek. Geeks tended to be mentally impaired men or alcoholics lured into the despicable act with money. Geek shows where largely frowned upon, and the Welsh brothers took pains to present a "wholesome" show, with strict rules of conduct spelled out in performers contracts. There was even a clause protecting female performers from harassment (yes, in 1898).

What little we do know about "Projea, the Wild Man of Mexico" is that Houdini, in face paint with frazzled hair, was fed raw meat by ringmaster Clint Newton (Houdini quit after being hit in the eye with a piece of meat). It's also said Houdini used sleight of hand to make it appear he was consuming cigarettes thrown into his cage by the audience. He would then distribute the cigarettes among his fellow circus performers. Not sure why Newsweek didn't go with these known details, but...

You can buy Newsweek's The Circus Special Edition HERE. Newsweek is owned by IBT Media.

Thanks to Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz for the alert.



  1. I'm not an expert on the circus, but I'd have to guess that Houdini's time with the Welsh Brothers is hardly a major event in circus history.

    1. Ha, that's true. It was hardly a major event in his own history.

  2. Disagree. He spent 2 seasons with this circus. Rare, steady work where he was able to hone in and develop routines that would serve him the rest of his life. He also would begin to be featured and headline as evidenced by ads of the circus during this period.
    Houdini Museum, Scranton, PA
    The Only Building in the World Dedicated to Houdini

    1. This would turn out to be the longest engagement or booking of his entire career!

    2. That is true. I'm not sure how long the 1895 run was, but I know 1898 was 25 weeks. Indeed the longest.

    3. Okay, I now know the 1895 engagement lasted approximately 23 weeks.

      I think Harry and Bess might have been happy with the 1895 tour for all the reasons you mentioned. But I don't think HH felt great about his return in 1898. I think he must have felt stuck in place, and he was correct. From what I find, he's much less active with outside handcuff escapes, etc. than he was with the California Concert Co. at the start of the year. Silverman shows several "blue funk" diary entries at this time, and HH records that the last two weeks of the tour "seemed like eternity." And it was after this tour that he offered up his act for sale.

      BTW, I found a curious clipping showing The Houdinis with the Welsh Bros. in 1899! (Post Martin Beck.) Could be the newspaper just reprinted an old article not realizing the 1899 acts were now different. Or maybe Harry and Bess did a one nighter with the Circus on their way to San Fransisco? Fun idea.