Saturday, February 2, 2019

This is Houdini on October 14, 1926

We are all familiar with these photos of Houdini giving a radio address. To my knowledge, the location and date has never been identified. But while browsing the New York Heritage Digital Collections, I discovered these high res versions with full identification, and it's kind of a big deal!

This is Houdini doing a radio broadcast at WGY in Schenectady, New York, on October 14, 1926. You'll even note "WGY" in the right corner, which has always been cropped out of printed versions. This is a mere 17 days before his death. That suddenly puts these images in the running as being the last photos of Houdini.


This was the middle of a split week for Houdini. He has just completed a four day engagement at the Capitol Theater in Albany, where he had broken his ankle in the Water Torture Cell (so we can assume he's wearing a splint under the table). October 14 was the first of three days at the Van Curler Theater in Schenectady. He was then off to Montreal and his encounter with J. Gordon Whitehead, which would occur just 8 days after these photos were taken.

The current generally accepted "last photo" of Houdini appears on page 179 of NOTES to Houdini!!! by Ken Silverman. It shows Houdini flagging the start of an auto race in Worcester, MA. But he was in Worcester a full two weeks before these photos. There's also this recent candidate, but unless this turns out to be Montreal instead of New York (as it's credited), these Schenectady photos beat that as well.

So what do we think? With all our searching and obsessing on what could be Houdini's last photo, has it been right in front of our eyes this whole time?

The publisher of these images is miSci - Museum of Innovation and Science and are used here for educational purposes.

UPDATE: Here's something I just came across. In the February 23, 1942 issue of Broadcasting, WGY took out this full page ad celebrating 20 years in business. Spot a familiar photo here?

Click to enlarge.

Related:

17 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. That's a question I've been asking for years. Houdini did lots of radio. Any of these broadcasts survive? Did recorded radio even exist in those days, or was it purely live broadcast only?

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    2. This Library of Congress blog article might give you an idea of just how rare radio broadcast recordings were back in the 1920s. Based on this info, it's not very likely that a recording exists of Houdini on radio. Or if there were any recordings, they're almost certainly lost forever. (I read this article after my more optimistic comment below).

      https://blogs.loc.gov/loc/2016/07/lcm-saving-the-sounds-of-radio/

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    3. Thank you for that link. Good article. But, yeah, that also puts a dent in my own optimism.

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  2. Holy Toledo! This is incredible! Had no idea these photos were taken on the 14th. Look how old Harry looks. The wrinkles and age lines jump out in high res. This puts the Worcester checkered flag photo out of contention. I believe these two photos may indeed be the last ones.

    Was magnetic tape invented by 1926? Could have been recorded on a disc but that sounds like too much work. Lots of broadcasts 24/7 to be cutting them on discs.

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    Replies
    1. If any extant recordings of these broadcasts exist, they must have been on disc. There was wire recording at the time, but it was more for dictation and other limited uses, not for radio (wire tapes back then would have sounded pretty primitive and wouldn't have been up to recording either the length or proper sound quality of a radio broadcast). It wasn't until the 30s and 40s that wire recording became better and more commonplace. Wire recording was eventually replaced by magnetic tape (invented in 1928, but remained too expensive to produce and use on a conventional basis until the 1940s).

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    2. Thank you for the info, gingertimelady.

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  3. I feel like somewhere at sometime I heard a reference to these being his last photos. I don't know if I read it or someone told me that. But as I never heard a date, I didn't really give them consideration.

    It's always struck me how old and tired he looks in these pics. Wasn't it Smiley who said he "appeared to be a man in need of a long vacation." You see that here.

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    1. Absolutely, and Smiley was going to soon sketch that very tired face looking face in this photo. I can't get over the bags under in his eyes. HH told Smiley he made him look tired in the sketch.

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    2. There is a 2009 genii thread started by Leonard Hevia, titled Houdini’s Last Photograph, where a Radio Broadcast [photo link] is mentioned by Kevin Connolly and then someone named John Cox says:
      “According to a [photo link], this photo (actually, not this one, but another taken at the same time) was taken on October 14, 1926. That's pretty darn late!”

      There is also a 2016 blog about Harry Houdini in Schenectady that has one of the photos with the following caption, “Houdini on WGY radio on October 14, 1926. Courtesy MiSci - Museum of Innovation and Science

      http://gremsdoolittlelibrary.blogspot.com/2016/12/harry-houdini-in-schenectady.html

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    3. Haha. I guess I forgot that I knew this!

      Great post at Grems-Doolittle. I would have linked to that back in the day. Unless I did and forgot about that too!

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  4. I guess you know more than you know. I guess we all know that.
    It seems clear there were thoughts about Houdini already being sick before hitting Montreal. That was pushed aside by Martin Beck getting Houdini's staff to attest to the boss's health. That was accepted by one insurance company, after original denials of coverage. Other insurance fell in line with this first acceptance, though we believe one never paid, if we remember correctly.

    Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz
    The Houdini Museum, Scranton, PA
    The Only Building in the World Dedicated to Houdini

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  5. You'll want to click back HERE and read an update from our friend Tom Frueh about the last candidate for Houdini's last photo.

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    1. Tom's research on Montreal police commissioner Belanger cinched it for me. The man in that photo with Harry and Collins looks like Belanger to me. And the three buttons on his right shoulder jacket match the ones on Belanger's portrait photo.

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  6. From the Schenectady Gazette of Oct 13:
    *******************************
    Houdini's Injury Not Serious, Will Be Here

    Manager Breymaier of the Van Curler theater stated that he has received a message from Harry Houdini who is scheduled to appear at this theater Thursday Friday and Saturday that the accident he received at Albany Monday was only slight and that he will appear here as scheduled giving his show in its entirety. Mr. Houdini will lecture before the student body of Union College in Washburn Hall at 10 o'clock tomorrow morning and will also deliver a short address on the subject of illusions and the expose of fake mediums, which will be broadcast over WGY at 2:20 o'clock on Thursday afternoon. Mr. Houdini is said to be the foremost authority on this subject In the world.
    ***********************
    So not only do we know the date of the photos, we know the approximate time.

    From the next day:
    ****************************
    [Houdini's] appearance at WGY's studio this afternoon, therefore, is the sort of thing that will certainly interest the general run of listener, and we only wish he could go on at night. He will talk, of course; legerdemain being effective only when the eye is there to deceive. His subject will be illusions, and he will tell of some of his experiences in exposing mediumistic methods. It ought to be very interesting in this age of deception, especially to the fan
    who can fool himself into believing that WWJ is KGO or WRC is KFI, and so on.
    **************************

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