Wednesday, June 12, 2019

"Your loving son Ehrichovitz" (updated)

Ruth Brandon's 1993 biography, The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini, is not a book I reference often. Silverman and Christopher are my usual go-to sources. But maybe this is a mistake. Because recently while thumbing through the Brandon book, I spotted something I don't believe has appeared in any other biography. And it's quite a significant piece of early Houdini history!

On page 20-21 (of the U.S. hardcover), Brandon quotes an undated letter written by Ehrich Weiss to his mother when he was "ten or eleven." This is not the well-known "dear Ma" postcard. This is something else entirely, and would be only the second known letter between Houdini and his mother (Houdini was buried with all their correspondence).

I was excited to see Brandon sourced the letter to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. So I reached out to our good friend Eric Colleary, who was kind enough to provide an image of the letter for me to share here on WILD ABOUT HARRY. Drink it in!

darling mother at last time time has arrived when I am allowed to write you a few lines how slowly the time passess but still my term will soon be over and we shall be united in happiness again. your loving son Ehrichovitz.

Okay, let's unpack this one!

As this letter is undated, I first wanted to satisfy myself that it was actually written by the young Houdini and not as an adult. The fact that he signs it "Ehrich" doesn't really tell us much as it's likely he signed all letters to his mother with his real name. The handwriting is the key, and it does nicely match the familiar "Dear Ma" postcard (see below). He's writing more slowly and carefully on this one, but it still shows the uncertain and cautious penmanship of a young person. (Brandon calls it "scrawled", which it certainly is not.) Houdini's handwriting because worse with age, so this does appear to be written by the young Ehrich Weiss.


But the real intriguing thing here is his use of the word "term." On the face of it, "term" would imply a school of some kind. This is why Brandon quotes the letter, concluding, "at some point there seems to have been an interval of enforced study."

But there's precious little known about Ehrich Weiss's eduction. There's a photo (in the collection of Dr. Bruce Averbook) of Ehrich and classmates in front of an Appleton schoolhouse. Manny Weltman in Houdini: Escape into Legend says he and his brothers where enrolled at the Humbolt Avenue School in Milwaukee ("but they were always playing hooky, preferring to roam the streets, get acquainted with the kids, and join the gang"). It's also said he would study at various pop-up schools run by his father. But this letter suggests a boarding school of some kind, distant and removed from his family and mother. So none of his known schooling seems to fit this.

It's maybe worth reconsidering the word "term." Should we automatically assume a school? His reference to being "allowed to write" suggests strictness in whatever institution he is writing from. Would a school discourage letter writing?

Is it possible the young Ehrich Weiss did a stint in a reformatory? The adult Houdini did reminisce about stealing eggs from stores in Milwaukee, and he was a lifelong brawler. So maybe at some point he got himself into enough trouble to receive some institutional punishment? Of course, this would never make it into his official biography, whereas you'd think a boarding school education would as Houdini was always eager to showcase his intellect.

The last thing is the signature, Ehrichovitz. The addition of "ovitz" is curious, but it's likely just an affectionate or playful sign off. He'd sometimes sign love letters to Bess, "Houdinisky."

But this letter reveals one thing I think we can all agree on. This boy loved his mama!

Thanks to Eric Colleary for sharing this remarkable artifact. The Houdini Collections are open to the public and available to search via finding aids at the Ransom Center website.

UPDATE: Our friend and crack librarian at the Magic Castle, Joe Fox, has solved the mystery. And it looks like I have serious egg on my face. This letter is a fabrication created by Houdini to illustrate an article about code breaking in the April 1908 issue of his Conjures Monthly Magazine. See below:


Guess this is why it was among Houdini's personal papers and not in his casket.

Thank you Joe!

Related:

23 comments:

  1. Strange that HH wrote to his mother in English. Her letters to him were in German, and he later had them translated to English for ease of reading. I wonder if those translations were not buried with him.

    This letter reads like he was being held in some kind of institution. If so, it's understandable HH would have never mentioned this part of his life. Perhaps it happened during his escapade in Galveston, Texas.

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    1. Yes, that's come up with the Dear Ma postcard. Written in English. Could the young HH not write in German? Could Mama read but not speak English? So many mysteries. Really, the key to understanding Houdini is understanding his mother and their relationship. And we know almost nothing. That's why these scraps of so exciting and important. But they just seem to raise more questions.

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  2. There really would have been little reason for Mother to learn to read English. We know she didn't write in English.
    At home they spoke Yiddish or Hungarian to her husband. Suspect Houdini wrote in English because he picked it up in grade school and knew there would always be either a sibling or someone around who could read the letter to her, probably translating most of it to her.
    When Houdini was a few years older and worked in NYC in the tie factory and started playing around with locks & safes, perhaps there was some probationary work period and it was called "term" also, and to Houdini maybe anything with a short defined time duration he referred to as a "term'?

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    1. Believe it or not, according to Bess, Mama never spoke Yiddish. It was pretty much a German speaking household. Check out THIS POST.

      Interesting idea about the tie factory training being a term. But it was located in NYC not far from the Weiss home. So that doesn't explain this idea that he appears to be separated from his family. Pat Culliton mentioned the possibility that it was the locksmith in Appleton. But would an employer restrict the writing of personal letters? (I also don't know if I buy the Appleton locksmith stuff.)

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    2. Actually, HH was separated from his mother around 1887. This was when he and Mayer arrived in NYC alone and lived for a few months in Mrs. Loeffler's boardinghouse on East 79th St. HH might have written this letter while training in the necktie factory.

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  3. Even if he were in a boarding or training school, it's conceivable his ability to write letters home could've been restricted at that time (maybe even just by lack of paper and postage). Likewise for a reformatory. I'm thinking some kind of schooling or training; it seems like the tone of his letter would convey a stronger sense of anxiety if he were in a reformatory. Fascinating find! (One thing is sure: his signing the letter "Ehrichovitz" proves, finally, that Houdini was a Russian spy! Okay, no it doesn't.)

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  4. I recall that somewhere in the book Houdini & Doyle The Story of a Strange Friendship by Ernst and Carrington there is a unique mention of schooling in a Houdini letter. Unfortunately, that book doesn't have an index and I don't have a digitized version, so try as might I couldn't find it.

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    1. Not that it's all that relevant anymore, but I found that mention in Houdini and Conan Doyle (page 140). Houdini mentions "when I was a boy at school in Appleton" and even gives his teacher's name: Miss Sanborn.

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  5. Just wondering -- even though Houdini's father was a rabbi, would young Ehrich have been required by the tenets of 19th century Judaism to undergo some kind of mandatory Jewish education?

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  6. I tried to post a comment last night on my phone, but it didn't go through. I'm glad it didn't because something occurred to me since. First, according to Brandon, Houdini wrote the note "presumably at the period when Ehrich was ten or eleven." But how do we know that?

    Compare the Ehrichovitz note with the truant-son postcard. The postcard unquestionably has the penmanship of a child. It's sloppy. Even if we speculate Ehrich wrote the card on a moving train, which would have made the writing a bit sloppier, look at the loops and overall flow of each letter. I'm no graphologist or grammatologist, but it seems pretty clear to me that the 'ovitz note, while written in a deliberate fashion, was the product of a more mature hand, not only in a physical sense with smoother loops and flow but also in the tone itself.

    In the postcard, Ehrich calls Cecilia "Ma"; in the note, he calls her "darling mother" (more on that in a moment). And what child uses poetic language such as "at last the time has arrived," "how slowly the time passes," and "we shall be united in happiness"?

    Back to "darling mother." Correct me if I'm wrong, but the only time I've ever heard of Houdini using the term "darling mother" was after her death. There are at least a few examples of this, including letters to Theo and other people as well as in diary entries. If you have any examples that counter this, I'd love to see them.

    All of that said, what if Houdini wrote the note in a therapeutic sense a year or two after Cecilia's death? Interpreted with this in mind, the 'ovitz note would make a lot of sense. Maybe later in 1913 he wrote the note while in Germany or France when he had a moment to breathe: "at last the time has arrived when I am allowed to write to you a few lines..." And the fact he was still deeply grieving would explain his perception of time: "how slowly the time passes..." And maybe by "my term will soon be over and we shall be united in happiness again," he meant that he would soon (or eventually) die and be reunited with his mother in heaven. My theory also would explain why the note appears to be deliberately written: a grief-induced regression, of sorts, writing in a slightly more childlike way.

    My initial thought last night was that he wrote the note in the first year of his success (1899-1900) and used "term" as the time he was away from home or maybe that he meant to write "turn" (as in a vaudeville act), but pondering it a bit longer led me to my more recent theory. I'm willing to have my mind changed, but as of right now, I don't believe the 'ovitz note was the product of a child.

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    1. Interesting theory, Tom. Like you, I was surprised at the comparatively high quality of the penmanship, though I considered if Harry were, in fact, in some kind of academic or "required attendance" environment, that might explain the better penmanship. Also, it's interesting you should mention the possibility of writing the note for therapeutic reasons - I think many of us write to loved ones we've lost (in fact, it's a standard practice in grief counseling) and I'm sure Harry must've done the same at different times. I don't know if I agree that's the case here, but who knows? It's an interesting theory to ponder!

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    2. The penmanship to me looks very careful, very deliberate, as if it's being done by someone new to cursive and is being careful to make every loop and cross every T. It looks like an exercise in writing. It's actually very similar to the Dear Ma card, but that one was clearly written faster and with less studied care. Feels to me like the same person near the same age, but in very different circumstances.

      Both Dear Ma and this letter are light years from Houdini's adult penmanship, which can be a nightmare to decipher.

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    3. Your theory makes a lot of sense, Tom. This letter does indeed seem to allude to mortality, and reunification in the Afterlife. Heavy material for a any 12 year old. It also looks more a like a poem, than a standard letter with indentation and Dear So and So.

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    4. Thanks, Tom and Leo. It's fun to look at this in retrospect.

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  7. With all of this speculation & theory, wouldn't be funny to find out that this letter is a total fabrication on Houdini's part - for the sole purpose to include it as an example of "secret code writing" for his published article in the April & May 1908 issues of The Conjurer's Monthly Magazine, entitled:

    "Cypher-Writing Or The Art Of Cryptography" by Harry Houdini

    ...well, that may just be the case. Look it up.

    The "Ehrichovitz" letter is shown, followed by this quote from Houdini:

    "In illustration, You will read a letter that to all intents and purposes appears of a most innocent nature, but it really is a message that reads: "Trust Ivan, he will throw bomb".

    Harry then goes into illustrative detail as to how that secret 6 word message was conveyed in the seemingly innocent Ehrichovitz note to his Mother.

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    1. Holy smokes! I have egg on my face. :s

      You know, this helps solve a mystery. The letter in the Ransom Center is mounted on paper with what appear to be printing instructions. (I cropped those out.) So I knew it must have been printed somewhere.

      Guess this explains why it was in Harry's papers instead of his casket.

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    2. Ha! We all have eggs on our faces, John, so don't feel bad. Brilliant find, Joe. What a great lesson learned. But damn, was it fun to speculate! I think that's a useful process in itself, even if it doesn't always match up with reality.

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    3. I'm afraid this could mean that Houdini's entire relationship with his mother - so sentimental and affectionate to the untrained eye - might have actually been a ruse for him to signal to his crazed anarchist buddies.

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    4. Kudos to Mr. Fox! That was actually going to be my second guess (ahem...yeah, right!)

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  8. Tom's theory wasn't that way off. He believed it was written by an adult Harry, and not a twelve year old. His theory also jibes with HH's attachment/obsession with his mother. Harry wasn't above writing a note to his already dead mother. Even Kellar had to remind Harry to cut it out and let go of her.

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    1. Thanks, Leo. It's fortunate Joe dug up that issue of Conjurers'. It's the first time I've seen an example of H use the term "darling mother" before Cecilia's death. I really need to pore over those pages in more detail as time permits.

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    2. You're welcome Tom! Reading Conjurer's Monthly is an interesting trip back in time.

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