Thursday, August 8, 2019

My Houdini letter and a 100 year mystery

Here is one of my first and most cherished Houdini collectibles; a letter he wrote exactly 100 years ago today. I got this around 1980 and it has hung framed on my wall(s) all these years. Today seemed like the right day to share it.

But this letter has also baffled me from the day I received it. Who was Col. Flinn? What was the "shark stunt" that was "on the square." And what does "on the square" even mean? And if "all the newspapers copied the advert", why have I never been able to find any of those ads or any mention of anything to do with Houdini and a shark in 1919?

In 1916 Houdini announced plans to fight a live shark, and this was picked up by the papers. But the demonstration never happened (thankfully). Could this somehow be referencing that? Might Houdini have been sending Flinn old newspaper clippings about past stunts? One pet theory I have is Flinn was the ghostwriter of his "Nearly Dying for a Living" article that appeared in the December 1919 Hearst’s, and this letter marks the genesis of that project. A theory.

One thing I do know is the timeline around when this was written. Houdini had just returned from Hollywood after filming The Grim Game. This was written during his first week back in New York. Houdini wrote this on Friday, August 8, and would have met with Flinn on Tuesday, August 12 (unless he was "otherwise phoned"). But apart from this, my chronology for these first three weeks of August are a blank. The next notable event was a private screening of The Grim Game the Famous Players-Lasky offices on August 18. The movie then opened on Broadway on August 25.

But this may not have had anything to with The Grim Game. Houdini always had a dozen projects going at once, so this could have been anything. The key, I believe, is finding out who Col. Flinn was.

So does anyone out there that has anything else that mentions Col. Flinn? It would be fun to finally solve this 100 year old mystery.



  1. "On the square" means honest, legit.

    1. Thanks. I've found another time HH used "on the square" and it's clear that he was using it to mean legit/honest, so I'm sure you're right here.

  2. So the first question that popped into my mind is whether or not Houdini spelled "Flinn" correctly. If he did, there was a Republican politician in Pittsburgh called William Flinn, also referred to as "Col. Flinn" in newspapers at the time. He was a huge supporter of Theodore Roosevelt.

    My initial thought was that maybe the Col. Flinn addressed in Houdini's letter was either an author or in the film industry. But then I discovered that the politician Col. Flinn owned a newspaper called the Pittsburgh Leader. Maybe Houdini was sending "a few 'ideas' for stories," as in newspaper stories.

    The date on the letter, Aug. 8, 1919, was a Friday, and Houdini said he would see Flinn on Tuesday, which would have been Tue. Aug. 12, 1919. Was Houdini in Pittsburgh that day? If not, he could have met up with Flinn somewhere else, but it would be interesting to know where either Houdini or Flinn were then.

    As for the shark stunt, no clue.

    A couple of sources that support what I'm saying:

    "but that prince of politicians, Colonel William Flinn, of Pittsburgh, came to his rescue..."
    Pittsburgh Daily Post, Feb. 11, 1889, p. 8

    "Col. Bill Flinn, comes into Chicago from Oyster Bay and assures the Chicago reporters that he..."
    Ottumwa Tri Weekly Courier, June 11, 1912, p. 3

    "Col. Bill Flinn, of Pennsylvania, announces that he will support the Taft state ticket..."
    Nevada State Journal, Aug. 9, 1912, p. 4

    "Alexander P. Moore, publisher of Flinn's newspaper, the Leader, yesterday wired to Senator Flinn..."
    Reading Times, Aug. 26, 1912, p. 2

    BTW, there are Wikipedia articles for both William Flinn and the Pittsburgh Leader if you want to check them out.

    That's all I got.

    1. Good work, Tom. There's no record of HH being it Pittsburgh at this time and no clear reason why he would be (he didn't tour this year). It's more likely he was in NYC at this time. He's definitely there on the 18th for The Grim Game screening.

    2. And, yeah, the possibility of a misspelling is also something to consider. Always with Houdini!

    3. Thanks, John. This is definitely a tough—but fun—nut to try and crack. I did some pretty deep-dive searches and was surprised to come up only with the Wm. Flinn stuff. If we discover for sure where HH was on Aug. 12 ‘19, that would be a great clue, assuming HH really ended up meeting (or at least was in the same city as) Flinn that day. I briefly searched for “Col. Flynn” and “Colonel Flynn,” but that also yielded nothing so far. All else aside, that letter is a great piece! Thanks for sharing it.

  3. Hi John, As a life long (and third generation New Yorker) on the square may refer to Union Square. D. W Griffith had his studio there until 1913 not sure what was there afterwards. Perhaps this is the connection. BTW my dad's cousin was Flosso and he told me that as a child he would visit him at his magic shop and he would show him Houdini's cuffs and tell him stories about their friendship. Wish I could tell you more but both are long gone. My dad was born in 1914 and I remember asking him if he ever saw Houdini. Of course he said it was in the movies When I did a bit of research on Flosso I was startled at the resemblance to my dad but dad was taller.

    1. Thanks Andrea. I think brainblip above is correct and "on the square" here means legit/honest. How cool that your dad knew Al Flosso. Oh how I would have loved to have heard those stories. :)

  4. Very intriguing letter. To refer to someone as “Colonel” after they’ve (presumably) left military service was often used in an honorary fashion, suggesting he may now have been in the upper echelon of some industry – e.g., a newspaper publisher. But when I searched the name in this context, I turned up nothing. Maybe his name appears in some ancient NY newspaper that hasn’t yet been digitized. Hope you unlock the mystery some day!