Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Houdini's close call on Catalina 100 years ago today

It was on Thanksgiving day exactly 100 years ago that Houdini tried to play a real life action hero on Catalina Island. Houdini was there filming Terror Island and staying at the Hotel St. Catherine. The production was using the Catalina Flyer to shuttle crew and equipment between Avalon and the native village set at Banning's Beach (today Toyon Bay). But this day was stormy and the seas were rough, and a drama would unfold in front of the hotel that would call Houdini into somewhat fool-hearted action.

The Los Angeles Examiner on November 29, 1919 reported what happened:

A note about the date of this incident. The Examiner's dateline indicates this happened the morning of November 28, which was a Friday. But in preparing their 2018 Terror Island exhibition, the Catalina Island Museum discovered an account of the incident in the local Catalina Islander newspaper. That article and a letter to the editor by Captain McAfee thanking everyone for their help both state that it happened on Thursday, which was November 27 and Thanksgiving. Just think, had Houdini perished, he would have been known for dying on Thanksgiving! (Somehow not as good as Halloween.)

Intriguingly, both papers report that the incident was filmed. Perhaps if Houdini had been successful in his rescue attempt it would have been worked into the plot of the film as airplane accident was worked into The Grim Game. Unfortunately, this 300 feet of footage has never surfaced. But the Examiner did run a spectacular photo of the action on their front page.

Click to enlarge.

The Hotel St. Catherine was demolished in 1966 and today is know as Descanso Beach. The rocky outcrop where Houdini attempted his rescue remains. There's even talk of renaming it "Houdini Point"! Below are photos I took during my visit to Catalina earlier this year. As you can see, the low tide reveals the real danger both the Catalina Flyer and Houdini faced on that stormy Thanksgiving day 100 years ago.

Wishing everyone a happy and safe Thanksgiving.



  1. Great post John! Great photos! The low tide reveals the jagged rocks that kicked Harry's butt. Silverman notes that nothing in Terror Island was quite as thrilling as this episode.

    1. Did he say that? That's funny.

      It is VERY rocky, and you can see all that was just below the surface in the HH photo. But there are also now large slabs of concrete that I think might have been part of the demolished St. Catherine hotel. Could be they've dumped more there to build up a breakwater.

    2. On page 244. The waves look ridiculous in that photo. What was HH thinking? He almost committed the mortal sin of buying into his own legend.

  2. Nice to set the record straight. Prior to discovering the Tuesday December 2nd, The Catalina Islander newspaper, sources like Culliton and Silverman, used the Saturday November 29th Los Angeles Examiner newspaper which had the incident occurring on Friday November 28th. .But now we have very strong evidence that it was Thursday, November 27th 1919, Thanksgiving. Fantastic!
    BTW: My granddaughter refers to Catalina as Houdini Island. While I don’t think we can rename the Island; renaming the point to Houdini Point would be amazing.
    Happy Thanksgiving!

    1. I've learned to not entirely trust newspaper datelines. I think some papers would change them to make their news seem more current. On Friday I'll have a post that revises the date of a major Houdini event. At least I'll make the case for it!

    2. Nice! I believe I know the event. Cant’ wait!

  3. I was on a cruise ship vacation (A gift from a popular Nascar driver) and we were scheduled to go there, but it was cancelled because of rough weather .. Went to Ensinada instead ... So this bad weather thing is no joke... We didn't have a Houdini to save us!!!!

  4. Great post and fascinating news clippings - thanks for sharing.



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