Friday, November 29, 2019

The true date of the Jess Willard encounter

Every biography tells the story of Houdini's contentious encounter with heavyweight champion Jess Willard at the Los Angeles Orpheum in 1915. The incident even opens the newest book, The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini by Joe Posnanski. And the date always given is November 30th.

But I recently found evidence that this actually took place on November 29th (Houdini's opening night). First and foremost are two reports from the Los Angeles Daily Times and the Long Beach Press (below), which are the earliest accounts of the incident that I'm aware of. Both ran on November 30th and both state that it happened "last night", which would be Monday the 29th. The Los Angeles Herald also ran a small blurb about it on the 30th.

Heck, just the existence of these disproves the November 30th date as these stories appeared before Houdini even took the stage that night.

Los Angeles Times and the Long Beach Press, Nov. 30, 1915.

There is also corroborating evidence from Willard himself. In a letter to the editor that the boxer penned to the Los Angeles Examiner giving his side of the story, Willard writes that it happened "Monday night." An account in the New York Tribune also identified it has having happened "Monday night."

So why does everyone cite Tuesday, November 30? I believe it's because everyone uses the Los Angeles Record as their source. This is the account that was widely syndicated and used in Variety. It also appears in Houdini's pitchbooks (below). As with the other stories, the Record states that it happened "last night." But the Record was late to the game, or maybe it took them a day to work up their more detailed account (likely with Houdini's input), and they did not publish until December 1st. This turned "last night" into November 30th and history was forever altered.

This wouldn't be the first time we've been fooled by a syndication dateline. I've discovered some papers would alter them, presumably to makes their reporting appear more current. One paper pushed the encounter to December 1st!

I'm continuing to seek evidence for and against this new date, but I feel confident enough to begin to using November 29, 1915 as the true date of the Houdini-Jess Willard encounter.

And if you don't like it, take it up with Jess!

The poster artwork at the top of this post comes from The Pottawatomie Giant and Other Stories by Andy Duncan. 



  1. BTW, for people who like the rabbit hole, I really wanted to see and share the original "2000 Hiss J Willard" article from the Los Angeles Record, which I realized I've never seen. I've only ever seen the tear sheet from Houdini's pitchbook. But when I pulled up the Dec. 1 issue (No. 6485) on microfilm in the LA downtown library, the story was not there!

    However, the issue on file said "Night" and I'm thinking it was the evening edition and the story only appeared in the Daily? Or maybe I missed it deeper inside the issue, but I did look. Strange.

    1. Scratch the above! Our friend Roger Dreyer at the Houdini Museum of New York has a copy of the original Dec. 1 Record (it was the 1 cent "Pink" edition) and the front page story and headline is spectacular! So it exists.

    2. BTW, Roger is going to send over an image for me to share here, so watch for that.

    3. Here it is. And what a headline. Thanks Roger.

  2. I've always been fascinated by the "four-flusher" and "faker" part of the story and wondered if it was possible (by 1915 standards) for Willard to have called Harry an MFer. I realize that kind of language would have been way, way beyond the pale in those days, but the reports always feel like they're euphemizing something much worse than what was reported.

    1. Margery's spirit guide Walter called Harry a SOAB during one of the seances he attended. Harsh words were already in the vocabulary back then but not tossed around lightly like today

    2. Pat Culliton has suggested that Willard might have used an antisemitic slur, which he was capable of. But "four-flusher" was apparently a real insult back then and it may have been enough.

    3. Culliton's speculation would indicate Willard knew Houdini was Jewish. How widely was that known in his time? Harry didn't wear his religion on his sleeve.

    4. I think it would have been widely known. Many newspaper stories about Houdini mentioned his Rabbi father and real name, etc.