Thursday, January 2, 2020

Houdini in 1920

Let's begin 2020 with a look at what Houdini was up to 100 years ago.

Houdini began the "Roaring 20s" with a return to the country that had given him his first great success at the turn of the century. But what he didn't realize was this trip would also seed his next great career metamorphosis.

Houdini arrived in Southhampton, England, on January 5. It was his first trip to the UK in six years. The war had kept Houdini at home. Now he was returning as something more than the old Handcuff King. With The Master Mystery playing in UK cinemas, he was a bonafide movie star.

Houdini opened at the Alhambra Theater in Bradford the week of January 12th. Engagements in Birmingham, Finsbury Park, Liverpool, and Swansea followed. His act consisted of showing clips from his films, telling of his many triumphs and adventures, a selection of magic, and the Water Torture Cell. Some critics felt Houdini talked a little too much about himself during his turn. But audiences embraced his return and his tour proved to be a record breaker for the Moss Circuit. To ensure audiences understood this was the real man and not a movie, his billing read: HOUDINI (Himself).

Houdini had a few early mishaps with his Water Torture Cell, which he had not performed in three years. A dry run test of the escape appears to have gone wrong. "Nearly cracked my neck," he recorded in his diary. Then during his first show in Birmingham the glass broke. A reserve pane, which Houdini always carried, was substituted. Two weeks later Houdini injured his right ankle performing the escape. A doctor provided an electrical baking treatment and advised him to layoff work, warning he was in "danger of death" if he did not. Houdini substituted the Milk Can and continued his tour. (Ironically, it was the doctor who died two weeks later.)

On the night of February 8th, Houdini attended a special dinner in his honor presented by The Magicians' Club at the Savoy Hotel in London. If club president Will Goldston thought age and accolades would have mellowed his old friend, he soon discovered otherwise. The dinner was officiated by Charles Raymond, who had crossed Houdini years earlier by doing a Milk Can escape without his permission. Houdini insisted Goldston reprint the programs to change The Great Raymond to E.F. Raymond because "he's not great at all." Also, having recently settled a lawsuit with a mutual associate, Arnold de Biere (who had managed Houdini's Film Developing Corp and sued for salary due), Houdini warned Goldston that if he saw De Biere in the building he would throw him down the stairs.

Houdini also laid down instructions for Goldston as he worked with him on a new book, Magical Rope Ties and Escapes. He asked him to eliminate "Harry" from all his writings. "I would rather be called just Houdini. It sounds better, looks better, and is better."

At the end of February, Houdini arrived in Scotland, playing the Empire in Edinburgh and the Coliseum in Glasgow. Houdini had brought along a full assortment of camera equipment and during the days he his filmed background and action scenes for a proposed movie about counterfeiting called The Dupe. However, the crowds he attracted were so large he was afraid the footage would be unusable. "Everybody wanted to put their face into the camera," he complained. He eventually came up with an effective way to conceal his camera.

While in Scotland, Harry and Bess visited the grave of The Great Lafayette (Sigmund Neuberger), who had been tragically killed in a theater fire in 1911. Standing at the grave, Houdini called out to the magician to send him a sign. At that moment, two pots containing flowers the Houdinis had brought toppled over and broke. Houdini concluded that the wind was responsible and not a ghostly hand of his old friend.

But spiritualism, which has seen a resurgence after the war, was very much on Houdini's mind. In Edinburgh he bought out the entire fourth floor of a bookstore that carried a large assortment of books on the subject. He also wrote to Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, an outspoken proponent of the movement, sending him a copy of The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin. This kicked off an active correspondence between the men and a promise to meet as soon as possible.

In March, Houdini played Sheffield and Leeds, where he reportedly received "the reception of his life" from an audience made up of children who only knew him from the movies. In Hull he filmed more street scenes, and also did an outdoor underwater diving suit escape. After a week in Nottingham (where he was panned for talking too much about himself), Houdini was back in London presiding over The Magicians' Club Ladies Night at the Bijou Theater. It was then onto Cardiff in Wales where Houdini celebrated his 46th birthday and penned a "sweet" letter to Charmian London in California.

On April 14, Houdini traveled to "Windlesham," the home of Sir Arthur and Lady Conan Doyle in Crowborough. Bess was unable to join him. The men spent the afternoon deep in conversation about Spiritualism. Doyle, who had lost his son in the war, claimed to have had many face to face encounters with his boy. "There is no death," he assured Houdini. Aware of Houdini's skepticism, Doyle said he could arrange sittings with mediums that he knew to be genuine. The following day Doyle saw Houdini's show in Brighton. He then openly questioned the magician why he needed proof of the supernatural when he so clearly possessed such powers himself.

The strange friendship of Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had begun.

Meanwhile, back in America, Terror Island went into wide release on April 18th. With Houdini out of the country, the movie did not have a premiere, nor any of the ballyhoo that had so boosted The Master Mystery and The Grim Game. Instead, the studio opened the movie at the Beacon Theater in Boston as the bottom half of a double bill with a Louise Glaum vehicle called Sex.

Critical reaction to Terror Island was tepid. Reviewers complained the story seemed old fashioned and more akin to a serial than a feature. The studio countered with trade ads emphasizing it was "Not a Serial!" But the serial audience of young boys seemed to be the only ones who embraced this latest Houdini vehicle. Houdini himself rated the movie as "excellent." Although he did complain that the editing had omitted important story details.

Creatively and financially, Terror Island showed a marked decline from Houdini's previous film work, all of which was still available to theater goers at this time. But the novelty of Houdini's filmed escapes appeared to be waining, and his inability to attract the all-important female audience was becoming acute. If Paramount and Lasky were having doubts about Houdini's continued viability as a movie star, they did not appear to discuss it with Houdini at this time. As late as November the studio had announced plans to make "several pictures" with the magician utilizing footage shot during his world tours--footage Houdini was now doggedly gathering

On April 25th, Houdini, Bess, and Julie Karcher attended a séance in London with clairvoyant medium Annie Brittain. Brittain was one of the mediums Doyle had so highly recommended. He considered her "the best." But Houdini was not impressed. "Simply kept talking in general," he recorded in his diary, "All this is ridiculous stuff."

Following an engagement in Newcastle–upon-Tyne--where Houdini performed Douglas Fairbanks-like acrobatic stunts on the parapets of Newcastle Castle--Houdini opened at the Palladium in London for a two week engagement that saw him earning $3,750 a week. It was the highest salary ever paid to a single performer at the theater. During his Palladium run, the Houdinis had lunch with the Doyles at the Royal Automobile Club in London. Houdini also attended more seances arranged by the author. But he continued to be disappointed. The celebrated trumpet medium, Mrs. Wriedt, failed to manifest any spirits. "My belief–she was afraid of me," Houdini concluded. He also had two meetings with psychic investigator Dr. W.J. Crawford, who theorized table levitation was caused by ectoplasmic rods. Houdini suspected the man was mad. (Crawford committed suicide later that year.)

The end of May found Houdini at the Pavilion in Glasgow. Playbills announced, "Positively Last Week but one before his Return to California and the Moving Picture World." It was then back to London and a celebratory dinner for the opening of The Magicians' Club's new headquarters. Addressing the gathering, Houdini spoke of how he now planned to devote himself to making movies and writing. Committing to this new vision, he destroyed a collection of magic props he had long held in a London warehouse.

But the old act was still a draw. In Saskatchewan an escape artist calling himself Sergeant Houdini was gathering crowds with jail breaks and a Milk Can escape. The local papers assumed he was Houdini (Himself). "Few, if any, have not heard of this man and his wonderful escapes," wrote the Saskatoon Daily Star. Houdini learned of the imposter and penned a clarifying letter to the paper. The Sergeant countered that he had "no need to play on the name of the master" and would "stage his program for the approval of all on the merits of the act." He soon vanished from history.

Before leaving England, Houdini attended a series of investigative seances with ectoplasmic medium Eva C. (Eva Carriere) at 20 Hanover Square, headquarters of the Society for Psychical Research. The celebrated French medium was at first resistant to allowing Houdini to join the committee, believing all magicians were bias. Houdini worked to assuage her fears, charming her and her companion Juliette Bisson with tickets to his show. At last the medium consented. After several blank seances, on the night of June 21st the medium produced ectoplasm from her nose and mouth while enclosed head to toe in a tight net.

Houdini wrote to Doyle the next day, "Well, we had success at the seance last night, but I am not prepared to say that they were supernormal." What Houdini didn't share was that he could clearly see Eva C. employed a sleight of hand technique similar to the one he used in his own Needles trick.

On June 19, the Los Angeles Times announced Houdini would attempt a Transatlantic Flight from Paris to New York. The source of their story was "no less authority than Houdini himself." His flight plan was laid out in detail, but the closest Houdini came to such an exploit was when he and Bess traveled by airplane to Paris the following month (Houdini filmed their arrival). Houdini had no bookings in the city. Instead he spent his time filming more street scenes at scenic landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame, and Montmartre. He also reportedly sat with some French mediums. Then, on July 6, the Houdinis set sail for New York aboard the RMS Imperator. It would be the last ocean crossing of Houdini's life. Ironically, it was the first in which he didn't get seasick.

Arriving in New York, the Houdinis found themselves delayed at Ellis Island due to a typhoid scare. A widely circulated wire story also claimed Houdini was stymied in attempts to unlock one of his steamer trunks for custom officials and a locksmith had to be called. The next day Houdini visited his mother's grave with Hardeen, then went to his New Jersey film lab, likely to begin work on developing the voluminous footage he had shot abroad.

The Film Developing Corporation (FDC) was becoming an albatross around Houdini's neck. So far he had sunk $100,000 of his own money into the company with no profit to show for it. "If only I had invested my money in production, we would at least have some pictures to peddle," he confessed to Harry Kellar, who was a major stock holder. But Kellar had lost all confidence in the enterprise. Not wanting to add to his friend's financial woes, he sold his stock in the company to Houdini's sister Gladys for $1.

In late August Houdini performed two suspended straitjacket escapes at the Police Field Day Games at Gravesend Racetrack in Brooklyn. This appears to be the only public performance he gave in the U.S. that year. He turned down offers from the Keith-Orpheum circuit for a Fall and Winter vaudeville tour, and instead spent the final three months of 1920 home in New York. During this time he kept up a steady correspondence with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and others on the topic of spiritualism. On September 24, he published a lengthy article in Variety headlined "Why I am a Skeptic." It read in part:

It is the question of intercommunication that has claimed my attention, and with this in view I attended over 100 seances with the best known mediums of England and France during my recent trip abroad, at the same time devoting most of my spare moments to conferences with persons prominently identified with the subject, but the result has left me further than ever from a belief in the genuineness of the manifestations.

The same day the Variety piece appeared, Houdini's long time secretary John Sargent died at age 68. Bess's niece, Julia Sawyer (Sauer), took over secretarial duties. Oscar Teale would assist with his literary endeavors, which included books tentatively titled Miracle Mongers Past and Present and Paper Prestidigitation, both of which had been purchased by Dutton along with the U.S. rights to Magical Rope Ties and Escapes. Houdini also added a full time librarian, Alfred Becks, to his 278 staff.

But what about the movies? Despite press and promises, no more projects with Lasky materialized, and Houdini would never again make a movie in Hollywood. So who "broke up" with who? No official split was ever reported in the press (at least not that I've ever been able to find), but it seems feasible that, after the lackluster Terror Island, the studio decided to cut their losses. This must have proven both a shock and humiliation for Houdini. It also cast him adrift in that his plans, so boldly expressed at The Magicians Club in London, were dependent on a continued movie career.

In late October Houdini decided his next move. He still had his European film footage and a film lab at his disposal, so he began to seek capital investment for a new production company he proposed calling The Houdini Mystery Corporation. In true Houdini fashion, he would do it himself.

Back to 1919 | All Years | Continue to 1921

Apart from my usual sources, I'm extra indebted to Derek Tait's The Great Houdini His British Tours and William Kalush's The Secret Life of Houdini for helping me nail down some of the events of this year.



  1. John you are absolutely amazing ! The level of detail here sets the standard. Thank you

    1. Thank you, Tim. I can't tell you how much I enjoy researching these and writing them. I really think this is the way to tell Houdini's story. Year by year and chronologically. You get context that you just don't get in normal biographies. I always come away from these with an entirely new understanding and appreciation of that respective year.

  2. The pic at the top of HH performing the water torture cell is one of my favorite pictures. I didn't know he announced he would shift all focus on movies and writing. Very bold of him to announce this at a Magicians dinner. Great work John!


    1. Thanks Jack. The Magicians Club dinner is mentioned elsewhere (I got it from Kalush or Silverman). But as I said above, out of context, it really doesn't resonate. But here we see where Houdini's head is at, so it suddenly has new meaning.

      BTW, the mention of HH then destroying props is also very telling in this context. However, that is from Kalush and unsourced. I normally wouldn't included something that I've not been able to independently confirm, but I was kinda seduced by this one. But I would like to know the source.

    2. Oh, and yes, that pic of HH and USD is amazing. I sometimes struggle with what image to use on these as THE representative image of that particular year. But I had no problem with 1920!

  3. Great stuff John! An absolutely amazing amount of information here! I quickly went to Silverman to criss reference some of the material:

    1. Silverman also noted the $25,000 impulsive prop destroying before HH left England. It's on page 263. With that in mind, you can look thru Silverman's Notes to Houdini to find the source. My copy is in storage.

    2. According to Silverman, HH had decided to break away from Hollywood and make his own films before his British venture. That's on page 261. If true, then HH saw the writing on the wall with Hollywood and made a preemptive strike filming his own material while in Europe.

    1. 1. Thanks! Looks like his source was Christopher's Untold Story, page 311. But there is no page 311 in Christopher and I couldn't find a reference in the book itself. Odd.

      2. I had a feeling you'd bring this up. :) I did see this reference on page 261 and I did seek out Silverman's source. It was an interview with HH in the July 31, 1920 issue of Billboard. This is after he returned from Europe. No where in it does it say he decided to break with Hollywood before his tour. Or after. It doesn't mention Hollywood at all! All it says is while in Europe he shot footage for a film on counterfeiting called The Dupe (which is the first and only appearance of that title that I'm aware).

      I think Silverman made an assumption that if HH was filming what appeared to him to be an independent production, he must have decided to go his own way. Not an unreasonable assumption and still a possibility. BUT I have found numerous articles from throughout 1919 that say HH planned to film footage during his world tours to be used in his future films. This idea even pre-dates Terror Island. So the fact that he's shooting film in Europe does not automatically mean he's gone indie. It was always part of the plan.

      Also, there are numerous references to Hollywood during his UK tour. It even appears on a poster (expressly saying he would “return to Hollywood”). And as far as know (and I will do deeper research on this when I hit the Ransom Center someday), he did not begin to seek investors for his own film company until Fall 1920, and it seems to be a wholly new idea at this time. He hadn't even come up with the final name.

      So based on all this, I reached the opposite conclusion as Silverman. The break came after. For me the real question remains who broke with who? But my feeling is Hollywood broke off with Harry.

    2. Thanks for the clear ups John! I was wondering how you settled on the thought that HH was still believing his relationship with Hollywood had not hit the skids yet. Your approach makes sense.

      There is also the longer version of Untold Story that contains letters written by HH. Could this be the edition Silverman referenced on page 311?

    3. HH's letter to Zukor on July 16, 1921 suggests wasn't quite done with Hollywood:

    4. Ah, yes, you are amazing! There is indeed a page 311 in the expanded edition and that is what Silverman is referencing. However, I was wrong. It's not the source for the props destruction. The Notes book just says "Illusions" and I assumed it was that. But it's something else.

    5. Exactly, the Zukor letter. Houdini clearly wanted to remain in business with Hollywood and hoped he could win them back with TMFB. That's more evidence that it was Hollywood who rejected him.

    6. WRT Zukor, I find it interesting that in the Monk Table Tie Escape on the set of Haldane of Secret Service (HOSS), you see the following: HOUDINI Pro. 2 ZUKOR TAKE "1" SCENE “LIBRARY” KING. And in the July 16, 1921 Houdini Picture Corporation (HPC) Letter to Zukor, Houdini says: Am starting my second super special (HOSS), My first production TMFB is finished…

    7. That gave me pause as well. But the slate actually says "Zuker" (with an "e" instead of an "o") and I believe that's Frank Zucker the cameraman. King is Burton King the director.

  4. You're the chief researcher here, I'm just the paralegal. There has to be a source somewhere for that $25,000 prop destruction.

    Zukor wasn't returning HH's phone calls, so it definitively appears Hollywood had given him the cold shoulder. Punishment for failing at the box office.

    In his book The Houdini Code Mystery, Rauscher walloped Harry on his claim of having attended 100 seances. Having spent 180 days abroad doesn't leave much time for 100 seances. Silverman also zinged him on that.

    1. Haha, yes, the 100 seances claim. Well that's just Houdini math. :)

      What intrigues me more about that sentence is his claim that he went to seances in France. He wasn't in France long. I'd be interested to know what seances he attended. In fact, I'd love to be able to work ALL the seances Houdini ever attended into my chronology. Certainly he must have keep a detailed record. Maybe that's something that's just waiting to be discovered at the Harry Ransom Center.

    2. I wonder if HH documented any of the seances he attended in A Magician Among the Spirits.

    3. He does, but the trick is finding the precise dates.

    4. Seance dates are not going to be found on HH left behind a newspaper trail wherever he went--but not for the seances he attended. It's probably best found in HH's diaries, but we know the difficulties in accessing them.

    5. Letters can be very good as well.

    6. Yes they can be a great source, and any scrap of information that helps is fair game.

  5. Thanks for this extraordinary post. Great start to 2020; filled with fascinating information. Well done, John (yourself)!

  6. The Houdini-Doyle Correspondence book is goldmine of seance dates straight out of HH's personal diaries from Ernst's collection. On page 56 HH writes a letter to Doyle on June 22, 1920 that he attended a seance the night before. So we have a June 21 seance. Then on pages 57 and 58 we get a motherload of more seances straight from the diary:

    June 18, 20, 23, 24, and 25. You can glean more details about those stances in those pages.

    1. Indeed! I mined that gold already. :)

    2. Okay--you already panned that river. It's a great book to revisit. Those old books have thick paper and archaic typesetting. Reading them is like going back in time.

    3. It really is a great book to revisit. It's more like reading through an organized archive than a book. And that's exactly what I want these days! As soon as I finished I started reading again.

    4. For me those old books are time capsules as are the letters and diaries. I suspect HH didn't attend many seances before that 1920 British tour. Then he binged. Doyle may have had something to do with it.

  7. John--do you know what page Kalush mentions the $25,000 prop destruction in the bio? Nothing written about it in the British tour chapter.

    1. Hmm, maybe I didn't see it in Kalush. Or maybe it's in the Laid Bare book?


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