Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Houdini's poor eyesight?


Potter & Potter have posted the online catalog for their May Magic Auction and it contains a generous selection of terrific Houdini rarities. But it's Lot 238 that really caught my eye. It's a letter written by Houdini to Arthur Buckle on November 28, 1903, in which he makes a startling admission:

"And to make matters worse, my eyesight, which has never been any too good, keeps me from writing after the daylight, and for me to attempt to write with the lights, that you generally find in the Provincal digs, it would only be foolhardy. So I am compelled to do all my writing by daylight!"

This is the only time I've ever heard Houdini say anything about having poor eyesight. And this is Houdini at age 29, so one can assume it only got worse. Of course, he had a blind sister (there are conflicting stories as to the cause), and his brother Leopold eventually went blind, so faulty vision may have run in the Weiss family.

I can only recall two other references to Houdini's eyesight being faulty. While I've never seen a photo of him in glasses, it's said Doug Henning owned a pair of Houdini's reading glasses given to him by Ruth Kavanaugh. And in his 2010 book, Houdini Question Reality, Dixie Dooley says magician Jimmy Grippo told him Houdini was blind in his left eye for the last two years of his life due to an accident.

Just another fascinating Houdini tidbit for us! Let's keep an eye out for anymore references to his Houdini faulty vision.

Potter & Potter's upcoming Magic Auction which will be held on Saturday, May 2nd starting at 10am, CDT. Due to Covid-19, the sale will be streamed live from Potter & Potter's gallery and held on www.potterauctions.com.

Related:

16 comments:

  1. Totally fascinating stuff once again John. Would love to uncover a picture of HH in glasses, if he truly was limited!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There is a photo of HH in glasses. It's the one where he's wearing a disguise to bust fraud mediums.

      Delete
    2. Could those be Harry's real glasses? But they seem thick to an extreme. Much more disguise-like.

      Delete
    3. They look like disguise glasses but it IS a photo of HH wearing glasses.

      Delete
  2. Gresham mentioned it, but, not as going back as early as 1903. He mentions that Houdini carried a magnifying glass for reading. I can't remember whether or not Gresham used the word myopic.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ah, thanks Pat! Here's what Gresham says on page 299: "Too vain to wear glasses in his later years, he carried a magnifying glass for casual reading."

      Delete
  3. Nice photo of Harry squinting. From that Potter letter it appears his reading vision began declining earlier than most people. It doesn't usually hit until the 40s. Indoor lighting at night may not have been as bright back then as it is now with LED lights.

    He also suffered sensitivity to light when he reached middle age and wore a sleeping mask to shield off the morning light. I thought it was funny when I first read that as a kid, until it eventually happened to me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ah, the sleeping mask, yes. I didn't think about that, but of course.

      Delete
  4. This must've made certain escapes even more daunting from his perspective, especially anything close-up that partially required visual cues. And I wonder to what extent his distance viewing might have been affected? This insight gives me even more respect for both his escapes and his magic.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's an interesting observation T & J. Is it possible his close up vision began detoriating to the point where handcuff escapes that required up close identification of keys became really tough?

      I think his distance vision was fine. Good enough to pilot a plane by 1910 without glasses.

      Delete
    2. Yeah, Leo, I was thinking the same thing about handcuffs and even certain locks. Personally, the thought of doing anything with cuffs or anything else requiring exactness and dexterity without my glasses is humbling to say the least! And of course, he would have had to frequently operate in darkness. Maybe Harry was even more mysterious than we think!

      Delete
  5. If Houdini was simply myopic ( near sighted ) with no major complication from astigmatism, then distance would be an issue and negative lenses would be needed. These would cause the eyes to look small when observed by an onlooker and from memory the photo John mentioned show these type of spectacles. More importantly his near sight would be excellent unaided.
    Conversely if he was mildly hyperopic/ hypermetropic ( long sighted ) or normal sighted, then distance is generally good but near issues start to arise typically post 40 as Leo mentioned. If Houdini was having issues earlier, then an educated guess would be that he had certain amount of medium latent hyperopia ( requiring positive lenses or magnification for near, early than normal ). Generally the younger age group can cope with this for distance via focussing with some effort but have issues for concentrated near tasks. When full blown presbyopia hits around 40-50 ( variable for everyone ), near spectacles are needed ( positive lenses-magnification ) and then later on, both distance and near. Hence early onset presbyopia generally would indicate some degree of "latent" longsightedness.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for this highly informative comment. Are you an optometrist, by any chance? Just curious, as you seem to really know your stuff.

      Delete
  6. I wonder if this is why Houdini's handwriting wasn't as "stylish" as many of his contemporaries. I always thought that the people of that period had very nice penmanship - generally speaking. Houdini's writing always looked looser and hurried to me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sure his eyesight might have made penmanship more difficult. I bet it was something else though. Possibly his wrists and hands were strained from years of "abuse" through his craft [and by that point in his life, he could have had arthritis too], which may have causes his hands to be too stiff or shaky for fine detail actions - like writing - in later years.

      However, his uneven, rushed penmanship was seen throughout his life in all his writings. Even his typewritten pages were clipped like a telegram, as though he was trying to conserve words and time.

      He also learned English mainly in school and on the street, rather than at home, and as his schooling was cut-short after 4th grade. That must have had a negative effect on his penmanship and writing skills. Certainly, lifelong confusions over German vs. English grammar and phrasing would have contributed to the sometimes clumsy phrasing and grammatical mistakes in his writing.

      It's also somewhat possible that Houdini had a learning disability that affected his writing from childhood onward, such as dysgraphia.

      Dysgraphia is a learning disorder that effects a child's or adult's ability to clearly express themselves through writing. As stated in the link below, from the DSF in Australia:

      "A person with dysgraphia may write their letters in reverse, have trouble recalling how letters are formed, or when to use lower or upper case letters. A person with dysgraphia may also struggle to form written sentences with correct grammar and punctuation, with common problems including ommitting words, words ordered incorrectly, incorrect verb and pronoun usage and word ending errors. People with dysgraphia may speak more easily and fluently than they write."

      https://dsf.net.au/what-is-dysgraphia/

      Now, having seen a few samples of Houdini's formal and informal writing, I can't say with any degree of certainty that dysgraphia is to blame for how he wrote. Maybe it was dyslexia too, or some other learning disorder. Or, his writing was just a reflection of his limited formal education, and perhaps an impatience to get his thoughts down quickly and move on to the next thing. Hard to say if it's one thing or another thing or all of the above.

      Delete
    2. Dunno about dysgraphia. I've notice that in his later years his writing skills and vocabulary improved. All those years of reading and study in his voluminous library paid off handsomely. In September 1925 he answered questions from readers of the Pittsburgh Press. He responded very eloquently for a 4th grade dropout:

      https://www.wildabouthoudini.com/2018/04/houdini-on-bible-spirits-freud-and.html

      Delete

Legal Disclosure

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Translate

Receive updates via email