Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Mystifier, Summer 2002

Continuing my issue by issue look back at the Mystifier, the newsletter of the Houdini Historical Center that ran from 1991-2003.

The Summer 2002 Mystifier features a lengthy profile of Bess aka "Madame Houdini" by HHC curator Kimberly Louagie. It contains mostly known information, but a gem is the reproduction in full of a letter Bess wrote to Hardeen on April 21, 1911. Letters written by Bess during Houdini's lifetime are uncommon, so this is something special. It's written to Dash in secret after Harry and his brother appear to have had a fight. I'm taking the liberty of reproducing it here:

    My dear Bro. Dash,
        Just heard that you were not coming over here, and the reason why. Now Dash, please do come over and if Harry does not pay the difference I will. Harry does not know I'm writing this. Now I want to tell you why he is sore. You know we are playing all the towns that you played, and of course there are plenty of guys always ready to tell H. about your challenges and what you did, and H. told me you had promised not to do challenges etc. Of course he is sore now, but I am sure if he sees you he'll forget all about it. Harry is working to death, he looks so old, he's quite gray and I am afraid he is over doing it all. Now please Dash come over. I'm looking forward with pleasure of seeing Elsie and Baby Harry, but I hope you will come with them, and I am ready to help to keep my word about paying the difference (you know I have a bank account). Please let me know at once if you come.
         I am as ever your loving sister Bess.

Following the Bess piece is a plea to "Friends of Houdini" for donations to the HHC by Executive Director JoEllen Wollangk. There are also details of a special party on July 5, 2002 to celebrate the upcoming Houdini stamp.

Page five contains another rare treat. It's a facsimile reproduction of an Oath of Secrecy signed by Houdini assistant John Boyd on May 7, 1913. I admit John Boyd is a new name to me.

Sid Radner's photo is omitted from his "Backstage" column this time. Sid discusses the above oath and how oaths such as these are why one doesn't read exposures from Houdini's assistants. Sid again claims all published accounts of how Houdini did his Water Torture Cell are incorrect. He then says something very intriguing regarding the Mirror handcuffs:

At the present time the secret of the London Daily Illustrated Mirror Handcuff escape is still unknown to the public. I know the answer but I am not convinced that revealing the secret serves any good purpose.

What exaclty did Sid know???

Sid finishes by saying he has been in touch with a newly discovered member of the Houdini family and that he will reveal more in a future Mystifier. (Sid sure loved to withhold, didn't he?)

The newsletter ends with the special announcement that the recently restored Water Torture Cell will be unveiled at the American Jewish Historical Society of New York. There's also a reproduction of Josolyne's illustration of Houdini's Walking Through a Brick Wall from Weird Wonders for Wizards (1925), which is a correction to the last issue which mistakenly used Gibson's illustration from Houdini's Escapes and Magic.

Volume 12, Number 2
Summer 2002
6 pages

Madame Houdini
Houdini Stamp Event
We need your help!
Backstage with Sid Radner



  1. That letter really is a gem. WRT to the Mirror Handcuff, In Backstage with Sid Radner [Mystifier 1st Qtr 1994], he mentions that sometime in the near future, he will supply the missing link to the Mirror Handcuff Challenge. He was still teasing us in 2002. Below is a post that mentions the Hungarian Handcuff and Tatler Handcuff as possible missing links:


  2. That letter really is intriguing. Bess was willing to secretly pay Dash the "difference" out of her bank account. It seems HH and Dash had an argument over some kind of bill. Harry also didn't want Dash to present challenge escapes yet he decided to perform them anyway. Hardeen could not be completely controlled.

  3. Oh goodness, I do so love to read Bess’s words. Thank you for reproducing them here.

    1. I know, me too. Anything by Bess is a treasure.

    2. The letter Bess wrote to Conan Doyle after Harry died was also a keeper.

  4. Why would Hardeen need be be controlled? Bess was the better person here, I'm sure Houdini learned kindness from her and needed to be controlled by Bess!

    1. I think the control went both ways in that marriage. Harry controlled her vices, smoking and drinking, and she controlled his temper. As for Hardeen, there was a pecking order in the world of magic and Houdini came first. There were some protocols Hardeen had to follow in order to stay in his older brother's good graces.

    2. What I like about this letter is it shows they really didn't have control over each other. Dash did his own thing performance-wise. Bess, with her own bank account, felt comfortable making her own side deals in the name of peace. A normal loving family of strong-willed individuals. And make no mistake, the one true authority in that house was Mama!

      The idea that Dash promised to not do challenges is curious as he was doing challenges from the moment he touched down in America in 1907. So maybe this was specific to a particular tour? Or maybe HH didn't consider straitjackets and packing crates as challenges? Interesting.

    3. Interesting thoughts here, Bess had to sneak to the alcohol behind Harry's back. Dorothy Young mentioned that when she toured with them. It might have been a case of HH not wanting Hardeen to do a specific challenge escape. Something that was off limits and only exclusive to HH, who was territorial about his material. He tried to get William Robinson to not perform the Expanding Die illusion after he purchased it from Will Goldston. He also told Blackstone not to do the Overboard Box Escape.

  5. It's almost heartbreaking how worried she sounds about Harry. Wonder how things would have played out if he had found out she wrote the letter behind his back! They seemed like such a great couple. I'm kinda glad though that they didn't live in these times or they'd most likely be hounded by paparazzi and Harry would have to be continually doing disappearing acts to get away from them!

    1. In his book Life and Style in Hollywood's Golden Age Robert Wagner expresses relief at not being a star in these times. The scrutiny and paparazzi stars today have to deal with is overwhelming.

  6. Houdini was a control freak.

  7. The cover of this issue looks familiar and yet I don't remember that marvelous letter by Bess. Except the "Harry looks so old" line, but I think I'm recalling that from another letter or comment. In any case, this is great stuff. Thanks, John, as always.