Thursday, February 11, 2021

The Germany problem


Last weekend our friend Joe Notaro at Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence shared a post about Houdini's Train Track Escape - Believe it Or Not. This is an event I've never been able to confirm. The sole source appears to be Walter B. Gibson, who did at times inadvertently spread mythology (including the trapped under the ice story). But Joe has found an account written by Gibson in 1954 that now gives us a location: Dresden, Germany. That's good! And it's bad.

I will let you go read about the escape at Joe's site. Instead, I want to talk about how this illustrates what I've come to think of as "the Germany problem."

From 1900 to 1913, Houdini performed in Germany as much as any other country. He spoke the language and was generally very comfortable with all things German. He even preferred traveling on German steamships. His engagements in Germany were lengthy and he seems to favor the country as a place to try things out for the first time. We know he did his first challenge packing crate escape in Essen Ruhr, learned to fly in Hamburg, and debuted The Water Torture Cell in Berlin. It's even said he tried out a version of Buried Alive for the first time in Germany.  So Germany is a big part of Houdini's early career. Yet we know almost nothing!

The reason for this seems due to the fact that Houdini history has largely been written by English speakers, and the stories of his German exploits would found be in German newspapers. Sure, we have a passable amount of information that can be found in his English pitchbooks (the Cologne trials, Kleppini, etc.). But I'll bet my knackwurst there is so much more!

It now appears the train track escape may be one of those "lost" German stories. But at least we now know where to look. Houdini performed at the Central Theater in Dresden during the entire months of September 1900 and October 1903. So if there is any newspaper account of this escape, it would be during those times. Also, the Harold Kellock biography claims Houdini did his first bridge jump in Dresden. That's another one I’ve never been able to confirm because...the Germany problem.

So here's a shout out to any German Houdini nuts who care to take up the challenge and uncover Houdini's adventures in Dresden. Not only might you find this train track escape, but you also may find his first bridge jump, and who knows what other untold stories!

Oh, we also have a Netherlands problem. But I guess we can tackle that another time.

Train track illustration from The Great Book of Magic by Wendy Rydell.

13 comments:

  1. It might be possible to get into a German database that archives newspaper articles. The German version of Newspapers.com. In the search box just write "Houdini" and see how many articles come up. Then print those out and put then in a folder. Then you'll need to find a German speaker and writer who can translate the most interesting articles. I know one individual, a magician and librarian who is retired in Norfolk, Virginia and can do this for free or reasonably priced.

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    1. Yes, a German version of Newspapers.com would be great. But it would certainly help to know the language. Why didn't I take German in school!?

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    2. Oh! Perry Reed alerted me to https://newspaperarchive.com which does search world newspapers. 42 hits for Houdini in Germany between 1900 & 1914. They offer a 7-day free trial. I might dive in!

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    3. I could help out for translation!

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    4. You might dive in? Have you forgotten the words of Harry Houdini when the U.S. entered WWI?

      "My heart is in this work, for it is not a question of 'Will we win or 'Will we lose.' WE MUST WIN and that is all there is to it."

      Besides, there are untapped riches in that German newspaper archive waiting to go into your Chronology.

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    5. So I did dive in! Found a few German gems, but not as much as I hoped, and nothing from Dresden. But this archive has some U.S. papers that newspapers.com does not, so I am mining fresh gold for the Chronology.

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  2. If you need my help text me on facebook! I have the 'Houdini Fanbase' account!

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  3. Okay, we have our German Hero in "Houdini Fanbase". With an assist from Joe Notaro, we've already uncovered THREE new police station tests!

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    1. That's awesome! Keep em coming! Houdini Fanbase needs to start sharpening his pencil...

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    2. I already did it! XD I'm ready to translate it for you guys!

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  4. So I have been able to find German newspapers via newspaperarchive.com. But while I can find a lot of advertising for Houdini, I've not found a single story about any of his exploits. Not one. I'm beginning to wonder if German newspapers back then didn't report the antics of entertainers as "news" like U.S. and UK papers did. That's emerging for me as a real possibility and might be the true explanation for "the Germany problem."

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