Tuesday, April 26, 2022

The Moosers wild memories of Houdini

Recently I came across an article in the February 17, 1967 Oakland Tribune about Hattie and Minnie Mooser and their memories of their friend, Houdini. I've read other articles about the Mooser sisters and Houdini, but this one contains stories that I have not read before...and they are pretty wild!

The article kicks off with the Moosers familiar claim that their brother, Leon, discovered Houdini in a "tent show" and booked him at the Palace, literally pushing the young magician out onto the stage. "Houdini didn't even have a tuxedo. My brother lent him his own and Houdini almost didn't go on," says Hattie.

None of this comports with any known facts about how and were Houdini got his start, and he certainly had a tuxedo from his earliest days. But I think we can blame the brother for this. The Moosers are just telling a story that has been told it to them. Leon did discover and introduce Ching Ling Foo to the U.S., so it's possible some of the Foo stories might have morphed into Houdini stories over the years?

It's when the Moosers tell of their own first-hand experiences of Houdini that things get really interesting. Following are some choice excerpts:

    Whenever the Houdinis were in the Bay Area they made their headquarters at the Aladdin Studio, a restaurant operated by the Mooser girls.
    And often Hattie would substitute for Bess in Houdini's stage performances.
    But most of the memories are of the man himself, and not the feats he performed.
    Miss Hattie recalls one damp night when Houdini ushered her quickly into a cab and directed the driver to the waterfront:
    "Not many people knew it but Houdini helped the Coast Guard round up a ring of rum runners. They often asked him to assist in an investigation because he was such a good swimmer and he trained himself to withstand cold. He would swim out to a suspected rum runner's boat, look around, and report back to the authorities."

This is certainly fodder for people who enjoy the idea of Houdini as a spy. In fact, this rum runner "mission" is presented as fact in The Secret Life Houdini. But the only source is this article. I'm more intrigued by the suggestion that Hattie would sometimes substitute for Bess onstage. And this:
    Miss Hattie recalled joining Houdini in leading a pack of newspaper man through the Winchester Mystery House one dark night. She said:
    "There were no lights in the house and we carried flashlights. Houdini was interested in the house because of his psychic research."
This is first I've heard of the Moosers being with Houdini on that midnight tour in 1924. But a pack of reporters as well? No newspaper accounts followed, so not sure what to make of this.
    Miss Hattie also remembered the time she was able to get Houdini into the Tower of Jewels at the 1915 Worlds Fair.
    "We went to dinner afterwards and he asked when my sister and I would observe our birthdays," Miss Hattie said. "I asked him why and he reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of jewels. You know nobody took their eyes off him when he was in the tower and I have no idea how he got them."
    The jewels, of course, were glass.
Houdini was indeed in San Fransisco in 1915 and even did an overboard box escape within site of the Worlds Fair. The stories continue from Minnie:
    Miss Minnie recalled that they employed college students at their restaurant and had a difficult time keeping any silverware.
    "One day Houdini came in with a mysterious looking package," Miss Minnie said. "He called us aside and opened it. It was filled with cheap knives and forks from the five and dime. 'If you are going to let them get away with the silverware, make certain it's only the cheap stuff,' he said."
Hattie, who appears to have been the sister who was closer to Houdini, takes over with this:
    Miss Hattie also recalled a day when she sat in a darkened movie theater with Houdini to watch his first movie.
    In it he played a superman who had been frozen in ice for 300 years.
    "It was awful, just awful," she said. "And I asked him how he had ever been talked into investing in such a terrible film.
    "He shook his head sadly. He had poured most of his savings from his career in the theater into the film and lost every cent of it."
I could not find a theater playing The Man From Beyond in San Fransisco in 1923 or 1924. It would have been fun to have put Houdini inside a specific movie theater. 

Finally, there's this gem:
    "He was a brilliant man," Hattie said. "But he was very serious. He never played and he never relaxed. He had unbelievable strength and he could control every muscle in his body. He could put his foot on the floor and break the strings in his shoe without anyone knowing that he had moved his foot."
This has to be one of the best details about Houdini's strength that I've ever read.

Thank you Hattie and Minnie!

Images: Newspapers.com


  1. Was the magician Leon discovered Ching Ling Foo? Great post! Gotta take what the sisters said with a grain of salt.

    1. Whoops! Correct. I wrote Chung instead of Ching. Fixed. Thanks Leo.