Tuesday, August 16, 2022

The Mother Scrapbook

Recently I had the opportunity to examine a very special Houdini scrapbook in the collection of John Gaughan. But I didn't examine the scrapbook at John's workshop, although that was my expectation. John insisted that I take it home. He wanted me to "live with it" and "absorb it." I was pretty reluctant to take responsibility for this precious (and brittle!) Houdini rarity, but John felt this was the best way to learn about it. He was right.

So, yes, for a week I lived with this highly personal and pretty strange scrapbook shaped entirely by Houdini's hand and mind. Only after returning it to John did I feel like I could write about it.

A little background on the scrapbook itself. This was part of the collection of Marie Hinson, who held onto many of the most personal items kept by her sister Bess Houdini. Doug Henning acquired many of Marie's treasures, which he shared in his book Houdini His Legend and His Magic. According to John, this scrapbook was something Doug hand selected out of the collection. He later passed it to John as a gift. So this is something precious even before opening it!

I had seen this scrapbook in John's display case on my visits to his shop. John kept it open to the first two pages, which best reflect the personal and mysterious nature of this scrapbook. With John's permission, I'm sharing that here for the first time:

Click to enlarge.

There's a lot about these pages that intrigues me. First and foremost is the quote Houdini has handwritten on the inside cover:

"Live with your friends.........
remembering they may one day be your enemies."

This is a pretty strange and dark sentiment. Why would this hold so much meaning for him? It's interesting that it is in quotation marks. Is Houdini quoting his mother here? If so, what does that tell us about his Cecelia Weiss?

There are other things on this page that perplex me. Why the question about the address for the Carnegie medals? Could M.S. be Mayer Samuel? And what's with the oddly cut out photograph of Houdini in the corner? And why has this page been framed with strips of paper? It all seems coded in some way that I can't quite decider.

The next pages hold a remarkable two-page poem written by Houdini "whilst on a train" in 1907. It's devoted to his father and is based on an existing poem, Rock Me to Sleep by Elizabeth Akers Allen. It's really quite moving. A sample verse:

Happiness and Cheerfulness was then our lot
But now you slumber in the family plot
Whilst I have money at my command
All of which Id give with you to stand
To lead you away, from that Hospital door
Like Doc and I once did, in the dim days of yore.

The remainder of the scrapbook is less specifically about Cecelia and more devoted to motherhood and life lessons in general. It might not be correct to call this the "mother scrapbook" as there is so much more. It seems this was a scrapbook Houdini kept for all things that moved him personally. There's even some random stories about how people get better in middle age and one about the treatment of various skin diseases. There's lots of poetry, and Houdini seems especially fond of the columnist Walt Mason. There's only one photograph, but it's one that greatly intrigues me. Where is "The Cecilia Weiss Ward" I wonder?

Among the many stories Houdini clipped is the below. I'm sharing this one because it's the one I can't forget. And you won't forget it either. When I relayed the story to John Gaughan, he shuddered.

Overall, the scrapbook is filled with many accounts of mourning and loneliness. There are several stories that illustrate how fame and riches do not bring true happiness. It's hardly what one would expect from The World Champion Handcuff King and Prison Breaker. But Houdini had plenty of scrapbooks devoted to his greatness. This is one in which he appears to process his deepest thoughts and self-doubts.

I only paged through the entire scrapbook once as it is very brittle and I wasn't about to let a single piece of paper flake off on my watch. I'm happy to report I was successful.

Having this scrapbook in my home was a powerful experience. I actually had it over the weekend that marked the anniversary of Cecelia Weiss's death. While most of the time I kept it closed inside it's archival container, for those two days I took it out and let it live inside my own display case.

My thanks to John Gaughan for giving me this intimate and surprisingly intense Houdini experience.

Want more? You can read Houdini's full poem for his father as a member of my Pateron.


  1. Thanks for sharing this!Silverman discusses some of the contents presumably from this scrapbook. Perhaps we should call this The Mother of all Scrapbooks? Decipher--not decider.

    1. Correct. Silverman did examine this. The verses from Houdini's poem, however, he took from the Quincy Kilby scrapbook in the Boston Public Library. It's a little different. I also found a third version in the Harry Ransom Center. But the version in John's scrapbook appears to be the original and I think it's the best.

      "The Mother of all Scrapbooks" is good. :)

  2. Can't recall if Cecilia Weiss died in a hospital or was treated at a certain hospital before her dying at home, but if so, could that hospital had the Cecilia Weiss Ward? Was HH's brother involved with her care/treatment?

    1. No hospital. She had a stroke in a hotel in Asbury Park and was treated and died there. She was treated by local doctor, but Leo did arrive quickly.

  3. HH was not to keep things private. I wonder if in newspapers.com there would be some notice in NYC/1917 of where the Cecilia Weiss Ward was dedicated?

    1. Good suggestion. But I'm afraid it turned up nothing.

  4. The Lyric theatre is long gone but back in the late 70’s and early 80’s I’d park right in front of it and walk down to the beach. I never knew the connection between it and Hardeen/Houdini.

    At that time is was a XXX movie house and Asbury Park, the entire town, was a run down mess. Every building, the boardwalk everything was old and in ruin. The downtown area was shuttered and dilapidated. Asbury Park once a bustling place to be at the turn of the century was classified as a ghost town.

    Over the last 40 years things have changed. Asbury Park is back to being the place to be with many first class restaurants, a pristine boardwalk and beach. Downtown all of the buildings from the late 1800’s have been restored do you get the feeling you are stepping back in time as you stroll the streets.

    Last week I was able to trace the distance from where the Lyric once stood now a parking lot and the hotel also long gone where Houdinis Mother passed away. The distance is only 5-6 blocks. The Lyric was only a couple of blocks from the ocean and I believe I located the remnants of the pier where Hardeen jumped from Handcuffed a few days before his mothers death.
    Perry from NJ

    1. Oh, wow, fantastic! Maybe Asbury Park would be a good site for a future Houdini Seance?

  5. One other thing I discovered is that the site of the Imperial Hotel, 2nd and Ocean is where the famous Stone Pony now stands. Bruce Springsteen got his start here back in the 1970’s. The area I am sure has changed greatly over the years so it’s impossible to be absolutely sure. Across the street is a huge parking lot so at the very least the hotel stood across from where the Stone Pony now stands. .