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 doorLike 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.