Friday, June 28, 2024

Triangulating The Houdinis first appearance

While doing some research recently on the awesome Ask Alexander, I came across an "In Memoriam" Houdini penned for his friend Alexander Weyer in the May 1921 MUM. It sent me down a few rabbit holes! But the hole I want to explore today starts with what Houdini writes in the second paragraph:

The very first engagement I played with Mrs. Houdini at the Fall River Museum, then under the management of J. S. Dunbar, I lectured on the entertainment and it fell to my lot to introduce Alexander Weyer to the public. He was then posing as a strong man, and his particular feat consisted of forcing nails through two inch planks with his bare hands. This was the incident which proved to be the inception of a life long friendship

This made me sit up! Houdini appears to reveal here when and where he and Bess made their debut as The Houdinis, information that has never been published as far as I know. At least, he almost does. But with some searching and triangulation of facts, I think I can zero in on this magical moment. It's not a home run, but let me run my work past you.

Houdini provides us with the year 1894 and a place, the "Fall River Museum." As to the date, the Coney Island Clipper announced that The Brothers Houdini would become The Houdinis on July 28, 1894. The first confirmed engagement for The Houdinis I've been able to find was during the week of October 15 at Barton's Theatre in Newport, Virginia. So their debut would need to fall somewhere between those dates.

As to the place, there was a Fall River Dime Museum in Kansas. But I don't think that's what Houdini is talking about here. I believe he's talking about the Wonderland Museum in Fall River, Massachusetts. To make the case even stronger, that museum was managed by G. F. Dunbar. Yes, Houdini calls him J.S. Dunbar, but it all fits too well for this not to be the place.

Fortunately, the Wonderland makes our work easier. The museum began its Fall 1894 season on August 20. It then closed prematurely on September 29 to become a new theater (the Columbia). So that narrows the search to a mere six weeks. And look what we find on the bill for the week of September 10!

The Fall River Daily Herald, Sept. 8, 1894.

There is WEYER working as a strong man, just as Houdini said. This would be a home run if we were just looking for Weyer. But we're also looking for The Houdinis, and they are not on the bill, darn-it.

However, there could be any number of reasons why they are not listed. They may have been a late addition. Or because, as Houdini says, he was working as the "lecturer" (which we might think of as an MC today), it could be that was his primary role this week, and he did Metamorphosis with Bess as an added attraction. That's not a bad way to test it out before an audience. So I don't think it's fatal to the case that The Houdinis are not advertised. And this is likely why it has never been found before.

So did The Houdinis make their debut at the Wonderland Museum in Fall River during the week of September 10, 1894? I think it's a pretty darn good possibility. But if you can do better, let us hear your theory in the comments below.

Houdini also talks about reuniting with Weyer in Liege, Belgium, which is the second rabbit hole I've been exploring with the help of Bill Kalush of the Conjuring Arts Research Center and Eric Colleary at the Harry Ransom Center. But that's one I'll save for another time.

Want more? You can read Houdini's full MUM "In Memoriam" for Weyer and view related research as a "Scholar" member of my Patreon below.


  1. This makes a pretty darn solid case for your theory, After reading this it would be hard pressed to change my mind. Most excellent research!!

    1. Oops anonymous is me, Michael Griffin, sorry forgot to login

  2. This post fascinated me, so did some digging on Wonderland Museum locations at the time and found the following for the Wonderland in Wilkes Barre on September 10, 1894:
    The Fri Sep 07,1894 Wilkes Barre Times reports: “…Curio Hall; Prof Hart and Mlle Bessie, the wonderful mystery, entitled substitution…”
    The Tuesday Sep 11 1894 Wilkes-Barre Times reports: “Wonderland was packed last night to see the new show and it was a good one from start to finish. The Curio Hall presented Prof. Hart and Mlle. Bessie in the box mystery. It proved the best trick of its kind ever seen in Wilkes-Barre. The professor takes the lady’s place in the box in three seconds…”

    1. Interesting. Thanks Joe. Unfortunately, this isn't The Houdinis. "Prof. Hart and Mlle Bessie" where performing their "Substitution" before our Harry and Bessie ever met. I've also found them doing it in 1895.

    2. I wonder if The Houdinis were aware of Hart and Bessie? The Houdinis played the Wilkes Barre Wonderland in Jan. 1895 and, for some reason, billed Metamorphosis as "the Great Barrel Mystery." Now I'm wondering if they did a modified version with a barrel to avoid comparisons?

    3. Hart and Bessie need some more research, but got to believe Harry and Bessie were aware. WRT “the Great Barrel Mystery”, that could be Jacob Hyman, aka Houdini, who performed the switch with a Mme Ola.

    4. BTW: jmagicn is Joe M. Notaro

    5. You're right about it maybe being Hyman. I've never seen him use the billing "The Houdinis," but I forgot about Ola. Could be.

  3. Prior to September 10, 1894, looks like Prof and Bessie Hart used 2 boxes with Bessie and another assistant changing places. Your September 10 date for the Harry and Bess Houdini at the Wonderland Fall River, MA is still looking good and likely, just wish we could find some additional evidence.