By Tom Interval
We know a few things about Harry Houdini’s New York City home at 278 W. 113th St. and even got a glimpse inside last year when the New York Daily News interviewed Fred Thomas, the current owner. For more than two decades, Houdini and his family lived in the 12-room brownstone until the iconic escapologist’s death in 1926. But who owned the home, and possibly lived in it, before Houdini purchased it in 1904?
According to real-estate websites, such as Zillow and Trulia, the 6,008-square-foot home was built in 1890 (five years earlier than what William Kalush and Larry Sloman wrote in their biography, The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero).
The City of New York’s Automated City Register Information System (ACRIS) records for the Houdini property (Block 1828, Lot 59) go back only to 1979, when Marie Hinson (née Rahner), Bess Houdini’s sister, was the owner. Since online city records go back to 1966, it’s unclear why the records for 278 end at 1979. Here’s a screen capture of that search (click to enlarge):
My assumption is that serious Houdini researchers and biography authors, such as Kenneth Silverman and Kalush and Sloman, already checked the physical records dated before 1979.* However, neither of their bios—Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss or The Secret Life, respectively—includes any information about homeownership before 1904.
After a bit of digging in the Google News archive, I found an article in the April 8, 1903, issue of The Sydney Mail, which mentions inventor and agriculturalist “David Lubin, of 278 West 113th Street, New York . . .” (see the accompanying image with the relevant line highlighted in yellow; click to enlarge).
Born in Poland, Lubin, an inventor of many agricultural contraptions, also lived in London; Attleboro, Massachusetts; Sacramento; and Rome, among other places. Assuming the Mail article is accurate (admittedly, when it comes to newspaper reporting, it’s not always wise to assume), it’s possible Lubin either lived in 278 or at least owned it. If so, Houdini might have directly interacted with Lubin during the property sale in 1904 and possibly enjoyed discussions or correspondence with him since both men had inventive minds (besides creating several original escape acts and paraphernalia, Houdini patented a diver’s suit in 1921).
If someone out there has evidence linking Houdini and Lubin, or any information regarding the ownership of 278 W. 113th St. prior to 1904, please contact me with relevant information and documents, and I’ll update this blog. Thanks!
*If you’re a Houdini buff living in New York and are interested in digging up old property records, the Manhattan City Register Office is located at 66 John St., 13th Floor, New York City, and is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Their phone number is 877-254-7234. And if you’d like to share any records you find, please contact me.
Holy cow, another incredible post. Great work, Tom. This is very interesting.
Thanks, John! I’d love to check out those property records in person.
Tom–do you know all the homeowners since Bess sold the house? I thought she sold it to the Bonanos and after that, it’s a mystery to me. Great post! I had no idea Bess’s sister had purchased the house after the Bonanos. There is an early 1970s séance photo with Walter Gibson, Rose Bonano, and others at 278.
Hi Leo! Thanks! Anything before 1979 is a mystery to me as well. The Bonannos apparently bought the house from Marie in 1980, but the search record (screen capture) above is confusing only because it’s not that detailed. The chronology seems to be this:
• 1979 – Marie Hinson to Charles Bonanno?
• 1980 – Charles Bonanno to Louis Moise
• 1991 – Louise Moise to Fred Thomas
• Present owner – Fred Thomas
John Cox is supposed to write something about this topic in the future, but I’m not sure when. Perhaps that will shed more light on the subject. I’d love for a Houdini enthusiast in New York City to go to the Manhattan City Register Office, get detailed physical records of the brownstone not available online (if they exist), and share them with us.
Thanks for the question. Sorry I couldn’t be more helpful.
FYI, I’m finally working on this. I will have it up in this week. And while I think I have the various owners down, I don’t have later sale prices. Anyone know the purchase prices for 1980 and 1991?
John, that’s great news. I don’t have the prices, but I just emailed you a few documents.
My pleasure Tom! It looks we’re going to need a gumshoe in N.Y.C. to check the paper records. I thought the Bonanos owned the house in the 1940s. John posted a photo of Dunninger and a young Rose Bonano in the home.
That would be fantastic, Leo. I missed John’s post with that. Thanks for the heads-up! Happy Memorial Day!
Hello – according to an obituary in the trade Journal „Tobacco World“, my great grand father’s funeral was held at his 278 West 113th Street home. His name was Theodore Beckhardt, and he died on December 7, 1908. He was a tobacco seed and leaf salesman, Freemason and Elks CLub member. Not sure if the Beckhardts were renters or owners. Do you know if the Building had multiple residences at that time? It‘s also possible that the obit was wrong. They lived on 123rd Street around 1899. also, Theodore and his wife Tillie are buried at Maspelach, and Tillie’s brother in law was the famous criminal and theatrical lawyer Emanuel Friend – perhaps there was some connection to Houdini through Emanuel. thanks for any insight!
Laurence, thank you so much for your comment. My apologies for not replying earlier. I don’t know if the building had more than one resident. My assumption is that it did not, but I’m not 100% on that. When I have time, I’ll dig into this a bit. Thanks again. Tom
Thanks for responding! I think it’s pretty certain that my great grand parents lived across the street from Houdini at 273 W. 113th Street. Likely a typo on the part of “Tobacco World”.
Apologies: it was US Tobacco Journal that noted 278 West 113th Street as my great grand father’s funeral location.