Houdini Then and Now

By Tom Interval

We all have our time machines, don’t we? Those that take us back are memories, and those that carry us forward are dreams.
– Über-Morlock, The Time Machine (2002)

It’s about time. Literally and figuratively.

You see, this week I found a time machine of sorts, and I’m finally starting to use it. I write “finally” because it’s been around for almost six years.

You might have heard of it. It’s called Historypin, an online archive containing historical photos and videos people “pin” to corresponding locations on Google Maps.

But it’s not just about geographically pinpointing historical events and experiences. It’s a virtual cornucopia of then and now.

Users can superimpose old pics and vids onto Google Street View, allowing them to visually compare past and present locations using a slider bar to fade the old image in and out.

As someone who has already done historical location comparisons, I was excited about the prospect of creating Houdini-related pins on Street View. As of this writing, I have only five Historypin posts but plan to contribute many more as time allows.

Here’s one example most Houdini buffs will remember. It’s a well-known photo of our shackle-shedding hero with an unidentified gentleman in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1908. After doing some research, I’ve concluded the photograph was taken at the northeast corner of N. Pennsylvania St. and E. Wabash St., between the Grand Opera House (to become B.F. Keith’s) and the Denison Hotel. Houdini, who is standing on Wabash in the photo, would perform at Keith’s a couple years later. I’ve animated the picture so you can compare “then” vs. “now.”


Thanks to Flickr user Evan Finch, I verified the location after I found the following postcard, which features wonderful painted art from 1908 showing the same intersection and the left side of the very same Pluto Spring sign board (bottom-center, just above and to the right of the car).


Another source that helped me pinpoint the location was an Indianapolis Sanborn Map from 1915—seven years after the Pluto Spring photo was taken. On the map, you’ll notice “Piano S. all fls.” within the pink rectangle on the left. It refers to the same piano shop that’s in the photo directly across the street from Houdini. It’s Pearson’s Piano House, located at the time at 134–136 N. Pennsylvania St.


Here’s a photo of Pearson’s, at the same Pennsylvania St. location in November 1928, courtesy of W.H. Bass Photo Company Collection, Indiana Historical Society.


If anyone has more information about the Indianapolis Houdini photo, I’d love to hear from you. In the mean time, please jump into the virtual time machine and visit my Historypin Houdini collection for more examples of the past literally merging with the future.



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