Mademoiselle Houdini

By Tom Interval

From the time Harry Houdini graced the stage in the early 1890s as one of the two Brothers Houdini, to the day he died in 1926, he earned a superabundant paper-flood of press coverage.

Whether he was mentioned only once in a sentence or featured in a two-page spread, complete with photos and  some of the mythology that helped make him a legend, newspapers worldwide seemed powerless to resist his presence.

Houdini’s wife, Bess, on the other hand, was lucky to get an honorable mention, despite the fact she worked just as hard as Houdini. That’s why I was so pleased to find an actual photo of Bess in the Sunday, June 11, 1899 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, with the caption, “MLLE. BEATRICE HOUDINI” (for the younger among you, “Mlle.” is an abbreviation for “Mademoiselle”).

That might not sound like a big deal, but to find a photo of Bess in any newspaper published before Houdini’s death seems, to me, like “a miracle of a semireligious nature,” to borrow James Randi’s words.

I’m sure, by now, at least a few fellow Houdini geeks came across this image, but I think it’s the first time I’ve ever seen it. Take a gander (click or tap to enlarge), then continue below.

Bess Houdini, left, San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, June 11, 1899, p. 5

Bess Houdini, left, San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, June 11, 1899, p. 5

The article that accompanies this clipping doesn’t mention Bess anywhere else and devotes only one sentence to announce The Houdinis’ performance at the Orpheum Theater on O’Farrell Street in San Francisco, California, the week of June 12, 1899:

Houdini, the “king of handcuffs,” will have new tricks with cards, illusions and will demonstrate that he can escape from the dreaded “Oregon boot” quite as easily as he can from the regulation handcuff.

Here’s an early photo of the Orpheum, taken possibly ten years or more after Houdini and Bess performed there.

Orpheum Theatre, O'Farrell Street, San Francisco, California, between 1909 and 1938 (Photo: San Francisco Public Library)

Orpheum Theatre, O’Farrell Street, San Francisco, California, between 1909 and 1938 (Photo: San Francisco Public Library)

By the way, if you haven’t heard of the “Oregon boot,” it was a sort of modern ball and chain that could do more damage to its prisoner if he tried to run.

Illustration of the "Oregon boot," published in The St. Louis Republic, Friday, March 6, 1903, p. 1

Illustration of the “Oregon boot,” published in The St. Louis Republic, Friday, March 6, 1903, p. 1

Here’s a short blurb and photo published in the August 1922 issue of Popular Science Monthly:

The "Oregon boot" as described in Popular Science Monthly, August 1922, p. 65

The “Oregon boot” as described in Popular Science Monthly, August 1922, p. 65

Anyway, sorry to digress. The point here is that the Chronicle article, in a rare occurrence, gave top billing to Bess, and I wanted to pass along the image in case you haven’t already seen it. Bess, like many amazing women, was exiled to the periphery of publicity, so I feel that much more fortunate to have found this little piece of history pertaining to the Mademoiselle.

UPDATE (07.02.2018, 4:36 p.m. PT): Friend John Cox of the awesome Wild About Harry just informed me there’s a small reproduction of the same clipping of Bess on page 56 of Houdini: His Legend and His Magic, by Doug Henning. Thanks for the heads-up, John.

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4 Responses to Mademoiselle Houdini

  1. Great stuff, Tom! That clipping can also be seen on page 56 of ‘Houdini His Legend and His Magic’ by Doug Henning, except it is very small and very poor quality, Bess is barely visible. I’ve always wanted to see it in better quality, and here you have it! It a great shot of her.

    • Houdini says:

      Thanks, John. Yeah, I was really psyched to find it. As for the Henning book, I must have gone through that 100 times by now and yet somehow didn’t remember seeing that! Thanks for letting me know! I’ll post an update.

  2. Leo Hevia says:

    Great stuff Tom! Although I don’t think Bess’s face turned out well in that newspaper photo. Thanks for posting info, photos and illustrations of the Oregon Boot. I’ve read about it in HH bios but never seen one and I’ve been Wild About Harry since 1976.

    • Houdini says:

      Hi Leo. Thanks! Yeah, I wish there was a clearer photo of Bess. I also hadn’t seen the Oregon boot until I dug up those images. It’s so fun to come across these things.

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