By Tom Interval
In September 1856, homeowner E.A. Rockwell petitioned the Buffalo Common Council to build a 7 x 14′ addition to his one-story home at 71 East Eagle Street in Buffalo, New York. Little did he know that 39 years later, Harry Houdini, future world-renowned King of Handcuffs, might be teaching magic, or even living, in that home. I write “might” because we don’t know if either of those scenarios is true.
There are 13 residential addresses associated with Houdini from 1878 to 1926, not including any homes in Budapest, Hungary (where he lived the first four years of his life), his summer home in Stamford, Connecticut, and a villa in Los Angeles, California, where he might have lived but didn’t own. However, as far as I know, 71 East Eagle Street isn’t in the Houdini history books. All we have is the following advertisement, which appeared on page 10 of the Thursday, August 15, 1895, edition of the Buffalo Courier, and it seems to be the only ad like it published at the time:
As of 1890, Houdini lived in an apartment at 305 East 69th Street in New York City (the building is no longer there but probably looked something like the existing brownstone row houses down the street). By the time the ad was published in August 1895, Houdini and Bess were in central Pennsylvania touring with the Welsh Brothers Circus. In my mind, this leaves only a few possible explanations for the ad, whether or not anyone even responded to it:
- He owned it: He might have owned, and lived in, the house, conducting magic lessons while he wasn’t on the road performing. In that case, he could have been trying to generate potential income for when he returned in late September at the end of the Welsh Brothers Circus season. If that’s true, he wouldn’t have had too much time because four weeks later he began his tour with the American Gaiety Girls, starting in Troy, New York, almost 300 miles from Buffalo. While it’s tempting to accept this explanation, it’s unlikely he could afford a home considering his meager income at the time.
- He rented it: He could have rented a room in the house specifically to conduct lessons and other related magic business. As in the case above, he wouldn’t have had much time to teach between gigs. And in this scenario, we might ask ourselves why he wouldn’t want to teach at the East 69th Street apartment, assuming he still lived there in 1895. But that answer would be simple: Space there was limited and distractions aplenty.
- It wasn’t him: The “PROF. HOUDINI” listed in the ad could have been Jacob Hyman, Houdini’s friend and former Brothers Houdini partner, who, for a time, also used the name Houdini. Perhaps Hyman rented a room in the house. If not him, maybe another conjurer. While Houdini wouldn’t achieve fame in the United States for another four years, it’s possible a local competing magician living at East Eagle heard of him, knew he was out of town, and used Houdini’s name to attract more clients.
If Houdini did live or work at East Eagle, the house no longer stands. In its place is the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority (NFTA) Metro, and directly across the street is a parking lot once probably occupied by homes. At the time, Houdini would have walked out the front door to see in the distance a Presbyterian church where the Rand Building now stands and possibly a cow pasture where the adjacent building, the Lafayette Hotel, is.
According to newspaper ads of the day, the house was a “desirable” one-story cottage on a 30 x 100′ lot and had “gas and water” and at least three rooms that different owners over time rented out. In June 1885, one rental ad suggests the owner lived on the premises with only a small number of tenants: “Double and single furnished rooms in a private family.” And by the early 1890s, Williams & Potter, a law firm on Main Street in Buffalo, was letting rooms.
An interesting fact, which may or may not be a coincidence, is that a woman by the name of Emily E. Miller, or Mills, a resident of 71 East Eagle Street, posted the following ad in the Buffalo Evening News, November 11, 1898:
Miller ran the same ad in the same edition on a different page as Emily Mills, then ran it the next day again as Emily Miller. Eleven days later, on November 23, she identified herself as Mrs. Mills in a related ad she posted in the same paper:
The varied spellings of the surname are a bit confusing, but that still doesn’t distract from the more important question: Who is she? Is she, herself, a magician, or did she work for one? If the latter, was it Houdini, Hyman, or another local conjurer, assuming any of them even lived at East Eagle? Could Emily Miller, or Mills, have been an alias Houdini, Bess, Hyman, or someone else used?
If you’re a fellow Houdini enthusiast who has information about any of this, please contact me, and I’ll update this article. Proving Houdini actually did occupy East Eagle makes other residents of the house become relevant within the framework of Houdini lore. With that hope in mind, I leave you with a list of some owners and residents living there before and after 1895, their stories mundane to tragic.
- Sept. 1856: E.A. Rockwell, owner who petitioned the Buffalo Common Council to erect an addition to the house
- July 1881: George N. Brown, a Civil War survivor of the 16th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Company C
- Dec. 1881: Martha Henderson, who was robbed by a man one newspaper shamelessly labeled as a “darkey”
- March 1882: Anonymous resident, who found a black and tan dog
- July 1883: Oscar Juugius, age 30, whose funeral procession began in front the house
- April 1884: Anonymous resident who lost a “plain band ring” and offered a $5 reward for its return
- Oct. 1884: Mrs. Y, a “respectable widow” and single mother looking for work as a housekeeper
- Dec. 1886: Anonymous “young woman” seeking a “situation” as a housekeeper willing to “go to the country”
- July 1888: Parker, who conducted Latin and Greek lessons in the house
- Feb. 1889: Carl Susdorf, age 52, found dead in his “rooms” after shooting himself in the head with a revolver
- June 1889: Anonymous resident seeking a cook
- March 1890: Anonymous resident who wanted to hire “Two good men to work industrial insurance” and promised the “highest commission paid and no lapses.”
- June 1890: Anonymous resident who had to deal with a small fire after a gas jet (gas burner) set a curtain ablaze
- July 1890: Anonymous resident seeking “an apprentice and sewing girl”
- June 1891: Anonymous resident seeking a female “to go into the country near Buffalo to do kitchen work”
- April 1892: Anonymous resident who lost a dog named Japher and offered a $5 reward for its return
- Dec. 1892: James W. Post, a 35-year-old teamster at Sibley & Holmwood Candy Factory, who cut his throat with a razor during a failed attempt at suicide: Afterward, “The man was taken [to Wilcox Private Hospital] with a fit of coughing and the thin membrane was ruptured. The blood spurted out and in a few seconds the man would have been dead. Dr. Wilcox at once thrust one finger into the artery and with the other hand passed a long curved needle under the artery and tied it with a thread.”
- May 1894: Anonymous dressmaker seeking more customers
- May 1894: G.B. Monroe, who was mugged by a “tough” called John Daley, a member of the “Liverpool gang”
- Aug. 1894: Walker, a “weak little man” who occupied “a few rooms” in the house, was thrown out by the owners, Mr. and Mrs. William L. Smith, after an altercation but before Walker could get dressed
- Oct. 1894: J. Immel, who had a carpet-cleaning service and invented “the material” Immel’s Carpetina
- Nov. 1894: Miss Hambley, who sought someone for “Dressmaking or plain sewing by the day” (could also live at 19 Halbert)
- April 1895: Anonymous resident, who sponsored a meeting of the Buffalo Republican League
- Oct. 1896: Edward H. Hutchinson, whose business was located at 71 Eagle (east or west not specified) but who lived at 157 West Chippewa Street in Buffalo (It’s also worth noting at least one neighbor of 71 East Eagle Street: Professor Goldberg, a phrenologist and astrologist who lived at 76 East Eagle Street. In a newspaper ad, he touted he was the “most wonderful in his profession,” could “reveal” the past and future, and could teach someone “mesmerism and hypnotism” in a “short time.” I can’t help wondering if Houdini knew him and challenged his paranormal claims.)
- Feb. 1897: Mrs. Smith, who received clothing donations (see previous entry)
- April 1898: William L. Smith (see previous entry), who was beaten by 16-year-old Abner Thompson, who tried to steal a bottle of milk from Smith’s grocery store
- Nov. 1898: Emily E. Miller, or Mills, who advertised the sale of an illusion show for which she later sought a young female assistant (reference in article); also anonymous resident seeking “Small girl to assist about house; home nights; with references”
- Dec. 1899: Charles Wilson, who was arraigned because of a drinking problem
- May 1918: Mrs. Celesta Clark, who mourned the loss of her son, Private Willard Franklin Clark, an officer in the American Expeditionary Forces killed in action during World War I.
Copyright 2018 Tom Interval