Blogcast #3: The The Final Moments of Houdini’s Life is now live on YouTube. About two months after Harry Houdini died, Bess, his wife, wrote a heartfelt letter to magic collector Edwin A. Dearn and his wife, revealing the last few moments of the legendary showman’s life.
Last June I wrote an article asserting that Harry Houdini’s father, Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weiss, was not fired by his congregation simply because he couldn’t speak English. I’ve decided to make that blog the first in a series of what I call “blogcasts”: reading select blogs aloud so they not only reach a wider audience but also are a bit easier to digest for those who are interested in the subject but don’t always have time to read. Not all blogcasts will appear on this blog because some will not relate directly to Houdini, but I hope you’ll also follow my other blog, which covers magic in general. Hope you enjoy Blogcast #1: Rabbi Weiss’s Farewell Sermon.
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.
71 East Eagle Street, Buffalo, New York, today (Photo: Google Maps Street View)
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.
Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the mystercist, wizard, and expert in extrication and self-release, HOUDINI, assisted by MME. HOUDINI, in new illusions this Fourth of July, 1899, at the Orpheum, 110 S. Main St., Los Angeles, California. Both masters of mystery wish you the happiest of Fourths of July money can buy! (Click or tap to enlarge.)
Happy Fourth of July!
Clippings: Los Angeles Daily Times, Tuesday, July 4, 1899, p. 1
The phrase “mystercist, wizard, and expert in extrication and self-release”: Harrisburg Sunday Courier, Sunday, June 29, 1930, p. 5
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
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)
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
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
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.
Rev. Dr. Mayer Samuel Weiss, Harry Houdini’s father
When Rev. Dr. Mayer Samuel Weiss arrived in the United States in 1876, doubt likely plagued his mind. At 47, he wasn’t a young man anymore, but he wanted to create a better life for his family back in Budapest.
It took him two years, but Mayer, a highly educated rabbi, finally landed a good job in Appleton, Wisconsin. The Zion congregation, comprised of more than 75 people from about 15 families, sought a spiritual leader and appointed Mayer its pastor. On September 28, 1878, The Appleton Crescent expressed hope that the “able Rabbi…who has been here a few weeks” would “remain permanently among us.”
Mayer was 5,000 miles away from everyone he loved, but he wouldn’t be alone for much longer. His wife, Cecilia, and the five children—including four-year-old Ehrich, who would later achieve worldwide fame as Harry Houdini—joined him in Appleton that year.
The family enjoyed an idyllic life in a flourishing farm town that seemed to embrace Mayer with nothing but respect and admiration. Describing a wedding he officiated in 1879, the Crescent wrote that “the venerable appearance of the excellent Rabbi [commanded] the most profound respect.” At another wedding reported in the Crescent the following year, “The Rabbi is said to have been particularly felicitous in his address and fatherly advice to the newly wedded couple.”
Samuel Weiss became a citizen of the United States on June 6, 1882.
Yet respect and admiration weren’t enough. By 1882, the year Mayer officially became a citizen of the United States, the congregation, or possibly its president and future Appleton mayor, David Hammel, had serious reservations about the rabbi. “Some of the leading actors in the congregation, thinking he had grown too old to hold his position, supplanted him for a younger man,” Houdini later wrote in Will Goldston’s The Magician Annual of 1909–1910. Major biographies about Houdini, including Kenneth Silverman’s Houdini!!!: The Career of Ehrich Weiss, and Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero, by William Kalush and Larry Sloman, similarly attribute the rabbi’s ousting to his age, old-world views, and inability to speak English.
No one definitively knows why the congregation wanted to replace Mayer, who led the group before it even had its official synagogue, Temple Zion, on the corner of Harris and Durkee streets (before that, they met on Fridays and Saturdays in Odd Fellows’ hall on College Ave.). Age and outdated views are feasible explanations, but the three languages he spoke (Hebrew, Hungarian, and German) shouldn’t have been an issue since probably most members of the congregation were among the three waves of German immigrants to settle in the United States from 1845 to 1893. Plus, the rabbi that the congregation chose to replace Mayer, Ferdinand J. Solomon of Westphalia, Germany, didn’t know how to speak English.
“He is a cultured gentleman,” wrote the Crescent about Solomon on September 16, 1882, “and is becoming generally acquainted among the people, although he labors under the disadvantage of being unable to speak the American language, a difficulty he is determined to overcome as speedily as possible.”
Solomon gave his first sermon to the Zion congregation about a month before that story was published and exactly one week after Mayer gave his farewell sermon on Sunday, August 6, 1882. The Appleton Post published the announcement on Thursday, August 10:
Described by the Crescent as “highly polished,” Solomon was a graduate of Muenster University in Westphalia. So what did Solomon have that Mayer didn’t? Greater eloquence? More progressive ideas? German blood? A willingness to learn English? Or was Mayer’s firing related to something completely different, such as a falling out between him and Hammel?
Temple Zion, Appleton, Wisconsin, built 1883, no date (Photo: Appleton Historical Society)
The latter might help to explain why Mayer wasn’t mentioned in a lengthy feature article in the Crescent about Temple Zion’s dedication on September 14, 1883, or in any dedication announcements leading up to that day. That’s a pretty blatant omission considering Mayer helped plan the temple. In any case, Hammel and the rest of the congregation were clearly satisfied with the new rabbi’s leadership because Solomon held that position until his death on May 11, 1892.
Emanuel Gerechter, the pastor of the B’ne Jeshurun Temple in Milwaukee, would replace Solomon. On July 8 of that year, Gerechter, who spoke German and English, lectured at Temple Zion. “The reverend gentleman is a very scholarly man and made a very fine impression upon his hearers,” wrote The Appleton Post on July 14. “In opening he returned thanks for the hospitality that had been extended to him in Appleton and also paid a glowing tribute to the goodness and righteousness of the late Rev. Salomon [sic].”
It’s not clear exactly when the congregation officially appointed Gerechter, but he was Zion’s rabbi by September 2, 1892, the day of his first sermon, and continued in that role for 28 years until he left Appleton in 1920. During that stretch, he also was professor of German and Hebrew at Lawrence University in Appleton before his retirement in 1913. He died on Oct. 13, 1926, less than three weeks before Houdini died.
After Mayer’s farewell sermon in August 1882, he and his family didn’t stay in Appleton for very long. “We thereon moved to Milwaukee, Wis.,” continued Houdini in The Magician Annual, “where such hardships and hunger became our lot that the less said on the subject the better.” By that time, Cecilia had two more children, which made it even more difficult for Mayer to support the family.
“To maintain his family,” writes Silverman, “he seems to have conducted some services outside the city’s organized religious life.” And sometimes far outside the city itself. In March 1883, on the weekend of Ehrich’s real ninth birthday (he was born on March 24, but the Weisses celebrated on April 6), Mayer gave two sermons on Friday and Sunday at the First Street Temple in Louisville, Kentucky, located about 500 miles southeast of Milwaukee. The announcement as it appeared in the Friday, March 23, 1883, edition of The Courier-Journal, refers to Mayer as “one of the most learned Rabbis in the United States”:
First Street Temple, Louisville, Kentucky (Photo: History of the Jews of Louisville, Ky, 1901)
Did Mayer travel that far for only one job? Although records like the aforementioned newspaper clipping seem to be rare, it’s hard to believe this particular trip didn’t include several sermon stops along the way—a rabbinical tour, of sorts. And did he make similar road trips before and after Louisville? Either way, he most likely officiated services when and where he could, locally or otherwise, and, according to Silverman, might have opened a “private school” in Milwaukee.
Ultimately, his efforts didn’t make a difference, and his family was forced to ask for help. Even Ehrich, who by now made his debut as trapeze artist “Ehrich, The Prince of the Air” in a neighborhood children’s “circus,” helped earn money by shining shoes, selling newspapers, and running errands. And if Ehrich’s brothers, Herman, Nathan, and William, also contributed during the lean years, records don’t seem to show it. They were the only siblings conceivably old enough to get odd jobs like Ehrich.
Within Milwaukee, the Weisses moved from one place to another, and some Houdini biographers, including Kalush and Sloman and Bernard C. Meyer, author of Houdini: A Mind in Chains, suggest they were trying to avoid creditors. And to add to the emotional turmoil the family was already going through, Herman, Ehrich’s half-brother, died of tuberculosis in December 1885 at the age of 22.
Postcard 12-year-old Ehrich Weiss mailed to his mother from Withers Mill, Missouri, after running away in 1886
Considering the profound stress on the family, their horrific living conditions, and Herman’s death, it’s no surprise Ehrich ran away in 1886 to escape hardship or to find work out of duty for his family. Either way, very little is known about Ehrich’s time away from home except that he ended up in Delavan, Wisconsin, where a compassionate couple, the Flitcrofts, took him in that summer. The only tangible artifacts that exist from that time are photos of Houdini with the Flitcrofts and a postcard young Ehrich sent to his mother.
Sometime in 1887, Mayer temporarily left his family again to find work, this time in New York City. Ehrich met him later that year, followed by the rest of the family in 1888. Once again, rabbinical work was hard to come by, and Ehrich, and possibly his father, found jobs on Broadway as assistant necktie cutters at H. Richter’s Sons, which touted “steady work guaranteed” in at least one of its help-wanted ads. (It’s interesting to note those ads always asked for female applicants.) Apparently the “steady work” at Richter’s didn’t bring in enough money, so Ehrich also worked in a tool-and-die shop, possibly in a print shop, and as a messenger boy for the Mutual District Messenger Company and the American District Telegraph Company.
Ehrich Weiss, before he was Harry Houdini, was a messenger boy in New York City, age 13, 1887
With money coming in, the years ahead for the Weisses were slightly easier. Ehrich developed serious interests in long-distance running and conjuring. His passion for magic might have developed earlier in Milwaukee, and it was likely intensified around 1891 after he met Jacob Hyman, a coworker at Richter’s and fellow amateur magician.
Inspired by the memoir of Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, the pioneering 19th-century French conjurer, Ehrich or Jacob invented the name “Houdini” by adding an “i” to the end of Houdin. Together, they developed a conjuring act, quit Richter’s, and performed in New York as “The Brothers Houdini.” Their feature illusion, a brilliant variation of John Nevil Maskelyne’s Marvelous Box Trick, was Metamorphosis, in which they switched places inside a locked wooden trunk in three seconds. Ehrich and Jacob continued to perform until early 1894 when Jacob dissolved the act. For a short time, Jacob’s brother, Joe, took over until Theodore Weiss, one of Ehrich’s younger brothers later to be known as Hardeen, became the third Brother Houdini.
The Houdinis posing with the Metamorphosis trunk, 1894
But Ehrich and Theo’s partnership also was short-lived. At the beginning of June 1894, Ehrich met Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner (Bess) in Coney Island, New York, and, after a whirlwind courtship, married her a few weeks later. She replaced Theo in the act, and Ehrich and Bess performed as “The Houdinis.” Although Jacob continued to perform using the name Houdini and J.H. Houdini (and with his brother Joe, sometimes “Houdini and Herne” or “The Brothers Herne”), Ehrich considered himself the one and only Houdini, changing his first name to Harry, derived from “Ehrie,” his childhood nickname. Thus Harry Houdini was born.
Mayer Samuel never got to meet Bess or see his son attain international fame as Houdini only 13 years later. Appleton’s first rabbi died on October 5, 1892, age 63, after an operation to remove a malignant carcinoma from his tongue.
Houdini with his mother, Cecilia
Houdini lore would have us believe that Mayer, just before his death, asked Ehrich to renew a promise he made as an 11-year-old in Milwaukee to provide for Cecilia after the rabbi’s demise. Whether or not that’s true, one thing is clear: From the days he mailed Cecilia part of his meager income from dime museums, beer halls, big tops, and variety shows, to the time in Budapest when he reportedly hosted a lavish gala for her as she wore a gown designed for Queen Victoria, Houdini did everything he possibly could to make his mother’s life easier.
Some researches, such as Bernard Meyer, might assert Houdini had an Oedipus complex and was therefore trying to atone for his father’s inability to support the family while worshiping his mother to an unnatural degree. But it’s more likely Houdini was simply trying to be a good son—his own version of a farewell sermon honoring both Cecilia and Mayer, who did the best they could during their arduous years in the United States.
Houdini prepared to jump from the Harvard Bridge, Boston, Massachusetts, April 30, 1908 (Photo: Library of Congress)
Erik Weisz—later Americanized as Ehrich Weiss and ultimately immortalized as Harry Houdini—was born in Budapest, Hungary, 144 years ago today: March 24, 1874.
Although Houdini died on Halloween in 1926 at the age of 52, his name lived on for another 92 years and will certainly endure for as long as people exist.
This immortality was Houdini’s greatest feat. If you have any doubt, Google “Harry Houdini” and see how many hits you get. As of this writing, I get about half a million. Not bad for an elderly birthday ghost.
So let it be said that, despite what many people have asserted time and time again, Houdini actually did escape death. The only place from which he cannot escape is our collective memory.
There’s no enviable day to die, but if you’re a magician, and you have to cash in your chips, anyway, it might as well be on Halloween. That’s exactly what Harry Houdini did 91 years ago today: October 31, 1926, 1:26 p.m., age 52.
Of course, it wasn’t intentional. And of all the things that could have killed a daredevil like him—drowning, suffocation, strangulation, plummeting—it was peritonitis that ultimately did him in. I suspect that today at least some Houdini and history bloggers will expound on the myths, realities, and ironies of the pioneering showman’s demise, so I won’t offer you more of that.
Instead, here’s a scarce photo of the man, upside down as he often was (hence the danger of plummeting), and a little background info to follow. It was published in The New York Times on August 29, 1920, with the caption, “HARRY HOUDINI, HANDCUFF KING, Freeing Himself from a Straight-jacket While Suspended in the Air at the Police Field Day Games at the Gravesend Race Track.”
Harry Houdini performing the suspended straitjacket escape at the Police Field Day Games in Brooklyn, New York, on August 29, 1920 (The New York Times, August 29, 1920)
Hosted by the New York Police Department, the Police Field Day Games was an annual fundraising event held in the summer or early autumn on two consecutive Saturdays or Sundays at the Gravesend Race Track in Brooklyn, New York, among other locations, including Sheepshead Bay Race Track, also in Brooklyn.
The exhibition gave the public a chance to see New York’s finest demonstrate their athletic ability as police competed in everything from horse-riding challenges to hurdle races amid the pomp and circumstance of band music, singing, and humorous contests that “caused such laughter that the big grandstand fairly rocked,” according to The National Police Journal, October 1921, p. 30.
Houdini performed his suspended straitjacket escape at the Games on at least four days in 1920 and 1921 (and probably more in previous or succeeding years): the Sundays of August 22 and 29, 1920, and the Saturdays of September 10 and 17, 1921.
The press photo above was taken the same day it was published: August 29, 1920. A week earlier, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote about Houdini’s performance on August 22 under the headline, “Houdini Outwits Police”: “The remarkable Mr. Houdini had a squad of policemen strap him into a straitjacket after which his feet were tied to a block and pulley arrangement and he was hauled, head down, to the top of a scaffold 30 feet from the ground. Hanging thus, he worked himself out of his bonds, to the wonder of everyone.”
While it’s not clear how many people watched Houdini on any given day, according to the Journal article I cited above, the two days of 1921 Games events attracted nearly 300,000 people and raised an estimated $400,000.
“Perhaps the outstanding feature of the excellent program was the appearance of Houdini, whose feats are known the world over,” wrote Journal author Capt. Peter Schwartz of Houdini’s September 17, 1921, performance. “The great French [sic] performer, who has wriggled himself out of more tight places than half a dozen jail-breakers, was securely strapped in a regulation straight-jacket. He was then suspended in the air by his ankles, and in less time than it takes to tell it not only freed himself from the jacket but was safely standing on the ground.”
Partial crowd at the 1921 Police Field Day Games (The National Police Journal, October 1921)
Almost three years later, on June 6, 1924, New York police commissioner Richard E. Enright, who would later hire Houdini to lecture at the New York Police Academy on the methods of fraudulent Spiritualist mediums, spoke fondly of the master escapologist at the 20th annual banquet of the Society of American Magicians, held at the Hotel McAlpin in New York City. Here’s an excerpt from the stenographic record of Enright’s speech published in The Sphinx, August 15, 1924, p. 181:
Richard E. Enright, police commissioner of New York from 1918 to 1925
I want to say about [Houdini]—of his wonderful generosity and fine way of exemplifying it. He has a pretty hard job, and it’s pretty hard on him to steal this gentleman away from his vacation—away from the few leisure months that he has, and ask him to perform for some charitable purpose. But we have called upon him and he has come down to the great field day tournament, whether they be in July or August or in early September, which is the latest that we hold these games. Houdini comes down and performs for us and he is one of the best and most spectacular and finest exhibitions that we have. And this wonderful charity that he supports so brilliantly with what he does makes up a fund which is used for the widows and orphans of policemen who are killed in the discharge of their duty, and so Houdini is a magician for these widows and orphans. He helps in his wonderful way to bring magical things to them—things that they could not have if it weren’t for the support of men like Houdini—and I tell you that is the great magic of the world.
To see Houdini in action at one of the Field Day events, check out the video John Cox, of Wild About Harry, posted a few years ago, courtesy of John Oliver: Never-before-shown film of Houdini. In the mean time, happy Halloween and Houdini Remembrance Day to all.