Houdini and the Olympics

On Monday, August 11th, John Cox at Wild About Harry informed us that the official website for HISTORY’s Houdini miniseries had launched an online quiz testing your knowledge of Houdini.

QUIZ logo

I was intrigued by the comments on the following quiz question:

Houdini competed in the Olympics?  FACT or FICTION
ANSWER: FICTION – A talented amateur athlete, Houdini unsuccessfully tried out for the U.S. swim team.

Okay, FICTION, he did not compete in the Olympics, but did he really try out for the Olympics and if so, was it for the U.S. swim team, track team, or boxing team?

The excellent biography on Wild About Harry mentions that at one point he tried out for the U.S. Olympic team, but doesn’t mention what sport.

Another houdiniphile, recalls that Houdini was asked to try-out for the Olympic track team, but turned it down because there was no money in it.

And yet another houdiniphile, recalls that Houdini didn’t try out for the first modern Olympics in swimming or track. He tried to make the boxing team but he got the flu and couldn’t compete in the final trials and a boy he had previously beaten went in his weight class.

teen_houdiniA quick search of the internet reveals the following:

Houdini For Kids:

Ehrich joined an athletic club, the Pastime Athletic Club, where he could make friends and enter competitions. He became so good that he tried out for the U.S. Olympic swim team, but he didn’t make it. At age 16 he won a prize in the American Amateur Athletic Union one mile race, and at 18 he set a record for a run around Central Park and defeated an English champion in a 20-mile race. Ehrich also enjoyed gymnastics, and in New York he began learning to box. By age 17 he was good enough to compete in amateur boxing matches, aiming for the 115-pound championship, which could have launched him in a boxing career. He became ill, however, and couldn’t complete the finals. The boy who won the championship had already lost to Ehrich in an earlier bout, so Ehrich might have won the match.


In New York, Harry expanded his athletic interests.  Besides gymnastics, he began to box, and by the time he was seventeen, he was tough enough to compete for the 115-pound boxing championship of the Amateur Athletic Union, oftentimes a segue to a professional boxing career.  Illness intervened and knocked him out of the finals, but he had already defeated the boy would go on to win the medal.  He also took up long-distance running, and when he was eighteen, he set the record for the run around Central Park.  Around the same time, he defeated Sidney Thomas, an English champion, in a twenty-mile race.  Thomas would later set world records for ten-, fifteen-, and twenty-mile races.

The first source above, along with some random internet references are the only ones I could find that mention the U.S. Olympic swim team. Neither Silverman nor Kalush mention anything about the Olympics.

The above two sources along with others confirm the fact that he couldn’t compete in the finals of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Boxing Championship in 1891.   So who won the 115 pound championship in 1891 that Houdini had once beat?

Boxers who have won the National AAU (United States) Amateur Bantamweight Championship. The weight class was contested at 115 pounds between 1889 and 1921. It was then contested at 118 pounds between 1922 and 1951, before moving to 119 pounds in 1952. In 2010, it was moved to 114 pounds, as as the Light flyweight class was eliminated, and the flyweight cost was shifted to a lower weight.

  • 1888 – W. Rocap, Philadelphia, PA
  • 1889 – W. Rocap, Philadelphia, PA (spring), W. Kenny, NJAC (winter
  • 1890 – B. Weldon, New York, NY
  • 1891 – G.F. Connolly, Boston, MA
  • 1892 – Not held
  • 1893 - Michael J. Hallihan, Philadelphia, PA
  • 1894 – R. McVeigh, SAC
  • 1895 – E. Horen, Pittsburgh, PA
  • 1896 – J.J. Gross, New York, NY
  • 1897 - Charles Fahey, Rochester, NY
  • 1898 – Not held

The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) worked closely with the Olympic movement to prepare athletes for the Olympic Games. However, there were no Olympics in 1892. 1892 is when the idea to start the Olympic Games again was first brought up.  In 1894, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was founded and began planning. The first modern Olympics did not take place until 1896 on a very special day.

Today in History, April 6th:  First modern Olympics opens in Athens; This is also the day that Harry Houdini celebrated his birthday.

Ironically, when the modern-day Olympic Games resumed in 1896, the Athens committee didn’t include boxing as the sport was deemed too dangerous. Boxing was welcomed back to the Olympics in 1904 in St. Louis, as the sport had become very popular in America. The U.S. won all the medals that year, as it was the only country to enter a boxing team. In 1912, in Sweden, boxing was omitted again, since that country’s national law banned it. By 1920, boxing was here to stay.

However, swimming and bicycling was part of the first modern Olympic games in 1896 for the first time.

So, FACT or FICTION (Legend),

Did Houdini try out for the Olympics?

If you have any additional information on this, please comment or send me an email.


What is Houdini hiding behind his straw hat?

Arbuckle-Houdini-Group (1)

Image courtesy of Kevin Connolly

The photo above has most of the cast from “Back Stage”: In the front row, we have Fatty Arbuckle, Molly Malone, Bess and Harry Houdini and in the back row, we have Buster Keaton and Al St. John.


Image courtesy of Kevin Connolly

Fatty performing his version of “The Needles”.

The above two photos were taken at the Lasky Studiios where Houdini was making “The Grim Game” and Fatty Arbuckle and company were making “Back Stage”.

Prior to these photos with Arbuckle, Houdini risked his life and sustained injury in making “The Grim Game”.

Marc Wanamaker Bison Archives Grim Game Image

Image courtesy of Marc Wanamaker, Bison Archives

So that means, he is hiding the cast behind his straw hat in the pictures with Arbuckle.

Arbuckle and Houdini with Cast

Image courtesy of Kevin Connolly

Houdini showing off even with a cast on his left wrist.

Special thanks to Leo Hevia for giving me the idea for this post.

Houdini Arrives at Lasky Studio

Harry Houdini monarch of mystery, arrived at Hollywood, Cal. where he started work immediately at the Lasky Studio under the direction of Irvin Willat on the big six-reel mystery [The Grim Game] written specially for him by Arthur B. Reeve, author of “Craig Kennedy” stories, and John Gray.

Sante Fe Station in Los Angeles May 1919

Houdini was met at the Santa Fe station in Los Angeles by Studio Manager Fred Kley and others, including a number of newspaper and publicity men who had been lying in wait for him with a number of stunts of extrication which they figured he would be unable to perform.  They wasted no time In setting the famous escape artist to work and in a few minutes they had chained and roped him to one of the big wheels of a locomotive.  When they believed he was secure they told him he might release himself if he could.  He did so in less than a minute.

Source: Motion Picture News May 17, 1919



Houdini Tries Some Hollywood Magic with Wanda Hawley

As promised from my post last week, here is a photo of Houdini sweeping a Hollywood starlet off her feet.

TMPW June 14 1919 WH HH

At the time this levitation photo was created, Wanda Hawley, was working on the production of “Told in the HIlls” at the Famous Players-Lasky studio in Hollywood, while Houdini was working on “The Grim Game” in Stage 4.

Wanda Hawley (a.k.a. Wanda Petit), (July 30, 1895 – March 18, 1963) was a veteran of the silent screen films era. She entered the theatrical profession with an amateur group in Seattle, and later toured the U.S. and Canada as a singer. She co-starred with Rudolph Valentino in the 1922′s The Young Rajah, and rose to stardom in a number of Cecil B. DeMille and director Sam Wood’s films.

Hawley was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, but together with her family moved to Seattle, Washington, when she was a child. She received her education in Seattle.

Hawley made her screen debut with the Fox Film Corporation and after playing with them for eight months joined Famous Players-Lasky and appeared as leading lady for Douglas Fairbanks, in Mr. Fix-It (1918)

She had also appeared opposite William S. Hart, Charlie Ray, Bryant Washburn, Wally Reid and others. She was five feet three inches high, weighed a hundred and ten pounds, and had blond hair and greyish blue eyes. She was an able sportswoman.

With the advent of sound, Hawley’s career ended, and she reportedly was working as a call girl in San Francisco by the early 1930s. She is interred in the Abbey of Psalms in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, CA.


  • The Moving Picture World
  • Wikipedia.org

Harry gets cozy with the ladies at Lasky Studios

During the making of the Grim Game, Houdini has been photographed at Lasky Studios getting cozy with:

Gloria Swanson,

Houdini and Gloria Swanson Photo from Photoplay September 1919 p102

Ann Forrest,

Ann Forrest 10x8

and the young lady pictured below.

Guess Who I Am

Care to guess who that young lady is?  Next week, I will reveal who that is, along with a very rare photo of the Hollywood starlet being swept off her feet by Houdini at Lasky Studios. You won’t want to miss it.

Houdini Performs Brick Wall 100 years ago today and then Passes It Along to Hardeen

color wall

Houdini first performed the Brick Wall on July 13, 1914 at Hammerstein’s Roof, a summer theatre located atop Willie Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre in New York City.

After the engagement at Hammerstein’s, Houdini never performed the illusion again.  Instead he passed it along to his brother, Hardeen, who toured with it and enjoyed some success.


Hardeen Brick Wall Ad

Below is an account of Hardeen performing the effect:

Hardeen, the man of mystery, whose engagement at Proctor’s has been extended for the entire week, again baffled the spectators last night by appearing to walk through a solid brick wall.  How did he do it, you ask?  Well ask Hardeen. All that those in front of the footlights know is that saw him on one side of the solid brick wall and the next minute he was on the other side without apparently having crawled under or over or gone around the barrier.

The wall was about 8 feet high and half again as long, built in an iron frame, so heavy that it required several men to wheel it on the stage.  So as to make assurance doubly sure that he did not go through any trap doors, the theatre management laid a heavy mat on the floor and then Hardeen placed on top of this a large piece of linen.  A committee of seven went on the stage, examined the floor covering both before and after it was laid and assured themselves that it was not a trick arrangement.  The linen was held up in full view of the audience, the lights in the theatre were dimmed and reflectors were turned on behind the cloth to show it was all in one piece.

The wall was wheeled into place. Two green baize compartments, each about the size of an ordinary telephone booth were affixed in each side of the wall neither reaching quite to the top of the wall. Into one these Hardeen stepped.  It was closed by an assistant.  There was a full minute’s pause and then Hardeen made his appearance in the box on the opposite side of the wall. The committee tested the wall and found it still as solid as before.

The committeemen watched the act closely and were convinced that Hardeen didn’t crawl over the wall, the top of which was in plain view all the time, neither did he crawl underneath, which was a physical impossibility.  It being less than four inches from the stage, and he didn’t walk around either end. The audience watched one end, while the committeemen kept their eyes on the other.  Just how he got through that wall is a secret, of course.

[Mount Vernon NY Daily Argus 1915 Friday March 26 1915]


Buried Alive in Boston: Eye Witness

MCPL Shubert Theatre Boston 001

Courtesy of Milbourne Christopher Houdini A Pictorial Life

While two ads (see related posts) and a program (above) have been found advertising Houdini’s Buried Alive (aka The Secret of the Sphinx) in Boston on stage, I have been unable to find an eye-witness account or article to corroborate this until Houdini Expert, Patrick Culliton, shared the following snippet with me.

From Magic magazine December, 1999 Centennial issue, Jay Marshall talks about readers picks for the top-ten magicians of the 20th century:

Magic: As you know, Houdini received, by far, the most votes, placing him number one on the top 10 list. We guessed that, less than 1% of those voting had ever seen Houdini. How do you account for that enduring fame?

Jay: I don’t know, because the things I saw him do, at the time, did not impress me.

Magic: What do you recall of his show?

Jay: It was at the Majestic theater in Boston. I remember Houdini sitting on the stage across from someone at a table, which you could see underneath, and they were switching slates.

Magic: Was this (in the) Spiritualism segment of his final touring show?

Jay: Yes, and Houdini talked a lot. It didn’t seem like magic, and it didn’t mean shit to me as a kid. However, for the second act, they tied him up with a rope, handcuffed him, and put him in a thing that looked like a coffin my father told me he was going to get out of it. Now that got my interest. I listened as the music played, and the next thing I knew, when I woke up, Houdini was taking bows.

Magic: Dozing off during bad magic shows started at an early age?

Jay: I was seven, and that was in 1926, the year Houdini died. I was intrigued with him being tied up and escaping, but as far as Houdini being the magician of the century, I would not say so.

Magic: But the readers who voted did.

Jay: That’s right. He was a remarkable man. Look at the number of books he wrote. He didn’t have a formal education, and he edited the conjurers monthly magazine (1906 – 1908).

The question “what do you have on Houdini?” Is constantly heard by Elaine Lund at the American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Michigan. She’s got the “Milk Can Escape” that everybody wants to see. And they asked to see Houdini posters and all the literature on Houdini.

So much for the magic and spiritualism part impressing him.  At least the escape part got his interest and we finally have an eye witness account of the show, although be it as one remembers it as a 7 year old. The advertisement did say to “bring the kiddies“.  Jay Marshall was born August 29, 1919 so he was definitely seven in September 1926 when Houdini performed at the Majestic Theatre in Boston.

Special Thanks to Patrick Culliton for sharing this evidence.

Related Posts:


The Master Mystery Aeroplane Accident?


Grim Game Image – Courtesy of Bio4Kids


Harry Houdini, whose business is to get out of things, got into trouble yesterday in a motion picture studio in Yonkers by clinging to a wall in a parachute descent indoors.  He broke his left wrist and suffered several bruises, but he doesn’t believe his injuries will prevent his appearance in “Everything” at the reopening of the Hippodrome on August 22. Mr. Houdini is appearing in a twenty reel motion picture serial soon to be released, in which he is supposed to put a flat wheel in the grim reaper’s best chariot.  He got out of an aeroplane in the studio, and something went wrong with the parachute he caught himself just in time.  As the camera was “grinding,” several hundred feet of film not in the scenario will add an extra chapter to the serial. [Page Eight New York Herald, Tuesday August 18, 1918]

Unlike the Grim Game Aeroplane accident, I don’t believe the several hundred feet of film ever made it on screen.

Aeroplane Accidents: Hamburg Germany

HH in Cockpit at Hamburg before first flying attempt

Houdini in the cockpit of his Voisin, at Hamburg before his first flying attempt. Image courtesy of Gywnn-Jones Collection

In 1909, while performing at theatres in Germany, Houdini purchased a French-built Voisin biplane.

Houdini then rented a building to serve as a hangar, and imported a French mechanic, M. Brassac, to teach him how to fly.  The German government even let him use a parade ground as an airfield on condition that he would instruct the regiment stationed there to fly.  He had many pictures taken with himself seated in the machine, the name HOUDINI painted proudly on the rudder, also photos with German army officers grouped around it.  After the war with Germany in 1917, Houdini destroyed these, saying “I taught those fellows to fly and they may have killed Americans”.

Early each morning Houdini would be at the hangar with Brassac, going over the plane.  Soon he was ready for his solo, but gusty winds kept him on the ground.  Finally after two weeks the wind died and he took off, rose a few feet and dived into the earth.

In his diary, he wrote: “I smashed the machine.  Broke propeller all to hell!”

Undeterred, Houdini arranged to have the plane repaired quickly so that the Voisin could accompany him on tour in Australia.

After two weeks for repairs, he managed a successful take-off and landing [November 26, 1909], staying in the air for a couple of minutes.

Life Insurance Policy of HH 1909

1909 Life Insurance Policy – Gywnn-Jones Collection

On November 29, 1909, in Hamburg, Houdini cautiously took out a 100,000 mark ($2500) life insurance policy with the Albingia Company of Hamburg prior to his tour in Australia and record breaking flight on March 18, 1910 at Diggers Rest. Displaying a fine sense of history, he wrote on the back of the policy: “This is the first insurance policy ever taken out re accident in an aeroplane. I had to pay 10 marks (about 25 cents) every time I made a flight.”

After making 18 flights in Australia, Houdini had the Voisin crated and shipped back to England.  He planned to fly the aeroplane to each of his performances during his next U.K. tour, as a publicity stunt. But Houdini never flew that aeroplane again.

In future weeks, we will examine some other Aeroplane accidents that Houdini was involved in.


  • Aviation January 1994, Houdini’s Historic Flight by Terry Gywnn-Jones
  • Air Classics April 1968, Hedgehopping with Houdini By Manny Weltman

Houdini’s promise to his Father!


The story goes as follows:

  • Before dying, the rabbi asked his promising young son to swear that he would take care of his mother.

Did Houdini’s father really make him swear to take care of Cecilia? Houdini said he did and lived accordingly.  In that light, I regard the story as true.

Last month on Mother’s Day, I asked you treat your mother like a Queen; so today please treat your father like a King.  Promise me.

Happy Father’s Day!