Gotch Defeats Hackenschmidt and turns down Houdini

On April 3rd 1908 in Chicago, Frank A. Gotch defeated George Hackenschmidt the “Russian Lion” in an international wrestling match for the champion of the world.

Well supposedly in 1906, Houdini Defeated Hackenschmidt.   Let’s take a closer look.

According to Solomon in Disappearing Tricks:

The year 1906 also marks one of the earliest documented uses of cinema by Houdini. In March, a film listed as Houdini Defeats Hackenschmidt was shown immediately after Houdini’s performance at Keiths Theatre, Boston. All we know of this film is its title and a one-word description in the unpublished managers’ reports of the Keith vaudeville circuit: “Fair.” The title of the film is ambiguous because it is not clear how Houdini might have managed to defeat the heavyweight wrestler George Hackenschmidt.”

Houdini befriended Hackenschmidt while they were both touring Europe. Hackenschmidt’s act consisted of feats of strength and displays of his muscular body.  It is quite possible that the victory over Hackenschmidt alluded to in this film’s title did not occur in an athletic contest.

According to Silverman:

“Not one to be outdone, Houdini threw Hackenschmidt. Like Sandow and other strongmen, Hackenschmidt had a popular music-hall turn, exhibiting his build in attitudes meant to recall statues. He and Houdini often compared receipts, Hack conceding that the boxoffice record of 210 pounds he set at Sheffield had been overcome only by Houdini, at 300. Houdini discussed with him the possibility of copromoting a top-rank wrestling match, and hoped to bring him to the United States, presumably as his manager to star in vaudeville.”

Well in 1908, Houdini made an offer to Frank Gotch through Harry Day the London Agent to appear in the London halls, but Gotch turned down England:

Later in 1908, there were ads that alluded to a likely return wrestling match between Frank A. Gotch, the champion of the world, and Hackenschmidt although Houdini was not the promoter or was he?

Mystery of the Medicine Show Photo and its Performers

Last week I posted the above medicine show snapshot dated 1894 that most Keaton Historians believe was actually taken four years later.

The couples pose outside a tent with Dr. Hill, the resident Kickapoos, and a pair of dogs.  Bess and [pipe-smoking] Mira are dolled up in frilly gowns and hats, but it is Joe who dominates the picture, slouching like one of the outlaw Dalton brothers, legs defiantly apart, one hand on his hip, hat cocked at a rakish angle, a half-smoked cigar held between his fingers. [Buster Keaton Cut to the Chase]

It is believed to be a snapshot taken in the Winter (Dec 1897- Feb 1898), when the Houdini’s (Harry and Bess) were traveling with the Keatons (Joe and Myra) as part of Dr. Hills California Concert Company (Medicine Show)

[Note: Per Silverman Notes to Houdini, HH played with medicine shows earlier as part of the “Brothers Houdini”, having toured with Hamlin’s Wizard Company in Iowa in Feb 1893, and with Oliver’s Wizard Oil Company in Illinois in 1894.]

Was the photo misdated by four years to prove that Harry Houdini had been present at Buster’s birth?

The Three Keatons, New York ca 1899 by Feinberg (Studio)

Joseph Francis Keaton (aka Buster) was born on October 4, 1895.

His parents (Joe H. Keaton and Myra) were members of the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company, a traveling vaudeville show, (along with Harry Houdini?), and were in Piqua, Kansas when the baby arrived.

[Note: In September 1895, Houdini bought a half interest in the American Gaiety Girls and toured with the troupe (through eastern Pennsylvania and upper New York State and into New England) for five or so months as part proprietor and manager, before joining the Marco company in the Spring of 1896].

The story goes that when Keaton was a toddler (6 months old per Buster and 18 months old per Joe), Houdini witnessed him take a spill down a flight of stairs and emerged unharmed. “That was a real buster,” the legend has Houdini saying of the fall, and thus was a lifelong nickname born (unless the story is apocryphal, which is certainly possible).

Per Silverman Notes to Houdini, the myth was probably started by Buster himself, who admired and emulated Houdini.

According to Marion Meade’s, “Buster Keaton Cut to the Chase”: The first mention of Buster’s nickname appeared in a 1903 newspaper clipping, where Myra Keaton attributes the name to “a family friend” but didn’t mention the name.  The following year Joe identified him as George Pardey, the actor.  It was in 1921 that Buster (or his agent Harry Brand] decided to make Houdini a cornerstone of his legend.

So is the photo evidence that the Houdini’s (Harry and Bess) were traveling with the Keaton’s (Joe and Myra) as part of Dr. Hills California Concert Company in 1898?

To answer that, we need to be able to confirm their identity in the photo.

Harry Houdini was 5’-5.276” and Bess was lucky if she was 5’-0”.  Myra was not a tall gal (4’-11”) while Joe has been listed at 5’-11”.  So the women should be similar in height, but the woman identified as Bess appears to be much taller and doesn’t really look like Bess. As far as Houdini, the only one in that photo that remotely looks like Houdini is holding the dog on the left, not the one identified standing on the right.

I wonder if there is any legitimate print material evidence (photos, newspaper clippings, playbills, etc) ) to indicate Joe and Myra Keaton (Buster’s parents) were traveling with Harry and Bessie Houdini in the California Concert Co. (or perhaps, another traveling Medicine Show).   There is definitely evidence for Harry and Bessie:

BTW: According to Professor’s Solomon’s Lives of Conjurers, Volume Three, The California Concert Company was the joint enterprise of two medicine men, Dr. Hill and Dr. Pratt.  Dr. Hill was from San Francisco and in his early twenties.  He had shoulder-length hair (a coiffure popular with medicine men) and a full beard — a prophet hawking an elixir. Dr. Pratt was from Denver.  In Houdini: His Life-Story, Bess describes Pratt as “a white-haired old gentleman with the air of a retired clergyman”.  [Note: The doctor in the photo does not match either description for Dr. Hill or Dr. Pratt.]

If you have evidence for Joe and Myra Keaton, please share.

Special thanks to Ron Pesch for sharing controversial photo and newspaper roster clipping that inspired me to do this post.



Although not Medicine Show evidence, the following is evidence of Houdini on the same bill as the Three Keatons in a 1907 Boston Journal Ad that our friend Dean Carnegie found:

What’s wrong with the description of this photo?

Here’s a photo that a reader (i.e., Ron Pesch) shared with me that is very intriguing:

Is the date right? Is Harry Houdini and Bess Houdini really in the photo?

Please share any thoughts or comments on what is wrong with the description of this photo.  I will then follow up with a post that gives some more insight about the photo and the performers in the Medicine Show.

Down Memory Lane With Hardeen, Magician and Handcuff King, Part 2 of 2

This is the continuation of Part 1 where I share more text from an incredible November 1933 New York Evening Journal article that goes down memory lane with Hardeen, Magician and Handcuff King:

While Houdini and his wife went with the Welsh Brothers Circus, I teamed up with Farmer Dan’s Place on the Island.  We featured the “Dancing Duck and Human Faced Chicken”  A dancing duck was any duck on a hot plate, lifting his feet to keep cool, and any chicken became human looking by cutting off the beak.

Martin Beck finally caught Harry’s act in a beer garden in Kansas City, became his manager and booked him to the Coast.  Although many persons claim to have made Houdini all credit should go to astute Martin Beck.

In 1900 Houdini went to Europe and created a furor at Berlin’s “Winter Garden,” on a bill with Ching Ling Soo, Lowell and Lowell and Everhardt, the Hoop Roller Ike Rose (who now has a midget troupe) booked them I received a cable from Houdini, “COME OVER, THE APPLES ARE RIPE” and catching the Deutschland, the then fastest boat afloat arrived in Berlin.  My brother had booked me as his own competitor and I became Hardeen.

As Hardeen sub-billed Houdini 2nd I opened at the Olympia Theatre, Magdeburg and played in Europe seven solid years.  Those were the happy days Houdini cleaning up in the States and Hardeen in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Came the day when Klaw and Erlanger decided to buck Keith.  Houdini was the Keith headliner and advised Klaw and Erlanger to get me their Advanced Vaudeville  Pat Casey offered me forty weeks and Jennie Jacobs started me off on the Vaudeville Fight in St. Louis along with Vinnie Daly, Lou Sully, The Keatons and James Harrigan.

Touring with the Keatons and giving my stateroom to Joe, Myra and Buster and a few little Keatons.  That night Sidney Grant stole the undies of the May Warden Dresden Dolls and wrapped them around the necks of the sleeping Crane Brothers.  Hawthorn and Burt, and the Glinseritties Troupe  That was Pullman comedy in 1907.

The Fred Niblo-Josephine Cohan and the Hardeens four-year old youngsters never sure which did belong to which until mine one day in Worchester shouted from the audience “Are you my daddy?”

That supper in Salt Lake City with participants the night before the Jim Flynn – Jack Dempsey fight, and having Sherriff John S. Corliss explain how he gives convicted murderers their choice of death – gas or shot!  Darn humane, I calls it.

Wilmer & Vincent booked me into their Colonial Theatre, Norfolk, Va, and it’s publicity man, W.T. Kirby, started the stunt of having me jump into a river handcuffed.  Rose Coghlan, Jolly Fanny Rice and Waid and Curran came down to the bridge to bid me “Adieu”.  The only damage was the collapse of an oyster dock, spilling hundreds of Negro spectators into the river.

Douglas Fairbanks Sophie Tucker and Rooney & Bent on the bill with me at Atlantic City’s Garden Pier Theatre.  Fairbanks objected to my feature billing after seeing my leap shackled into the Atlantic he said, You can have the billing”

Max Spiegal’s “Winning Widows” engaged me, Joe Fields, George B. Scanl0on and Florence Mills for the Gayety Theatre, Brooklyn.  A brewery company challenged me to escape from a vat of ale between the 1st and 2nd acts.  It was okay with me, but the chorus beat me to the ale and there never was a second act.

Scouting around for grasshoppers in Canton, Ohio, to feed Whippie Huston’s marmoset, with Harry and Eva Puck encouraging the marmoset to eat more.

Pantages books me and Orpheum books Houdini and we are rivals in all West Coast towns with the newspapers having us cutting each other’s throats – an just two loving brothers living off the fat of the land culminating in an expose on Thanksgiving Day at a dinner by us to Jack Londons and Alex Pantages.

Retiring from work to take charge of Harry’s film laboratories in Hoboken only to return when Houdini died and willed me his secrets.

Down Memory Lane With Hardeen, Magician and Handcuff King, Part 1 of 2

Thought I would start the New Year off with a two-part post where I share text from an incredible November 1933 New York Evening Journal article that goes down memory lane with Hardeen, Magician and Handcuff King:

Our father, M. S. Weiss, L.L. D., Ph. D. arrived in that Wisconsin town a graduate lawyer.  The town had no need of a lawyer but Mayor Hammel told my dad they needed a rabbi.  My father said, “Okay, that’s me,” and became a rabbi of a temple over a harness shop opposite the old Kirby House.

My brother, Houdini, born Harry Weiss a year later, and I studied at the Brown School – so called because it was painted green.  Our first escapes were from here.

Later with Houdini in Milwaukee.  He sold papers at the Plankington House corner, supplemented by shoe shining.  We played cops and robbers with Charles Harris (who later wrote “After the Ball”) when he carried groceries at $3 per for General Storekeeper Simon.

After Houdini had saved $10 our elder brother died, and Harry gave his savings for the funeral.  He always was giving.  He then studied acrobatics, making me become a contortionist – we trekked to N.Y.

Stopping on 79th st. with Mrs. Leffler, mother of George and John, but don’t tell these managers that we still owe “Ma” for room rent.  During the first Winter, experiencing the Great Blizzard of 1888 and receiving much food from Mrs. Leffler, and studying at P.S. 70

Harry, battling life, became the Boy Magician and gave his first show at the Pastime A.C. on E. 69th st to an audience including the walker, Sam Liebgold, Half Miler Gage Hollander, All-Around Athlete Jimmy Rose and Wrestler Bothner.

Saved $26 in Citizens Savings Bank at Bowery and Canal while working for James G. Johnson & Co., only to give it to brother Harry for partnership in act called the Houdini Brothers.  We played museums all over the country.  Kohn and Middleton in Chicago, Moor’s in Detroit and Rochester, and Brandenberg’s Philadelphia.

New York saw us in in those days at Worth’s on Sixth ave, the Globe on the Bowery, Hubers, and the Gayety for Dave Posner.

Opened a bill at the Krauss Imperial Music Hall, appearing with Weber, and Fields, Topack and Steel, Lizzie B. Raymond, and Joe Flynn, who wrote “Down Went McGinty”

Next to Coney Island, only to be fired from Vacca’s on the Bowery and Buschman’s Walk Customers too interested in us to buy beer, but Ed Rogers, the Smilaz Sisters, and Ferry, the Frog Man, kept on.

With the Christi Brothers for a whole season in a big shadow pantomime at “Coney’s Sea Beach Palace” … What a beautiful dump?

Then came Bess!  She broke up the act when Harry married her because we did not get enough money for all three.  My most solemn moment was the night Harry made his bride swear never to reveal his Trunk Trick (his most copied stunt) which incidentally, I still do.

To be continued next week…