Houdini’s Connections with the Sigma Alpha Mu Fraternity House

Thanks to Chuck Romano, who recently commented on John Cox excellent post on the owners and occupants of 278, we learned that Houdini’s House at 278 W 113th Street in New York City was a Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity house at one time:

278 was definitely rented to students in 1917-18. Several students belonging to the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity were listed in “Banta’s Greek exchange: published in the interest of the college fraternity world” with the address of 278 W. 113th St. The founders of Sigma Alpha Mu were all of the Jewish faith, and the fraternity naturally attracted men of the similar background.


This made me recall another Houdini connection to the “Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity house” that Patrick Culliton (aka Houdini’s Ghost) shared on the magic cafe:

I hate to quote this much from Don Bell. Everyone who is interested in this subject should buy his book.

Sam Smiley:

A month or so later they tell me there’s a letter for me in the Dean’s office. It’s from Ernst, Fox and Cane, the New York attorneys. They said, we understand you and your friends were in Houdini’s room, and one of your friends struck the blows, and so forth, we understand it was purely accidental. Our sole interest is in collecting on a double indemnity accident insurance policy for Mrs. Houdini. Would you help by telling us what happened?

I showed the letter to Harry Cohen, a lawyer who was living at the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity house with us on Shuter (now Aylmer) Street. He said I should write it right down. I did. But I said, before recounting what occurred I want to make two observations: there were three persons in the room when the blows were struck, and the blows were struck by the third person, not by my friend or myself. The New York attorneys wanted to put it into affidavit form and I recommended Harry: and he was very grateful.

And he gets in touch with this fellow Whitehead. Cohen had had a peritonitis operation himself and he had this band around his waist and some of the bad matter was still oozing out of the wound. He tells me that when Whitehead came in for the affidavit, he was very arrogant and laughed about the incident, not in the least penitent. “Oh, it was nothing at all,” he says to them, “let me show you how I did it.” “No, no, don’t show me,” Cohen tells him. He thought Whitehead might be crazy enough to punch him in the abdomen like he did to Houdini.

So, Houdini definitely had ties to the Sigma Alpha Mu Fraternity House in New York and Montreal.  Something to ponder?


Photo Credits:

  • John Hinson Collection via WildAboutHoudini.com
  • McGill University Yearbook

LINK: The Forgotten Partnership of H. P. Lovecraft and Harry Houdini

The cover of the May-June-July 1924 issue of Weird Tales

From the blog of the Journal of the History of Ideas:

Special thanks to my friends Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz for alerting me to this post.


Houdini Volare Rare auto brochures

Creative brochures featuring HOUDINI to advertise the 1976 Plymouth Volare Premier Sedan, Coupe, and Wagon.

These vintage ads draw comparisons between the legendary magician and the car.

They also include exposes (not shown) of the Dekolta chair, Sawing a woman in half,

and escaping from a locked safe.

I procured these three brochures earlier this year. Two of them I got from our friend Chuck Romano, who did an excellent post last year (October 7, 1916) on them:

The other one, which I hadn’t seen before, I got as part of a Houdini lot on eBay.

Houdini’s Secret Vault?

During the Final Houdini Séance in 1936, Edward Saint shared the following:

 “He had safes and vaults in his home, and vaults in banks that his lawyers had access to; but one secret, now made public for the first time, is the fact that Houdini had one safety deposit vault in a bank or trust company in the east under some familiar name other than Houdini, and of which the secret location rested only in Houdini’s brain.  In this vault was kept highly secret papers, and into which was always placed a certain glass case of jeweled medals and a diamond question mark pin with a rare pearl drop, a gift from Harry Kellar to Houdini.  The jewel box was always on display in the Houdini home.  But prior to closing the house to go on a vaudeville tour, Houdini always placed this box in the secret vault.  Many things were left untold because of the unexpected death of Houdini in Detroit.  There is a law, a time limit.  Madame Houdini has year by year awaited word that the Federal Government had located or opened the box, long overdue.  Perhaps the vault was rented and paid years in advance.  However, this Secret Vault has never been located to this day.”


Last week, I did a post on Bess Houdini’s infamous note (once thought by her lawyer to only exist in her imagination) found in a box that was a gift (?) to the Harry Ransom Center from a lawyer (?) that had worked on his estate so many years ago.  Did the contents of this box come from the Secret Vault?  Well, according to Saint, Houdini had multiple vaults, but the Secret Vault (revealed by Saint 10 years after Houdini died?) was under a familiar but different name and its location only known by Houdini. We know, Bess stored her infamous note that spells out exactly how Houdini would communicate from beyond the grave if he could, in a safety deposit box that was not a secret.

FWIW: A man from Providence (who claims he is the reincarnation of Houdini?), believes Houdini had entrusted the crystal box to the Eddy’s (who were employees and friends of Houdini) during his final tour, and it had been in their family since.  Jim Dyer is the caretaker of the family legacy and publisher for his grandparents through his company, Fenham Publishing.  When asked if he has the treasure box, Dyer said that Houdini trusted his grandfather and that Dyer sees his role as maintaining that trust. “My family has a lot of Houdini things, letters and assorted Houdini things, “Dyer said.” “I’m hesitant to tell anybody what the family has.”  Aware of the lengths to which Houdini and Lovecraft fans will go, he added: “We have them in a safe spot (Secret Vault?)”

[Excerpts from Taughton Daily Gazette article “Houdini’s spirit ‘led’ him to treasure box” by Donita Naylor Oct 31, 2016]

Unfortunately, we have more questions (????) than answers.  This includes where is the diamond question mark pin with a rare pearl drop, a gift from Harry Kellar to Houdini.

WRT the Secret Vault, I will leave you with this thought:

  • If I were a lawyer, I would say that the Secret Vault only existed in Ed Saints imagination.


Bess Houdini’s infamous note in the safety deposit box

According to Houdini’s Lawyer, the infamous note that spells out exactly how Houdini would communicate from beyond the grave if he could “only existed in Bessie’s imagination”.

Well, thanks to a discovery by Gregory Curtis at the Harry Ransom Center, we know there is a note that was handwritten by Houdini’s widow. The front reads as follows:

This message was written by Beatrice Houdini – the original one written in 1913 having been destroyed – the name Rosabelle was substituted – the first name chosen was Mike – both names were enduring names.  Rosabelle is the title song, the first Houdini heard me sing in 1894. Rosabelle – answer-tell-pray answer-look-tell-answer answer – answer.

Along with the note was an envelope from the Manufacturer’s Safe Deposit Company, then on 5th Avenue in New York.  Written in ink on the envelope, in an unidentified person’s handwriting, is “Box 872 Key.”  In pencil, in Beatrice’s handwriting, we find the words “In name of Beatrice Houdini.”  One must assume, therefore, the envelope contained the key to Box 872, which was rented under Beatrice’s name and the Box 872 contained Beatrice’s note.

[August 2011 Magic Magazine – Believing in Rosabelle by Gregory Curtis]

Prior to this discovery, there was no evidence that the note existed or was there?

According to Kalush:

On January 4, the day before the final Ford sitting where Houdini’s code came through in its entirety, Bernard Ernst, Houdini’s longtime lawyer and confidant, was summoned to Bess’s house…

She told him that the code was in the safe deposit box of the Houdini Estate at Manufacturers Safe Deposit Company.  When the lawyer informed her that he had inventoried what was in the box and that there was no secret code from Houdini, Bess neglected to tell him that she had placed the code in the box in November, using, it was later discovered, an envelope that had been manufactured after Houdini had died.

[Note: She held one key to the box, and Bernard Ernst held the other]

According to Houdini Unmasked:

While newspapers were hailing this phenomena, Mrs. Houdini accompanied by those who had attended the séance at her home, rode to 5th Avenue Branch of the Manufacturers’ Trust Co., and withdrew a sealed envelope that had been locked in the Houdini vault.

Before the witnesses, she broke the seal and laid the papers on a desk before them.  The words were identical with those given by Fletcher while Arthur Ford was in trance! Even the request that Mrs. Houdini remove her ring and sing “Rosabelle” had been set down as a part of the test.

According to the December 1954 Mystic Magazine:

She replied, “Of course I knew the code message but I had no idea of what combination of words Harry would use; and when he sent the ‘believe’ it was a surprise.”  Before she could check the message that came through Ford she had to go to the Manufacturers Trust Company in New York and, in the presence of reputable witnesses, obtain the envelope containing the code message, and open it.

Bottom line: the infamous note (code message) written and placed in a Safety Deposit Box by Bess after Houdini died does exist.

That said, I believe Houdini’s lawyer decided it was best if it only existed in Bess’s imagination.

The Celebrated Straitjacket Release

To kick off July, thought I would share a Pharmaceutical Calendar Ad from 1977, I recently acquired about Houdini’s Straitjacket Release:

In this stunt, Houdini used the same kind of straitjacket that was commonly used in institutions for the criminally insane.  The straitjacket was constructed of heavily reinforced leather or heavy canvas, and had a deep leather collar and leather cuffs.  The outfit was laced tightly up the back, strapped and buckled.  Extra-long sleeves with closed cuffs were then folded across the chest, the ends brought around the back and tied together.

[it then goes on to explain in detail how he escaped]

As a further refinement, Houdini also performed his escape hanging upside down.  To conserver his strength, he employed ankle supports and a guy rope to keep his body from swaying.