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:

7 thoughts on “Mystery of the Medicine Show Photo and its Performers

    • Your welcome!
      The photo may have come from Keaton’s personal collection. AFAIK, Rudi Blesh, a close friend of Buster and his wife, first shared it in his 1966 biography on Keaton but didn’t list a source.

  1. Be awesome if this was a photo of the Houdinis and the Keatons, but I don’t think it is. There’s just no resemblance.

    I’m not sure Bessie was even 5 foot. She was a wee tiny thing.

    • Agreed! Bessie was lucky if she was even 5 foot and it would be awesome to find some print evidence or photo that ties them together during their medicine show days, but so far I have not found any. Hoping someone has and will share.

      • According to John Hinson, the Great Nephew of Bess and Harry, Bess was 4’11” and his grandmother was 5’0. So there you go, Bess and Myra were both 4’11.

  2. I have the NY Clipper news notice from Oct. 12, 1895 on the birth of Buster Keaton. It clearly indicates Joe and Myra Keaton were traveling with Myra’s father and brother, Frank L. and Burt Cutler, at the time. They were with Frank’s show, the Cutler Comedy Company.

    I also have the NY Clipper news notice from Sept. 12, 1896 with Buster Keaton’s name included as part of the Umatilla Comedy Co. He is named after Joe and Myra Keaton as “low comedy.” So, he was clearly called Buster before he was a year old.

    I would be happy to send you these snips. Otherwise, I use for research. Beware, using this site can be quite frustrating.

    I recently found the article by Clyde Toland who was one of the founders of the Buster Keaton Celebration in Iola, Kansas. He offered a credible suggestion about the origin of Buster’s nickname.
    Below is what is found in the link above.

    “An interesting historical tidbit concerns the nickname “Buster” for Joseph F.
    Keaton. Credit is frequently given, though probably incorrectly various scholars believe, to the great magician Harry Houdini for bestowing this nickname upon the baby boy. Piqua residents have a different point of view. Local midwife Theresa Ullrich (pronounced Ullrick) is generally credited with delivering the baby though some claim the honor for Barbara Haen. Likely both women – the lady of the house and the midwife-were involved in the birth. “Grandma” Ullrich, as she was known, recalled remarking at the birth, “My, what a ‘buster’ he is,” meaning a particularly robust child. Credence for this claim comes from local use of the word “buster.” An October 16, 1896, lola Register account of the birth of a boy to Mr. and Mrs. Gus Krannich quotes Gus saying, “Tell them that he weighed 8 pounds 11 ounces and that he is a buster.” My great thanks to Emerson Lynn, Jr., then editor of The lola Register, who discovered this local use of the word “buster” in 1999 while reading on microfilm back issues of the newspaper.”

    I currently tend to believe Buster’s name came from a combination of two events. Buster may not have been nicknamed right away when he was born but perhaps he really did fall down some stairs in 1896 when the Keatons were traveling with George Pardey and George exclaimed, “he a buster.” Joe & Myra may have remembered this name from “Grandma” Ullrich in Iola and then decided to call him Buster. Joe Keaton said in newspapers at least one time that it was George Pardey (also spelled Pardy) who called him a “buster” after falling down the stairs. I have two news clips from Feb. and April 1896 placing the Keatons with George Pardey.

    As for the picture of the Keatons with the Houdinis I just don’t know. I do agree that it may not be the Houdinis but I believe it was Buster who provided the picture to Rudi Blesh.

    As for the advertisement for the Houdinis and Keatons both appearing at B. F. Keith’s in Boston I really believe this was in 1911, not 1907. I have a news clip on that from the Boston Christian Science Monitor, Sept. 26, 1911, page 7, col. 5. It mentions the names of Wilford Clarke, Jarvis & Harrison, the Dennis Brothers, Tim Cronin and Les Marquads in addition to the Houdinis and Keatons. This is found on the website.
    Hope this helps.
    Linda Neal

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