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…

A Look Back at 2016, Part 2 – The Year of Lovecraft, Eddy and The Cancer of Superstition

2016 was an amazing year for Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence (HHCE) because it was the year of the Master Mystery which we covered in Part 1, but also for other highlights which we will cover in Part 2.

It was also the year of Lovecraft, Eddy and The Cancer of Superstition, where HHCE shared letters, evidence of articles (Astrology handwritten manuscript, Witchcraft typescript manuscript), and a Cancer of Superstition handwritten manuscript divided into 3 chapters (by Eddy that included revisions with Lovecraft’s penmanship) that was used to make the typescript that sold at Potter & Potter this year for $33,600.

Note: HHCE was referenced in Massimo Polidoro’s article on “Houdini and the Cancer of Superstition” that appeared in the November/December 2016 issue of the Skeptical Inquirer magazine.


Shared some thoughts and answers to the following questions:


Shared some magic related posts:

Honored Sweethearts, Mom’s, Dad’s, Independence, Police, Veteran’s and Family:

Shared some promotional material that included Straitjacket Escapes to promote the 1953 Houdini Movie and the historic 90th Séance at the site of Houdini’s first New York home:

Last but not least, shared some articles and information related to Houdini’s Death that very few people were aware of until HHCE shared them:

A Look Back at 2016, Part 1 – The Year of The Master Mystery

2016 was an amazing year for Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence (HHCE) because it was the year of the Master Mystery (MM).

master mystery episodes 1 to 9master mystery episodes 10 to 15

Part I will cover movie highlights from HHCE and Part II will cover the other highlights from HHCE.

The year started out with a post about the Master Mystery opening in the State of New York the week of January 6, 1919 and that today footage is missing

TMM Kino

Well, it became my mission to find the missing footage and as much information as I could about the movie. 

So what did HHCE find?

Found out that the Master Mystery, opened in other states (e.g., Massachusetts, Pennsylvania) before New York, although it was shown at a special trade show on November 7, 1918 at the Strand Theatre in New York City, before it officially premiered in Boston on November 18, 1918


Found a DVD that contained a movie short from the Master Mystery.

HH Seances Sonoma Documentary Special Features DVD back

Found evidence of four films based on The Master Mystery.  Reviewed them all and launched a series of posts that took a close look at each one and end with a post that summed up the mystery of all of these movies.


Found that several versions of the 1918 serial exist on DVD, VHS, and in film archives. Reviewed them all and launched a series of posts that took a close look at each version, clarifying exactly what is missing and what is included.

TheMiracleFactoryMasterMysteryDVDTMM Kino imageMaster Mystery 1918 VHS McIlhany 1998 001

Although all versions by themselves are incomplete, we can now piece together a complete 15-episode Master Mystery serial as it first appeared in 1918, and I can now say that I have seen all of the Master Mystery.

In addition to the Master Mystery, HHCE undertook the task of sharing/restoring what is missing from Houdini’s Terror Island.

terror card disclaimer

While Terror Island is missing two full reels (3 & 4), HHCE (in 2016) just tackled restoring the missing Reel 3 scenes by using photos and script excerpts.

318-1 wmc318-20 wmc318-5 wmc

Hopefully one day, we will get to see the complete Terror Island


2015 was the year of The Grim Game and 2016 the year of The Master Mystery.


Is 2017, the year of Terror Island?

amazing-under-water-scenesterror-island-motion-picture-news-5-2 (1)


Terror Island:

TI Lobby Card of 318-24 StillTI Posters 001Catalina Rescue from Tao p153 Top

Terror Island/Grim Game:


The Grim Game:

GG 24 sheet Moving Picture World p 1327 June 5 1920Lot 120 PP June 25

Master Mystery:


Which city did Martin Beck first meet Houdini?

martin_beckWhich city did Martin Beck first meet Houdini?

  • [A] Woodstock, Illinois
  • [B] St Paul, Minnesota
  • [C] Kansas City, Kansas
  • [D] None of the above

Let’s explore each of the possible answers.

[A] At one point, the Wikipedia article on Harry Houdini included the following claim:

“Houdini’s big break came in 1899, when he met manager Martin Beck in rural Woodstock, Illinois.”

However no source was cited.


FWIW:   The Postcard above sent by twelve-year old Ehrich Weiss to his parents after he ran away from his Milwaulkee home in 1886, directs his family to write in care of “Mead Bros Woodstock Ill.”

[B] The Wikipedia article on Houdini now claims:

“Houdini’s big break came in 1899 when he met manager Martin Beck in St. Paul, Minnesota.”

And every major Houdini biographer recounts the story of Houdini and Beck meeting in St. Paul;

So what is their source? It is from an article by Harry Houdini in The Magician Annual, No. 3 (1909-10) page 17:

When working at a small hall in St. Paul, a party of managers, while sight-seeing, happened to come in.  They saw my performance, became impressed with the manner in which I presented it, and one of them, Mr. Martin Beck, perhaps more in a joke than sincerity, challenged me to escape from one of his handcuffs.  He had none with him, but the next day purchased a few pairs and sent them on stage. I escaped! He then booked me for one week, and it was the first chance I ever had, and my act in a first-class theatre created a sensation.

[C] According to Hardeen, Martin Beck finally caught Harry’s act in a beer garden in Kansas City, became his manager and booked him to the Coast.  FWIW:  Houdini performed at the Orpheum Theatre, Kansas City, KA after he performed at the Palm Garden, St. Paul, MN and Creighton-Orpheum Theatre, Omaha Nebraska.

Or is it [D] none of the above. That is, Is the story of Beck challenging Houdini in a Beer Hall/Garden fiction?


John Cox, in a well-researched post on Houdini in 1899, mentions this possibility:

But on March 14, Houdini received a telegram from Beck that changed his life:

Beck’s statement that he would “see his act” in Omaha makes me wonder if the story of Beck challenging Houdini with cuffs at the Palm Garden might be mythology. It always struck him a little odd that a man like Beck would be trolling beer halls for acts.  Perhaps it was a scout who saw Houdini and alerted Beck.  Or maybe Beck had learned of Houdini via the “strolling magician” article a few months earlier.

According to Houdini’s account, a party of managers (which included Martin Beck) was sight-seeing and just happened to stop in the beer hall and catch his act.

My vote is none of the above, and that their first meeting was in Beck’s Omaha, NE theatre.  Do you agree?

Janet Leigh Straitjacket Photos on eBay

img_0184These photos are currently available on eBay as a buy it now for $14.99 plus $4.50 shipping:

img_0176 img_0177

Four years ago, I was fortunate enough to see all of the Special Collection Photographs for Paramount’s 1953 Movie “Houdini” (starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh) at the Margaret Herrick Library.  These included similar photographs from the Janet Leigh Collection, but different than those offered on eBay.

There are also some similarly priced eBay photographs of Tony Curtis in a milk can that I haven’t seen before:

img_0180 img_0179 img_0178


Where did Houdini spend his Last Thanksgiving?

Since Houdini died on October 31st, 1926, his last Thanksgiving was Thursday November 26th, 1925.  So where did he spend it?

I first checked Koval’s Illustrated Houdini Research Diary:

  • And it doesn’t show him performing during the week of Thanksgiving, but it does show him performing at Parson’s Theatre, in Hartford, Connecticut the week after.


I then checked newspaper and magazine websites:

  • And found a Billboard listing that mentioned that he gave a Thanksgiving performance at the jail while performing in Hartford CT;  “Throw that bird here,” yelled the prisoners when he produced a turkey in one of his numbers.

Finally, I did an internet image search, and found the following image at, where it was identified as a clipping coming from a collection that sold on eBay in February 2012.


So, the answer is he spent it in Providence Rhode Island performing a special matinee of his 3 shows in 1.

H A P P Y  T H A N K S G I V I N G !!!