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27th February
2012
written by Richard

Postcard of Houdini and Bess from the book "Houdini His Legend and His Magic" by Doug Henning.

In October 1907, the famed magician and escape artist Harry Houdini appeared in San Diego. Known at that time as “the Handcuff King,” Houdini performed for three nights at the Grand Theatre on Fifth Street. I cover this story in my book The Way We Were in San Diego.

While researching the Houdini visit a postcard image of the magician was pointed out to me by John Cox, who writes a superb blog called Wild About Harry. When I first saw the undated image I thought it must have accompanied Houdini’s 1907 visit to San Diego. But Houdini’s physical appearance seems wrong for that year. He would have been 33 years old at the time and probably looking much younger than the postcard  image.

"Handcuff Harry Houdini" circa 1905

Here’s another photo that’s dated 1905–only two years before Houdini’s San Diego performance. 

The postcard image raises a question: did Houdini return to San Diego in a later year? Did he perform again, or was he just vacationing with his wife Bess?

And here’s another mystery. In July 1935, nearly a decade after Houdini’s death, his widow Bess came to San Diego and visited the California Pacific Exposition. A reporter from the San Diego Union quoted Bess as saying “Here it was that Harry and I spent our honeymoon 40 years ago.”

This was nonsense; the Houdini’s married in 1893 and it would be years before they ventured to Southern California. But it seems likely that the world’s most famous magician and his wife Bess did return to San Diego at some date after his 1907 performance at the Grand Theatre. Perhaps they vacationed here during the 1915-16 Exposition?

San Diego newspapers for that era are unindexed but available for research on microfilm at the San Diego Public Library. Perhaps a definite answer will be discovered there.

4 Comments

  1. 01/03/2012

    It’s hard to tell from Houdini’s appearance, but perhaps Bessie’s clothes can help us date it. Is that a woman’s outfit from 1907, or later?

  2. 01/03/2012

    BTW, Houdini was indeed on the West Coast during the time of the 1915-16 Exposition, so it’s very possible they travelled to SD at that time.

  3. 01/03/2012

    The clothes are, in fact, a clue. Here’s this from Tammie Bennett, registrar at the San Diego History Center: “her costume (hat/dress) looks more from the 1920s rather than say 1907. . . prior to WWI, the dresses looked like a modified “Gibson” girl look or the tailored jacket/skirts of the Suffragettes not the unstructured look of the dress Bess has in the photo.”

  4. Richard
    07/06/2012

    An update. In the last paragraph of this post I write that the Union is unindexed for the 1920s and 30s. No longer. In the libraries at San Diego State and UC San Diego one can research the newspaper digitally. Ask to see the Newsbank database for the San Diego Union and Evening Tribune.

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