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June 22: When Harry Married Bess

June 21, 2016

0019+copyTwenty-year-old escape artist and stage magician Harry Houdini married his stage manager Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, known ever after as Bess Houdini, on this date in 1894. According to her own account, she helped pay for the wedding ring and had to lend Harry $2 for the marriage license. The couple was wed in a civil ceremony, then twice more, once by a rabbi and once by a Catholic priest. They worked onstage as The Houdinis for several years before he made his reputation as an escape artist (“The Handcuff King”). Physically frail (a niece reports that Bess suffered from primary amenorrhea, an endocrinological condition that causes infertility; the couple had no children), she nevertheless traveled with him all around the world, served as his costume designer, and took care of their extensive menagerie. According to a 1943 article in Time magazine, Houdini and Bess “agreed before his death to try to get in touch with each other afterwards. Gravely ill last week in Hollywood, his widow announced that she had not only given up trying but had her doubts about the existence of a hereafter. She had held seances every year for ten years, unsuccessfully. ‘Ten years,’ observed patient Mrs. Houdini last week, ‘is long enough to wait for any man.’ ” Harry died in 1926, Bess in 1943 (aboard a train from Los Angeles to New York). Her Catholic family refused to bury her in the Jewish cemetery where her husband lay, even though he had engraved her name on his headstone in preparation. To see a series of still photos of the Houdinis, look below.

“The last half of [Houdini’s] act was devoted completely to exposing spiritualism. He felt spiritualism was wicked; it preyed on poor people who’d spend their last dollar to hear the voice of their loved ones. And, he had a person we called the Reva woman who would visit the . . . mediums, and card people in the city before we would play. And then she would come to report to Houdini. . . . Mrs. H. was a real cut up. She was a lot of fun. . .” --Dorothy Young, “Remembering Houdini”