Unlocking History

Inmate letter draws Houdini to San Quentin in 1915

Magician Harry Houdini stands on a makeshift stage in San Quentin prison. He's flanked by two other men.
Harry Houdini performs for inmates at San Quentin, 1915.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications

An anonymous letter from a San Quentin inmate to a newspaper reporter led to the prison performances of a band and world-famous escape artist Harry Houdini.

In 1915, eyes of the world were on San Francisco for the months-long Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a world’s fair celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal. It was also a chance for the city to showcase its recovery following the devastating 1906 earthquake. The fair ran from Feb. 20 until Dec. 4, 1915.

A band, a magician and a singer

In Hearst’s magazine dated February 1919, a reporter and columnist going by K.C.B. recalled how the world’s most famous escape artist, along with a 90-piece brass band and a female singer, ended up in San Quentin.

Large band stands under grand arches in San Francisco in 1915.
The Philippine Constabulary Band performed at San Quentin with Harry Houdini in 1915 when the took a break from the Panama Pacific World Expo in San Francisco.

“It was in San Francisco in 1915 during the progress of the Panama-Pacific Exposition. Over across the bay from San Francisco lies the San Quentin penitentiary wherein there is the usual assortment of good and bad men. I was writing a column on the San Francisco Examiner (when an inmate) reached me (via letter) early in November 1915. It read like this: ‘Dear K. C. B.: I certainly do envy you and all the other good folk who are free to enjoy the beauties of the Exposition. Mostly I envy you the music of the bands. Before they sent me over here I spent a few days at the Exposition and my afternoons there, under the spell of the Philippine Constabulary Band, live in my memory as among the brightest spots along my way. I think I would be willing to have a few months added to my time over here if I were permitted to spend another afternoon or two at the Exposition. … Sincerely yours,’” K.C.B. wrote.

“If Mahomet can’t come to the mountain, I said to myself, why not move the mountain to Mahomet? Thirty minutes later I stood in the presence of one William W. Barclay, Commissioner from the Philippines to the Panama-Pacific Exposition. … I explained to him that I had a friend over in San Quentin who was very anxious to hear the Philippine Band, but who, for obvious reasons, wouldn’t be able to get over to San Francisco before the Exposition closed. ‘And it occurred to me,’ I said, ‘that maybe I might be able to borrow the band and take it over to him.’ For a moment or two Mr. Barclay just looked at me.  … (He agreed and said) there would be no terms.”

The reporter arranged for a steamer to transport the band on Sunday then suddenly realized nothing had been coordinated with the prison’s staff.

“Then it occurred to me that it might be a shock to the warden of the penitentiary if he learned first through my column of the impending visitation. I didn’t know the warden, but I had a friend by the name of Herbert Meyerfield who did, and I suggested to Herb that he send word to the warden that we were coming. Not only did Herb do this but he suggested that as the famous Houdini would be playing in San Francisco at the time that we get him and take him along with us. We wired Houdini and in two hours had his promise to go. Then Miss Pauline Turner … who sometimes sang with the Philippine Band, was told about the party and she begged to be taken along. And so it was that on the following Sunday morning at ten o’clock we boarded the good ship whatever its name was, and along about noon we were met at the prison wharf by the penitentiary officials, their wives and children and numerous trustee (inmates).

“One thousand men in prison garb were in the yard. And in one corner they had built a stand for the band and benches for the men to sit on. And the Philippine Band outdid itself that day. The reason was that what it was giving it was giving without price. Its only pay was the light that came up from the faces of the men below and the cheers that arose at the close of each number. And Miss Turner sang so that her beautiful soprano voice must have gone out to the bay where the seagulls were. …

“And Houdini gave them everything he had and told them he was sorry the warden wouldn’t let him show them how he broke out of prison cells and freed himself from handcuffs. Altogether it was a wonderful afternoon. I suppose the man who wrote to me was in the crowd, but although I was permitted to mingle freely with the prisoners, he gave no sign of his presence. I remember that a lot of the men shook hands with me and I remember, too, that I was very glad for myself and everybody. … Anyway, at 4:30 o’clock on that same Sunday afternoon we tied up again at the Exposition wharf. … And if you ever want to borrow a band or anything else in the world for a really good purpose, go right on out and borrow it! It can be done.”

Mutual admiration

World-famous stage actress Sarah Bernhardt and Houdini both performed at San Quentin, a few years apart, but they didn’t meet until years later.

Their encounter is documented in the 1928 book, “Houdini: His Life Story” by Harold Kellock. The book was written from the recollections and documents of Houdini’s niece, Beatrice.

Grainy photo of Houdini speaking to Bernhardt through an open car window.
Harry Houdini and actress Sarah Bernhardt meet in Boston in 1917.

In 1916, Houdini, a fan of the actress, heard of an embarrassing situation in which the actress found herself.

While touring the United States, Bernhardt was presented with a bronze statue from many notable American actors. She was given a plaque with the names of the “donors” and speeches were made at the ceremony at the Metropolitan.

In a few months, the actress received a bill for $350 for the statue. No one had paid for it and all those associated with the presentation and commission of the statue denied responsibility for paying the bill. She disputed the bill and returned the statue.

Word of the incident made it into the papers. Houdini was embarrassed on behalf of his fellow entertainers even though he wasn’t part of the project.

He immediately sent a check for $350 to the company and sent a telegram to the actress informing her of his actions. She thanked him for his generosity.

The following year, while both were in Boston, they finally had a chance to meet.

“Early in 1917, during her last tour of the United States, after she had lost her leg, Madame Bernhardt was playing in Boston at a time when Houdini was also filling an engagement there. She invited him to visit her at her hotel, and there for half an hour Houdini performed for her some of his choicest mysteries. The next day he was doing one of his outdoor stunts, and he invited the Divine Sarah to watch the performance from a car as his guest,” according to the book. “’Houdini, you are a wonderful human being. You must possess some extraordinary power to perform such marvels. Won’t you use it to restore my limb for me?’ (Bernhardt asked). Houdini looked at her, at once thrilled and amazed. ‘You can bring it back, can’t you?’ pleaded the golden voice. ‘You ought to be able to bring it back, since you do these feats that mystify mankind.’”

According to the printed account in the book, this deeply touched Houdini.

“There were tears in Houdini’s eyes as he gazed at her appealing face and told her that he could do nothing except by natural means. During the entire ride back, lost in deep thought, she kept her eyes on his face.”

When others touted his skills as supernatural, he quickly dispelled their beliefs.

“I do claim to free myself from the restraint of fetters and confinement, but positively state that I accomplish my purpose purely by physical, not psychical means. My methods are perfectly natural, resting on natural laws of physics. I do not dematerialize or materialize anything; I simply control and manipulate material things in a manner perfectly well understood by myself, and thoroughly accountable for and equally understandable … by any person to whom I may elect to divulge my secrets. But I hope to carry these secrets to the grave as they are of no material benefit to mankind, and if they should be used by dishonest persons they might become a serious menace.”

Deeds of goodwill

Houdini had a soft spot for those less fortunate.

“He was continually embarrassing managers by insisting that the entire registry of some old people’s home be invited to a performance, and often suggesting that free transportation be provided for them. … In his later years he added prisons and institutions for the feebleminded to his places of call. Among many of the convicts he found a sort of semi-professional appreciation of his skill,” according to the book.

Harry Houdini performs for children in a hospital.
Harry Houdini often performed for children who were in hospitals or orphanages such as he did at the Milwaukee Children’s Hospital in 1926.

For children, he often performed at orphanages and hospitals.

“Houdini’s love for children was a by-word among managers. Hardly a week went by that he did not give a performance at some hospital or orphan asylum or other institution, and he invited (them) in great blocks to his regular shows. He even invented a whole performance for blind children,” according to the book.

“Playing in Edinburgh, Scotland, in cold weather, Houdini was shocked at the number of boys and girls on the streets without shoes. He bought three hundred pairs at a boot-maker’s (store) and invited all shoeless children to the theater. His fellow performers became infected with his (generosity and pitched in to help).”

The Houdinis never had children but looked forward to the day they could adopt after their careers wound down.

“Almost every week he would return from an exhibition at some asylum to tell Mrs. Houdini of some child he had almost brought home to her, but always they would defer such an adventure until the day they ‘settled down.’ On that elusive date, they promised themselves …, they would adopt dozens,” according to the book.

Houdini shuts down con artists

Houdini, seeing grieving families being taken advantage of by con artists who claimed they could speak to the dead, set about exposing their fraud. He wrote books, testified before the U.S. Senate and publicly called out mediums and psychics. At the time, many con artists were serving time in California prisons.

Harry Houdini speaks at Congress in 1926.
Harry Houdini testifies in front of the U.S. Senate in 1926, urging them to take action against frauds.

“While he devoted his life largely to devising methods for the breaking of physical bonds, he was also interested in breaking psychic bonds and communicating with friends who had passed through a door for which he had no pick-lock. After the death of his mother, this curiosity developed into a passion,” the 1928 book states.

“His experiences with mediums led him to a warfare on frauds who strove to palm off phenomena of trickery and sleight of hand as manifestations from the dead. During the last few years of his life all his energy and skill and showmanship were enlisted in this crusade.”

His efforts were twofold. On one hand he hoped the medium was real and could deliver a message from his deceased mother but he was always disappointed and didn’t want others to fall into the con artists’ traps.

“Even after our numerous disappointments, whenever we visited a new medium, Houdini, with closed eyes, would join in the opening hymn, and then sit with a rapt, hungry look on his face that would make my heart ache,” his wife recalled.

“I knew what message he wanted, and sometimes I felt myself tempted to give the medium the word that he longed for. I would be tempted—but I could not betray his trust in me. So the seance would go on, the same guesses, the same trivial nonsense, the usual spook tricks that Houdini could do with his hands tied. The rapt look would fade from Houdini’s face. At his next visit to his mother’s grave, I would hear him say, ‘Well, Mamma, I have not heard.’”

When testifying before the U.S. Senate in 1926, he said, “I believe in the subconscious mind, in the hereafter, in the Almighty God. But, I do not believe that the disembodied spirit can come back and do the things that the mediums claim that they can do…I have no malice against any mediums. They say I am quarreling with their religion but that is their smoke screen…The money they charge means nothing. It is only the opening wedge to get fortunes (from) some old man or lady.”

The war effort

When the U.S. entered World War I, Houdini drastically cut his performance schedule so he could help with the war effort by giving “free performances for the soldiers at training camps and canteens and at benefit performances for war purposes,” the book states. “For two years he virtually devoted himself to this work, accepting all calls and traveling about, usually at his own expense. His lively imagination gave him an unflagging sympathy for the young men who were embarking to live in holes in the mud at a constant risk of being blown to bits or suffocated by poison gas. … Whenever he performed before men about to embark for Europe, he would snap a succession of $5 gold pieces out of the ether and present one to each of the soldiers. None of the beneficiaries got more of a thrill out of this generous bit of prestidigitation than the performer himself. In this entertaining fashion he gave away more than $7,000 of his own money to the soldiers. Incidentally he sold a $1 million worth of Liberty Bonds.”

Houdini dies on Halloween

In October 1926, at 52 years old, Houdini fell ill. Many speculated it was from a surprise blow to the abdomen delivered by a college student. Despite pleas from his friends, Houdini continued touring and didn’t seek medical treatment. He died on Oct. 31 from what medical officials said was a ruptured appendix.

“Harry Houdini was a picturesque figure,” fellow magician Charles Carter wrote for The Billboard at the time. “He was much maligned and generally misunderstood. His life was unselfish and devoted always to the betterment of those he loved and those less fortunate. His deeds of charity were manifold. Indigent show-folk by the score he has relieved and made prosperous. So un-ostentatious was he in such acts that only his closest friends were cognizant of them. He made the long, long fight. He fought for a principle; this principle was the kernel of magic, its respectability. He fought everywhere—on the stage, in the press, in the home, on the floor of the U.S. Senate (and) in the church. … He stood as the greatest figure of usefulness to, and representative of, the conjurer in his generation. He was an institution, and we, the exponents of modern magic, owe his memory a debt that we can never pay. His name alone lent dignity to magic.”

Houdini’s name lives on today in TV shows, movies and books. His name is still synonymous with escapes.