The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
After Harry Houdini died in November of 1926, laid low by a ruptured appendix, the world’s most famous magician performed one final escape—from neither handcuffs, nor his famed “Chinese Water Torture Cell,” but a trap far more permanent: the anatomical collection of the Smithsonian Institution.
The spring before, during what became Houdini’s last visit to Washington, DC, the fifty-two-year-old escape artist had paid a visit to the laboratory of Dr. Aleš Hrdlička, the Smithsonian’s Bohemian-born curator of Physical Anthropology. Hrdlička had institutionalized Physical Anthropology at the Smithsonian with his arrival in 1904, and under his tenure the National Museum’s collection of human remains—of Americans of indigenous, European, African, and Asian descent—had multiplied several times over. Although the darker extensions of physical anthropology in Europe and the Americas are clear—for example, the correlation of supposedly stable physical traits with inheritable psychological characteristics as “race” and, most notoriously, their application by Nazi doctors—Hrdlička also studied the history of migration in the Americas and documented variation in bodies over time.
It was to that end that he had invited Houdini to his third-floor chambers in the National Museum. Hrdlička had examined another escape artist and, “[having] found this man more or less abnormal physically … he expected to find these abnormalities even more marked in the case of Houdini,” Washington’s Evening Star reported on November 2, 1926.
Yet in submitting to the measurements, Houdini confounded the physical anthropologist thrice over.
First, Hrdlička peppered the magician with questions regarding his ancestry. His notes on the meeting—stored in box 32 of Hrdlička’s papers at the National Anthropological Archives of the Smithsonian—suggest that Houdini made no admission that he was born anywhere but Appleton, Wisconsin. He certainly did not divulge that he was born in Hungary as Eric Weisz, the son of a Rabbi who emigrated to the United States in 1878, when Houdini was four.
Next, it turned out that Houdini’s “uncanny ability to perform the seemingly impossible was not the result of any physical abnormality,” but “the results purely of a superior mentality and untiring practice,” just as Houdini had always claimed. At fifty-two years-old the debunker of psychics and pseudo-scientists had aged—a receding hairline, wavy locks more grey than black, his left handwounded—but his five-foot-five frame was still fit, his blue-brown eyes still sparkled, and his toes remained “prehensile through training.”
And when Hrdlička’s calipers were through skittering over Houdini’s skull like a cold spider, “making minute measurements of his head,” the magician escaped the final trap—or so the Washington Daily News claimed on November 1, 1926, the day after his death. “In the end, [Hrdlička] is said to have declared that Houdini possessed a wonderful brain and that, in the name of science, he should will it to the Smithsonian so that it might be expertly examined after his death.”
The story of human remains at the Smithsonian is tragically complex, not lacking in controversy—but, for America’s consummate escape artist, it ended at his visit with Hrdlička. “To this proposal Houdini laughingly declined to agree,” the Daily News claimed. “Still smiling, he took his wife’s hand in the taxi and said, ‘If I die first, what’s left of me belongs to you.” Hrdlička was left with his sheet full of measurements, nothing more.
Just over a half-year later, the magician’s posthumous wishes came true. After he died in a Detroit hospital on October 31, he was placed in his bronze “Buried Alive” casket and sent to New York, where he—and his brain—were embalmed and buried alongside his mother in the Jewish Machpelah Cemetery. Although Bess, his wife, was buried separately in a Catholic cemetery when she died seventeen years later, she had long since benefitted from her inheritance of the secrets of his greatest tricks, a sixth of his estate, and a $50,000 payout in life insurance—won after proving that a student sucker-punched the magician in his Montreal dressing room, likely speeding his appendix to rupture. In exchange, she had executed one of the more specific details of his will: that she deliver his massive library on magic, Spiritualism, and demonology—valued at $30,000, it would be worth at least $370,000 today—to the Washington institution Houdini had deemed best: the Library of Congress.
- How some botanical drawings missing from the Botanical Art Collection in the Department of Botany at the National Museum of Natural History were recently recovered, over at the Field Book Project our sister blog.
- And speaking of botany, read up on mistletoe facts from a Smithsonian botanist.
- Oral Histories of the American South: an online archive of 500 oral history interviews on topics as diverse as Civil Rights, Southern Politics, and Southern Women from the University of North Carolina [via the Internet Scout Project].
- Did you know that the Smithsonian’s founder, James Smithson, was also quite a gingerbread lover? Try his 18th century recipe for Ginger-bread cakes (i.e. cookies) over at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries blog.
- The Indianapolis Museum of Art talks about a recent update to their wonderful website full of art-related videos—ArtBabble.
- Highlighting a vintage Christmas greeting card in the Anacostia Community Museum Archives, written in the Gullah language.
- The OCLC (a nonprofit dedicated to the public purposes of furthering access to the world’s information) has come up with this delightfully nerdy holiday song for all you researchers, archivists, and librarians out there [via hangingtogether.org]:
Wishes for a happy holiday season and a stocking full of goodies for your library, from your friends at OCLC Research. Video created by Dennis Massie. Courtesy of the OCLC Research YouTube Channel.
Throughout the next months, the Smithsonian Institution Archives will feature posts related to the Smithsonian and the Civil War in honor of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War.
As the holidays approach, festive music and decorations spread the good feeling of holiday cheer. In Washington, DC, the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden Ice Rink is filled with happy skaters and the National Christmas Tree stands brightly gleaming on the Ellipse lawn at the White House. But 150 years ago, residents of DC had a harder time getting into the holiday spirit. By December 1861, the Civil War had been raging for nearly nine months, and the effects of battles and hostilities pervaded the city. Some soldiers camped around Washington and others rested in hospitals, recalling the war to the minds of all in the city, but DC citizens tried to make the best of these hard times. Though dispirited by the anticipation of many more years of war to come, some hopefulness and comfort were evident during that 1861 holiday season.
Along side accounts of battle and bloodshed, throughout December DC newspapers printed advertisements for holiday shopping and entertainment. There were special sales and performances, and much holiday activity in the city surrounded by war. One reporter for the National Republican described a Christmas Eve scene that he observed on a walk through Washington. He saw families shopping and couples strolling through the streets, writing “Seventh street was alive with bright eyes and radiant faces […]” But this pleasant picture was not without reminders of the war: “Some boys had purchased a military outfit, and were making a litter of themselves, to convey ‘by neck and heels’ a wounded comrade home from Bull Run.”
Like those determined boys, no one could forget the Union soldiers encamped far from family and friends during the holiday. On Christmas Day, many visited the camps outside of DC and wrote of joyful celebrations among the soldiers. Games were played and feasts were enjoyed as “the oridinary duties of daily drill were generally remitted, and a full license given for all amusements and socialities not subversive to discipline.” But just one hundred miles northwest of DC near Fort Frederick, Maryland, some combat occured despite the occasion. Other reminders of the conflict were heard in DC churches, where one reverend offered a sermon on the importance of peace, declaring “in regard to the unfortunate war from which we are now suffering, that peace could only be secured by fighting for it […]”
Joseph Henry, the Smithsonian Institution’s first Secretary, and his family spent their Christmas out of town. Upon arriving back to Washington and their home in the Smithsonian Institution Building, or “Castle,” Henry’s eldest daughter Mary remarked that they “found the city in a frightful condition,” with streets “dirty and torn up by the army wagons.” But in addition to those unfortunate signs of the war, she also saw pleasant reminders of support for the troops: “almost every other house on Penn. Avenue displays a soldier’s sign.”
Celebrations continued into New Year’s Day, as President Lincoln welcomed government officials, soldiers, and the public into the White House for a New Year’s Reception. January 1, 1862, was a beautiful morning, but at the start of the new year there was still anticipation of the suffering of war to come. Mary Henry wrote, “The sun has risen brightly on the new year. I wish we could think it a good omen but the sky was as free from clouds the day twelve months ago & sad have been the calamities that have visited the nation since then.” At the Castle, as in the rest of DC, the dawn of 1862 brought both happiness and sorrow: “We have had a pleasant day but greatly missed the old familiar faces now separated from us […] by the insurmountable barrier raised by the cries of war.”