Her Telegram To Lovecraft: Wilhelmina Beatrice “Bess” Houdini

It seems that once Houdini was in Cairo with his wife on a non-professional pleasure trip, when his Arab guide became involved in a street fight with another Arab.

H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, 14 Feb 1924, Selected Letters 1.311-312

In January, 1910, I had finished a professional engagement in England and signed a contract for a tour of Australian theatres. A liberal time being allowed for the trip, I determined to make the most of it in the sort of travel which chiefly interests me; so accompanied by my wife I drifted pleasantly down the Continent and embarked at Marseilles on the P. & O. Steamer Malwa, bound for Port Said. From that point I proposed to visit the principal historical localities of lower Egypt before leaving finally for Australia.

H. P. Lovecraft, “Under the Pyramids”

Most readers overlook the fact that Bess Houdini was briefly a Lovecraftian character—even if mentioned only briefly and in passing. Yet she was there from the beginning of Lovecraft’s relationship with Harry Houdini, and she would be there at the end, her final word a brief telegram.

Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner was born in Brooklyn in 1876, the daughter of Roman Catholic German immigrants. Her father died when she was young, and she worked at a brother-in-law’s tailor shop, then as a seamstress in a traveling circus, where she joined a song-and-dance act called the Floral Sisters with the name Bess Raymond. In 1894, stage magician Theodore “Dash” Hardeen of the Brothers Houdini act, arranged a blind date with two of the sisters for himself and his brother Erich…better known by his stage name, Harry Houdini. After a very brief courtship, Bess and Harry would be married. From then on, she would be his partner and assistant in his magical act as well as his wife (The Secret Life of Houdini 30-31).

Bess was no doubt Houdini’s assistant when H. P. Lovecraft first saw the Handcuff King on stage circa 1898, and she would have been on stage 27 years later when Howard and Sonia Lovecraft saw them at the Hippodrome in New York in 1925 (Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.238). For thirty-one years she had accompanied Harry Houdini around the world and been his wife and partner. By 1925, their act would have been as smoothly polished as it would ever be, and Lovecraft appears to have appreciated it. While there is no account of H. P. Lovecraft meeting Bess at this time, he did meet her husband at the show and visited the Houdini house in New York (Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.249). If Bess was present at this meeting, Lovecraft makes no mention of it.

In October 1926, the Houdinis performed at the Providence Opera House. Lovecraft attended the show, and afterward had a meal with both Harry Houdini and Bess. It may well have been their only meeting. Muriel Eddy provided an account of the trip:

When Harry Houdini came to Providence for the last time, we made up a theater party and attended the performance. It was a big production, and his wife Beatrice assisted him in his magic tricks and illusions. A niece, Julia, also was an assistant on the stage.

After the show, Houdini suggested that we go to lunch at a Waldorf restaurant. It was very late, and at the midnight hour we sat at a long table together, with Beatrice Houdini’s pet parrot perched demurely on her shoulder. Lovecraft got quite a kick out of watching the parrot…named Lori…sip tea from a spoon and nibble daintly at toast held by his polite mistress!

I remember that H.P. L. ordered half a cantalope filled with vanilla ice cream, and a cup of coffee. He was in great spirits and bubbled over with good humor, talking a blue streak about everything under the sun. Harry Houdini gazed at him admiringly. I am sure he liked H.P.L. as much as almost everybody did who had a chance to study and know him.

Muriel E. Eddy, The Gentleman from Angell Street 21-22

Whether Lovecraft and Bess exchanged more than two words to each other, we may never know—but there was another consequence of that night:

Shortly after meeting with Eddy and Lovecraft, Bess was stricken with a non-specific form of poisoning, probably from food. Houdini immediately summoned Sophie Rosenblatt, a nurse who had worked fro the family previously; but by Friday, October 7, Bess’s condition had deteriorated so badly that Houdini stayed up all night comforting her. She improved a little the next day, which was the last day of the run, so Houdini arranged for her and Sophie to leave straight for Albany, the next tour stop, while he took a lat night train to New York, where he had meetings scheduled for Sunday.

William Kalush & Harry Sloman, The Secret Life of Houdini 502

At some point in October after he had met with the Houdinis, Lovecraft must have written to Harry Houdini in Detroit about a proposed work C. M. Eddy, Jr. and himself had been working on, The Cancer of Superstition. The answer, however, did not come via letter, not did it come from Harry Houdini himself.

DETROIT MICH 409P
H P LOVECRAFT
10 BARNES ST PROVIDENCE RI

HOUDINI SERIOUSLY ILL STOP PLEASE HOLD MANUSCRIPT UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE
STOP ADVISE EDDY STOP

MRS HARRY HOUDINI

Telegram from Bess Houdini to H. P. Lovecraft, c. 30 Oct 1926, Miscellaneous Letters 168

During his final days, Harry Houdini was still traveling and performing, but he was suffering from a broken ankle and acute appendicitis, which would swiftly prove fatal. Harry Houdini would die on 31 October 1926. As his widow, Bess was now in charge of Harry Houdini’s remaining business, which included unfinished work by C. M. Eddy, Jr.:

I haven’t yet attempted the task of convincing the Houdini heirs that the world needs his posthumous collected works in the best Georgian manner, but honest Eddy has gone the length of trying to collect the jack on an article for which the departed did not give his final & conclusive authorization, & which I consequently advised him not to write at the time! Well–I hope he gets it, for otherwise I shan’t feel justified in collecting the price–in typing labour–of my aid on the text in question.

H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 17 Nov 1926, Letters to James F. Morton 122

There is no record of Bess’s response, but given that nothing further appears to have come of this, it is clear that with Harry Houdini gone she declined to pursue the project. Lovecraft does not mention any further communication with Bess Houdini; while it is possible he sent her a note of condolence on her husband’s death, or that they exchanged a final note on The Cancer of Superstition, if that is the case those letters do not survive. All we have is a single telegram, the text of which is reproduced in Lovecraft’s Miscellaneous Letters.

For more on Harry Houdini’s relationship with H. P. Lovecraft, see Deeper Cut: Houdini & Weird Tales.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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