letter: john ringling to harry houdini (1893)

Posted: August 15, 2011 in Uncategorized
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Ed. Note: Recently a large collection of mysterious artifacts was discovered in the attic of Trask Avenue. Periodically we will share what we find. This first entry is a letter from John Ringling (of Ringling Brothers Circus) to a young Harry Houdini regarding Houdini’s audition for the circus in 1893.

My dear Mr. Houdini,

During our recent stop to Coney Island you auditioned for my brothers Otto and Charles. They spoke of your desire to join our traveling circus. You performed for them an exhibition involving an assortment of escape techniques. Otto was especially keen on your exploits. He was mesmerized with your ability to slip out of handcuffs as if they were mere trifles. I regarded his effusive praise with a banker’s penchant for skepticism. One must remember Otto is always a bit of a soft touch. He is easily impressed with that he does not understand. This is most everything. Mother often joked if the rooster crowed at dusk Otto would grab the bucket and try to milk the cows. Perhaps this does not translate with gusto from quill to writing paper, but back on the farms of McGregor it got big laughs.

Most regrettably Charles was not as smitten as Otto. For this is not surprising. Charles’ idea of an entertainment is convincing people to stick their heads in a tiger’s mouth. I admit this particular daring escapade holds a morbid appeal for those who patronize our traveling show, although their patronage drops considerably when the tiger follows nature’s directive. You may have heard about such an incident not three weeks ago in Columbus. Do not believe all you read in Hearst’s scandal sheets! Although we made haste to leave Columbus under the cover of night I must inform you the story published in newspapers was not fairly accurate. (Yellow journalists!) Believe me when I say the crunch was not “as loud as the burst of a cannon” and could not be heard “in the furthest regions of the fairgrounds.” One Mrs. Molly O’Reilly, a fine churchgoing lady in attendance that fateful day, personally assured me the sound brought forth by the snapping shut of the great beast’s jaws could not be heard beyond the flap of the exhibition’s tent. Hearst and his need for sensationalism portend dark clouds for the future of our fair land!

Pardon my distraction. Unlike Otto Charles is a shrewd and astute purveyor of the entertainment arts. He did admit a mild amusement at your trickery commenting “Despite his crude methods and raw showmanship he managed to hold attention for five minutes.” Do not feel discouraged. From Charles this is better notices than most fledgling acts receive.

Otto is in possession of a good heart. Still I hold Charles’ advice close. Alas I cannot consider your escape act as one suitable for our show. To quote Charles your entire premise is “a one trick pony.”

If I may be so forthcoming as to offer a bit of advice. Consider it the wisdom of one successful showman to another person. Relinquish this current diversion. I’ve been in the business of entertainment lo since U.S. Grant held residence in the White House. I know a limit exists to what a person can manage with handcuffs and escape tricks. There is no future in that pursuit good sir.

I mean no malice. My intention is not to take the wind from your body with an unforeseen punch to the abdomen. Hope must endure! Charles saw a fire in your look, a consuming desire to enthrall audiences with feats of derring-do. He said your personality and Beelezbub gaze hold a special charm. He recognizes potential and suggested an important place for you in the Ringing Brothers Circus, one which would quench your desire for performance and help us through current difficulties. He also mentioned your physical dimensions were perfect. Tell me young Harry, have you ever placed your head in a tiger’s mouth?

Give it deliberation. I hope to hear your decision forthwith. God willing you could enlist with the show before we head south on 2 June. Should you consent think of the glorious moment when we return to Coney next spring if you were (still) part of our show!

John Ringling
New York City
23 May 1893

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