Friday, February 26, 2016

Houdini and Bess – The Sing Sing Connection

Harry Houdini was a frequent visitor to Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York. Located on the Hudson River, north of New York City, this maximum security prison was home to some of America’s most infamous criminals. Houdini never attempted to escape from the facility, but over the years his name became linked to convicts, visitors and wardens of the iconic prison. Even Beatrice Houdini had a strong connection, and possibly a secret love affair, with one of the prison’s most famous inmates.

Sing Sing Correctional Facility officially opened in October of 1828. The massive brick fortress was built by 100 inmates and sat on a 130-acre plot belonging to the small Westchester village of Sing Sing. The town’s name came from the Native American phrase “Sint Sinks,” which roughly translates to “stone upon stone.”

Elam Lynds (1784–1855) was the prison’s first warden and believed rehabilitation was achieved by hard work, community activity, and silent reflection. He demanded inmates not “exchange a word with each other under any pretense whatever; not to communicate in writing. They must not sing, whistle, dance, run, jump, or do anything that has a tendency in the least degree to disturb the harmony.” If inmates did not follow these strict guidelines they would endure whippings and other brutal punishments.





Convicts worked 10-hour shifts in the local quarries, while others crafted everything from boots to barrels. By the 20th century, restrictions at the prison loosened, but the facility was still considered a hellish residence. Inmates could exercise in the yard and Warden Thomas McCormack oversaw the first baseball game held at the prison in 1914.

Harry Houdini’s first visit to Sing Sing Prison came on August 10, 1916 when he gave a three hour performance for 1,500 inmates. He volunteered his services and declined compensation for the event. The prison crowd roared with approval as Houdini freed himself from the a principal guard’s manacles. Thirty minutes of the program was devoted to a film showing highlights of the self-liberator's outdoors escapes.

Houdini performed at the prison again on Christmas Eve, 1924.  He escaped from a hangman’s noose and from a packing case that convicts built & nailed him into. To conclude his performance, Harry produced personal spirit messages from departed prison inmates and from Ben Franklin’s spirit.

New York Governor Alfred E. Smith appointed Lewis Lawes as Sing Sing’s new warden in 1920. During his 41-year tenure at Sing Sing, Lawes made the old hellhole into a modern reformatory with a band, sports teams, educational programs, and more. Reform was clearly his first priority, and he viewed the death penalty as a useless deterrent. Lawes used sports to teach discipline and exposed inmates to the outside world through celebrity speakers like Houdini, and others such as Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth.

Warden Lawes encouraged the inmates to be productive. They built a new chapel, mess hall, laundry, bathhouse, and barbershop. He also had the men landscape the prison grounds. One such inmate was Charles Chapin (1858 – 1930), who became renowned for the rose garden he kept while in prison and became known as “The Rose Man.”


Nellie and Charles Chapin.


Houdini had been acquainted with Chapin, the volatile, hard-nosed editor of the New York World, before his incarceration. Those who knew Charles either loved him or hated him, and he was disliked by most of those in his employ.

In September of 1918, Chapin’s career came to an end when he shot and killed his wife while she was sleeping. Plagued by illness and debt, Chapin intended to commit suicide himself following the murder. Instead, he was arrested, convicted of the shooting, and sent to Sing Sing prison for 20 years to life.

Houdini wrote to Chapin after the publication of the book, Charles Chapin's Story Written in Sing Sing Prison (1920), and chatted with him after one of his prison shows. The two men hit it off and Harry promised to visit whenever he was in town. He kept his promise and frequently brought books to Charles and spent time with him.

Mrs. Houdini continued calling on Chapin after Houdini’s death. On one visit in February of 1927, Bess came to Sing Sing to arrange the transfer of Houdini’s collection of criminology he willed to Warden Lawes.

On this same trip Bess met a young beat reporter, James Thurber. By chance, the two crossed paths later that day on the train trip back to New York. The reporter expressed, like Houdini, he also had a love of books. Bess invited him to her home to pick out some of Harry’s books for himself. James made two trips to the Houdini home and acquired 75 of his books, including an inscribed book presented to Houdini from Harry Kellar and several other rare books on magic.

James Thurber-1927


Thurber (1894 – 1961) went on to become a highly regarded cartoonist, author, journalist, and playwright. He is best known for his cartoons and short stories in The New Yorker magazine. Many know him by his most famous short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1939.

Bess frequently visited Charles Chapin in prison. By all accounts, the two became quite close. Bess believed Chapin's crime was a “mercy killing.” Charles would send her roses from his garden and write her letters. However, Bess was not the only object of Charles’s literary affections. He wrote many women during his incarceration and some of these letters were even published as books.

The relationship between Mrs. Houdini & Charles was no secret. In the Fall of 1928 several newspapers ran the story that Bess Houdini was planning to marry Charles Chapin.

The front page headline "MRS. HOUDINI TO WED WIFE SLAYER NOW IN PRISON" jumped off the November 28, 1928 front page of the Albany New York Times-Union newspaper. The story read, “New York— Romance that has blossomed behind the bars of Sing Sing may result in the marriage soon after Christmas of Beatrice Houdini, widow of the magician, and Charles E. Chapin, the New York newspaper editor, serving time for the murder of his wife.

This strange union, anding (sic) a stranger courtship, will be blessed so soon as Chapin is granted a pardon which influential friends are trying to obtain.

Their pleas are based on claims that Chapin has been weakened by rheumatism and gastritis; that he is 70, has not long to live, and no good purpose would be served to keep him in prison. They have made sufficient; progress to cause Chapin to hope Santa Claus will bring the document that means freedom and happiness.

Until two months ago Chapin had no desire to leave prison. Then Mrs. Houdini accepted his proposal of marriage and he has since rallied to his cause those friends who have remained true since he ceased to be a power in New York journalism.

Chapin and the Houdinis were friends for 25 years. Whenever he was in New York, the magician, before his untimely death, visited Chapin every week at the prison. And these calls have been continued by the widow.

Mrs. Houdini has sent her prison lover a constant supply of delicacies. And in return he has sent her flowers grown by his own hand. He has made beauty spots, as an expert gardener of parts of the Sing Sing grounds.

Houdini was the son of a Brooklyn Rabbi. The widow is a Catholic. She lives with her mother, who as a devoted daughter of the Roman Church, does not altogether approve of the second marriage.”


 

Was this just another celebrity gossip story, or an attempt by Chapin to get out of prison? It is unlikely that Mrs. Houdini would start such a rumor, but there isn’t any evidence she denied it. The couple’s relationship was real and letters between the two reportedly exist. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that Bess was Chapin’s one and only true love.

The letters between Bess and Chapin would come into play in 1929 when the medium Arthur Ford (1896-1971) claimed to have broken the secret code Harry Houdini had with wife. On January 8, Ford conducted a séance with Bess and reportedly delivered a spirit message from her late husband. Ford expected to receive the $10,000 Bess offered to anyone who could produce a true message from the spirit of Houdini.

Bess confirmed that the decoded message was true before witnesses. Several employees of the New York Evening Graphic, including Rea Jaure, a Graphic reporter who attended the séance. Rea wrote the entire séance was a hoax and exposed Ford. The newspaper claimed Ford had prior knowledge of the code and actually received it from Bess.

Ford reportedly offered Jaure “hush money” during a meeting in her apartment and admitted he couldn’t receive the code from the spirit world. Little did he know the Graphic’s Edward Churchill and William Plummer were in another room in the apartment and heard the entire conversation. The Graphic story was published and Ford issued a public denial, saying he never went to Jaure's apartment. He claimed the story was a blackmail attempt for him to get Bess to produce some letters she received from Charles Chapin.

No doubt the Chapin letters would have provide sensational fodder for the Graphic. The newspaper believed Chapin explained the murder of his late wife, Nellie, to Bess in some of his letters.

Although Mrs. Houdini and Charles Chapin exchanged letters and were close friends, their intentions to marry are a revelation. Nonetheless, for reasons unknown, the couple never tied the knot.

Chapin died in Sing Sing prison of pneumonia in 1930 and about that time Bess met Edward Saint. Some believe Bess eventually married Saint, but documentation has never materialized corroborating that fact.
Perhaps the letters between Mrs. Houdini and Charles Chapin reside in a collection somewhere. The contents of those letters would certainly shed light on the couple’s real relationship.

After Houdini’s death, Bess found a cache of love letters written to her husband. One can only imagine how Houdini would have reacted if he outlived Bess and discovered romantic letters from his friend Chapin to his wife.

We may never know the truth about the Houdinis and how their lives were changed after they walked through the gates of Sing Sing. If only those walls could talk.




Copyright 2016 - Chuck Romano








3 comments:

  1. Nice work. I really enjoyed it. I'll be sure to get a copy of Chapin's book.

    ReplyDelete