Adelaide Herrmann in Halifax, Nova Scotia

Adelaide Herrmann in Halifax, Nova Scotia

Click on the above link to see my live interview about Madame Herrmann on Global TV’s Morning Show today.

Adelaide and Alexander Herrmann performed in Halifax, Nova Scotia in July of 1896. After an absence of 117 years she’s back. I’m giving a presentation tonight on her memoir and her magic at the Alderney Gate Library in Dartmouth.  Bruce MacNab, author of The Metamorphosis: The Apprenticeship of Harry Houdini, will also be speaking about Houdini. It’s all part of the run-up to the Official Houdini Séance on October 31st.

It’s always a thrill to speak and perform in cities where Adelaide herself performed. She played to sold-out houses and rave reviews in the Canadian Maritimes, but she was long-ago forgotten here – until now. I’m working to make her a star – again.


Adelaide Herrmann and Harry Houdini

Adelaide Herrmann and Harry Houdini

Adelaide Herrmann and Harry Houdini

As I prepare to participate in next week’s official Houdini Séance in Halifax, Nova Scotia, I’ve been examining the relationship between the Queen of Magic and the Handcuff King.  When they both appeared in Nova Scotia in 1896, they were in very different phases of their lives; Adelaide Herrmann was a superstar, and Houdini was still a nobody.

Madame Herrmann was older than Houdini. She was 21 when he was born and 73 when he died. Her career peaked much earlier than his.  In the summer of 1896, the glittering Herrmann magic show arrived in Halifax to great fanfare. Alexander Herrmann, the world’s most famous magician, and his wife and co-star Adelaide, played to packed houses. They were treated like royalty by the adoring citizens of Halifax.

In stark contrast, Harry and Bess Houdini, ages 22 and 20 respectively, were touring with the failing Marco magic company, desperately trying to stay fed and stay a step ahead of creditors looking to seize their equipment in lieu of unpaid hotel bills. While there were tantalizing glimpses of the superstar Houdini was to become, Harry and Bess still had several years of salad days ahead of them.

When Houdini finally did achieve stardom, Madame Herrmann’s own star had fallen somewhat. Middle-aged and widowed, Adelaide Herrmann was headlining vaudeville bills as The Queen of Magic – a career and title she would hold onto tenaciously for another 25 years – but she was no longer front page news.

They were not close friends, but Adelaide Herrmann and Harry Houdini knew each other well, crossing paths over the years, both as professional colleagues and as Compeers in the Society of American Magicians. Their relationship  – at least publicly – was one of mutual respect.

Historical records show Madame Herrmann and Houdini popping up at the same magic and social events. Adelaide visited the Houdinis’ Manhattan home on at least one occasion and in 1918 Madame Herrmann and Houdini both performed on a famous benefit show at the New York Hippodrome. They referenced each other on correspondence to others, and Houdini autographed a copy of A Magician Among the Spirits “to Adelaide Herrmann.” (Like Houdini, the Herrmanns had been dogged exposers of fraudulent spirit mediums.)

In 1924, Houdini wrote in MUM: “Madame Adelaide Herrmann also ranks with the ‘Old Guard.’ We rejoice that she is still with us. Compeers do not fail to give her the full recognition she merits when next she comes your way.”

In July 1926, Adelaide and the Houdinis were guests at the home of Howard Thurston, who hosted a magical gathering of all the famous magicians of the day. It marked the end of an era. Less than two months later, Adelaide lost her act (and much more) in a devastating warehouse fire. Houdini, along with Blackstone Sr. and others, offered to help her rebuild her act.  Six weeks later, Houdini died at age 52 – the same age as Alexander Herrmann at the time of his death.

Over the next few posts I’ll explore in detail several of Madame’s and Houdini’s shared events that are now remembered as magic history milestones. And perhaps there’s more to learn about the interactions of these two magic superstars.

Adelaide Herrmann and Spiritualism

Adelaide Herrmann with trick photography ghosts - Courtesy of The Magic Circle Collection

Adelaide Herrmann with trick photography ghosts – Courtesy of The Magic Circle Collection

In a couple of weeks I’ll be acting as Adelaide Herrmann’s emissary  at the Official Houdini Séance, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. It’s held every Halloween on the anniversary of Houdini’s death, always in a city where he actually performed. I’m looking forward to it with spine-tingling anticipation.

Adelaide Herrmann and Harry Houdini actually performed in Nova Scotia at the same time, in the summer of 1896. They were at opposite ends of the entertainment spectrum. Alexander and Adelaide Herrmann were at the pinnacle of their careers, playing to sold-out houses and displaying all the accoutrements of success. Harry and Bess Houdini had been struggling for years to get a toehold in the business yet were still at the very bottom of the food chain.  The two most famous magicians of their respective times never had another chance to cross paths; four months later Alexander Herrmann died of a heart attack aboard his private railcar.

Herrmann and Houdini had in common the relentless pursuit and exposure of fraudulent mediums. In 1888, at a sold-out benefit for the New York Press Club, the Herrmanns recreated the entire array of spirit manifestations of the notorious medium, Madame Diss Debar, using magic tricks, the methods of which Herrmann later revealed to the astonished audience. The show was a sensation, receiving coverage in the New York Times  two days in a row. Adelaide, then age 34, gave a stunning performance in a spirit cabinet. She was handcuffed to a pole, apparently in a deep trance, yet as soon as the curtains closed, wild spirit manifestations began. Tambourines and bells flew out over the top of the cabinet, yet when the curtains were opened, Madame was still in a trance, securely handcuffed.

Houdini picked up the fraudulent medium exposure torch and relentlessly tracked down those who used magic tricks to convince people of manifestations and messages from their deceased relatives. And there were a lot of them. Spiritualism was a huge movement in the early 20th century. Many, many people believed that these manifestations were real. Indeed, there are fraudsters still doing it and people still believing it.

Fraudulent mediums drive magicians crazy. Magicians deceive people, but we level with them about it. Deceiving people by telling them that magic tricks are their beloved dead relatives sending them messages is both outrageously unethical and ridiculously profitable. Perhaps magicians are jealous that they have too many scruples and/or not enough nerve to pull this off themselves.

On June 19, 1924, Adelaide Herrmann, age 70,  picked up the New York Times, and read something  that made her furious. On the front page (!) was a long article entitled Woman Astounds Psychic Experts. The sub-headings said Boston Professional Man’s Wife May Win $2,500 Prize for Medium, says J.M. Bird – NOT LEAST HINT OF FRAUD – Spirit Control Scatters Roses – Sometimes Caresses with Not-Material Flowers. J.M. Bird was the Secretary for the Scientific American’s Committee on Psychic Investigation, which offered a $2,500 prize for proof of genuine psychic phenomena, and he’d been convinced. The article, which was continued on Page 12, was a completely unskeptical description of the many feats of “Chester” the medium’s departed brother, who was her “control.”  Clocks rang and stopped, Taps was played on a psychic bugle, a curtain pole floated around the room, flowers were scattered about and presented to ladies, and red roses turned yellow. The New York Times reported these manifestations as fact.

This was too much for Adelaide. She sat down and wrote a letter to the editor, which was published in the New York Times on June 27, 1924 with the heading, Doubts Psychic Wonders – Widow of Herrmann the Great Wants to Attend Boston Seances. Adelaide writes that it was “a shock to me this morning to read on the front page of The Times regarding a medium purporting to have produced flowers in a way similar to the manifestations produced by a Mme. Roth of Berlin, Germany, who served a prison term for doing the self-same manifestations.” The strong letter describes the Herrmanns’ exposures of fraudulent mediums, and then queries, “I especially wonder if Houdini was present at any of the séances wherein this flower medium is quoted as materializing these wonderful ‘rapports’.” She then asks to be allowed to attend one of these séances herself.  An invitation was apparently not forthcoming.

But now I’m going to attend a séance – a real séance.  I don’t expect any tambourines or magic tricks at this one. (Except at the pre-séance show, which I’m delighted to be a part of.)  This year’s medium, Alan Hatfield, is the real deal. Either Houdini will come back, or he won’t. No ectoplasm for this one.

The Official Houdini Seance was started by Bess Houdini, on the first anniversary of her husband’s death. She held it for ten years, after which she decided he wasn’t coming back. Since then, a devoted inner circle of Houdini scholars and devotees has held the Séance every Halloween. Houdini still hasn’t  come back – yet. But this year’s venue – the Halifax Citadel – is said to be haunted.  We’ll see what happens…

Adele Owles Smith (aka “Adele Dewey”) – Adelaide Herrmann’s Elusive Niece


Alexander and Adelaide Herrmann had no children. However, the three other Scarcez daughters – Adelaide’s older sisters Frances, Janet & Matilda – produced a total of eleven children. In the early and mid-1890s, many of the kids traveled from England to America during the summers to frolic on the Herrmann estate in Whitestone, NY while their famous aunt and uncle rested between tours. At least six of these nieces and nephews eventually emigrated to the U.S., and at least four of them worked in the Herrmann show. One nephew – Janet’s son Herrman Pallme – toured several seasons with the show and wrote a book called Entertaining with Magic. Another nephew – Frances’ son Felix Kretschman – changed his name to Felix Herrmann and broke away to create his own magic act, infuriating his Aunt Adelaide.  Felix’s brother – John Kretschman – stayed loyal to his aunt. After Alexander Herrmann died, John assisted his aunt for her entire remaining three-decade career.  John Kretschman stayed out of the spotlight, and I’d like to know more about him.

Of even keener interest to me is  Adele Owles, daughter of Adelaide’s sister Matilda.  Born in 1877, Adele performed as an onstage assistant first in the magnificent Herrmann show, then in her Aunt Adelaide’s vaudeville act which debuted in 1899. Her stage name, Adele Dewey, was derived from her family nickname  – “Dewey” – referring to her beautiful milky complexion. In the few photos of her, she is indeed beautiful, kneeling at Adelaide’s feet dressed in a spectacular kimono, or suspended in the air looking graceful and relaxed. (The photo of Adele performing the aerial suspension is almost universally misidentified as Adelaide.)


Adele toured with her Aunt Adelaide until marrying Charles Wellesley Smith, an architect, in 1908. The Smiths moved to Newark, New Jersey. Four years later, Adele’s younger sister Eugenie came from England, following the death of their mother, Matilda. In 1915, after just seven years of marriage, Adele was widowed at age thirty-seven. Adele and Eugenie went to work as department store clerks in Newark. Eugenie eventually married. Adele stayed on at Bambergers Department Store for many years.

Meanwhile, Adelaide Herrmann continued to tour in American vaudeville and in Europe. Since I have never seen any family correspondence of Mme. Herrmann’s, I don’t know of the relationship between Adelaide and Adele during those years. Adele lived in Newark, and Adelaide, when not touring, lived in Manhattan, a fairly easy trip by train and ferry.

Adele surfaces again at the time of Adelaide’s death in 1932. Adele handled the details of her aunt’s estate and correspondence, writing a note to the Society of American Magicians thanking them for Adelaide Herrmann’s broken wand ceremony. Adele also wrote to a number of Adelaide’s friends and acquaintances, informing them of her aunt’s death and sharing details of Adelaide’s last days. We also now know that she inherited all of her aunt Adelaide’s effects, including the manuscript of her memoir, for which (at the height of the Great Depression) she was never able to find a publisher.

In 1934 Adele’s sister Eugenie gave birth to a son. A few years later Eugenie became ill, but she never sought treatment. At some point both  Eugenie and Adele had become Christian Scientists. Their religion forbade medical intervention. When her son was only six, Eugenie died. For the next four years Adele visited her nephew regularly and took him on excursions. The nephew (who is still alive) remembers trips to Radio City Music Hall and other NYC attractions. Yet Adele never told him about his grandmother’s famous sister, Adelaide Herrmann, or her own experiences with the spectacular Herrmann show. She knew all the great magicians of her time – Herrmann, Robinson, Kellar and probably Houdini – yet she never mentioned them. When her nephew was ten, his father remarried, and he never saw his “Auntie Del” again.

Eugenie, infant son Alfred, and Adele at the Herrmann Gravesite - Woodlawn Cemetery, circa 1935

Eugenie, infant son Alfred, and Adele at the Herrmann Gravesite – Woodlawn Cemetery, circa 1935

Adele and Nephew Alfred in New York City

Adele and Nephew Alfred in New York City

For the next two decades, Adele lived in Newark and stayed out of the public eye, with one notable exception. She was a ferocious campaigner and fund raiser for President Herbert Hoover from whom she received and saved a number of letters of gratitude.

In 1958 Adele contributed a number of Herrmann photos and costumes to an exhibit entitled, The Satin Lady of Legerdemain at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. The Hartford Courant ran a full page article on the exhibit. If these costumes and photos still exist, their whereabouts are unknown.

Satin Lady of Legerdemain - Courtesy of the George and Sandy Daily Collection

Satin Lady of Legerdemain – Courtesy of the George and Sandy Daily Collection

In 1965, Adele died at age eighty-eight in a nursing home in Saddle River, New Jersey. She’s buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Hillside, NJ. Her effects, including Adelaide Herrmann’s unpublished memoir, some family photos, her Herbert Hoover letters and a few piece of Adelaide’s jewelry went to a close friend whose children and grandchildren always called her “Aunt Adele.” It was one of these grandchildren who returned Adelaide Herrmann’s memoir to the world.

Adele Owles Smith grave - Evergreen Cemetery - Hillside, NJ

Adele Owles Smith grave – Evergreen Cemetery – Hillside, NJ