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TODAY OUR SAM FOUND ATLANTIS by Joyce Meggett

Coney Island, New York
June 12, 1892

Dear Nathalie,

I met somebody. Frannie and Jane and I were a little nervous trying out our new act—we’re the Floral Sisters now, did I tell you that? I wanted us to be The Chickadees. The new costumes are a treat, anyhow. White parasols and picture hats and everything trimmed with silk cabbage roses. We’d just done the big close on the swing with the doves and got not one curtain call. I don’t even know why I bothered hanging around afterward since the next show wasn’t for another four hours. But the stage manager said the reason the audience was so eager to get us girls offstage was they were panting for the next act. Hardeen the Magnificent.

Dash Hardeen is an escape artiste. I watched him like a hawk and afterward went up to him saucy as you please and told him I knew how he got out of that straitjacket. Turns out I was wrong, but he said he liked my style! Oh, Nat, his hair is curly and his eyes are brown and his accent (which at first I thought was put on for the act) makes him sound like a professor!

The next day he invited me on a stroll along the boardwalk and bought me an ice cream. He’s booked for the season and the Floral Sisters are too, I’m happy to report. Three whole months.

Please write soon and tell me all about the folks back home.

Love,
Bess

PS Dash’s real name is Teddy Weiss.

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Milwaukee, Wisconsin
October 8, 1966

Dear Mr. Finch,

My name is Sheila Rafferty, and I am the great-niece of Bess Houdini. Bess’s sister Nathalie was my grandmother, and Nathalie’s son Robert was my father.

When my father died two years ago, he left me six hatboxes full of Bess’s letters. I had no idea such a trove existed. I’ve only read a few so far, but already I can see there’s more than a layman like myself can fully appreciate. For this reason, I’m writing to ask if someone at the Houdini Society would be able to give me advice.

Yours truly,
Sheila Rafferty

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Las Vegas, Nevada
October 15, 1966

Dear Mrs. Rafferty,

Thank you for your letter of October 8th, which as you can imagine I read with the greatest interest.

The word “trove” is an apt one. As you probably know, your great-aunt appeared as Harry Houdini’s onstage assistant from the time of their marriage until his death. Even when he was suspended by the ankles high above the streets of New Orleans or Chicago, chained and straitjacketed by supposed members of the local police, Bess traveled with “the Great Self-Liberator” and stayed close at hand.

As the archivist for the World Houdini Society, I would be most pleased to offer any advice I can. Please tell me more.

Sincerely yours,
Louis Finch

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Coney Island, New York
September 1, 1892

Dear Nathalie,

You’ll scarcely credit this, but Dash turns out to have a brother named Harry who’s every bit as suave and “dashing” as he is. I hope you won’t think I’m fickle, but I seem to have drawn the attention of both the Weiss brothers—the Houdinis, as they’ve decided to call themselves.

Now let me think—would I rather be called “Mrs. Weiss” or “Mrs. Houdini?”

The former sounds like a doctor’s wife, as respectable as anything. But “Mrs. Houdini!” It’s exotic, it’s European, it’s elegant is what it is. There’s no telling what Mrs. Houdini might do.

I can see that little frown line that comes out on the bridge of your nose when you don’t approve of me, but Oh, Nat, I’m having so much fun and there isn’t any harm in it, not really.

Please give my love to all. The season will be over in a couple of weeks and as soon as we do our final encore I promise to take the train down to Keyport to see you and Martin and the kiddies.

Love,
Bess

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Milwaukee, Wisconsin
October 22, 1966

Dear Mr. Finch,

Thank you for your kind response.

The letters contain many references to acts like the very one you describe, involving straitjackets, handcuffs, chains, padlocks, and even giant milk cans. I have no notion to what extent Harry used sheer skill at lock-picking and holding his breath in these marvelous acts of self-liberation as you call it, or whether his escapes were in reality amazing illusions.

Illusions, in fact, are what I was particularly concerned about when I wrote to you. Bess refers to an act called Metamorphosis, which I infer made it appear the two had switched places over an impossibly great distance in an impossibly short time. She also says something about “vanishing an elephant!” The last thing I would wish to do is violate the magician’s code of ethics, and it’s my concern a stray word here or there might permit a sophisticated reader to penetrate what should remain a mystery.

It is this I was hoping you could advise me about.

Yours truly and with thanks,
(Miss) Sheila Rafferty

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Las Vegas, Nevada
November 14, 1966

Dear Miss Rafferty,

What a find! This is what I propose:

If you would be kind enough to send me photostatic copies of any letter where Bess mentions a stunt or illusion, however slight the reference, I would gladly advise you on what to omit from publication lest it reveal too much to the astute reader.

I will add that Houdini’s feats of escapology did indeed involve consummate physical and mental prowess, with occasional augmentation. Ahem.

Trusting this finds you well.

Sincerely yours,
Louis Finch

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Dubuque, Iowa
July 23, 1894

Dear Nathalie,

Yesterday was our one-month wedding anniversary—who ever heard of such a thing?—and Harry surprised me with a cockatoo! He declared we are to have a menagerie of pets and enough children to form our own baseball team. So we’ve started with a bird that looks like it’s made out of petticoat ruffles and can say “peanut.”

Oh, Nat, I am so happy! Is this how you felt when you married Martin? You’ve never said.

The act is going well, in my considered opinion. Metamorphosis was a bit creaky at first, but Harry had a new box made and with plenty of practice (mainly at wriggling, for my part), we can now trade places in exactly three seconds.

As you can see, I’m writing from Dubuque. Next stop, Kansas City, then on to Chicago!

Best love to all.

Your sister,
Bess

PS I have given our cockatoo the name Murgatroyd. Do you think I should have saved it for our firstborn son?

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Milwaukee, Wisconsin
January 24, 1967

Dear Mr. Finch,

Thank you very much for the lovely fruit basket. How shaming to come down with a coed’s malady like “the kissing disease” at the ripe old age of thirty-four! I wouldn’t wish mono on my worst enemy. In any case, I’m on the mend at last.

Enclosed are photostatic copies of the first forty letters. I thought you might as well see the lot. Although I got through far less of my great-aunt’s correspondence than you’d imagine while flat on my back, I did at least retain the ability to count. There are six hundred and three letters in all.

You can’t tell from the photostats, but Rose favored pink stationery.

Best wishes for a Happy New Year.

Yours truly,
Sheila

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Las Vegas, Nevada
February 4, 1967

Dear Sheila,

The letters—copies, I should say—arrived yesterday and kept me happily up all night. Their unique glimpses of the home life of the Houdinis make them an inestimable find. As far as the feats and illusions are concerned, I have so far seen nothing that needs to be withheld from the public. It may be Bess deliberately kept the details of their performances out of her correspondence in observance of the magicians’ code. Equally, perhaps her sister had no interest in the Houdinis’ professional life.

If you haven’t already done so, I suggest you number the letters for ease of referral. For archival purposes, an ordinary graphite pencil will do.

May I inquire if you’ve given any thought to writing an extended biography of Bess as an accompaniment? Your great-aunt was a pistol and I wish I’d known her!

I am very pleased to hear you are well on the road to recovery. Take it from someone with more than twice your years, one’s health is never to be taken for granted so don’t overextend yourself.

That said, I await with bated breath the next packet of letters. Thanks indeed for sharing them with me.

Best wishes,
Lou

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Brooklyn, New York
September 23, 1899

Dear Nat,

We are all well here and you mustn’t worry. It’s just that we have had the smallest piece of bad news. I told you Harry and I were expecting and now it seems it was a mistake and we won’t be. We can’t. I saw the doctor today. Such a kind man, but he made sure I understood.

So I came home and told Harry and we both cried and then he said never mind, he’d think of something. I can’t bear to think how much I’ve disappointed him. He always believes he can think his way out of anything and till now he’s been right.

But it’s only going to be the two of us forever.

And all the birds and cats and rabbits and dogs we can find room for. When I’m feeling a little better I’ll write and tell you all about the new squirrel.

Love,
Bess

PS Please visit us when you can.
PPS The squirrel’s name is Babs and I’m making a dress for her out of one of my old costumes.

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Milwaukee, WI
February 12, 1967

Dear Lou,

I hope you are keeping well. A hot dry climate must be heavenly this time of year. Maybe one day I can come and experience it for myself. Meanwhile, we in the Midwest ricochet between snow and sog.

There isn’t an easy way to say it, but I wanted to let you know I’ve been having second thoughts about making Bess’s letters public. Some of her letters are so deeply personal. They were meant for only her sister’s eyes, after all.

I feel protective of Bess somehow—did you know she was only four feet eleven?—and while it might be justifiable for you and me to read her words, exposing them to the world at large is starting to feel like a violation.

As Bess’s closest living relation I declare you an honorary member of our family.

I can’t imagine Dad ever bothered reading them. In fact, I only recall him referring to Harry once. I was leaving for college and Dad turned into a regular Polonius for the day. He warned me about people who aren’t what they seem, a case in point being an unnamed reprobate on my mother’s side everyone considered the marvel of the age. At the time I believed he meant a certain “angel abroad, devil at home” cousin named Bradley, but no one mistook Bradley for any marvel. Dad inherited a puritanical streak from his mother and having a connection with a performer must have rankled.

As you see, it’s easy for some of us to start confiding things to a kind correspondent, but there’s a difference between that and broadcasting to the whole world.

Sheepishly,
Sheila

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Las Vegas, Nevada
February 22, 1967

Dear Sheila,

You honor me with your confidences.

I’m not sure if you were asking for my opinion, but on the chance you were, please know I encourage you to go ahead with the idea of publishing the lovable Bess’s letters and rounding out the collection with a substantial biography. Your delicacy is admirable, but I’ve seen no reason for embarrassment. Moreover, as you probably know, woman-behind-the-man stories are popular right now and I say you should ride the wave.

Your friend,
Lou

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Brooklyn, New York
November 12, 1926

Dearest Nat,

It isn’t myself I feel sorry for, it’s Petey and Butch and Sal the Gal and Dora Cat and I better stop before I list our whole animal family. But they tug at my heart, poor little Murgatroyd most of all. They feel things like we do, but they can’t understand. Still, they’re a great comfort to me and I’m sure they know all about Heaven.

You saw how broken up Teddy was, but it’s good to have him and Elsie close by.

Nat, you asked me once if Harry and I ever felt we’d missed out on a full life by never having children of our own. Well, Harry said he’d put his mind to it and when he put his mind to a thing it was as good as done.

He took wonderful care of me.

All through our married life, Harry had the habit of telling me a story every night, and after we’d had time to get used to not having a flesh and blood baby to hold, the stories were usually about Sam.

Sam was our devoted imaginary son. He was a cherubic baby, a brave and funny boy, and a brilliant student. Harry insisted Sam got all his best qualities from me.

The last glimpse I had of Sam, he’d found Atlantis! He’d already discovered a cure for leprosy and invented a car that runs on music.

Sam was going to be the comfort of our old age.

Love always,
Bessie

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Milwaukee, WI
March 10, 1967

Dear Lou,

You are a patient listener, and I hope the wilder flights of fancy in the latest batch of Bess’s letters won’t be a shock. I believe you are right and the public is ready for the private saga of Harry and Bess.

I’ve almost made it to the bottom of the last rose-patterned hatbox, and when next you hear from me, copies of the remaining letters will be enclosed. I’m not looking forward to coming to the end.

I bought a new hatbox for yours.

Best wishes from your friend,
Sheila

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Las Vegas, Nevada
March 18, 1967

Dear Sheila,

I suppose it’s my turn to feel sheepish, but now I’m the one having second thoughts. I’m afraid I may have steamrolled over your sense of delicacy when I encouraged you to go ahead with publication.

The world knows Harry Houdini as a master. Do we really want to expose him at this late date as what many might call a neurotic? Not to be harsh, but I’m uneasy about the entire proposition and urge you to think long and hard about proceeding.

Lou

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Brooklyn, New York
November 26, 1926

Dear Nathalie,

I’ve been on pins and needles every day until your letter came. Sam meant so much to Harry and me and I can’t tell you how relieved I was you understood.

There is one more part I need to tell you. It’s not at all conventional, but you’ve borne with me so far and I’m hoping this last revelation won’t upset you too badly or make you think ill of Harry or me. He was a lovely man. Well, you know that. I’m stalling.

You see, in a way our fictional son was real.

Before Harry met me, he knew a woman named Bedelia and he and Bedelia had a little boy together. He wanted to do the right thing, but her parents refused to allow her to marry a Jewish man. Is it so wrong I’m thankful she had horrible parents?

Harry sent Bedelia money faithfully for years, though he only saw the boy a handful of times. I never met him and wouldn’t try to find him even if I knew how, but now the stories are over I wish there was a photograph.

Other than the fact he was born in San Francisco in 1892 and was curly-headed and had the family nose, I know nothing about the original Sam, not even his name. Harry was proud to be part of the melting pot and naming our boy after Uncle Sam was a very Harry-like thing to do. I know the original Sam didn’t cure leprosy or do any of the other amazing things Harry attributed to him, but I’m sure he must be a marvelous man, full of gifts and accomplishments.

Write soon, please, and tell me you haven’t disowned me after all these years.

Love to all,
Bess

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Milwaukee, WI
March 31, 1967

Dear Lou,

An hour ago two policemen came to the door with a court order authorizing them to take Bess’s letters. I had no choice but to hand them over.

I can’t imagine who would instigate such a thing, let alone how the police knew to demand the hatboxes. You’re almost the only person in the whole world I’ve told about them.

Thank goodness you have copies of everything.

The letters weren’t a secret and I hate to even ask, but is there anyone you might have mentioned the hatboxes to? Please don’t think I don’t trust you completely! I said you’re an honorary member of the family and I meant it. But can there be anyone you shouldn’t have trusted?

Sheila

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Las Vegas, Nevada
April 14, 1967

Dear Miss Rafferty,

Thank you for getting back in touch with the World Houdini Society. We are in possession of the copies you sent us of three letters from the early days of Harry and Bess Houdini’s courtship and marriage. They are of some interest to the Society and if you wish to donate them we would naturally be interested.

Anything else you may have sent the Society is beyond the scope of our collection.

No further correspondence is required.

Sincerely yours,
Louis Finch, Archivist

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Milwaukee, Wisconsin
April 18, 1967

Dear Alice,

Oh please come back from your conference soon, my dear! I’m bruised and battered in the father figure department once again. When will I ever learn?

When I told Lou Finch about the court order cops, he freaked out and tried to gaslight me. Up till then he had more time for me than my own father ever did. Now I’m Miss Rafferty again and he doesn’t want to know me. I was giving him the benefit of the doubt—I genuinely was—but he couldn’t have signaled he was behind it more clearly if he’d used semaphore. What do you suppose would have happened if I’d called the real cops while they were here?

There are only two reasons I can think of for a pre-Bess love child to spook Lou so. Either he has a puritanical streak a mile wide, or else he shares more than a birth year with whoever Sam really was. I propose for our next vacation we take a trip to the desert and see if Mr. Finch has curly hair and the Houdini nose, if a considerably less spectacular CV.

Three more days and you’ll be home. You insisted the original letters go in a safe deposit box from Day One and I can’t wait to show you how grateful I am.

All my love,
Sheila

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June 12, 2010

Among my personal effects, I leave 603 letters in a rosewood chest to Michaela Donaldson, niece of my longtime companion, Sheila Rafferty.

Alice McFall

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AUTHOR BIO:

Having spent many years as a reference librarian in Chicago, Joyce Meggett currently lives in Scotland where she is studying for a master’s degree in creative writing at Edinburgh Napier University.

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WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Today Our Sam Found Atlantis”:

Author Joyce Meggett delivered a compelling story (with a very compelling title) told in letters. Not only is that hard enough to do, but she made it into two interwoven stories set decades apart and ends it another half-century later. Further, the characters’ voices in the letters all fit the times in which they were written. It’s a well-done, different, and thoroughly enjoyable piece of writing all around.