Madame Houdini Speaks/ biographical poems by Jan Zlotnik Schmidt

The chapbook of poems begins with a a short biography of Bess Houdini:

Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, or Bess Houdini, was born on January 23, 1876 in Brooklyn, New York to immigrant, German Catholic parents.  Bess met Harry Houdini when she was performing as part of a song and dance act, entitled The Floral Sisters, in Coney Island.  After a short courtship of several weeks, they married on June 22, 1894 and began performing magic acts, seances, mentalist acts, and their most famous trick—the Metamorphosis—at circuses, dime museums, and vaudeville halls across the country.   

By 1899, Harry concentrated on his escape acts, and throughout the rest of his career, became famous for breaking out of jails, cells, trunks, and straitjackets among other feats of daring and conjuring.  The more famous Houdini became, the more Bess faded into the background.  She adopted a role as his helpmate, taking care of his home, his costumes, and their pets.   After Houdini’s unexpected death from a burst appendix and peritonitis on Halloween, 1926, she attempted to revive her own magic career, opened a tearoom in New York that featured magic acts, and even tried to perform some of Houdini’s tricks.  She also struggled personally with bouts of alcoholism, depression, and money problems, and she attempted suicide several times.  

For ten years Bess held seances, hoping to make contact with the spirit of her dead husband.  However, after ten years she gave up and was reported to have said, “Ten years is long enough to wait for any man.”   Bess Houdini died from a heart attack in Needles, California on February 11, 1943.    


2 poems

Bess’s Lament

I didn’t know he was a magic man, a shape-shifter.  When I met him, he was Erich, trapeze artist, diminutive Jew.  I knew he liked streudel, stuffed cabbage, his mother’s babka.  He held me with his bird fingers—cupping my chin—teasing me with his flashing eyes.  I dreamt he was small enough to fit in my pocket.  Fold him up in quarters like a white handkerchief, to keep him near.  

In the beginning, I was his magic girl.  Swish. I hear it still.  The whoosh of the black cloth over the box.  The infinite darkness just for a moment.  Stepping out, I smiled.  Released from danger.  Never scared.  Never scarred.

Then he became Houdini.  The only trace of our act together, the way he twined and untwined my curls at night.  I had my own disappearing act.  He dazzled, unlocked manacles, handcuffs, climbed out of milk cans, trunks, coffins. My upside-down man unleashed himself from a straitjacket in midair as I held my breath.

I wanted to always be his gamin girl, to keep a small flame for him, before and even after death.  Do ghosts have breath?

In my old age I became what I always was.  A forsaken angel with wings of stone.


Bess Escapes:  Before Harry—1892-1893

Do you know who I am? 

I am more than the girl tripping down crooked 
wooden stairs onto a Brooklyn street.  
More than the girl inhaling musty fumes 
in brown stained rooms.  Walls with mold 
and the residue of smoke and cinders.  
Dark dim rooms where I wipe baby mouths 
noses caked with snot and drool from chins.  

More than the cold that turns my fingers blue, 
blue from icy winters.  Blue cracked lips.
And the faces of the young ones staring  
at me, pallid, pasty, too many groans.    
Too many mouths to feed.   Too many
whining kids, too many for my mother. 
 Too many for me to care for.  

And in the tailor shop each stitch
is a splinter in my thumb.  
Each stitch, each seam, weaving
In and out of me, every fiber of me,
each prick of the needle, each 
darning, each threaded piece,
telling me there is more. 

I tap against the floor, 
knock at the windows. 
 Point a toe.          Daisy Daisy Tell me your answer true.
croon to myself….                               I’m half crazy…..
I want out  I want  ….to keep moving….  
to swirl my way out of that house, 
out of that putrid life. 

Run away to song and dance.  
To Coney Island,  to  vaudeville
A Floral Sister.  Part of a group.
A showgirl at last.  No more stitches in time.  
A little can can     kick of the knees.
A little bare flesh.  A flash of skin.  

We are the Floral Sisters
Of the Bowery

Behind this parasol
Is the cutest little doll
You ever did see

We are the Floral Sisters…
risqué…naughty…show the knee… 

I Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahmer will break out.  
See me.    The German girl on a stinking stage, 
sticky with beer.  See me.  I sing:

Rosabelle, sweet Rosabelle
I love you more than I can tell
Over me you cast a spell
I love you my sweet Rosabelle.

Each step a fork of lightning.  I will cast a spell.    

I will tap a different story for my life.  


Acknowledgement: The poem "Bess's Lament" was first published in Jan Zlotnik Schmidt's book, Foraging for Light, Finishing Line Press, 2020.

Jan Zlotnik Schmidt is a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at SUNY New Paltz in the Department of English where she teaches autobiography, creative writing, American and contemporary literature, women’s Literature, , and Holocaust literature courses.  Her work has been published in many journals and has been nominated for the Pushcart Press Prize.  She has had two volumes of poetry published by the Edwin Mellen Press (We Speak in Tongues, 1991; She had this memory, 2000) and two collections of autobiographical essays, Women/Writing/Teaching (SUNY Press, 1998) and Wise Women:  Reflections of Teachers at Mid-Life, co-authored with Dr. Phyllis R. Freeman (Routledge, 2000). Her full length volume, Foraging for Light was published in September 2019 by Finishing Line Press. She has a B.A. from University of Rochester (1969); an M.A. from University of Wisconsin, Madison (1970); and a Ph.D. from Syracuse University (1977).


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