Could the legendary magician and escape artist Harry Houdini (1874-1926) have owned and touched the keys of an organ built in Ottawa?
It is a tantalizing thought — but undocumented. The provenance chain for the organ since leaving the Ottawa factory is missing crucial links. It is likely the possibility may, in fact, just be an illusion.
Perhaps the only way to get a reading on the organ’s history would be through a seance —a meeting where a spiritualist tries to contact the dead.
Conveniently, the Ottawa organ is located in the Houdini Seance Chamber at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles. The Magic Castle is the members-only, French Chateau-style clubhouse of the Academy of Magical Arts where a strict dress code is enforced.
There, the organ looks perfectly in place among the other Victorian-era furniture and decor.
The organ is clearly identified as a product of the the Western Cottage Organ & Piano Company of Ottawa.
Milt Larsen, 88 — a writer, actor, magician and son of a magician — created The Magic Castle, which opened in 1963.
A photo of the Houdini Seance Chamber organ appears in the 1997 book “Milt Larsen’s Magic Castle Tour” by Carol Marie.
The organ photo caption says the organ “supposedly came from (Houdini’s wife) Beatrice Houdini’s apartment on Vermont Avenue in Hollywood. Arlene Larsen (Milt’s wife) bought the organ from an antique dealer who said it belonged to Mrs. Houdini. Milt cannot substantiate the claim as he was only ten years old when he last saw ‘Bessie.’ "
John Cox, an authority on Houdini who maintains the blog wildabouthoudini.com, and Bill Goodwin, the librarian at The Magic Castle, both are skeptical about the organ’s link to Houdini.
“I don’t believe it ever belonged to Houdini himself,” Cox said. “They say it possibly belonged to his wife — but I don’t have any corroborating evidence.”
“There is no way to really verify if the organ really belonged to Bess Houdini or not,” Goodwin said.
Now, about that seance…
In local history: The factory fire
The three-story Western Cottage Organ & Piano factory opened in Ottawa in 1887 after relocating from Mendota. It was built at the northeast corner of Joliet and Riale streets, where the AutoZone automotive store now is located, with the factory complex stretching east to include the site of today’s Walgreens store.
Despite an 1895 fire, the factory continued to expand and the company prosper, employing 100 workers and manufacturing thousands of reed organs and player pianos that were sold across the county. By 1917, the factory was being used by the Ottawa Pianophone Company.
On March 16, 1918, new night watchman William Warner discovered the fire in a kiln room and called the fire department. But before firefighters arrived, flames had enveloped the northeast portion of the factory and were spreading.
A “foreign current” on an electric circuit was believed to have sparked the blaze. The fire chief speculated heavy winds had caused a high tension wire to connect with neighborhood circuit wires, which in turn were overburdened by the charge and began to ignite.
“Two thousand persons watched the flames bite, tear and cut the huge brick building to a mass of smoldering ashes and bricks Saturday night,” Ottawa’s Daily Republican-Times newspaper reported. “For hours the huge crowd circled the plant and witnessed the valiant firemen fight desperately to keep the blaze from sweeping out what is known as the ‘Kerry Patch’ neighborhood…
“Eight leads of hose were played on the burning building and adjacent houses while the flames were dancing to the tune of the terrific wind. … Part of the roof and wall on the south side of the building collapsed. The blaze tacked directly against the wind and made its way to the northwest corner. This gave the flames a greater volume, whipping long tongues of fire under the direction of the stiff wind over the houses on the south side of Joliet street.
“Trees standing in front of the houses along this street caught fire, yet the gallant firemen kept the houses from being swept by the flames. An hour and one-quarter after the fire was discovered, the whole structure was a mass of flaming debris heaped on the ground. The roof on the northeast corner was the last to crash in. With it went the large parts of the north and west walls.
“Lives of firemen and spectators were imperiled by falling walls and high voltage electric wires. The electric wires burned off the factory in the yards along Norris street. For some time the live wires burned profusely on the ground before the power was shut off.
“It was a common occurrence during the time the fire was at its height to see residents perched upon the roofs of their homes in the districts covered by the blazing chips. For nearly an hour there was a shower of hail fire over this large area of residences.
“Although there were no deaths, but there were two injuries.
"Volunteer fireman Adolph Godemann, 537 Marcy St., suffered a broken left ankle after being knocked down by an ambulance driven by patrolman John Cisco. And Ruth Kelly, 1114 W. Jackson St., received a scalp wound from a flying brick while watching what was left of the factory being dynamited the following morning to bring down the unstable scorched brick walls."