Effie Lorraine

When Houdini opened in Boston at the end of February 1906, his performances became the talk of the town. Over the next six weeks, Houdini escaped from handcuffs, ropes, packing cases, paper bags, wicker hampers, straitjackets, and even a witch’s chair. He made the front page with his escape from a jail cell in Boston’s famous Tombs Prison. There was so much interest in Houdini’s performances that standing-room-only crowds occupied part of the stage. The Houdini craze was on.

Two weeks after the escapist closed, Austin and Stone’s Museum announced that Mons. and Mme. Bellyea would introduce “‘The Missing Princess’ a la Houdini.” In the newspaper advertisements, the billing was “Bellyea, King of Cards,” with no mention of Mme. Bellyea.

Herald, May 6, 1906
That changed the next week. Mme. Bellyea’s performances must have been the highlight of the act, as the billing changed to “Bellyea and Effie Lorraine introducing the most Marvelous Trunk Mystery.” The effect was Lorraine escaping from a box, placed inside a trunk and then inside a locked wooden crate. The crate was then placed in a cabinet and the curtains were drawn. In just 26 seconds Lorraine emerged from the curtains. They performed at Austin and Stone’s Museum through the end of August.

The novelty of the act was not so much the escape but the escapee. One critic put it bluntly: “She is large, fair and distinctly feminine. She tips the scale at over 200 lb. and is very light on her feet.” Another wrote after describing her box escape; “It should be borne in mind that she is twice as large as any performer doing any similar feat.” Clearly, Effie Lorraine was no Bess Houdini.

Houdini returned to Boston at the beginning of January 1907 for a three-week engagement. He was so successful that he returned again just two weeks later. Soon after Houdini left, a Boston newspaper reported that:
“Effie Lorraine, a recent arrival from Europe, will tonight allow herself to be locked in the old bank vault of the Winthrop Bank building and says she expects to be able to release herself in a very short time. Miss Lorraine claims to attempt the feats of Houdini.”
The next day the Boston newspapers all carried the story of the escape. Here is one example:
“There was a sensation in the old Winthrop Bank Building at 2169 Washington street yesterday noon, when Effie Lorraine, a 200-pound Venus, out Houdinied Houdini by escaping in 18 minutes after being securely locked in the old bank vault.
Miss Lorraine is a Roxbury girl, and as fair as she is big.
Miss Lorraine was carefully searched, and was then ushered into her temporary prison. The office was then closed and the crowd waited without.
In a few minutes the office door opened and out walked the young woman. A careful inspection revealed the vault still locked, apparently just as before.
Miss Lorraine has been engaged to show some of her similar stunts at Austin and Stone’s Museum. The principal claim made for her is that while Houdini is a lithe, well-built man, Miss Lorraine is an unusually large woman, yet has all the poise and grace of a ballet dancer.”
Since this was not a challenge, there was ample time for Bellyea and Lorraine to work out a way to escape from this unused 60-year-old vault.

They had revamped the act, Lorraine now performed four new escapes at the Austin and Stone’s Museum. These utilized a wine cask secured with heavy iron straps; a securely fastened hamper basket; a sealed sack placed into a locked and strapped trunk; and a large crate built on the stage by a committee from the audience and secured with six locks and bound with ropes. Bellyea and Lorraine received great reviews and generated memorable headlines: “The ‘Female Houdini’ Rivals Her Namesake” and “Female Houdini in Starting Feats.”

Herald, May 3, 1907
The magic community first heard about Effie Lorraine in the March 1907 issue of Houdini’s Conjurers’ Monthly Magazine. Frederick Roche reporting in his Boston Bits column discussed Lorraine’s escape from a bank vault and her upcoming appearance at the Museum, where she would escape from a box and hamper. He thought it would be a tight fit. In the April issue Roche must have witnessed a performance and gives a rather negative description of one effect:

“While at Austin & Stone’s museum, Miss Effie Lorraine presented a box mystery. A large heavy base on legs was shown. First, the sides of quarter-inch wood, were placed upon the base, the Venus entered and the top was strapped down, not nailed. The complete box was placed in a crate which was locked with several locks. This particular escape is evidently meant for a deaf audience judging by the amount of noise made by the lady escape artist in getting out, which great feat she accomplished in about five minutes. She was assisted by Prof. Bellyea.”

A reporter from the Boston Journal interviewed Lorraine just after her escape from a bank vault.  This took place at her photographer’s studio in Roxbury. While there she performed a unique escape from a large format camera, about four-foot square. Lorraine got inside the camera; a plate was inserted, and the shutter closed. The reporter then left the room. Trapped within the body of the camera, she was able to escape in less than eight minutes, appearing in the outer office “wearing a rosy flush and her hair was out of place – that was all.” The camera was then examined and further, the plate developed and showed that “not a ray of light had touched its sensitive surface.” The reporter could find no hint of how she had escaped and proclaimed that Effie Lorraine has stepped into the limelight as Houdini’s most dangerous rival.

Their success, or at least some good press, secured a two-week engagement as the feature act at Huber’s Museum in New York City in June of 1907. Houdini was also there, performing at the Union Square Theater. The New York newspapers carried advertisements for both performers. Houdini must not have been very happy. Bellyea and Lorraine made a return engagement at Huber’s Museum for a week in September.
Evening Telegram, June 17, 1907
Except for these bookings in New York City, the pair continued performing in the Boston area. They periodically appeared at Austin & Stone’s Museum, Theatre Premier, Howard Athenaeum and Bowdoin Square Theatre for the rest of 1907 and 1908.  Sometimes Bellyea performed his card manipulation act on the same bill.

In June 1909 they were again performing for a month-long run at Austin & Stone’ Museum. In late June, Boston experienced a heat wave that set new records, with many deaths and prostrations. Around this time Lorraine was reported to have heat prostration and was confined to her home. For the last two weeks of their commitment, either “Pearl Abbott” or “Arnold” assisted Bellyea. Possibly due to her poor health, this was the last known Lorraine engagement.

Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 28, 1894
Effie Lorraine was the stage name of Effie Mulholland. She was born in 1870 in Ohio. In 1893 she started to tour with the May Howard Company, a burlesque show, as a member of the chorus. She was described as a sweet singer who “enjoys the possession of a figure of the kind you read about.” In the fall of 1894 she met and married George Widmann in Hoboken, New Jersey. She kept touring with the May Howard Company until at least December. Effie joined the cast of the comedy play “Town Topics” for the 1895/96 season, touring the east coast and mid-west. At the time she was pregnant. She left the tour around March 1896 and returned to New York, where her daughter, Salome, was born on April 25, 1896. By 1900 Effie was estranged from her husband, who was now living with Salome at his sister’s home in Brooklyn. Effie was living in a boarding house on the other side of Brooklyn and using her stage name, Effie Lorraine.

In 1906 Effie was living in Roxbury, Massachusetts when she teamed up with fellow Roxbury resident Arthur E. Belyea to develop an escape act. Arthur, who used the stage name Bellyea, was born about 1884 in St. John’s, New Brunswick, Canada. His family moved to the United States in 1885, and by 1900 they were living in Boston. By the age of 16 Arthur became known as the “boy poet.” He was a prolific writer of both poems and ballads and was famed as writing poetry “made while you wait.” He published and sold his works as pamphlets. At one point he was even arrested for selling them door to door. Arthur was also a magician and had an interest in escapes. In 1905 he raised funds for a disaster relief by giving performances of card magic in Boston hotels.  This was a prelude to his performances with Effie at Austin and Stone’s Museum the following year.

After their last performance in 1909, very little can be found on either of them. Effie was last heard of when she lost a 1911 civil case in a Boston court. Arthur wrote a poem about the Titanic in 1912, which is one of his few surviving works.

Boston Post, Feb. 27, 1907
Effie’s size was the key to her success. All her escapes were from boxes, crates, trunks and the like. From the audience’s point of view, Effie could barely fit into them, much less move around inside. This is what added a great deal of mystery to her escapes and resulted in great press reviews. Effie never broke into big-time vaudeville or performed much outside of Boston. She just played museums and small-time vaudeville theaters. However, over her four-year career as an escape artist, she had numerous return engagements and kept busy playing in the Boston area. This shows her ability to entertain and mystify a tough audience that frequented these entertainment establishments. The sign of a talented professional.

Boston Herald, February 25, 1906, Boston, Massachusetts
Boston Herald, March 31, 1906, Boston, Massachusetts
Boston Herald, April 15, 1906, Boston, Massachusetts
Boston Herald, April 29, 1906, Boston, Massachusetts
Boston Herald, May 6, 1906, Boston, Massachusetts
Boston Herald, August 28, 1906, Boston, Massachusetts
Boston Journal, March 27, 1907, Boston, Massachusetts
Boston Herald, September 29, 1908, Boston, Massachusetts
Boston Herald, January 7, 1907, Boston, Massachusetts
Boston Herald, January 26, 1907, Boston, Massachusetts
Boston Herald, February 10, 1907, Boston, Massachusetts
Boston Herald, February 17, 1907, Boston, Massachusetts
Boston Herald, February 26, 1907, Boston, Massachusetts
Boston Post, February 27, 1907, Boston, Massachusetts
Norfolk Democrate, May 7, 1841, Dedham, Massachusetts
Boston Herald, March 3, 1907, Boston, Massachusetts
Boston Journal, March 5, 1907, Boston, Massachusetts
Boston Journal, March 12, 1907, Boston, Massachusetts
Conjurers’ Monthly Magazine, March 1907
Conjurers’ Monthly Magazine, April 1907
Boston Journal, March 27, 1907, Boston, Massachusetts
Sun, June 9, 1907, New York, New York
New York Times, June 16, 1907, New York, New York
New York Times, September 22, 1907, New York, New York
Boston Herald, November 24, 1907, Boston, MA
Boston Herald, May 19, 1908, Boston, MA
Boston Herald, September 27, 1908, Boston, MA
Boston Herald, October 18, 1908, Boston, MA
Boston Herald, June 6, 1909, Boston, MA
Boston Herald, June 20, 1909, Boston, MA
Boston Herald, June 26, 1909, Boston, Massachusetts
Boston Herald, June 27, 1909, Boston, Massachusetts
1900 United States Census
New Jersey Marriage Records, October 25, 1884
Philadelphia Inquirer, September 12, 1893, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Jersey Journal, October 25, 1884, Jersey City, New Jersey
New York Clipper, December 29, 1894, New York, New York
The Times, September 29, 1895, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Hartford Courant, March 2, 1896, Hartford, Connecticut
Baptism Record for Salome Augusta Wilmann, September 13, 1896, New York Episcopal Diocese of New York Records
Boston Directory, 1909
Pawtucket Times, April 26, 1901, Pawtucket, Rhode Island
Boston Daily Globe, March 29, 1905, Boston, Massachusetts
Augusta Chronicle, November 7, 1909, Augusta, Georgia
Boston Journal, March 1, 1911, Boston, Massachusetts
Brown University, Harris Collection of American Poetry and Plays, Providence, Rhode Island
(references are in order they were first used)

Gary Hunt Copyright 2018


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