Was Houdini’s Brother Really a Vampire?


William Weiss as he appears in Piper Houdini: Apprentice of Coney Island. Art by John Kissee.

In a word, no. But William Weiss fit the “bill” perfectly for role I needed him to play in Piper Houdini: Apprentice of Coney Island. Here’s why…

As I’ve explained elsewhere, Piper Houdini began as a pitch to Marvel Comics back in 2001. The main character was going to be a 12-year-old boy named Duncan who learns he is the nephew of Doctor Strange, Marvel’s occult super hero. In the Marvel Universe, Doctor Strange’s brother is a vampire named Victor.Years later, when I decided to revisit the story as a novel using historical figures rather than Marvel properties, I wasn’t quite sure how (or if!) I could pull off making one of Houdini’s brothers a vampire. Then I began my research.

Gottfried William Weiss was born on June 5, 1872, in Budapest, Hungary. Two years later, William’s brother Ehrich was born. While Ehrich grew up to become the famous magician we all know as Harry Houdini, William enjoyed a simpler life as an accountant. He was affectionately called “Vilmos” and “Willie” by his family and friends.

On February 24, 1907, at the age of 35, Willie married 19-year-old Henriette Schonberger. He was so flushed with drink while preparing for his own wedding that he received another nickname: “Lobster Bill.”

The couple had a son a year later whom William named Samuel Mayer Weiss, after his father. Samuel would later study medicine, perhaps due to the fact that his father was diagnosed with tuberculosis (TB) the year he was born.

Prior to the rise of antibiotics and vaccines to combat the disease, tuberculosis was often called consumption because it seemed to consume people from within. Victims would often have a bloody cough, fever, pallor, and relentless weight loss. Because of these symptoms, tuberculosis was commonly regarded as vampirism in folklore. When one member of a family died from the disease, other members would be infected and slowly lose their health. People believed that the original victim had returned to drain the life from these afflicted family members.

Furthermore, people who had TB exhibited other symptoms similar to what people considered to be vampire traits. Victims of the disease often have red, swollen eyes (creating a sensitivity to bright light), pale skin, extremely low body heat, a weak heart, and blood in their saliva—suggesting that the only way for the afflicted to replenish this loss of blood was by sucking it from another!

William Weiss struggled with TB for nearly 17 years. Shortly after New Year’s 1925 (less than a year before the main events in the novel unfold), Bill died at Trudeau Sanatorium in Saranac, NY—a world-renowned center for the treatment of tuberculosis. He was buried near his mother, Cecilia Weiss, at Machpelah Cemetery. At Bill’s funeral, Houdini’s thoughts of his brother united with their mother laid bare a pang of old rivalry:

“Asleep near his own mother, my mother,” he wrote in his diary. “Strange that I only think of Bill being near mother as our father is right over there. But mother babied Bill all her gentle life.”


About gherdling

Glenn Herdling, a graduate of Bucknell University with a B.A. in English and Psychology, began his publishing career in 1987 at Marvel Comics. As assistant editor on Marvel’s flagship Spider-Man titles, he was instrumental in increasing circulation to a record 3 million. Glenn was promoted to Editorial Director of Marvel’s Custom Publishing division where, in addition to writing and editing Beavis & Butt-Head, he served as an account executive and designed the company’s first award-winning Annual Reports. Glenn also spent 2 years in Marvel’s production department where he managed the production of over 20 monthly titles.

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