An excerpt to celebrate National Rhode Island Day

National Rhode Island Day is one of those obscure national days that no one has ever heard of, including people from Rhode Island. Celebrated on October 5, it recognizes Rhode Island as the last colony to join the Union.

My son attends college near Providence, RI, where a pivotal scene with Houdini, his wife, and H. P. Lovecraft occurs in Piper Houdini: Nightmare on Esopus Island (excerpted below). I visited the restaurant where this scene takes place, which was called Marconi’s Roman Garden in the 1920s but has since been renamed Camille’s. We had a magnificent meal (I recommend the Grilled Faroe Island Salmon) in a beautiful dining room which had only recently been redecorated. And our waiter was leagues better than the one who appears in the scene below. I have illustrated this excerpt with various photographs I took of the restaurant as it looks now.


The Magician Must Die

The author outside Camille’s, which was formerly known as Marconi’s Roman Garden.

If ever there was a state that gleefully thumbed its nose at Prohibition, it was Rhode Island. At Marconi’s Roman Garden in downtown Providence, federal agents regularly joined the favored guests in drinking all the wine they wanted. But tonight, the most favored guests had a different agenda.

Tucked away in one of the booths that lined the main dining area, two men and a woman sipped seltzer from their tumblers. There was a fourth setting at the table, but the threesome had already finished its appetizers and was anxiously awaiting the main course.

“Our guest is late, Howard,” Houdini said, addressing the other man. “Do you think he’s coming?”

Howard Lovecraft lifted his napkin and wiped his mouth before answering.

“I told you, Harry, the wire I received was quite cryptic. It simply said that one of your undercover operatives would meet us here to deliver some valuable spiritualistic papers for our book. It said that the papers would expose a well-known medium. That’s all I know.”

Houdini inhaled noisily through his nose. Bess took his hand and patted him on the wrist as if he were a lost child.

“Houdini, relax,” she said, drawing out the words in a soothing tone. “Whether he shows or not, there’s no reason why you can’t enjoy a good dinner.”

A picture hangs inside the restaurant depicting how it looked in the 1920s.

She nodded to the waiter who was wheeling their dinner to them on a cart.

Houdini smiled at his wife with undisguised adoration. He had just finished a three-day run at the Providence Opera House and was still a bit wired. Howard had attended the show as his guest and then joined him for dinner to discuss their book about the roots of superstition.

“Right you are, my love,” Houdini said as the waiter set a plate of shrimp in garlic wine sauce before him. “But I can already tell that it will never measure up to one of your sumptuous feasts.”

“Oh, posh,” Bess said as the waiter presented her with a sizzling sirloin steeped in a Cognac flamed peppercorn cream.

Howard, who loved his Italian food, got the tagliatelle with meat sauce. The waiter bowed to each of them and left.

Houdini narrowed his eyes. It wasn’t the same waiter who had brought their appetizers. Though he was wearing a white shirt, black vest, and apron like the other waiters, his scalp was covered with a skullcap that was knotted in the back.

Something about the man bothered him. Maybe it was simply the incongruence of a Japanese man working in an Italian restaurant.

Houdini looked away from the departing waiter and shook his head. The subject of tonight’s discussion was clearly making him paranoid.

“I’m telling you, Howard, we’re doing a good thing,” he said, stabbing a shrimp with his fork. “The Spiritualists are preying upon people’s superstitions and disguising it as religion.”

“You’re preaching to the choir, Harry,” Howard said, taking a small mouthful of pasta.

Houdini put the shrimp to his lips. Then he pulled it away again so he could continue his monologue.

“Every day, average folks are being bilked of their life’s savings. The more susceptible ones have lost their minds or committed suicide. The neurotic believer in Spiritualism is surely on the way to the insane asylum, without a return ticket.”

Howard nodded, chewing his food with delicate bites.

“Houdini, eat! Before it gets cold,” Bess urged her husband.

Again, Houdini raised his fork to his mouth, and again, his appetite was subdued by his words.

“At the bidding of so-called spirits, some believers have cut off their limbs, killed their own children, or drunken Lysol hoping to join loved ones across the barrier. Did you know that President Garfield’s assassin claimed to have been driven by the dictates of a spirit?”

Bess rolled her eyes at Howard and gave him a surrendering shrug. Sneaking her fork onto Houdini’s plate, she stole a shrimp and popped it into her mouth.

The history of Camille’s/Marconi’s as it appears on the menu. Interesting note: the name was changed from Marconi’s Restaurant to Marconi’s Roman Garden in 1926, the year the events in the Piper Houdini novels take place!

“A shame to waste it. Would you like one, Howard?” she asked.

Howard waved it off, making a face like he had bitten into a lemon.

“No thank you, Mrs. Houdini. I have no stomach for seafood.”

Houdini ignored their exchange and continued his diatribe.

“Last wills and testaments have been changed through the trickery of mediums. Messages from the dead are used as a motivating power to convince some rich consort that his or her fortune should be left to the scheming individuals that the mediums work for.”

“My sentiments exactly,” Howard said, dabbing the corners of his mouth with a napkin. “Everyone these days seems to be jumping on the Spiritualist bandwagon. In fact, before I left New York, I was visited by two youths who expressed a keen interest in the original manuscript from our first collaboration. They were convinced that the magical soul-stealing property you attributed to those canopic jars was genuine.”

Houdini set his fork down and glared at the writer.

“Two young people?” he asked, laying his fork down. “What did they look like?”

“Carny folk likely,” Howard replied, swirling his pasta in the meat sauce. “One was a short, round Negro with a slight Creole inflection. The other a freckled-face lass with bright green eyes and a mop of messy red curls.”

Bess grabbed Houdini’s wrist and squeezed it hard.

“Did her freckles have . . . a unique pattern?” the magician asked, ignoring the sting of his wife’s nails digging into his skin.

Howard pursed his lips. “Now that you mention it, yes. The freckles on each side of her face could have been contiguous points of a star.”

“Piper!” Bess exclaimed, dropping her fork onto her plate with a loud clang. This was the first time she and Houdini had heard any news about the whereabouts of their niece since they reported her missing.

Bess rose to a standing position. Then she fell back into her seat just as quickly, doubled over in pain.

“Bess! Are you all right?” Houdini cried out, supporting her in his powerful arms.

“Feel . . . queasy,” she moaned. Her face was a pallid shade of green.

Houdini looked around for their waiter and spotted him peering at them through a set of dark red sheers.

“You there!” he called.

In the foyer of Camille’s. Note the prominently displayed mug shot of a young Frank Sinatra.

The waiter turned and darted, the crimson tapestries rippling behind him. Houdini fought the urge to pursue the man and instead helped Bess to her feet.

“Howard, don’t eat another morsel,” he said, taking several bills from his monogrammed money clip and throwing them onto the table. But Howard had already pushed his dish aside.

“Signor Houdini, is everything all right?” the maître d’ asked, rushing toward the magician as he led Bess to the door.

“Does anyone on your waiting staff hail from the Orient?” Houdini asked brusquely.

“Signor, I assure you, Marconi’s is an authentic Italian restaurant,” the maître d’ answered as though the question were an insult. “If you had preferred Oriental cuisine, might I suggest . . . ”

“You’ve answered my question,” Houdini replied, ushering Bess through the door that Howard held open.

The ornate door through which Houdini ushered his ailing wife.

Outside, Jim Collins was waiting beside the Model T Ford that Houdini had rented for their stay in Providence. When he saw Bess’s condition, he ran over to help Houdini settle her into the back seat.

“Jim, take us to the hospital,” Houdini instructed.

The magician turned to his ghostwriter.

“Be on your guard, Howard. This was no random case of food poisoning. Somebody went to a lot of trouble to make certain that we would be here tonight.”

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