Real recordings of bygone people: Actual voices of Queen Victoria, Houdini, and Lenin

Warren G. Harding

Harding of hearing

The Treasures of the British Library exhibit is one of my favorite sights in London. Every time I’m there, I see something electrifying, be it Lewis Carroll’s original hand-drawn Through the Looking Glass, the Magna Carta (two copies!), or an 11th-century copy of Beowulf on vellum. And that doesn’t even include the priceless stuff the British stole from other cultures!

One of the things that grabbed me there was a panel where visitors can press a button and listen to the actual voices of famous people who we never realized were recorded in sound. When you suddenly hear the timbre of Florence Nightingale, she becomes flesh-and-blood real. She actually happened!

Many historic recordings have finally migrated online so we can all hear them. Because it’s so energizing to close your eyes and feel these printed names come alive again, I’ve linked a few here. They link to an audio file (usually, at a library). Because of stupid WordPress nonsense, not all of the names are colored as links, but they indeed are, so click on the names.

Florence Nightingale, recorded in 1890

Edison’s representative in Britain clearly instructed her to speak slowly and clearly. It was, after all, 1890, and if you wanted to be heard all the way in 2012, you had to enunciate. When she refers to Balaclava, she’s talking about raising money for survivors of the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854, many of whom were living in poverty 36 years later despite their service to their country. Sound familiar?

When I am no longer even a memory, just a name, I hope my voice may perpetuate the great work of my life. God bless my dear old comrades of Balaclava and bring them safe to shore. Florence Nightingale.

Theodore Roosevelt, recorded in 1912

You’ll never hear 10-dollar words like his in a campaign speech today. People prefer bumper stickers now. But here, after some disarming political foreplay, TR goes for the gusto and advocates for industry regulation, a living wage, work hours reform, and child labor laws. Newt Gingrich would blow a gasket. An industry that was “injurious t the common welfare” was heavily on American minds in 1912, not least because the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which I wrote about in March, happened the year before. (For the record, Roosevelt lost, but it was a messy election with an outcome greatly affected by internal politics in the Republican party. Again, Newt should take note.)

[My favorite bit:] As a people we cannot afford to let any group of citizens or any individual citizen live or labor under conditions which are injurious to the common welfare. Industry, therefore, must submit to such public regulation as will make it a means of life and health, not of death or inefficiency. We must protect the crushable elements at the base of our present industrial structure. We stand for a living wage. Wages are subnormal if they fail to provide a living for those who devote their time and energy to industrial occupations. The monetary equivalent of a living wage varies according to local conditions, but must include enough to secure the elements of a normal standard of living–a standard high enough to make morality possible, to provide for education and recreation, to care for immature members of the family, to maintain the family during periods of sickness, and to permit a reasonable saving for old age. Hours are excessive if they fail to afford the worker sufficient time to recuperate and return to his work thoroughly refreshed. We hold that the night labor of women and children is abnormal and should be prohibited; we hold that the employment of women over forty-eight hours per week is abnormal and should be prohibited. We hold that the seven-day working week is abnormal, and we hold that one day of rest in seven should be provided by law. We hold that the continuous industries, operating twenty-four hours out of twenty-four, are abnormal, and where, because of public necessity or for technical reasons (such as molten metal), the twenty-four hours must be divided into two shifts of twelve hours or three shifts of eight, they should by law be divided into three of eight.

Vladimir Illich Lenin, recorded in 1919

Yes, Lenin spoke! But in Russian. He made many gramophone records between 1919 and 1921 to spread the tenets of communism, but in this one, he praises Yakov Mikhailovich Sverdlov, who was instrumental in the revolution of October 1917 and in forming Russia’s communist government, the world’s first. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

[Translation.] All those who worked day after day with Comrade Sverdlov now appreciate fully that it was his exceptional organising talent that ensured for us that of which we have been so proud, and justly proud. He made it possible for us to pursue united, efficient, organised activities worthy of all the proletarian masses, without which we could not have achieved success, and which answered fully the needs of the proletarian revolution. The memory of Comrade Yakov Mikhailovich Sverdlov will serve not only as a symbol of the revolutionary’s devotion to his cause, not also as the model of how to combine a practical, sober mind, practical ability, the closest contact with the masses and ability to guide them, but also a pledge that ever-growing masses of proletarians will march forward to the complete victory of the communist revolution.

Harry Houdini, recorded in 1914

Harry Houdini, like FloNight, was obviously told to enunciate when he recorded this, and the showman delivered. Here, he works up excitement for his most famous trick, the Water Torture Cell. The complicated clauses make it also clear that it was probably scripted, but his pronunciation of “locked up” and “demolishing the glass” give you a sense of his streetwise immigrant roots. Before this natural-born Hungarian’s unnatural death in 1926, he told his wife Bess that he would send a signal from the afterlife if it was at all possible. She tried for 10 years but gave up, heartbroken, after years of silent séances. Hearing this clip makes you wonder if he’d actually already left his message.

Ladies and gentlemen, in introducing my original invention, the Water Torture Cell, although there is nothing supernatural about it, I am willing to forfeit the sum of $1,000 to anyone who can prove that it is possible to obtain air inside of the Torture Cell when I’m locked up in it in the regulation manner after it has been filled with water. Should anything go wrong when I am locked up, one of my assistants watches through the curtain ready to rush in, demolishing the glass, allowing the water to flow out in order to save my life. Harry Houdini, October the 29th, Nineteen Hundred and Fourteen, Flatbush, New York.

President Warren G. Harding, recorded in 1920

The party puppet anoints some purple prose by one of his more talented speechwriters with the lustless pallor that typified his career. This snippet from his “Americanism” message is adapted from an address delivered at the Waldorf Hotel for the Ohio Society of New York, which was packed with big contributors to whom he doled out prime posts. Hotels played a huge role in Harding’s corrupt presidency. Not only was he a notorious philanderer, but he got his biggest job in a hotel. Despite being at the back of the pack of Republican presidential candidates, party bosses forced him as the Republican nominee in a “smoke-filled room” at Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel. It’s where the phrase, synonymous with backroom deals overriding the will of the people, comes from. You can still rent that room if you want, although I’ve been and it has a dull Renaissance Hotel décor now. Harding also died, still holding office, in a hotel: In 1923, he was rendered nearly as lifeless as in this clip in a bathtub of a suite at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel. Some people say his wife poisoned him.

[After invoking the Constitution, he intones this nugget:] In simple truth, there was no thought of nationality in the revolution for American independence.  The colonists were resisting a wrong and freedom was their solace. Once it was achieved, nationality was the only agency suited to its preservation.

Thomas Edison, recorded in 1927

In the 1870s and 1880s, everyone was racing to come up with the most practical way to record voices, but Edison had the advantage of employing an army of some of the country’s sharpest minds, all of them helping him come up with inventions that he could patent and get rich off of. Sometimes he succeeded in coming up with ideas, but most of his grand business ventures flopped. Here, an elderly Edison recreates one success: his 1877 proof-of-concept recitation of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” (that recording no longer survives). At the turn of the century, he was recording the biggest entertainers of the day in an effort to make his proprietary version of sound recording the most attractive to the American market. The recording studio was directly upstairs from his study and library in West Orange, New Jersey, and you can visit it today at the Thomas Edison National Historic Park. It’s just as he left it.

Ernest Shackleton, recorded in 1910

Fresh back from his Nimrod (mis)adventures at the South Pole, Shackleton, who was knighted for his efforts, retells a hint of a snippet of the hardship he and his heroic men endured. (If you’ve never learned about what he went through, don’t let Shackleton’s chilly storytelling skills deter you. It’s incredible.) Incidentally, he left some crates of whisky behind in Antarctica in 1909, and they were discovered last year, the recipes are being duplicated. You can buy Shackleton’s whiskey soon.

William Jennings Bryan, recorded in 1908

At Bryan’s Nebraska home, Edison recorded an argument against too much federal control of the railroads. As ever, the politician hinges his point on the matter of states’ rights. Some things never change. Bryan was so very nearly America’s president (he ran three times and was running when this recording was laid down on the cylinder), and figures so powerfully in the national goings-on of his era, that it boggles the mind he isn’t better known today. He certains sounds like the folksy leader his followers purported him to be.

William Howard Taft, recorded in 1908

Taft was Bryan’s opponent in the 1908 election. Labor rights were a huge issue in the day because America had so few of them and the vulnerable classes were being exploited so outrageously. To us today, Taft’s definition of what a labor strike should be permitted to do sounds like the very definition of a strike, but at the time, worker actions were a very scary thing, and they degraded into violence far more frequently than happens nowadays. So his prescription must have seemed soothing — and as civilized as what came to pass and we now take for granted. Taft won.

David Lloyd George, recorded in 1909

DLG was the then-future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and the reason for this recording is as pertinent today. The early 20th-century British people, disgusted by how rampant industry had stained their cities and poisoned their people, realized it was for the greater good if they took care of the poorest among them. As groups such as the Fabian Society stirred popular empathy, they began taxing the rich to make sure the least fortunate of society were kept healthier. DLG was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and this was his pitch to make that happen.

I am one of the children of the people. I was brought up amongst them and I know their trials and their troubles. I therefore determined in framing the budget to add nothing to the anxieties of their lot, but to do something towards lightening those they already bear with such patience and fortitude. No necessity of life will be dearer or more difficult to get owing to the budget. On the other hand, out of the money raised by taking superfluity, funds will be established to secure honourable sustenance for the deserving old and to assist our great benefit societies in making adequate provision for sickness and infirmity and against a poverty which comes to the widows and orphans of those who fall in the battle of industry. This is the plan, this the purpose of this government. We mean to achieve these aims whoever stands in the way. David Lloyd George.

Christabel Harriette Pankhurst, recorded in 1909

The daughter of Emmaline Pankhurst was equally badass. Right after being released from prison for her pro-suffrage demonstrations, she repeats this eloquent ultimatum to the government: Give us the vote or else.

The militant suffragettes who form the Women’s Social and Political Union are engaged in the attempt to win the parliamentary vote for the women of this country. Their claim is that those women who pay rates and taxes and fulfil the same qualifications as men voters shall be placed upon the parliamentary register. The reasons why women should have the vote are obvious to every fair-minded person. The British constitution provides that taxation and representation shall go together. Therefore, women taxpayers are entitled to vote. Parliament deals with questions of vital interest to women, such as the education, housing and employment questions, and upon such matters women wish to express their opinions at the ballot box. The honour and safety of the country are in the hands of Parliament. Therefore, every patriotic and public-spirited woman wishes to take part in controlling the actions of our legislature. For forty years this reasonable claim has been laid before Parliament in a quiet and patient manner. Meetings have been held and petitions signed in favour of votes for women, but failure has been the result. The reason of this failure is that women have not been able to bring pressure to bear upon the government and government moves only in response to pressure. Men got the vote not by persuading, but by alarming the legislature. Similar vigorous measures must be adopted by women. The excesses of men must be avoided, yet great determination must be shown. The militant methods of the women of today are clearly thought out and vigorously pursued. They consist in protesting at public meetings and in marching to the House of Commons in procession. Repressive legislation makes protests at public meetings an offence, but imprisonment will not deter women from asking to vote. Deputations to Parliament involve arrest and imprisonment, yet more deputations will go to the House of Commons. The present Liberal government profess to believe in democratic government, yet they refuse to carry out their principles in the case of women. They must be compelled by a united and determined women’s movement to do justice in this matter. Next session we demand the enactment of a women’s enfranchisement measure. We have waited too long for political justice. We refuse to wait any longer. The present government is approaching the end of its career. Therefore, time presses if women are to vote before the next general election. We are resolved that 1909 must, and shall, see the political enfranchisement of British women.

It didn’t. It took nearly another decade. She even had to flee to France to avoid being arrested for her pull-no-punches convictions. She hated DLG but was forced to ally with him for politics’ sake. In the 1920s, fed up with British chauvinism and war hunger, she moved to California. She’s buried in Santa Monica.

Queen Victoria? Recorded in 1888

In 1929, descendants of Samuel Morse gave London’s Science Museuma wax coated cardboard cylinder, saying it had been used with a graphophone that was demonstrated to Queen Victoria. There was no way to play the tube and no way of verifying the donor’s story. But a half century later, a researcher found mention of an 1888 letter that said Morse had indeed visited HMQ and shown her the new invention. It’s possible that this is her faint voice on this primitive equipment, fumbling for something to say into the cone: “Greetings… the answer must be… I have never forgotten.” But we have.

Houdini Water Torture Cell

Houdini: Alive forevermore through your magic box

4 Responses to “Real recordings of bygone people: Actual voices of Queen Victoria, Houdini, and Lenin”

  1. Allen


    The Teddy Roosevelt cylinder you mentioned was recorded in 1913, and survives as a blue celluloid recording.

    Allen Koenigsberg

  2. Maureen McDonald

    I am looking for a voice recording of Nancy Cunard. Can you tell me if such a thing exists?