Harry Houdini 1926
This article appeared in the FALL 2020 issue of AMUSE magazine.
A few days after Christmas in 1897, a medicine show called The California Concert Company was performing in Columbus, KS. The following day the Columbus Daily Advocate ran a small review of the show. The article contained a flattering critique of a magician and his wife performing at the end of the event. That magician was given the name by the Columbus, KS newspaper reporter for the first time known to historians: the “King of Handcuffs.” That magician was a then-unknown Harry Houdini.
Today most are not aware that the great Harry Houdini and his wife Bess spent over two months in Southeastern Kansas during the cold winter of 1897 and 1898. The Houdini’s had just been married a few years and were struggling to make money as a magic duo. Barely finding work in dime museums and circuses, the pair were literally starving in 1897.
As the year progressed, Houdini was seriously considering quitting the magic business. Then in the fall, an opportunity to work for a medicine show in Kansas presented itself. The owners offered Houdini & Bess $75 a week to perform magic in the evening shows and help sell the magic elixir on street corners during the day! While working for a medicine show was considered the bottom of the entertainment hierarchy, it was at least a paying job.
From November 1897 to February 1898, the medicine show, including the Houdini’s, would bounce around towns, mostly in southeastern Kansas. Focusing on cities that were flush with new money, smaller in size, and located along the railroad, 16 stops made up their schedule. The company never ventured south into the Indian Territory due to a Yellow Fever quarantine in the southern US. Each stop typically lasted 3 to 6 days.
Once unloaded at the local train station, the company immediately hit the busiest street corner in town and started selling! Dr. Hill and Dr. Pratt operated the medicine show, hawking a product called Mokeena. Dr. Hill played a small organ inside a carriage. It was Houdini’s job to work a tambourine and his wife to sing. All the commotion would draw in curious onlookers that were told about the wondrous elixir. In reality, the bottles were likely a combination of water, sugar, and high-proof whiskey.
Once the passing customers had dried up, an evening show at the town’s opera house was the next order of business. Likely harder to sell 10c and 20c tickets to the evening shows than the bottles of Mokeena on the street, the California Concert Company did their best to entertain the townspeople at each stop. These shows advertised wholesome family entertainment. A lineup of singers, tightrope walkers, comedians, talented children, a bell ringing trio, and magic made up the entertainment that varied each night.
While these family shows had good intentions, many hardworking Kansas’s wanted something a little edgier. Almost immediately, the shows were losing money. While in Galena, KS Dr. Hill gave an eloquent speech to his performers:
“My dear friends – nay, closer than friends, for the bonds forged between us while experiencing the plaudits of the multitude as well as the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune have become stronger than ties of blood relation – as well all know, the proceeds of our attempts to bring culture and wholesome entertainment to the agricultural areas of our great nation have been fraught, during the past week, with singular lack of response on the part of the populace…”. In other words, we need to sell more bottles of Mokeena and tickets to the shows! The young Harry & Bess Houdini spoke up and suggested they could hold a unique event that Sunday night, which would end up haunting Houdini for the rest of his life.
Houdini’s suggestion was to hold a séance on a Sunday night, customized for each specific townspeople. Séances were integral to a religious movement called Spiritualism. The idea of Spiritualism was based on the belief that the spirits of deceased loved ones could communicate through an interpreter, in this case, Harry and Bess. On Sunday, January 9th, 1898, in Galena, KS, the Houdini’s were prepared and gave the townsfolk a performance that would be talked about by people and newspapers for generations! Playbills were printed and distributed throughout the town proclaiming: HOUDINI THE GREAT Will give Sunday night A SPIRITUAL SÉANCE in the open light. Only Time a Séance in Public Ever Given by HOUDINI except in large cities and then at advanced prices. HOUDINI’S work the past week in the Opera house releasing himself from handcuffs, leg fetters, chains and locks was seen and by the strange power, when the conditions are favorable, tables float through the air, musical instruments playing sweetest music, are seen flying through space all the spirit hands and aces are seen in full light. The representative businessmen of this city have kindly volunteered to act as an investigating committee which will ensure honesty of purpose. The California Concert Company would not permit any imposition perpetrated on its patrons, at any rate…. Admission 10, 20 and 30c A NIGHT OF MYSTERY The séance was so good that multiple families were convinced the Houdini’s had a direct connection with a loved one on the other side. These performances did draw in much-needed ticket sales, but they also weighed heavily on Houdini’s conscience. Once the Sunday seances were over, it would not be long afterward that Houdini would not perform them ever again. In fact, during the 1920s, he would be the most visible and vocal debunker of fraudulent seances and Spiritualism in the world!
The seances were so convincing for multiple reasons. Houdini would canvas the Kansas towns for gossip, go to graveyards to note recent deaths, read the papers, and ask local police about notable events. One such technique employed by the Houdini’s made all the difference, a secret code only known by the couple. This verbal code would allow the pair to communicate vital information during a show. This code would be kept secret by them for the rest of their lives. Houdini even told his wife upon his death that he would use the system to communicate with her from beyond the grave if it was possible! In addition to the seances, Houdini did hone a craft that would make him famous worldwide – escapes! There are numerous newspaper reports of the local sheriffs bringing handcuffs to an evening show, only to have Houdini escape out of them in seconds! Prisoner irons secured with chains to a chair could not hold him more than a few minutes! These escapes and experiences would be the foundation of Houdini’s eventual worldwide fame and the nickname given to him in Columbus, KS – King of Handcuffs! During the early 1900s, Houdini would even sign his name Harry Handcuff Houdini.
In each of the Kansas towns, the one part of the California Concert Companies shows that was noted above all else was the Houdini’s cabinet trick – known as The Metamorphosis. This illusion was a masterpiece and thrilled everyone! Metamorphosis involved Houdini being handcuffed, placed in a bag, and then locked into a cabinet. While the restraints were being applied, his wife would describe what was happening. Once secured in the trunk, a curtain was pulled, and 3 seconds later – Houdini would appear standing outside the cabinet, totally free of any shackles. This “miracle” was not even the best part – the trunk would be opened, and his wife would be inside, fully restrained by all the handcuffs, chains, bag, etc.! This beautiful illusion would be used by the Houdini’s for years after becoming world-famous.
As mentioned earlier, the evening shows were not only the Houdini’s magic acts. Many performers made up the shows, like the Houdini’s, toiling away at the very bottom rung of show business for little pay. In many cases, when a better offer came along, performers would suddenly leave while others would join.
Another husband and wife team that joined the medicine show in Kansas around January 1898 was Joe and Myra Keaton. The couple was a comedy act doing their best to get a break and move up the entertainment food chain. The Keaton’s had a son who was born in Piqua, KS, in 1895. As legend has it, while the two couples were staying in a Kansas hotel or boarding house, the Keaton’s young son was playing at the top of a staircase. As kids will do, he was not aware of his surroundings and proceeded to fall down the entire flight of stairs, landing at Houdini’s feet at the bottom. After realizing the boy was fine, it is said Houdini exclaimed, “that was a real buster!” The boy would go on the be a worldwide star in silent movies; his name was Buster Keaton.
The California Concert Company would finally go bust in Independence, KS, in February 1898. The Houdini’s would leave Kansas and make their way to Missouri to perform in small theaters on their own. They would then join a circus later in 1898. In 1899 they were back on their own, working just about anywhere, including beer gardens. One such location, the Palm Garden Beer Hall in St. Paul, Minnesota, in March of 1899, is when Houdini would be discovered and signed to play the Orpheum Vaudeville circuit. As they say, the rest is history. Houdini would come back to Kansas one more time, in November 1923 to perform at the Wichita Orpheum theater. Houdini would die on October 31st, 1926, Halloween.
For the past 90+ years, countless books, magazine articles, tv shows, and movies have detailed Houdini’s life personally and professionally. Out of all those sources, none have solely focused on the vital time the Houdini’s spent during an eventful winter in Kansas so long ago. While this article presents some interesting facts and stories about that time, there are a lot more stories and details to uncover! Wichita, KS resident Don Creekmore started researching the Kansas / Houdini’s connection in 2018. A detailed book planned for publication in 2023 reveling not only Houdini’s performances but also stories and details associated with each Kansas town he performed “miracles” at is in the works. He hopes to discover long lost mysteries about the famed séance performances, where the Houdini’s stayed at in each town, the Opera houses these events took place at, the trains traveled on, and connections to local citizens, etc. If physical souvenirs such as posters, photos, letters, signatures, written accounts could be discovered, they would be valuable historical additions to the book!
The author is asking for any help filling in this magical history of not only Houdini but Kansas history as well. All information collected will be appropriately credited in the book. Questions, comments, or information can be sent to Don Creekmore at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling or texting 316-371-1828.
Harry Houdini & The California Concert Company performed shows in Garnett, Osawatomie, Paola, Pleasanton, Girard, Pittsburg, Cherokee, Columbus, Galena, Weir, Scammon, Coffeyville, Chetopa, Cherryvale, and Independence.