Friday, December 2, 2016

Harry Houdini in Schenectady

When I think of Harry Houdini the first thing that comes to mind are his wild escape acts, mind bending illusions, and amazing feats of physical strength and stamina. A lesser known aspect of Houdini's life was that in the 1920s, he began to focus on debunking spiritualists and psychics. His training in sleight of hand and audience manipulation gave him a keen sense on how to expose frauds, although it didn't hurt that Houdini and his wife would use similar spiritualist tricks when they were strapped for cash.

Advertisement for Houdini's 3 Shows in 1. Courtesy of
the blog Wild About Houdini.
His most famous run-in with a spiritualist occurred during a séance with his friends Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife Lady Jean Conan Doyle, Arthur Conan Doyle's wife. The Doyle's were touring the United States to lecture about Spiritualism. Lady Doyle claimed to be a medium and wanted to conduct a séance to contact Houdini's mother. Houdini's wife, Bess, had previously warned him that Jean had been asking questions about his mother, but Houdini agreed to the séance anyway. During the séance, Jean appeared to fall into a deep trance and began to transcribe what Houdini's mother was transmitting from beyond the grave. Houdini immediately found problems with the sance. He was born in Budapest to a mother who did not speak English and a father who was a rabbi. The first thing that Lady Doyle drew when she went into a trance was a cross and then she proceeded to write everything down in English.

After the séance, Arthur told the press that Houdini had been converted to the religion of Spiritualism. A bit miffed at the untrue accusation, Houdini publicly stated that the séance made him even more skeptical of spiritualism. This exchange put a heavy strain on their friendship and Houdini decided to put on his own anti-spiritualism tour. This tour eventually evolved into Houdini's "3 shows in 1" tour that he would bring to Schenectady in mid-October, 1926. During his three day stay in Schenectady, he gave a lecture on anti-spiritualism at Union College, performed his magic act at the Van Curler Opera House, exposed a Spiritualist that he believed to be a fraud, and gave an address on WGY.
Photo of Harry Houdini from the October 13, 1926
issue of the Schenectady Gazette.Courtesy of fultonhistory.com

Houdini injured his ankle just days before in Albany while performing the Chinese Water Torture Cell at the Capitol Theater. The injury almost caused him to cancel the rest of his tour, but the Van Curler took out an ad ensuring that Houdini "will positively appear" at the theater. There was a clause in his contract stating that if Houdini was to cancel any show due to illness or injury, he would have to pay the theater $1,000 per day. The blog Wild About Houdini states that Houdini wrote an urgent letter to his manager from the dressing room of the Van Curler Hotel where he threatened to cancel the tour if his manager did not remove the clause.

"I am amazed any sensible manager would sign a contract with such a clause in it and I am perfectly willing to leave the road before I would take such a chance. [...] Am perfectly willing to continue if a new clause is inserted but under the present contract I retire gracefully."  -Houdini's letter to his manager, written from the dressing room of Schenectady's Van Curler Hotel.

The injury caused Houdini to switch up his act a bit and he couldn't not perform his best trick, presumably the Water Torture Cell, but ever the crowd-pleaser, he replaced it with five others. An article from the October 15, 1926 issue of the Schenectady Gazette stated that Houdini performed hundreds of tricks during his act and that while his magic show clever, the best part of the show was his performance exposing spiritualists and mediums. Houdini put on a fake séance and invited several audience members to join him on stage, revealed how spiritualists used their charms and interviewed a woman who had went to several mediums in Schenectady. According to the mediums, she had many deceased husbands and children in heaven. The audience got a kick out of the reveal that she had never been married and had no children. You can find the Schenectady Gazette's review of Houdini's show here at fultonhistory.com.

Houdini's stay in Schenectady was lively despite the injury that almost caused him to cancel the whole tour. The injury that he received in Albany is believed to be a direct cause of Houdini's death although there is debate as to whether he was suffering from acute appendicitis and did not realize the symptoms. Houdini would die just 16 days after his last performance in Schenectady due to complications from appendicitis.

Houdini on WGY radio on October 14, 1926. Courtesy MiSci -
Museum of Innovation and Science 
Thanks to the blog Wild About Harry fultonhistory.com and Don Rittner's article on Albany's role in Houdini's death.

-Mike Maloney

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