I knew that the great magician, Harry Houdini (born in 1874 as Erik Weisz, in Hungary), had been featured at the State Fair of Texas in 1924. According to Bartee Haile, Texas was a regular stop in Houdini’s travels. However, I was delightfully surprised to find, when I opened my very own copy of C. A. Bridges’ History of Denton, Texas, from Its Beginning to 1960, that Houdini was a prominent visitor to Denton in the 1920s. Who would have thought that this tiny town could attract “The Master Wizard of Magic?” The population back then was less than 8,000 and probably most of those could barely make ends meet.
Unfortunately, Mr. Bridges did no more than mention Houdini’s name. Searching on-line, I couldn’t find any record of Denton associated with Houdini. In frustration, I decided I had to go to the library and browse through back issues of the newspaper. That could take forever. I mentioned his visit to my friend, Laura Douglas (who is a Super-Hero Librarian at the Emily Fowler Public Library). Before I could gather my notebooks and head out to the library, she had found the information I sought!
I know you can’t read this advertisement at this size, so click it to enlarge it. It was in the Denton Record Chronicle on October 15th, 1924 to promote Houdini’s performance at the “C.I.A. Auditorium.” “C.I.A.” didn’t stand for “Central Intelligence Agency,” but for “College of Industrial Arts.” However, I suppose you could say that was an “Intelligence Agency.” The C.I.A. later became Texas Woman’s University.
“The Most Sensational Entertainment Ever Offered in Denton?” Well, it better have been, with ticket prices ranging from 75â‚µ to $1.50. That was pretty doggone pricey in those days. During that time period, you could take $1.50 and feed your family! Think about this for a minute: You could have bought a loaf of bread (10â‚µ), a dozen eggs (47â‚µ), a pound of coffee (57â‚µ), and a pound of cheese (38â‚µ) and still had 8â‚µ left over. Add 2â‚µ and you could go to a moving picture show! If you planned to take the spouse and all four kids to see Houdini, and sit in premium seats, you were looking to spend the week’s grocery money.
Still, the evening was well attended, according to an article on October 18th, 1924. Laura sent me that, as well, but the print is unreadable on-line. I transcribed it for you just as it was written. Please keep in mind that the run-on sentences and atrocious grammar are not mine … at least not what is in the quote block.
Denton Record-Chronicle. Saturday. October 18, 1924
Houdini, noted magician and mystifier, entertained a large crowd in the College of Industrial Arts auditorium Friday evening with legerdemain and a lecture-demonstration in exposing what he termed the “hokus pokus” of so-called spiritualistic mediums.
He opened his program, with a short lecture in which he stated that he did not say there is not such a thing as spiritualism, but declared that in 30 years of investigation and association with some of the greatest mediums of the world he had never been convinced that the dead could be communicated with. Every demonstration he had seen given by mediums, among them the most noted the world has over seen, he has solved, he said, convincing him they were fakes.
He gave demonstrations to show how trick tables were used by the mediums and other devices of deception that had been employed to bewilder even men of broad education and experience. These demonstrations were given with A. O. Calhoun, Dr. P. Lipscomb, and Theron J. Fouts on the stage for several, and T. P. Cobb for one.
In one demonstration he sat on one side of a table with Dr. Lipscomb on the other, with Lipscomb holding both his hands and with his feet on Houdini’s feet, in which Houdini rang a bell and used other noise-making devices which were on the floor. This was by the simple process of slipping one foot out of his shoe and manipulating the noise instruments with his toes. He explained that all the seances are held in dark rooms.
He also produced writing on slates and told how the paraffin hands, of which much has been said in spiritualistic circles recently, were made.
In the early days, Houdini was a “professional medium,” he explained, and gave several instances of some of his “revelations,” pointing out how information was secured and other preparations made for the demonstrations. One notable instance was a demonstration he gave on board a ship in which the late Theodore Roosevelt was mystified. He explained how he secured advance information in order to answer a question Roosevelt asked, and how by the use of carbon paper he secured a copy of the question.
He branded mediums as fakes and declared that all of the seance demonstrations were “hokus pokus,” those taking part being divided into two classes — the deluder and the deluded. A great many persons are honest in their belief that communication with the dead has been established, however, he admitted.
One of his most mystifying legerdemain demonstrations was the threading of four packages of needles in his mouth, first placing the needles in his mouth and then a long strand of thread, pulling out the thread which had been run through the eyes of the needles. This was done in the presence of the committee of Denton citizens.
The feat which drew the greatest applause, however, was in extricating himself from a regulation strait jacket, which was carefully strapped on him by Sheriff W. M. Swinney and S. R. Taylor. This is one of the feats which first brought fame to Houdini.
Two moving picture films were shown, one of which depicted Houdini freeing himself from a strait jacket while suspended by his feet from the cornice of the city hall in St. Louis, and the other showed him jumping from one airplane to another in midair for a movie stunt and the collision of the two planes shortly afterward.
At the close of the performance Houdini invited questions regarding spiritualism, several of which were asked and answered.
I have some journalist friends who will cringe reading that article. I don’t know, because I wasn’t around back then, but it sounds like the show was a bit of snoozer. I’m not sure I would have wanted to spend my $1.50 to see a self-important, middle-aged man cavorting around a stage in his underwear and spouting off with long-winded speeches.
Instead, I would have bought that coffee (57â‚µ), a pound of bacon (47â‚µ), and treated myself to a showing of “The Arab” over at the Dreamland Theater (one of the theaters on Elm Street, which was showing that flick the next week). It featured the Mexican heartthrob Ramone Novarro (be still, my heart) and Alice Terry. Although I am sure it was melodramatic, it would have been much more enjoyable to me than Houdini.
Still, I’m sure that an appearance by Harry Houdini was the talk of the town in 1924, which makes it surprising to me that these days few people know of it. I’m just thankful that Laura found the newspaper articles, because even Mike Cochran, a local historian who loves collecting quirky information like this, had not heard of Houdini’s visit.
Harry Houdini was in Denton in 1924, and he escaped with $1,000 for his “sensational” performance. That was the best magic trick of the evening.