Harry Houdini, known throughout the world for his magic and great escapes, mesmerized Dayton in the early 1900s.
In December 1916, Houdini was featured on the playbill at B.F. Keith’s Theater in downtown Dayton, with a few “other good acts.” His performance on the vaudeville stage was described as “one of its kind” by a Dayton Daily News reviewer who noted the opening night crowd was filled with members of the Dayton Triangles football team.
Houdini dazzled the audience with a trick called the “East India mystery.” He placed needles in his mouth one by one and swallowed them until 20 to 30 were ingested. Then he chased the needles with a length of thread.
With a sharp cough he tugged the thread from his lips and slowly pulled the needles out “properly threaded.”
Days later, commanded an audience of 6,000 at the intersection of Fourth and Ludlow Streets for an escape act at the Dayton Daily News building.
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Two Dayton patrolmen strapped Houdini into a department-issued straight jacket, according to the account in the Dayton Daily News.
“I’m confident of my ability to free myself,” Houdini said before the act began. “I’ve done it in other cities and I don’t know any good reason why I shouldn’t be as successful in Dayton.”
The magician was hoisted into the air by a block and tackle affixed to the top of the newspaper building. He hung by his ankles over the crowd watching from the street and from the windows of the Arcade building.
The crowd cheered when “after a few jerks and twists of his body the jacket loosened and dropped to the street, 50 feet below.”
In 1925 Houdini was back in Dayton for a four-day run of “magic, mystery and illusions” at the Victory Theater.
He “mystified his audience very much with his tricks, illusions, sleight-of-hand and wonderful escapes from air-tight torture chambers,” including a box built by NCR carpenters, according to the newspaper.
The newspaper was filled with reviews of his performance but much attention was also given to Houdini’s role as the “arch enemy of fake mediums.”
A headline on the front page of the Oct. 1, 1925 Dayton Daily News read “Houdini Posts $10,000 With City Manager In Challenge To Mediums.”
“This sum, in gold bonds, was posted as an evidence of his good faith in agreeing to do by natural means anything any spirit medium claims he can do by supernatural methods,” the story said.
Houdini was out to debunk and expose psychics and mediums who seemed to have a hold on the citizenry.
The newspaper published numerous letters written by Daytonians with questions for Houdini on the topic.
“Dear Sir: Do you mean to say that all mediums are frauds and if so why does Sir A. Conan Doyle believe. Can’t he detect the fraudulent mediums?” wrote Dayton resident James Haverton to Houdini.
Houdini replied in print, “I do not say that all mediums are frauds, as I have not met them all, I say that although I am not a skeptic, I have never met a medium who could convince me that they had the power of communicating with the dead.
“Sir A. Conan Doyle is a writer and not a detective and what does he know about misdirection in the dark. I would prefer a hard boiled detective or an experienced newspaper man to detect a fraud medium. Doyle is sincere, but is deluded.”
The following year the magician died on Halloween at age 52 in Detroit while touring the United States.
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HISTORY EXTRA is a weekly pictorial history feature showcasing the Miami Valley’s rich heritage. If you have a unique set of historic photos found in your parents’ or grandparents’ attic that depicts the past in the Miami Valley, contact Lisa Powell at 937-225-2229 or at Lisa.Powell@coxinc.com.