Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The Chattanooga debacle

My last historical post of 2019 is a story never before told. Enjoy.

In the Fall of 1924, Houdini embarked on an eight-week lecture tour exposing the methods of fraudulent spirit mediums. His schedule was tightly packed with single nights in many cities where he had never appeared before. This caused great excitement in those communities. But it also sometimes caused confusion as to what kind of "show" Houdini was going to present. Nowhere was this confusion more pronounced than in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on November 17.

Houdini's tour was booked by the Affiliated Lyceum circuit who arranged his accommodations and fees. Many of his appearances where co-sponsored by a local civic organization or charity who would promote the talk, arrange the venue, and sell tickets. In Chattanooga, the Optimists Club took up that task.

At their October 28th meeting, Optimist chairman Prof. John H. Sherman said he was a personal friend of Houdini's and had recently visited the magician at his New York home. He noted Houdini had a "deep sense of obligation to the general public in preventing the growth of spiritualism." The newly constructed Memorial Auditorium, capable of holding up to 5000 people, was selected as the venue. Two members, D.S. Riddle ad A.B. Adams, were appointed "captains of two opposing teams" in charge of securing a large turnout. Proceeds would go toward improvements to the Bonny Oaks Arboretum and the building of wading pools in the cities playgrounds.

On November 11 the Chattanooga Daily Times ran the first of several ads promising something that sounded more akin to a spook show than a lecture:

Will produce the spirits of the dead; bring messages from them; materialize and dematerialize their ghosts; cause them to speak and play musical instruments and write messages in mid-air; cause tables to lose weight and flat about in the air over the audience without visible support; and do all other feats usually ascribed to occult power;––and then will frankly show and explain exactly how these things are done.

More that 1,500 tickets sold in the first four hours. For days the papers ran ads promising "Thrills Galore!" and "The Greatest Event of the Season." Still being the segregated south, the ads also promised "a large section reserved for the colored people." The Optimists came up with the novel idea of placing boxes on the streets where people could drop questions for Houdini to answer during his open Q&A session.

Even the custodian of the Memorial Auditorium, W. J. Patterson, was swept up in the hype, telling the papers that he had once seen Houdini escape from a riveted boiler in Youngstown, and the magician was "sure to do such marvelous things" at his Hall.

Meanwhile, Prof. Sherman continued to be Houdini's greatest booster. He announced Houdini would "summon the same ghost which nearly converted famous Teddy [Roosevelt] to spiritualism." He also prepared his fellow Optimists for the sheer force of Houdini's physical presence:

Prof. Sherman stated yesterday Houdini possess a magnetic personality, and that his head is the largest he has ever seen atop a human body. He has large black eyes, which seem to look right through any one he is addressing and Prof. Sherman is of the opinion he hypnotizes more than half of the people he meets.

Bess was ill when the Houdinis arrived in Chattanooga on November 16th. Because of this, several "social courtesies which had been planned for the entertainment of the distinguished visitors" were cancelled. But she was well enough to attend a luncheon the following day at the Optimists clubhouse and join Houdini and Prof. Sherman for an automobile tour of the city.

The night of November 17 found the Memorial Auditorium filled to capacity with 5000 Chattanoogans expecting what had been hyped for days as a supernatural wonderama of thrills. Instead what they got was Houdini's standard spiritualism lecture in which he spoke at length about the history of spiritualism, showed slides, demonstrated spiritualist trickery, and answered questions. Apart from some sleight of hand "for the children", the evening was devoid of magic or escapes.

Reviews the next day give a good sense of just how badly it went. Under the headline, HOUDINI'S SHOW DISAPPOINTMENT, the Chattanooga Daily Times wrote: "Houdini's performance is interesting and of value to those who seek the truth for a scientific viewpoint, but those who enjoyed it from that angle were in woeful minority last night." The Chattanooga News reported that Houdini "did not appear to understand the temper of his audience and was slightly resentful of the voice from the gallery that demanded, 'Where is my watch.'"

The much ballyhooed public question box was not part of the evening. But by that time, Houdini appears to have all but lost his audience. "His open forum proved a dismal failure as so many people were leaving that nothing could be heard," reported the News.

But it wasn't all bad. Houdini's demonstration of how a medium rings bells under a table using a popular local man named Jo Anderson as his "goat" drew laughs and "the one genuine bit of applause from his audience." Still, the Times complained that this demonstration was "hardly spooky." The evening had been a debacle.

Professor Sherman went into damage control, offering the papers a hasty explanation:

The illness of Mrs. Houdini necessitated the elimination of some of the stunts. The size of the hall caused Houdini to drop the usual practice of doing his tricks in the dark first and then exposing them; while the distance and inadequate spot-lighting facilities necessitated dropping the needle-swallowing tricks and the shots of W.T. Stead, both of which had been specially promised and both of which he gives in smaller houses.

Ironically, Houdini had included a selection of magic and escapes, including the Milk Can, in his earliest lectures. But he found this too caused confusion and bad reviews for a "show" that seemed to included far too much talk about spiritualism. Nevertheless, Houdini was well aware of the disappointment in Chattanooga. He wrote in his diary: "Times panned me. Expected escapes." At his Johnson City lecture two nights later, he included a challenge straitjacket escape from the local police.

Meanwhile, the controversy in Chattanooga was growing into a mini scandal. The Optimists felt they were receiving the blame and cried foul. They announced that all the money collected would be given to charity and an investigation would be launched. Prof. Sherman defended himself by saying he had traveled to Atlanta and Boston to review Houdini's act before recommending it. (Of course, what he would have seen was Houdini's vaudeville act, not his lecture.)

The Times sided with the club in a tone that was becoming increasingly hostile toward the magician.

Click to enlarge.

Houdini himself finally felt compelled to answer in a letter to the Times on December 4. It reads in part:

Having been a newspaper man almost all my life, and at the present time being on the staff of the New York World, I know that it is not a newspaper's policy to be unjust to anyone, but you evidently do not know you are committing a wrong when you are continuously lampooning my entertainment, which was incorrectly advertised by the Optimist club, who brought me there.
There is no truth to the fact as given out that Mrs. Houdini's illness caused a change in my program. She positively has never appeared in any of my lectures and I will forfeit the $250 to the Community Chest, who are the ones that benefited by my appearance in Chattanooga, if anyone can show that I did not give the entertainment for which I was contracted and booked.
Had I known that escape material was expected of me, I would have presented some in my performance, but not a soul told me and from what I was given to understand the audience was disappointed because a lecture was presented when they had been led to believe by misleading announcements, which were made without my authority, that there was to be a magical show–therefore you certainly can't blame me.

So who was to blame for the Chattanooga debacle? While it's tempting to blame Prof. Sherman for his hyperbole, the real blame might fall on the Lyceum circuit. The Optimists claimed the description in their advertisements was provided by the circuit. Could they have felt Houdini's highbrow lecture, which went over well in big cities, needed a more sensationalistic sell in the Tennessee valley? There is evidence to support this. The advertisements in Johnson City featured the same ad copy, and even added the blatantly misleading: "This is not a lecture but a big city show."

Houdini's letter seemed to have quelled the controversy, and what happened in Chattanooga appears to have been an anomaly. Houdini's lectures were generally well received. A week later in North Carolina the students at Chapel Hill University gave him the college yell. 

But the Chattanooga Times did not seem to forgive, and on December 22 they gave two columns over to a diatribe by an anonymous reader attacking "self confessed fake medium Harry Weiss" for being anti-religious. Calling Houdini by his real name, and in doing so drawing attention his Judaism, was a well-known dog whistle employed by pro-spiritualists, suggesting the hostility towards Houdini might have actually been about the nature of his exposures than any failure to entertain with magic.

But perhaps the most stinging legacy of the Chattanooga debacle appeared in a review Houdini likely never read. When Harry Blackstone brought his full evening magic show to Johnson City, the local paper gave him a rave review, ending with:

Yes, Blackstone has a show that any theatre manager can personally guarantee with no fear that it will be a "Houdini-like" disappointment.




  1. Unfortunate. I think the build up was a bit misleading and could have been avoided. I would have loved it, but Spiritualism even in its heyday not everyone's cup of tea.

  2. This is why it's vital for entertainers (or the managers thereof) to be so strict about how a performance is publicized, many larger national acts even demanding review and approval of any and all advertisements prior to them being published.

    That said, mistakes and misleading statements still happen. I've been quoted in newspapers as saying crap I'd never say about my show, and I even showed up to do one performance (I had been booked to do a rated-R, adult-only show) to find families and children in the audience because the sponsor had omitted that detail in all of their promo (worried that an adults-only show might "disappoint some members of our community." ��

    Whatchagonnado. ��‍♂️

    1. Oh my! Hope you were able to thread the needle that night.

  3. A great post John! Silverman would have put this in his book had he known. I also suspect the Lyceum circuit got out of control and promised a spook show instead of a lecture. HH unknowingly walked into a hornet's nest.

    1. It's possible Silverman knew about this. Trouble with biographies is they are limiting. You only have so many pages and have to pick and choose what to include and leave out. That's what I love about having a blog. I can deep dive into stories that maybe don't work in the overall narrative of a biography.

      Christopher does mention the Chattanooga diary entry in his overall treatment of the spiritualism lecture period. But I wonder if he ever saw the reviews? Maybe not. Diego Domingo mentioned on FB that before the net researchers relayed on scrapbooks for their news-clipping, and those understandably would not include the bad reviews.

      Uncovering this story was so much fun because it played out for me in sequence. I found the ads and read all the hype articles before I came to the review of the evening itself. It came as a shocker! And then I watched it grow into a mini scandal. What a story.

  4. I wonder if Chattanooga would have given Houdini a second chance, and if HH would have returned if given. John do you have any knowledge of a return to the area?

    1. I don't have any record of him ever returning to Tennessee.

  5. Debacle notwithstanding, that is a terrific story (and the Optimists certainly lived up to their name)! I also loved that Houdini's December 4th letter to the Times even included its own little "challenge" ("if anyone can show that I did not give the entertainment for which I was contracted and booked")!! That first promotion you quote above ("Will produce the spirits of the dead...") is also priceless. Great job! Thanks for sharing, John.

    1. Thanks Tom. What I have above is just part of the letter. In the same article Houdini spells out his entire lecture part by part (four parts). It's the best most complete description of his spirit lecture I've ever read. Planning to do a standalone post about that next year.

  6. The auditorium where this happened is still standing:

    and is about 75 miles east of where I'm sitting.

    1. Nice!

      Wouldn't it be fun to do a Houdini lecture there?

      Maybe in 2024 I can do a 100th anniversary Houdini lecture tour at all the still existing venues.

    2. That is a fantastic idea. Maybe include a screening of the Grim Game to help fill the larger venues.

  7. That is truly amazing, HH mostly got the better of the media but they still will burn you down.

  8. Thank you, John, for researching and posting this.

  9. Chattanooga had had a large Spirtualist community, so I wonder if that played a part in the debacle? It was certainly small even in the heyday of the 1880s-1890s, but at least three Spritualist papers were published there, and there was a Spirtualist hotel and camp. Even in 1931, there's a listing for a Chattanooga organization in the Spiritualist directories.

    1. VERY interesting. Thank you. Could explain some of the extra hostility.