Sunday, January 1, 2023

Houdini in 1923

Let's kick off 2023 with a brief look back at what Houdini was up to 100 years ago.

The new year saw Houdini on the road for what would be his first coast to coast tour since 1915. At age 49 he was back hanging from high buildings, clocking an amazing 19 suspended straitjacket escapes in the course of the year. He once again appeared at all the major vaudeville houses in all the major cities. But he also opened himself up to the new chain of "Junior Orpheum" theaters. These required performers to do three shows a day instead of two and featured a movie as a main attraction. This brought Houdini to cities that had never experienced the escape king in person. He also toured Texas for the second time in his career.

If theater managers feared audiences had forgotten Houdini during his five year hiatus from vaudeville, those fears were quickly put to rest. Houdini was as popular as ever. His movies had provided an avalanche of publicity and audiences were thrilled to now see "Houdini in Person." What they saw was the same act he had presented years earlier; Needles, straitjacket, The Water Torture Cell, and challenges from local businesses. He did experiment with a few new feats, such as being tied to a post inside a ring of burning flames in San Fransisco. He also may have tried his Water Torture Cell escape in full view of the audience in a few select theaters.

The year would also see the release of his last film, Haldane of the Secret Service, with Houdini making personal appearances if an opening lined up with his tour. Haldane was released by F.B.O. who promoted the film as a cavalcade of Houdini's greatest escapes. That isn't what audiences got and the movie was received poorly. But Houdini seemed unfazed by the failure of his final Houdini Picture Corporation production. He had moved on from movies and was focusing more of his time energy on his new passion; spiritualism.

Having given spiritualistic debunking demonstrations as part of his The Man From Beyond roadshow the previous year, Houdini now presented a more fleshed-out lecture, compete with a slide show. He gave these in several cities on his tour as well as at colleges. Publicity for his lecture in Los Angeles eclipsed his regular act at the Hillstreet Theatre, especially as he had become embroiled in a bizarre spirit photograph mystery at the First Spiritualist Church. But Angelenos could still see the old Houdini in action with a suspended straitjacket escape from the Examiner building and an escape from a ball and chain at the bottom of the swimming pool at the Ambassador Hotel (possibly his last outdoor water escape).

Always quick to embrace new technology, Houdini began giving short talks on radio, spelling out his beliefs on spiritualism and giving magic lessons. He also became a Mason.

While appearing in Denver, Houdini met up with his friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was in town on his own lecture tour. The subject of spiritualism, which had initially bound them, was now putting a strain on the friendship. Doyle was especially troubled by a splashy multipart series of articles that appeared in the Oakland Tribune under the banner headline, Houdini Unmasks the Mediums. "It is so filled with errors that I don't know where to begin," said Doyle. The author felt compelled to write a detailed rebuttal in the paper, bringing their private debate into the public and putting more strain on their friendship.

Houdini's high profile position on Spiritualism earned him an invitation to join a committee formed by the Scientific American magazine that would investigate claims of true mediumship. This gave Houdini the opportunity to go head to head with notable mediums of the day, such as George Valiantine and Nino Pecoraro. These colorful encounters garnered headlines across the country. While Houdini may have started the year in his old guise of Mystifier, he ended it with a new identity; Debunker.

On Christmas Eve, Conan Doyle penned Houdini an angry letter, stating, "You can't bitterly and offensively--often also untruly--attack a subject and yet expect courtesies from those who honor that subject."

Houdini's answer might have best been expressed by the old show business axiom; You ain't seen nothing yet!

Want more? This month I'm offering patrons an exclusive PDF preview of my Ultimate Houdini Chronology, showing everything Houdini was up to in 1923. This is the first reward of the new year and a special one. Just click below to go.


  1. I love these chronology posts! They make the Silverman book so much clearer. Chronological order was apparently not a priority for him when he wrote it.

    1. Thanks! I enjoy doing these. This year I was pretty busy over the break and had to do a short one. But, yeah, chronology is key!

    2. Yeah I did notice it was a bit shorter. Harry going back to the grind in 1923 to replenish the money films drained from his coffers. Movies were not going to be his yellow brick road and I think he made his peace with that by then.