Harry Houdini made history right here in Kansas City
By Diane Euston
When one thinks of the most famous magicians of all time, Harry Houdini’s name inevitably is mentioned. Houdini’s ability to mystify crowds and stump police across the nation repeatedly made headlines from the turn of the century until his death. What few people know is that Houdini had a unique history in Kansas City that began before his stardom.
Ehrich Weisz and his shoeshine kit
Born in Budapest, Hungary in 1874, Ehrich Weisz was the son of a rabbi who decided that his family could have a better life in the United States. In 1876, the family immigrated to Appleton, Wisconsin and changed their surname to the German spelling “Weiss.” After his father lost his job, the family moved to Milwaukee and fell into severe poverty. Young Ehrich shined shoes to help his family financially.
His first stage debut was at nine years old when he performed in a trapeze act where he went under the stage name “Ehrich, Prince of the Air.” His true talent was in his relentless study of what showmen, specifically in the circus arena, did in order to be successful.
At the age of 12, young Ehrich had his first run-in with Kansas City when he ran away from home with his shoeshine kit. Little is known about this episode of his life, but he thought he was boarding a train to Texas. Instead, young Ehrich ended up at Union Depot in Kansas City instead. He was able to find his way back to his family who was then residing in New York City where he began his study of magic.
Becoming Harry Houdini
Initially young Ehrich studied magic with his brother Theo and started performing in vaudeville shows without much success. One of the first things he did was change his stage name in order to rebrand himself. His idol in the art of illusion was Frenchmen Robert Houdin, so he thought that paying homage to him and adding an “i” was the perfect show name. In order to Americanize his name further, he went for the first name of Harry. Thus, Harry Houdini was born.
Traveling through the vaudeville circuit by the age of 17, Houdini began to make a name for himself in the art of escaping handcuffs and jail cells. He was known in newspaper ads and posters as “the man of the shackles” or “king of handcuffs.” He married Bess Rahner, a fellow performer in 1894.
Kansas City’s Orpheum Theater a home for Houdini
The Orpheum idea was born in the 1890’s when vaudeville houses on the west coast could see the importance of extending their operations – especially along the railroad hubs. Kansas City was chosen as the third city for such a theatre on what became the Orpheum Circuit. Houdini began performing in Kansas City before the turn of the century as a part of this circuit.
In April 1899, Houdini invited two Kansas City-based Pinkerton detectives to join him on stage at the Orpheum Theater. Captain Mahady locked him in a pair of double-locked handcuffs. He sealed the keyholes with postage stamps and marked the stamps with a pencil. The two Pinkerton detectives stayed close to Houdini on stage when he was locked inside a cabinet. One minute and 45 seconds later, Houdini emerged free as a bird. The stamps were still in tact.
Houdini is fooled by a traveling salesman at the Savoy
In April 1900, Houdini was making Kansas City headlines when he amazed police on their own turf. In front of 20 men, including officers, detectives and the media, Houdini was “stripped to the skin” and put in leg shackles and four pairs of handcuffs while in a crouched position. They sealed his mouth shut and placed him inside a jail cell in downtown Kansas City.
For extra safety measures, the police used brand new locks that took two separate keys to unlock them. Regardless of all the safety precautions taken to ensure Houdini would fail, he was out of the jail cell in just shy of seven minutes.
But this successful stint at the city jail is far from the end of the story for Houdini and his Kansas City adventures. Houdini was making a name for himself as a very successful vaudeville performer, and with this fame came the ability for people to recognize him outside of the theater. The story goes that Houdini was staying at the Savoy Hotel at 219 W. 9th St., which today is a historic landmark.
Houdini was excited to phone his agent in Chicago and tell him of his successful stint at the city jail, so he entered a phone booth inside the lobby of the hotel. A traveling salesman named Williams recognized Houdini and decided to see if “the man of the shackles” could get himself out of a simple phone booth. One story alleges that Williams borrowed a key from the front desk and locked him in; another story states that he stuck a broom through the phone booth’s doors.
Regardless, Houdini was supposedly caught without his bag of tricks. Not fond of being the butt of the joke, Houdini began kicking the door and screamed for his release. Eventually the crowd that had gathered did release an embarrassed, infuriated Houdini from the phone booth at the Savoy Hotel. This event may have been the only time that Houdini was defeated in front of a public audience. Houdini didn’t seem to find it as funny as the men at the Savoy did.
Houdini’s first straightjacket suspension
Houdini had developed a reputation for his escape from handcuffs and began to develop even more complicated routines. In 1907, Houdini was shackled at the legs and wrists at the Kansas City Athletic Club. He was thrown in the deepest part of the pool. One minute and 19 seconds later, he emerged a free man and commented, “I could stay under two minutes and a half if I wished.”
In order to keep his name in the headlines, he had to keep interest high and come up with new magic acts that would draw a crowd. Simply escaping a city jail or a straightjacket underwater wasn’t enough anymore- Houdini knew he had to up the ante. He chose to do this right here in Kansas City.
On September 8, 1915, 5,000 people crowded the streets in front of the Kansas City Post building at 10th and Main to watch an act never before attempted by Houdini. At noon, Houdini was loaded on the back of a truck and laced into the “best and strongest straightjacket” owned by the Kansas City police.
In front of a bustling crowd congesting the street, Houdini was hung upside down about 20 feet in the air. In less than 20 seconds, Houdini was able to escape. This suspended straightjacket escape, first performed in Kansas City, became one of Houdini’s most popular stunts. In order to ensure that the trick would get the proper media coverage, he oftentimes chose newspaper buildings to be the location of his stunt. Many of these escapes were filmed- including the one in Kansas City.
Over the following years, Houdini continued this magic act suspended above crowds of people in large cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and San Francisco. The act was born on Main St. in Kansas City and was performed by Houdini over 50 times. One of the straightjackets used in a suspended escape sold at Christies in London for $46,980 in 2011.
Houdini remains one the best illusionists in history
While on tour in Detroit, Houdini fell ill and had his appendix removed but his condition worsened. After another operation, Houdini died on Halloween 1926 at the age of 52 with his wife and family by his side. His brother, Theodore Hardeen (his stage name), inherited his brother’s props and continued performing across the country. Even though he said he would destroy all the props after his death in order to maintain Houdini’s secrets, Theo sold many of his brother’s items.
Harry Houdini was one of the world’s most premiere illusionists and stunt performers. He was a skilled self-promoter, unparalleled showman and one of the finest magicians the world has ever seen.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com.