Books

Joe Posnanski finds some Kansas City magic while researching his new Houdini book

Harry Houdini made a name for himself as an escape artist, from chains, straitjackets and other contraptions. He launched one of his most popular acts in Kansas City.
Harry Houdini made a name for himself as an escape artist, from chains, straitjackets and other contraptions. He launched one of his most popular acts in Kansas City. AP

This probably will not surprise you, but it turns out that Kansas City is a pretty magical place.

I was mostly unaware of Kansas City’s special role in the history of America magic until I began researching my book, “The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini.” Then I learned specifically that Houdini loved the town all his life, loved it so much that when he was 12 years old, he ran away from his home in Milwaukee and headed straight for Kansas City.

And throughout his 52 years, he was always looking to Kansas City. He performed in and around Kansas City many times, going back to his earliest days. He often wrote about Kansas City in his diaries.

But there’s one Houdini story in particular about Kansas City that I love, and it didn’t quite make it into the book. So here you go: It’s like a director’s cut bonus.

Houdini, it turns out, was a master of reinvention. He was constantly adapting and changing to keep up with the audience — nothing scared Houdini more than having the audience lose interest. He began as a more traditional magician. Then he began focusing on escaping from handcuffs, he started having people challenge him to escape from their own contraptions, he began jumping off bridges, he created the “Chinese water torture cell,” he made an elephant disappear and so on.

In the mid-1910s, Houdini was looking for something new.

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Joe Posnanski File photo

And he decided to debut that something new in Kansas City. This wasn’t just because of his love of the town. It was in part because of a remarkable magical character named A.M. Wilson.

Wilson was born in Ohio just before the start of the Civil War, and when he was 11 years old, he served as an assistant and apprentice for one of the world’s most famous magicians, Robert Heller (who had performed for Abraham Lincoln). Wilson wanted to make magic his life, but he did not quite have the stomach for that life, so he gave up and became a pharmacist (people always called him Doc Wilson), and he took a job with the railroad. That’s what brought him to Kansas City in the late 19th century.

In 1904, Doc Wilson took over as the editor of the official magazine for the Society of American Magicians, “The Sphinx.” It was the most read and most influential magic magazine in the country, perhaps the world, and Houdini utterly despised it. He had two reasons for loathing “The Sphinx.”

1. He didn’t control it. Houdini had little use for anything he didn’t completely control. In 1904, he started his own magical publication called “Conjurer’s Monthly,” and tried to put “The Sphinx” out of business. That didn’t work; “Conjurer’s Monthly” folded in two years, and Wilson mocked Houdini for the effort.

2. Even beyond their competitiveness, Doc Wilson didn’t like Houdini one bit. Wilson was all about magical tradition, having learned the craft from one of the virtuosos of the art. He liked what he called real magic, illusions, sleights of hand. He had no use for all that escape stuff that Houdini kept doing.

“Magic,” he wrote, “is an art, a science that requires brains, skills, gentlemanliness, and talent of high order. Brick walls, torture cells, straitjackets, handcuffs, etc. demand nothing but physical strength and endurance, nerve, gall, bluster, faker and fake apparatus heralded by circus band advertising.”

Their feud grew so nasty that Houdini actually quit the Society of American Magicians over it. Oh, Houdini knew how to hold a grudge. He would not speak to any of his former friends who wrote even a few words in “The Sphinx.” He had a huge fight with the other great magician of the day, Howard Thurston, simply because he had spotted Doc Wilson in the audience of a Thurston show.

And then, in 1915, a mutual friend tried to get Houdini and Wilson to call a truce. He got them together for a meeting, and, sure enough, they emerged arm in arm. The ice, they said, had broken.

That same year, Houdini pulled off an escape in Kansas City that once again changed everything for him … and he did it for free. On the day before his show, purely as publicity, he promised to do something that no one had ever seen. More than 5,000 people gathered around him on Main Street, right next to the Kansas City Post building.

Houdini loved to do his escapes by newspaper buildings. Newspapers were the Instagram of his time.

He was surrounded by Kansas City police officers who tied a rope around his ankles and then put him in what Houdini would later call “the best and strongest straitjacket owned by the Kansas City police department.” After the jacket was secured, a detective named Ike Wilson said: “If you can get out of that, you can get out of anything.”

To which Houdini replied: “I shall get out, and so easy you can scarcely believe it.”

At this point, Houdini was laid flat on the bed of a truck and lifted, upside down, three stories above Main Street. He dangled there motionless for a moment or two while traffic stopped and people stared at him. And then he began to flop around like a fish on a line, and people gasped and shrieked until Houdini, before their very eyes, freed himself from the straitjacket and dropped it to the sidewalk below.

The Post wrote: “And as the big throng dispersed, each man asked his neighbor: ‘How does he do it?’”

Houdini would take the upside-down straitjacket escape to cities all across the country. You have undoubtedly seen at least a photo or two of Houdini performing it while thousands in Washington, Boston, New York and dozens of other cities gawked from below. And it began in Kansas City.

But in many ways, Houdini’s greatest trick in Kansas City wasn’t the escape itself. It was winning over A.M. Wilson. A few months later, Houdini appeared on the cover of “The Sphinx” magazine. A loving story appeared, written by Wilson himself.

He and Doc Wilson stayed friends for the rest of their lives.

Author Joe Posnanski is a former sports columnist for The Kansas City Star.

Posnanski in KC

As part of his tour for “The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini,” Joe will be speaking and signing his book at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 24, at Unity Temple on the Plaza, 707 W. 47th St. Tickets, which include a copy of the book, are $28 and are available at Rainy Day Books or rainydaybooks.com.

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Joe Posnanski will speak about his Houdini book in Kansas City on Thursday.
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