The Great Houdini “Escaped” from Johnson City in 1924

Wednesday, November 19, 1924 was a long-awaited day for Johnson Citians because the Great Houdini, known as “the greatest living ‘mystifier’ on earth,” was performing that evening on the stage of the DeLuxe (later renamed Tennessee) Theatre.

The Deluxe, located at 148 W. Main Street at Boone Street, was a beautiful relatively new complex with a massive 30-foot stage, 12 dressing rooms, an elaborately decorated balcony, 8 guest boxes, and 1250 plush seats. The highly functional building initially hosted vaudeville acts but later featured movies and live stage shows.

One of those live performances was 50-year-old Harry Houdini. He became celebrated for such antics as releasing his body from iron chains, handcuffs, triple locked police cells, bank vaults with the time locks set and padlocked tanks of water. He seemed to defy death with each performance.

A full-page advertisement from the Johnson City Chronicle stated: “Can the dead speak to the living?” Houdini will answer privately or publicly any rational question on the subject. Bring your family and let them find out how spirits are brought back to earth. Marvelous. Wonderful. Mystifying. You Cannot Afford to Miss It.”

Tickets, which sold for $.50, $.75, $1.00 and $1.50, were available from Crouch’s Book Store (217 E. Main Street, later site of Betty Gay, ladies’ department store), Savoy Drug Co. (207 E. Main, future site of Parks-Belk, department store) and by members of the Professional and Business Women’s Clubs. The show was sponsored by the latter group as well as U.C.T. (United Commercial Travelers, an insurance company). When the big stage curtain was opened, a sizable crowd was on hand to greet the famed magician.

Houdini’s act consisted of lecture, audience interaction and an escape routine. He became a champion of exposing trickery employed by fake spiritualistic mediums. By using simple paraphernalia, he showed his audience how the so-called “spiritualistic phenomenon” was nothing more than clever tricks and sleight of hand movements.

During Houdini’s lecture, “Can the Dead Speak to the Living?” he talked about a lady known as Margery (Mina Crandon), a well-known medium from Boston who became obsessed by séances. She was under consideration for a $2500 prize from Scientific American magazine for her work to demonstrate “telekinetic ability under scientific controls.” Several famous people attended her meetings and supported her for the honor, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini. The latter, however, later proclaimed her as a fraud and made her a favorite target of his lectures.

Houdini then opened the floor for questions and was propounded with subjects such as hypnotism, supernatural acts reported by scientific men, astrology and kindred topics. The noted speaker readily answered the issues by offering facts and figures that showed the mechanical, as opposed to paranormal, means by which results were accomplished. He conducted a séance with certain participants and explained how it was done using deception. 

Before the show came to a finale, Houdini gave his patrons what they anticipated – a chance to escape from a straight jacket. He appropriately called two Johnson City police officers, Chief M.C. Brown and Officer E.K. Jensen, to the stage to tightly fasten the jacket about his body. The audience watched intently as the famed performer methodically accomplished his liberation.

Houdini died two years later in 1926. Ironically, his followers held an annual séance every year for ten years on the anniversary of his death atop the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood, California, but the departed Harry communicated not a word to them. In 1936, his wife, Bess, halted the fruitless tradition.