Almost one hundred years ago, the world famous magician Harry Houdini dazzled a crowd of 50,000 with one of his signature death-defying escape acts. On April 26, 1916, Houdini freed himself from a straitjacket as he dangled upside down, sixty feet above the sidewalk from a cornice of The Sun building in Baltimore. City police officers had lashed his arms to his sides in the straitjacket as tightly as they could. At 12:15 p.m., he began to wriggle free.
Houdini told The Sun that he suspected his performance would take about fifteen minutes to complete. The policemen who were chosen to participate bragged that their handiwork would be the first to hold the wily magician. Much to the onlookers’ amazement and to the chagrin of the officers, Houdini divested himself of the straitjacket in just over three minutes. He dropped the restrictive garment to the ground and took a bow, while still hanging inverted above a massive gathering of spectators.
Houdini visited Baltimore to perform on several occasions. He always shocked and amazed with his repertoire of seemingly impossible magic acts and left a trail of aspiring magicians in his wake. The magician community was as strong as ever in Maryland during and after the years of the great Houdini. Magicians’ clubs sprung up in the city, which drew membership from across the state. The great magicians of the age were ensured packed houses when they performed in the Baltimore area.
Signor Falconi put on the earliest recorded magic performance in Baltimore on December 3, 1787 at the Old Theater. The Italian magician traveled the East Coast performing “Natural Philosophical Experiments,” which mostly relied on mechanical means. In his act, he used a hidden magnet to stop watches and attract small metal objects. He also employed an automaton who could answer audience members’ questions and predict which numbers would come on a pair of dice rolled by a volunteer. For the grand finale, Falconi would load a piece of paper with a question written on it into a pistol, which he fired out of the theater. A dove would then appear instantly bearing the answer to the question on the paper in its beak.
Baltimoreans went wild for Falconi’s show. He extended his stay in the city for several weeks and he rolled out more exciting illusions with even more exotic names for each show. People paid a handsome sum to see the “Talisman Chinois” and the “Theophrastus Paracelsus” in person— 75 cents for box seats and 50 for those in the pit. Four lucky—and presumably rich—attendees could pay to sit on stage during the show.
The complexity of magic tricks only grew, and magic gained popularity with each year. Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin birthed the modern magic act in the mid-to-late 1800s. The French illusionist performed countless wonders for audiences across Europe and the United States. He perfected “The Bullet Catch,” in which the magician catches a bullet in his teeth, and his “The Light and Heavy Chest” illusion even helped Napoleon III quell rebellions in the French colony of Algeria. In this trick, Robert-Houdin challenged an audience member to lift the chest, which he or she could do with relative ease. An electromagnet in the chest and stage would then be turned on, and the audience member would again be asked to lift the chest. This time around, it was an impossible feat. According to Robert-Houdin’s autobiography, when he performed this trick in Algeria on behalf of Napoleon III in 1856, he supposedly frightened the rebelling Algerians so much that the insurrection stopped for the time being. The Algerians supposedly saw that the Emperor’s magician was more powerful than their own religious leaders whose miracles had inspired them into uprising. In reality, the Emperor’s troops reconquered the colony, which probably had more effect that Robert-Houdin’s illusion, but the story has lived on in magic folklore. His magic inspired countless magicians, including Harry Houdini, who crafted his stage name to honor him.
The explosion in popularity of magic also gave rise to spiritualists, mediums, and others that claimed to possess true magical abilities, such as contacting the dead and predicting the future. Many magicians took issue with these practices and set out to expose those that they felt were charlatans preying upon audiences. They felt that it should be widely understood that the illusions performed were exactly that— illusions created by sleight-of-hand and tricks of perception, not special powers. Harry Houdini dedicated as much of his career to this as to performing magic. Baltimore-born Henry Ridgely Evans, a former journalist and amateur magician, gained acclaim writing books spilling the secrets of spiritualists. In his books, Hours with Ghosts, Or, Nineteenth Century Witchcraft and The Spirit World Unmasked, Evans revealed how many standard practices of spiritualists were performed, such as table tilting, spirit photography, and telepathy. He walked his readers through the processes step-by-step and unmasked some of the most famous offenders.
These unsavory practices taking place in the magic world necessitated magic clubs and alliances as a form of regulation to protect the craft from charlatans, false mediums, and unscrupulous magicians. Exposing the secrets to performing a trick was highly frowned upon in the magician community, and competition for bigger and better illusions promoted trick-stealing between magicians. In these clubs, magicians, both professional and amateur, could exchange methodology and learn new illusions in the company of peers.
One of the most famous magic clubs, The Demons Club, was formed in Baltimore in 1911 for just this purpose. Magicians met at the house of Baltimore’s “Safety First” magician, Arthur D. Gans, who helped establish the society, to socialize and learn more about their craft. Gans, an amateur magician, regularly corresponded with other magicians and toured the country performing. He developed friendships with many of the best magicians of the time. He worked for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad as a safety picture exhibitor, and also operated movie theaters and a film supply company. To become a Demon, a prospective member had to demonstrate a thorough knowledge of magic history and technique, as well as a “[willingness] to study and become an adept performer in some one of its many branches.”(1) The club boasted a membership which included many of the area’s most recognized magicians. A formal clubhouse equipped with a small auditorium was opened in 1917 on Belvedere Avenue in the West Arlington neighborhood of Baltimore. The group regularly performed at the clubhouse and for charity events and hosted banquets to honor famous magicians, such as Howard Thurston, who regularly corresponded and visited with the Demons.
In 1923, a more exclusive magicians’ club, the Society of Osiris Magicians, was established by some former Demons Club members. Thomas C. Worthington III, who once served as the Demon Club’s “Arch Demon,” or president, founded the Society of Osiris Magicians because he felt too many non-magicians were admitted to the Demons Club. Worthington was a highly skilled magician, who gained notice globally for his escape trick. In a mere twenty-eight seconds, he could escape from a locked trunk tied inside a sack all while he was shackled in chains. He would emerge released from the chains with the trunk still in the sack.
The club operated in a similar manner to the Demons Club. Two associated junior clubs were also formed to aid boys in their magical education. Boys could participate in the Pyramid Magic Club up to age eighteen, when they graduated to the Disciples of Osiris. They remained Disciples until they were eligible for full club membership in the Society at age twenty-one. Other, smaller societies sprung up around Maryland, but few ever reached the prestige of the Demons Club or the Society of Osiris. The Demons Club remains the only one of these magician alliances to remain active as it became the Baltimore chapter of the Society of American Magicians.
High-caliber magic acts frequently stopped in Baltimore because of the strong magic community. One of the most famous magic performances occurred at Ford’s Theater on May 16, 1908. That year, the eminent magician Harry Kellar embarked on his farewell tour. Upon his retirement, he wanted to “pass the wand” to the next great magician. Thurston was known for a stage show so elaborate that his props filled eight train cars. Kellar decided that his successor should be Howard Thurston, who was more famous then Houdini at the time. At his performance in Baltimore, Kellar ceremoniously placed his cape upon Thurston’s shoulders, crowning him the reigning magician.
Each year, The Demons Club honored this event and Thurston with a grand banquet and performance. One year, Gans arranged for a B & O Railroad car to take the party on the road. The “Martha Washington” was temporarily rechristened the “Kelthurma,” a combination of Kellar, Thurston, and magic. Such grand events tapered off over the years with magic falling in and out of popularity, but a magic presence still remains in Baltimore. Aspiring magicians can join the local chapter of the Society of American Magicians or catch a show at Illusions Bar & Theater in Federal Hill. (Lara Westwood)
Gans worked for the B & O Railroad, he operated 3 movie houses and this film supply company. Arthur D. Gans Inc. 104 N. Gay Street. Ca.1913 Photograph possibly by Thomas Chew Worthington, III (1879-1953), Worthington Collection, MdHS.
Note: Video of Harry Houdini’s straitjacket escape act was not performed in Baltimore and is not part of then MdHS collection. The video is made available on YouTube by Allaboutmagicians.
Sources and Further Reading:
(1) “Baltimore’s Demons Club Entertains Howard Thurston,” Baltimore Sun, May 18, 1918.
Bernstein, Molly and Alan Edelstein, Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay.
Christopher, Milbourne. “Houdini’s many feats of daring in Baltimore,” Baltimore Sun, March 16, 1969.
Christopher, Milbourne. “Magic in Early Baltimore,” Maryland Historical Magazine 100 (2005): 273-278.
Kidd, David. “The Magic of Baltimore,” The Magic of Baltimore.
PBS Online. “Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin.” Last modified 1999.
Robert-Houdin, Jean Eugene. Robert Houdin: The Great Wizard, Celebrated French Conjurer, Author, and Ambassador, trans. Dr. R. Shelton Mackenzie (Philadelphia: Charles Desilver & Sons, 1859).
Society of American Magicians, Baltimore Assembly #6, Kellar/Thurston. “History.”
Stump, William. “Fooling All of the People All of the Time,” Baltimore Sun, November 9, 1952.