By Don Creekmore, special to The Anderson County Review
It was 3 a.m. on a cold November morning in 1897 when it was time to change train cars. Harry and Bess wearily woke and made their way to the next train, to Garnett, Kansas. Constantly aware of their only possessions, Harry realized the train was leaving without two of their four travel trunks. He pleaded with the conductor to wait, but he would not. Before he could finish the sentence, Harry immediately flew out of the passenger car and proceeded to lay face down on the tracks in front of the train. Two brakemen tried to pull him off, but his iron grip could not be defeated. Finally, the train engineer exclaimed, ìhis damned trunks were onboard.î
Harry and Bess were 23 and 21 years old and barely had enough money to make it to Garnett. The four trunks represented everything they had, including one that was very special. When the two stepped off the train, no one in Garnett or the rest of the world cared who Harry & Bess Houdini were.
Today most are not aware that the great Harry Houdini and his wife spent over two months in Kansas during the winter of 1897 and 1898. The Houdinis had only been married a few years and struggled to make money as a magic duo. Barely finding work in dime museums and circuses, the pair were starving in 1897.
In the fall of 1897, an opportunity to work for a medicine show called the California Concert Company in Kansas presented itself. The owners offered the Houdiniís $75 a week to perform magic in the evening shows and help sell magic elixir on street corners during the day. While working for a medicine show was considered the bottom of the entertainment hierarchy, it was at least a paying job.
Their first stop was Garnett, and it was a memorable one. Bess and Harry would stay at the rooming house of Mrs. Belle Bennett on west 4th Avenue. At night their shows were at the Grand Opera House located on the northside of the town square on 4th Avenue. The first performance at the Opera House was on November 17th. The reviews in the Garnett newspapers were positive, even singling out the Houdinis. Monday, Nov. 22nd, a paid attendance record was set with 1,030 tickets sold.
Despite the reviews and one big night of ticket sales, things were already not looking good for the company. The owners of the outfit, Dr. Hill and Dr. Pratt, asked Harry to come up with something religious in nature to draw in more customers. While Harry was not a religious man, what follows next are multiple days that Houdini and many people in Garnett would never forget.
Houdiniís idea was to hold a sÈance based on the religion of Spiritualism and contact with the dead. The sÈance was held on Friday, Nov. 26th. The news was spread that the Houdiniís would reveal the name of a murderer on the loose in Garnett after the recent unsolved killing of a local woman. The Opera House was packed that night, and tensions were high. The lights were turned down, and Bess, the ìPsychometric Clairvoyant,î was put into a dramatic trance by Harry. She slowly revealed information transmitted to her as she made ìcontactî with the deceased. Harry pleaded with the spirit to reveal the murderer, then suddenly Bess fainted and fell to the floor, unable to reconnect with the departed.
Likely the next day, another sÈance was held. This time the Houdiniís ìmade contactî with a local 6-year-old boy who passed away on November 15th and was buried in the Garnett Cemetery. The boyís name was Joe Osborn and his parents, Mr. & Mrs. Harry L. Osborne, were in the audience. Through Bess, Joe communicated to his mom, ìDonít cry, Momma. Thereíll be another one soon to take my place.î This compelling statement and total guess by Harry floored the Osbornís. After the show, a seething Mr. Osborn found Houdini and gave him a tongue lashing, asking him why the clairvoyant had shared with the crowd the fact his wife was indeed pregnant and put his wife through that horrible experience. The incident left a mark on Houdini that would stay with him for the rest of his life.
The Houdiniís would continue to perform sÈances for the medicine show in Kansas but under a cloud of moral quandary. Shortly afterward, Houdini realized his disdain for sÈances. He would stop these performances and, in the 1920s, becomes the worldís most vocal and public figure debunking fake mediums. In 1923 Houdini would be performing in Kansas City. After the show, Hallie Nichols came backstage. She told Houdini that she was at the Garnett Opera House on the night of the Osborn sÈance. The Houdiniís asked her if she was still in contact with the Osbornís; she was. Houdini would send the Osbornís a personal letter apologizing for that night. While these anecdotes paint Houdini in a rather negative light, time, experience, and fame would allow him to make amends many times over.
While in Garnett, Houdini would also hone a specific skill that would make him famous worldwide only a few short years later. The city jail was in the city square in 1897, and Houdini challenged Sheriff Park Keeney to lock him in it. Shaking his head, the sheriff secured him in the cell and then walked away. Before the sheriff could take his seat, Houdini was standing behind him, free from the cell!
Before the California Concert Company left town, Houdini was approached by Garnett business leaders. He was offered $25 never to come back and reveal more secrets. Itís unknown if he accepted the money, but Houdini never made his way back to Garnett.
The company would leave on Sunday, Nov.28th, and make their way to Osawatomie, They would continue to Paola, Pleasanton, Girard, Pittsburg, Cherokee, Columbus, Galena, Weir, Scammon, Coffeyville, Chetopa, Cherryvale, and Independence.
While never mentioned in Garnett newspapers, the one trunk Houdini prevented from getting lost on the train would be used extensively in shows in Garnett, other towns in Kansas, and eventually around the world. That trunk was the metamorphosis illusion, which is now a priceless piece of magic history preserved in David Copperfieldís personal museum of magic.
For the past 90+ years, countless books, magazine articles, TV shows and movies have detailed Houdiniís life personally and professionally. Out of all those sources, none have solely focused on the Houdiniís vital time during an eventful winter in Kansas so long ago. While this article presents some interesting facts and stories about that time, there are many more stories and details to uncover.
I live in Wichita and started researching the Kansas / Houdini connection in 2018. A detailed book planned for publication in 2023 revealing not only Houdiniís performances but also stories and details associated with each Kansas town he performed ìmiraclesî at is in the works.
I hopes to discover long-lost mysteries about the famed sÈance performances, where the Houdiniís stayed in each town, the Opera houses these events took place at, the trains traveled on, connections to local citizens, etc. If physical souvenirs such as posters, photos, letters, signatures, written accounts could be discovered, they would be valuable historical additions to the book.
I would ask for any help filling in this magical history of Houdini and Kansas history. All information collected will be appropriately credited in the book. Questions, comments, or information can be sent to Don Creekmore at firstname.lastname@example.org, calling or texting 316-371-1828, or visiting the bookís website at www.houdinikansas.com