Around 1920, the United States experienced a wave of “spiritualism.” This interest seems to hit our society in spurts over the decades, coming in and out of vogue. But looking at the early 1920s specifically, many historians point to the tragic events of World War I, and a need to not only try to connect with those dearly departed, but to also comprehend how such a catastrophic, horrific event could have been constructed by humanity, against other humans. Perhaps the adoption of that failed social experiment, Prohibition, had something to do with delving into the occult as well. A lot of folks needed a new hobby with all that newfound time on their hands. Escapism was desired on so many levels. Oregon was right in league with the rest of the nation, and an obsession in Ouija boards, tarot, mysticism and séances was fairly firmly held in the Beaver State.
Many period critics found the nation’s newly rediscovered interest in all things occult-y to be an utter waste of time. Others questioned our society’s morals. And some even wondered if the nation was going insane. Joining this movement to save America from itself, was one of the greatest entertainers of all time: Harry Houdini.
“The King of Handcuffs,” “The Celebrated Baffler” and myriad other titles were rightfully earned by Houdini, who found fame creating astounding, contrived situations to escape from – in front of huge audiences, of course. His dramatic, flamboyant feats established him as one of the most recognized faces of the 20th century. The master contortionist’s famed scenarios included a water-filled milk can, leaping from bridges while trapped in manacles and “the elaborate Chinese Water Torture Cell escape.” Such physically demanding spectacles obviously took a toll on the performer as his body aged, and later in life, he began to focus more on his desire to expose charlatans obsessed with communicating with the dead.
And even Portland couldn’t escape from the clutches of Harry Houdini.
The “master escapologist” came to Portland in November of 1924. At the Portland Public Auditorium, today’s Keller Auditorium, Houdini brought his touring anti-medium lecture that he called “Can the Dead Speak?” Or as the magician paraphrased, “an effort to stop people from going crazy!”
In promoting his performance, Houdini made sure to clarify with the Portland press that he DID believe in an afterlife. He stated that he believed in “the Almighty God” and that his “sainted mother” was waiting for him on the other side. But this belief in an afterlife did not imply communication between these worlds. Houdini was categorically convinced that one could not talk to the dead, as so many mediums in that era advertised. He felt that most who claimed to do so were strictly out to make a quick buck on the grieving and bereaved. Houdini was so convinced of this that he offered $5,000 to any medium who could actually summon the dead – a “spook” in the parlance of the time – at one of his performances. And to sweeten the pot for Portland patrons, Houdini was going to do 30 minutes of magical performances too! Pretty good program for $1.10 (“War Tax Included In Price” the papers patriotically proclaimed).
In the press before the event, Houdini gave a bit of a spoiler and addressed his own question as to whether the dead could talk or not. “Emphatically they cannot! And I have consecrated the rest of my life to proving that every clairvoyant is a fake and a trickster and that there is absolutely no medium of communication between the living and the dead. It is all pure and colossal bunk and people go crazy believing it!” Houdini even addressed the subject of Ouija boards in his production. “The harmless little Ouija board has been the first step in sending thousands to the insane asylums.”
An Oregonian reporter who attended Houdini’s lecture recorded that, “The audience was frankly delighted and was friendly to Houdini, bursting into frequent and prolonged applause.” Aided by “photographs thrown on a screen,” Houdini gave a presentation that laid out the history of charlatanism, he summoned a fake “spook,” and ended up not giving a dime of his reward for a “true” summoning. But alas – in an auditorium that could accommodate several thousand attendees, disappointingly only a few hundred purchased tickets to the heavily promoted performance. Houdini’s show was on election night, and that likely kept thousands of Portlanders at home or in the streets, waiting for the results.
Or perhaps the Portland people just didn’t want to pay hard-earned dough to hear Houdini discredit their woo-woo mystical beliefs. Escapism seems to have always been passionately pursued in the City of Roses.
Doug Kenck-Crispin is a co-producer of the podcast Kick Ass Oregon History. Find more at ORHistory.com.
Sources: PBS’s American Experience, The Oregonian, Vintage Portland, Houghton Library.