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History Snoopin': Showbiz magic on the whistle-stop tour

The Rogue Valley’s biggest theatrical coup of 1924 should have been the booking of Harry Houdini — simply “The World’s Greatest Magician.”

However, the master was on a whistle-stop crusade that didn’t leave much room for magic.

For the previous three months, his restless journey had taken him across the United States, performing one-night lectures in one town after another. From the Texas State Fair in Austin where he had been honored with “Magician’s Day,” then on through Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, and north to Medford, Houdini was asking the provocative question: “Can the Dead Speak to the Living?”

Advertising for his November performance at Medford’s brand new National Guard Armory on Bartlett Street promised “Sensational Demonstrations.”

That night, the armory crowd must have been disappointed. Most of them expected Houdini to perform his most spectacular magic tricks. What they actually witnessed was a lecture and an exposé of the mediums and clairvoyants who conducted séances, charging grieving relatives exorbitant fees for a chance to speak with their departed relatives.

Houdini peppered his presentation with slides, managing to keep the sellout crowd’s interest by revealing some secrets of his magic tricks. Then, he demonstrated exactly how mediums deceived their victims by holding a simulated séance.

He blindfolded a group of men and put them on stage to act as grieving relatives. The auditorium was brightly lit so the audience could see how Houdini was able to deceive the men. The blindfolds simulated a dark room.

“Until divulged to them after removal of the blindfold,” Houdini said, “no one detected the method employed. The demonstrations have been in full light that the audience might appreciate the deception to the limit.”

Houdini’s lectures began in Boston the previous July after he was asked to evaluate the nation’s best-known medium, Mina Stinson Crandon, also known as Margery, “The Blond Witch of Lime Street.” After observing her at three separate séances, he publicly pronounced her a fraud and offered $5,000 to anyone who could prove him wrong. He then vowed to travel the country to show the public just how they were being duped.

“I will admit that her tricks were new and clever,” Houdini told a Mail Tribune reporter. “I have since reproduced them before audiences from New York to San Francisco.

“My business has given me an intimate knowledge that has placed me at a certain advantage in uncovering the natural explanation of feats that to the ignorant may seem supernatural.”

There was no review of Houdini’s Medford performance. The Mail Tribune reported only that the house was full and that Houdini left on a train at 2:30 in the morning.

As noble as his cause and lecture may have been, it’s likely that most of Houdini’s Medford audience that night still would have preferred a few of his old tricks — something like the magician hanging precariously, upside down in an old Chinese Water Torture Chamber.

Yet, in the end, they’d also have to admit that the show was worth it. After all, it isn’t every day you get a chance to see, “The World’s Greatest Magician.”

What happened to that old National Guard Armory that once stood on the northeast corner of Bartlett and Third streets?

The interior the 1923 building was nearly destroyed when live ammunition exploded and a fire raced through the building in the early morning hours of Sept. 27, 1951. While wrestling contests continued inside for a few more years, once plans for a new armory began to take shape, the armory property was sold and the building demolished.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of “History Snoopin’,”a collection of his previous history columns and stories. The Southern Oregon Historical Society is hosting Bill for a book signing on Saturday, June 23, in the SOHS Research Library. Copies of the book will be available for purchase. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.

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