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Houdini mystifies at Chautauqua

The crowd attending the final night of the Big River Chautauqua in Bonne Terre on Saturday received thrill after thrill in the performance of Larry Bounds, who assumed the role of Harry Houdini.

Houdini (portrayed by Bound) explained that his magic troupe and equipment were currently on a train to Montreal, Canada for the beginning of a series of performances, but that his Saturday appearance was a special performance for the attendees of the Big River Chautauqua.

“Where should I begin?” Houdini said, after introducing himself. “Perhaps with a little bit of sleight of hand. Since I was a very small boy I have loved sleight of hand.”

Houdini then rolled up his sleeves and removed his watch before retrieving several small silk handkerchiefs of various colors. The magician then proceeded to make the handkerchiefs disappear, reappear and transform from one color to another.

Following his first trick, Houdini then described how he first became interested in what was known as ‘spiritualism.’

“I have not always known for certain that I should be a magician,” he said. “My father was a Rabbi, and I was born in Appleton, Wisconsin. We moved to Madison, Wisconsin and in the last days of his life, the family moved to New York City where my father passed away.

“His interest in spiritual matters led me to looking into what was a burgeoning science — spiritualism. The idea that a person could reach out into the universe and draw forth the sound of the dearly departed and speak to those who have passed on before us.”

Houdini described saving up money to purchase a séance from a proclaimed ‘medium,’ which did not go as he hoped. After beginning the séance, Houdini said, he told the medium that he wished to speak with Abraham Lincoln.

“Sure enough, this different voice emanated from the medium and asked what I wanted to know,” he said. “I asked, ‘What was the first thing you did when you dear mother passed away?’ Having myself just recently lost my father.”

Houdini said the séance appeared to be going well, but the medium began giving information that conflicted with details about Abraham Lincoln’s life that the young Houdini had already known. After inquiring to the medium, Houdini was informed that it was all a ruse.

Soon after, Houdini became interested in the arts of illusion and magic after seeing performances by the Davenport Brothers and subsequently reading a book about how the brothers’ tricks were done.

At this point in his discussion, Houdini invited two audience members from the crowd to the stage to assist with a trick. The two volunteers examined a chain and padlock, which was then placed upon the magician’s hands. Houdini asked his volunteers to raise a small sheet over his hands and in seconds, his hands appeared free from the bonds.

“I began to produce great illusions,” he continued, describing a trick he performed involving apparently sawing a female assistant in half. “I would have done that for you this evening, except for the accident in rehearsal. Do no worry, the young lady is fine. She is recovering with her family in St. Louis … and Memphis.”

Instead, Houdini performed a trick involving cutting a piece of rope to seemingly shorter lengths, then putting the rope back together again without any knots or tying involved.

“As I continued my magical adventures, I have had the opportunity to tour the world many times and to get into many, many exciting adventures with my escapes. In Germany I began the process of what is called ‘bridge jumping.’”

Houdini explained how he would be bound in chains, handcuffs or leg irons, and would then jump off of a bridge into the river below before freeing himself of his bonds. He said he repeated the trick all around the world.

In addition to bridge jumping, Houdini said he began including the use of airplanes in his tricks.

Still, Houdini said, he sought to confirm the existence of spiritual powers and traveled to find legitimate mediums capable of communication with supernatural entities.

“As I quested from city to city, I saw the same thing over and over again,” he said. “Magicians’ tricks, meant to entertain. Ladies and gentlemen, some people feel that I apply supernatural powers to make my tricks work. But I must tell you, there are no supernatural powers in the works of Houdini. When I escape from chains, I use the most powerful key on Earth to make my escape … the human mind.”

Houdini described his efforts to outlaw the religion of spiritualism for how its adherents scammed so many individuals and families out of money with promises of contacting deceased loved ones.

For his final trick, Houdini again asked for two volunteers to come to the stage. The volunteers helped the man don and secure a strait jacket, which the magician then worked to escape from. After only moments of work, Houdini stood holding the strait jacket up for the crowd to see.

“The one thing that I have learned is that with the human mind, with effort and hard work, absolutely anything is possible,” he said.

Harry Houdini, portrayed by Larry Bounds, entranced the Saturday crowd of the Big River Chautauqua with displays of illusion magic and the magician's own personal story.

Harry Houdini, portrayed by Larry Bounds, entranced the Saturday crowd of the Big River Chautauqua with displays of illusion magic and the magician’s own personal story.

Jacob Scott is a reporter with the Daily Journal. He can be reached at 573-518-3616 or at

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