Why you should care
Because sometimes it’s better to speak softly and carry a big trick.
As onboard entertainment goes, the westward-bound German liner SS Imperator had a group of talent lined up for the evening of June 23, 1914, that would be the envy of any cruise ship today. Along with other notable acts like the Ritz-Carlton Orchestra, those seated in the plush lounge chairs of the transatlantic ship’s Grand Salon for a charity benefit were treated to a performance by one of the ship’s own passengers, and perhaps the most famous entertainer on the planet: Harry Houdini.
The 40-year-old magician dazzled his audience with some standard sleight of hand — card tricks, handkerchiefs changing color — before moving on to a more daring misdirection, one he had been planning for weeks, and one whose target he had already chosen. That mark, an inquisitive man in pince-nez spectacles who had been studying Houdini’s performance closely all evening, was none other than former U.S. president Teddy Roosevelt.
Houdini had started planning the ruse weeks in advance …
After a tour abroad, Houdini and his wife, Beatrice, according to William Kalush and Larry Sloman’s chronicle in The Secret Life of Houdini, were heading back to the U.S., embarking from Hamburg on June 17 on the New York-bound ship. The daring escape artist — who had joined a traveling circus at age 9 — was still recovering from the recent death of his beloved mother. Col. Roosevelt, as he preferred to be called, was also recovering, in his case from the jungle fever the 55-year-old had contracted during a recent expedition of Brazil’s “River of Doubt.” “Roosevelt said that the Amazon expedition was his last chance to be a boy,” H.W. Brands, a Roosevelt biographer and history professor at the University of Texas at Austin, says. “He couldn’t resist taking it.”
For the finale of his onboard performance, Houdini chose to do a public séance. The performer had diligently studied occult spiritualism and was extremely skeptical of it, but he also knew it would not be easy to pull one over on Roosevelt. “A number of well-known men were present, all of them having intelligence of a high order,” Houdini later told the New York Times.
To kick off the séance, Houdini circulated pencils, envelopes and pieces of paper, asking guests to write down a question they would like the spirits to answer, and to seal it. After handing the materials to Roosevelt, who had started to write his question on the paper atop his palm, Houdini deferentially handed him an atlas to write on. Once the questions were written, Houdini, according to newspaper accounts, singled out Roosevelt: “I am sure there will be no objection if we use the colonel’s question.” He then had the famous participant place his sealed envelope in between two small double-sided chalkboards, asking him to verify that there was nothing written on either slate and to inform the audience of his question.
“Where was I last Christmas?” Roosevelt dutifully replied.
Houdini opened the slates and held them up. On one there was a map of Brazil with the River of Doubt highlighted; on the other it said “Near the Andes” and was signed by the late journalist W.T. Stead, who had died on the Titanic two years earlier. “By George, that proves it!” shouted a dumbfounded Roosevelt, chuckling. The audience gasped, and the story quickly spread, eventually getting transmitted by radio to New York, where it hit the newspapers.
The next day, Houdini accompanied Roosevelt around the ship’s upper deck, and his victim asked him point-blank, “Tell me the truth, man to man: Was that genuine spiritualism or legerdemain [trickery] last night?” “No, Colonel,” replied Houdini, surprised that such a smart man would be in doubt. “It was hocus-pocus.”
A good magician never reveals his secrets, but in this case Houdini did as part of his later attempt to undermine what he called a “growing craze for spiritualism.” Like most of his tricks, Houdini had started planning the ruse weeks in advance. He had been tipped by a clerk that Roosevelt would also be on board and asked some reporter friends to provide him with details of the adventurer’s recent explorations. Once on board, he began walking with Roosevelt, telling him about the intriguing séances he had witnessed, and eventually asking the colonel what he would like to see in his performance. A séance, of course.
Houdini was hopeful that Roosevelt would ask about his recent travels, and, after prepping his slates, he had sliced open the cover of the atlas, inserting carbons into it to let him see the indentations made by Roosevelt’s writing. As a backup, he had loaded his hat with fake questions from the audience about Roosevelt’s travels. But Plan A worked, and the colonel himself put forth the question. Even Houdini was surprised at how well it had worked.
Houdini, Roosevelt and the Imperator arrived in New York on June 25, 1914. Three days later, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, sending Europe to war. It appears that the great escape artist, well-informed as ever, had orchestrated his disappearance from the continent just in time, demonstrating as he did by ambushing Roosevelt that in life, as in magic, there is no substitute for good information.