The Magician, the Musician, & the President


Would the composer and the president catch on to the trick? In 1914, at an evening’s entertainment for the German Sailors Home and the Magicians Club of London, after the Ritz Carlton orchestra’s performances of excerpts of Puccini operas, the agenda moved on to the great magician Houdini.

Houdini began with some simple close-up illusions–changing the colors of silk handkerchiefs and turning water into wine, and he noticed that sitting next to composer Victor Herbert was a very intent Theodore Roosevelt. He was sure that the former president had been able to see through every trick–so far.

The magician proposed a spiritualistic slate test “in the full glare of light.”

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Houdini invited the audience to seal into envelopes questions they wanted answered from the spirit world. When Roosevelt began to write his question with the paper in the palm of his hand, Houdini took an atlas from the ship’s library and offered it to him as a support.

Thinking that Victor Herbert was onto the ruse, the magician gave him a wink.

“Turn around,” Herbert told Roosevelt. “He’ll discern what you write from the movements of the pencil.”

After Houdini had collected all of the questions, he said, “I am sure that there will be no objection if we use the Colonel’s question.” The audience readily agreed.

He had Roosevelt place his sealed question between two blank slates and asked him what his question had been.

“Where was I last Christmas?” the Colonel replied.

Houdini opened the slates and held them up for all to see. One slate had a detailed map in colored chalk of Brazil’s River of Doubt in the Amazon. The other slate contained the message, “near the Andes” and was signed by W.T. Stead, a spiritualist journalist who had drowned when the Titanic sank.

The next morning, when Roosevelt asked Houdini if the whole thing had been spiritualism or sleight of hand, the magician confided, “It was hocus-pocus.”

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