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St. Louis Regional history comes alive in this joint production by KDHX and the Missouri Historical Society. Stories of our past are connected with the present in these well researched and entertaining short presentations about the people, places, and events that have shaped who we are and who we are becoming. 

May 15, 2023

What Michael Jordan is to basketball, and Charles Lindberg and Amelia Earhart are to aviation, Harry Houdini is to the world of magic. But even legends have slumps in their career. Harry Houdini was having one in 1908, but figured a way to turn the tide right here in St. Louis. Just press play to hear the whole story. ———

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Podcast Transcript: I’m Andrew Wanko, Public Historian of the Missouri Historical Society, and Here’s History on 88-one, KDHX. ———

Even a century after his death, it seems like everyone knows at least something about Harry Houdini. The most famous magician in history, Houdini took to the theater stages of St. Louis at least five times across his career, but a visit in 1908 holds a special place in Houdini lore. It was then that one of his most famous and dangerous stunts made its world debut. ———
Across the early 1900s, Houdini had escaped being lashed to planks, stuffed into packing cases, and clasped into countless handcuffs. But he sensed a problem. Audiences were getting bored with seeing the same old escapes. In January of 1908, Houdini appeared before a small and lackluster crowd at the Columbia Theater in Downtown St. Louis. Manager Frank Tate, disgusted by the empty chairs, told the famous magician he wasn’t worth a five-dollar bill anymore. Houdini needed a new hook, something that brought a sense of danger to his shows. ———

On January 27, 1908, St. Louisans attending Houdini’s show at the Columbia watched as a giant galvanized metal jug was hauled onto the stage. Attendants dumped in endless buckets of water. Then Houdini stepped inside, inhaled deeply, and dropped down beneath the water’s surface. The heavy lid was slammed shut and locked with six locks, and a curtain drawn in front of the can. ———

The St. Louis audience sat in captivated silence, broken only by the occasional nervous cough. As the seconds ticked by, a panicked axe-wielding assistant came out ready to smash open the can, another carefully timed visual meant to set the audience’s pulse racing even faster. ———

After two tense minutes, Houdini whipped back the curtain to reveal himself soaking wet and alive. The crowd that just the night before was yawning and disinterested roared with applause. The Milk Can escape’s deadly stakes – or at least the appearance of them - brought Houdini’s career back to life. From its St. Louis debut it would become one of his trademark escapes, baffling audiences all the way up to his death in 1926. ———

Here’s history is a joint production of the Missouri Historical Society and KDHX.  I’m Andrew Wanko and this is 88.1 KDHX St. Louis. ———