“Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us.” Daniel Burnham
Harry Houdini had a standing challenge to his fellow magicians that he could not be fooled by a trick if he saw it performed three times.1 Then, one cold snowy Chicago night in the Crystal Room of the Great Northern Hotel, Houdini encountered a young unknown Canadian sleight-of-hand artist who put him to the test.
That fateful night is now legendary amongst magicians but the evening was originally intended to honor Houdini. On Monday, February 6th 1922, sixty magicians gathered for “Houdini Night”. The dinner didn’t begin until 11 p.m. because Harry was booked for a weeklong engagement at the Orpheum Palace Music Hall2 (across the street from City Hall) with performances at 2:15 and 8:15 p.m. Performances that included his upside down water torture escape. So, by 11 p.m., 47 year old Harry had already had a long day.
Daniel Burnham’s Great Northern Hotel3, at the corner of Jackson and Dearborn, was a short walk from the theater. The dinner and formal magic presentations wound up at 3:30 a.m. The magicians then broke into small groups to chat and share close-up magic tricks.
Houdini’s longtime New York pal Sam Margules pulled Houdini over to a small group to witness 27 year old Dai Vernon’s mystifications with a deck of cards. Vernon performed an ingenious and deft card sleight that fooled Houdini not just three but seven times in a row. Finally, Sam advised, “Admit it Harry, he’s got you.” and Houdini, without admitting defeat, left the hotel. The story spread and Dai Vernon4 became “The Man Who Fooled Houdini”.
1) Author David Ben describes the entire episode between Vernon and Houdini in dramatic detail in his book: Dai Vernon: A Biography–Artist - Magician - Muse (Vol. 1: 1894-1941) Chicago: Squash Publishing, 2006
2) The Orpheum Palace Music Hall was renamed the Erlanger in 1926 and demolished in 1962.
3) The Great Northern Hotel was catty-corner to the Burnham’s Monadnock Building. Both were built in 1891 the same year that Burnham oversaw construction of the 1893 Columbian Exposition and that his business partner, John Root, died.
4) A magician’s magician, Dai Vernon, became known as the “professor” and lived at the Magic Castle in Hollywood until his death at the age of 98.