AMHERST – Upon his death on Halloween in 1926 at the age of 52, Harry Houdini was one of the most famous men on earth.
When Houdini visited Amherst on Aug. 3, 1896, he was anything but famous.
“When Harry Houdini played here there was no review of his show in the Amherst Daily News,” said Bruce MacNab. “There was just one sentence and it was quite telling. It said, ‘The audience was very small.’
"Sometimes that’s code for there was nobody there.”
MacNab’s book, ‘The Metamorphosis: The Apprenticeship of Harry Houdini’ chronicles Houdini’s visit to the Maritimes in 1896.
“Houdini is one of the most famous people who ever lived and he spent a summer in the Maritimes visiting all these towns and cities before he was famous,” said MacNab. “He lived in Springhill for a week. He spent four days in Amherst and he performed in Joggins and Parrsboro.”
Houdini was a starving artist during his time spent in the Maritimes.
“He was starving when he was here. By the end of the tour he was broke and hungry.”
MacNab says it was Houdini’s tour of the Maritimes that inspired his straitjacket escape routine.
“He was in Saint John, New Brunswick and he went to the provincial lunatic asylum and the doctor gave him a tour of the asylum,” said MacNab.
“He looked through a window in the door and he said he saw a maniac on the floor that was strapped in some sort of contraption,” added MacNab. “The harder he fought to get out of this contraption the tighter it got on him. He watched as the man passed out on the floor from exhaustion.”
Houdini went back to uptown Saint John and decided he could get out of the contraption.
“He went back and asked the doctor what it was, and the doctor said, “it’s called a straitjacket,’” said MacNab. “Houdini talked the doctor into giving him a straitjacket he could practice with. He left town with the straitjacket and a few years later in became Houdini’s most famous stunt.”
On Aug. 3, exactly 118 years after Houdini’s visit to Amherst, MacNab took people on a tour of Houdini’s time spent in Amherst.
The tour made four stops, and each stop featured magic by Margaret Steele, a magician from Peekskill, New York, who has performed magic throughout the world, most recently performing in China.
The first stop was directly behind the First Baptist Church on Victoria Street where the back parking lot meets Amherst Town Square.
“This is the spot where you can bring friends and tell them that Harry Houdini performed right here in 1896,” said MacNab.
It is the spot where the Academy of Music once stood.
The 700-seat performance hall was converted from an old wooden church.
“Theatrical people of the day, especially in variety theatre and vaudeville, truly believe that churches converted to theatres were bad luck,” said MacNab. “Most of them refused to play in a theatre that was a church. That meant Amherst didn’t get a lot of the big shows that played in Springhill, Truro, Moncton or Sackville, N.B.
The theatre opened in 1895 and it lived up to its reputation as a jinxed venue.
“There was a shooting on stage shortly after Houdini performed here. Somebody was shot with a shotgun that was supposed to be loaded as a blank. It knocked him down and almost killed him,” said MacNab. “Also, the famous heavyweight champion boxer John L. Sullivan was here one night and his entourage got in so much trouble he had to fire them all and he left them all in jail in Amherst.”
The academy stood for 13 years and then it burned to the ground in a fire.
The third stop on the tour was at the train station.
Before coming to Amherst Houdini made stops in Parrsboro, Springhill and Joggins.
“You got off the train here and it was close to the Academy of Music,” said MacNab.
He then pointed southwest across the tracks to an abandoned piece of land.
“It’s a 35 acre chunk of land which used to be owned by the Rhodes Curry Company,” said MacNab. “When Houdini was here in 1896 they were building streetcars for the street railways in Moncton and Halifax.”
Hundreds of men worked at the factory. Houdini went there on the day of his show and did some close-up, sleight-of-hand magic for the workers.
MacNab read an article from the Amherst Daily News that talked about Houdini’s visit to the factory.
The article says Houdini was introduced and then, “he cheerfully responded, and although they had expected a good deal of him they never dreamed that such a clever thing could be done at so close a range. If his entertainment is in keeping with his slight of hand work it certainly must be well worth witnessing at the Academy of Music tonight.”
Unfortunately, Houdini performed to a near-empty venue that evening.
MacNab says he first became interested in Houdini while he was a kid growing up in the 70s.
“There were a lot of daredevils in the seventies like Evil Knievel and bands like Kiss and Alice Cooper, and there was also a great magician from Winnipeg named Doug Henning,” said MacNab.
The 50th anniversary of Houdini’s death was in 1976.
“One of my teachers told me that Houdini performed in Dartmouth, which is my home town,” said MacNab. “I kept waiting for someone to write a book about his time here and it never happened so I decided to do it myself.”