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Harry Houdini in Aberdeen

Harry Houdini, was the entertainment phenomenon of his era. He escaped from chains, locks, ropes and sacks. They strapped him in and hung him upside down from high building and he somehow freed himself. They locked him in a packing case and sank him in Liverpool docks and minutes later he surfaced smiling. 

Houdini would usually allow his equipment to be examined by the audience. The chains, locks and packing cases all seemed fine. and it was tempting to conclude that he possessed superhuman powers.

However, there was something physically remarkable about Houdini admired for his bravery, dexterity and fitness. His nerve was so cool that he could relax when buried six feet underground till they came to dig him up.  His fingers were so strong that he could. undo a strap or manipulate keys through the canvas of a mail bag.

He made a comprehensive study of locks and was able to conceal tools about his person in a way that fooled even the doctors who examined him.  As an entertainer, he combined all this strength and ingenuity with a lot of trickery.

His stage escapes took place behind a curtain with an orchestra playing to disguise any banging, rattling and sawing. All Houdini's feats can easily be explained but he belonged to that band of mythical supermen who, we are led to believe, were capable of miracles.

In Edinburgh one of the many other Scottish cities he visited, he gave shoes to all the poor kids. On his arrival he was struck by the number of waifs walking around barefoot in chilly weather. A long-time benefactor to orphans, he announced a special show for the Scottish youngsters and doled out 300 pairs of boots, the members of his stage troupe all helping with the fittings. This wasn’t nearly enough footwear for the gathering mob of children on hand so Houdini trotted the rest en masse to the nearest cobbler shop and had more shoes made to order.


The world-famous escape artist Harry Houdini also visited Aberdeen.  This photo shows him visiting the grave of John Anderson, 'Wizard of the North' at St Nicholas churchyard in Aberdeen City Centre.

Photographed here probably with a near relative of the Wizard of the North - John Anderson.

Houdini who was born in the same year as John Henry Anderson's death Harry revered Anderson  as one of his inspirations and in 1909 arranged for the upkeep of the gravesite which had fallen into disrepair. 

The Anderson gravestone still exists at St Nicholas Kirk - though the background Tenement has long since gone - replaced by part of St Nicholas Shopping Centre - a very poor substitute in Architectural Embellishment compared to the thrifty honesty of a washing line of bleaching whites, and the corrugated Iron Roof  of the wash-hoose the former being invented in 1820 by Henry Palmer of the London Dock Company..




Houdini in Fittie

The greatest drama that Houdini encountered on a tour of  Scotland was in Aberdeen Harbour, where on July 1, 1909, a large crowd braved a northeaster gale to see him chained and handcuffed and thrown into the sea.

This episode opens in a self publicity gripping style.  Because a prevailing storm, the Aberdeen Police were ready to stop him from doing his death defying escape attempt.  Only after he had personally viewed the treacherous surging ocean waves, into which he was advised no rescue boats would venture.  He was convinced instead, to perform his audience grabbing stunt within the breakwater and Navigation Channel.

The water was murky and laced with who knew what filth and poisons, (sewage) and yet Houdini was ready to enter the vortex, to venture boldly, perhaps foolishly, behind death’s dark curtain.  Every single moment he was underwater, out of sight,  the thousands of people were wondering what he was enduring, and was he now on 'the other side', could any man come back from such a fate?

He was duly shackled and then he dove from the bridge of the same tugboat that had taken him into the maw of the gale, and though the harbour was churning even behind the Pier barriers, he duly resurfaced remarkably unscathed. His stage appearances that week at the Palace Theatre in Bridge Place were, needless to say, jam packed.

Such was the the headline grabbing and public celebration sensation of this self publicity stunt by the master .Music Hall Entertainer, Escapologist and  Illusionist.  Harry Houdini





John Henry Anderson -

The Wizard of the North


Flamboyant Anderson, a showman in the grand manner, was said to be the first conjuror to produce rabbits from a hat. His tricks and illusions included the Inexhaustible Bottle, which appeared to produce any drink requested by the members of the audience.

The Great Gun Trick, described as ‘the most wonderful feat ever attempted by man’ – in which Anderson was seemingly able to catch a bullet fired at him from a musket – was always kept as the finale of his act in order that ‘ladies might withdraw, to avoid witnessing it’. At the Wood Green Empire, London in March 1918, that the ‘Chinese’ magician Chung Ling Soo (real name William Robinson) received a fatal injury while performing his (in)famous trick of catching a bullet between his teeth.

Anderson put much of the profits from his tours into the building of the new Glasgow City Theatre, in the Saltmarket on Glasgow Green. This enormous structure was “the biggest and most magnificent that Glasgow had ever seen”. It could hold 5,000 people and was said to be unequalled in the country for its interior splendour. The opening of the theatre coincided with the start of the city fair in July 1845 and the pit, which could hold 3,000 customers, was “crammed even to inconvenience”. Its success was short lived, however, because after five months disaster struck. On 18 November the theatre was burned to the ground. Anderson was under-insured and despite help from subscriptions and benefit performances held by friendly Theatre owners, he was badly in debt and had to start touring again in order to revive his fortunes.

Undeterred, he continued to tour with his magic show as successfully as ever, as an article from a London magazine of the day, The Era, testified in September 1865: ‘Professor Anderson continues to cajole watches from boxes securely locked, and to bewilder the admiring public in the most inexplicable manner’.  John Henry Anderson toured right up until his death in Darlington on 3 February 1874. He was brought back to his beloved native Scotland, and lies buried in St Nicholas Churchyard in Aberdeen. 

In 1842, Anderson married Hannah Longherst from Aberdeen, an assistant with his show. The following year their son John Henry Jr. was born. In 1845, Anderson's mistress Miss Prentice gave birth to Philip Prentice Anderson, but died in childbirth. Anderson, however, supported the child for his entire life. Anderson would also have two daughters who assisted in their father's show and later became successful magicians, and a second illegitimate son with a member of his touring troupe In 1854, John Henry held a farewell performance in Aberdeen. The success of this show was enough to inspire Anderson not to retire. Rather, he began to concentrate his efforts on exposing Spiritualism fraud. In his shows, he used his daughters to duplicate spiritualist effects. Anderson was one of the magicians of his day who exposed the Frauds of the Davenport Brothers. The show played at the Lyceum in London and then moved to Covent Garden in 1855. The following year, after a gala performance, the Theatre Royal caught fire, destroying all of Anderson's properties and bankrupting him for the second time in his professional career. 

In 1859, after a brief period as an Actor, Anderson began another world tour. In 1862, at the age of eighteen, John Henry Anderson Jr. left his father's troupe and began his own independent career as a conjurer. This started a bitter feud between father and son and the two never spoke again.

Disaster struck when another fire, at the Covent Garden Theatre Royal in London which he had leased in 1856, plunged Anderson even more deeply into debt.

Anderson, the " Wizard of the North," was exhibiting legerdemain tricks in Aberdeen, and to draw a large house he offered prizes for the best and the worst conundrums which Aberdeen could produce. The one which gained the prize for badness was : — "Why is a pig like a potato?" and the answer was : — " Because neither of them knows anything about the Circumbendibus Railway." No doubt the same might be said now about half of the inhabitants of Aberdeen.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013