THE HAUNTED MUSEUM:
A MAGICIAN AMONG THE SPIRITS
HOUDINI AND THE SUPERNATURAL
Harry Houdini is still considered today as one of the greatest illusionists and magicians in history. In addition to his fantastic escapes and stunts, he was also well known in the 1920s for his debunking of fraudulent Spiritualist mediums. In this, modern information about Houdini tends to be skewed. Today, many skeptic organizations have claimed Houdini as one of their own, but this is far from the truth. Unlike these groups, Houdini did not start out attacking fake mediums because he did not believe in the supernatural. In fact, he had gone to them in an attempt to try and contact his dead mother, but found that the mediums he met were often frauds. This was when he turned to exposing them, still searching for the truth. Before his death, Houdini stated that should it be possible to contact the living from the other side, he would do so.
The question remains as to whether or not he actually succeeded…
Houdini was born in Budapest, Hungary on March 24, 1874 but grew up as Erich Weiss in the small Wisconsin town of Appleton. Later, his father, Rabbi Meyer Samuel Weiss, moved the family to Milwaukee and he took over a Jewish congregation there. Legend has it that young Erich was apprenticed to a locksmith, where he learned to assemble and take apart locks with his eyes closed. If this part of the story is true, it was a skill that served him well later in life. Many aspects of Houdini's life remain a mystery today (which is likely how he wanted it) and he had been credited with the famous line about his biography: "When the legend is greater than the truth -- print the legend!"
At the age of 12, Erich ran away from home, hoping to contribute more to his impoverished parents than he could make shining shoes and selling newspapers. Rabbi Samuel Weiss left for New York a short time later, feeling that a teacher of religion could do better in a city with a larger Jewish population. Erich worked his way east and joined his father and between the two of them, they saved enough money to bring Erich’s mother and the other children to Manhattan.
Magic was just one of Erich’s many interests until he read the memoirs of the famous French magician, Robert Houdin. Erich was working at a necktie factory on lower Broadway but more than anything he wanted to become a professional magician. He left his first steady job and, assisted by his friend and fellow factory worker Jacob Hyman, he began appearing in New York beer halls and theaters. He took the name of Houdini, which was based on the name of Robert Houdin, and he and Hyman broke in their new act playing single-night dates wherever they could find a booking. Discouraged when agents refused to book them for longer runs, Hyman quit and went back to the necktie factory. Theodore Weiss, Erich’s young brother, eagerly took his place. Performing for the most part in dime museums, on platforms next to snake charmers, fire-eaters and human oddities, they traveled as far west as Chicago, where the “Brothers Houdini” did quite well during the 1893 World’s Fair.
Friends knew Houdini as “Ehrie”, so the transition of his first name to “Harry” was almost inevitable. To his parents, though, he was always Erich. Before Samuel Weiss died at the age of 63, he called his son to his bedside and made Erich swear that he would always provide for his mother. This vow was unnecessary. Cecilia had made the costumes for Erich’s first magic act and had encouraged him in his career. Erich loved his mother deeply and the bond between them grew stronger (some would say almost unnaturally so) with the passage of years.
Houdini continued to travel and perform. One of his most applauded illusions was one that he called “Metamorphosis”, which involved an assistant that was placed into a locked box who then switched places with the magician within seconds after a curtain was raised. Theo, who Houdini called “Dash”, could make the switch very quickly but Houdini’s wife, Bess, was even faster.
Houdini met Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner while he was performing at Coney Island. He was 20 when he impulsively married the tiny brunette singer, who weighed only 94 pounds and was even shorter than Houdini’s diminutive height. Her widowed Catholic mother was furious but the understanding Cecilia welcomed the newlyweds into her home. Bess soon began working with her husband and Theo went on the road with another girl, “Madame Olga”, as his assistant.
Harry and Bess played for 26 weeks in 1895 with the Welsh Brothers Circus, which maintained winter headquarters in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. When not performing magic, Harry sold soap, combs, toothpaste and other necessities to his fellow performers. He also spent his free time pursuing his new hobby --- handcuffs. He discovered that they could be opened with a concealed duplicate key, a small piece of metal or bent wire. A single key would open every set of the same pattern. With less than a dozen hidden keys and picks, Houdini was sure that he could escape from every kind of manacle used by various police departments in the United States. He read every piece of information that he could find on locking mechanisms and began collecting different kinds of cuffs, taking them apart and studying their mechanisms.
Houdini began employing a variety of new and strange stunts in his act and devised incredible escapes that had never been attempted before. He became known for some time as the "Handcuff King", due to the ease from which he escaped any restraints. It was a skill that would later make him famous.
Though Houdini sent half of his weekly $20 salary home to his mother, by the end of the tour with Welsh Brothers, he had saved enough to buy an interest in The American Gaiety Girls, a burlesque show. His cousin, Harry Newman, was the company’s advance man, traveling ahead of the production, booking theaters and raising publicity. The investment seemed wise. The Houdinis would be working regularly and Houdini could use his new escape skills to get free newspaper space for the shows.
In November 1895, Houdini amazed officers at a police station in Gloucester, Massachusetts by freeing himself from a pair of their handcuffs. Similar stories began to appear in newspapers wherever the show went. Houdini was gaining a good reputation and he and Bess seemed to be well on their way to success. But it was not meant to be, at least not yet. The show closed abruptly in Rhode Island when the company manager was arrested for embezzling the show’s funds.
Disappointed, Houdini signed on with “Marco the Magician” to tour Nova Scotia. Marco had hoped to emulate Herrmann the Great but business was so bad in Halifax that he gave up the show and returned to Connecticut, where he was a church organist.
Houdini stayed on in Canada, hoping to make it on his own. He was playing in St. John, the principal city of New Brunswick, when he accompanied a recent doctor friend on his rounds in a mental institution. Houdini watched in shocked fascination as a man in straitjacket, locked in a padded cell, tried frantically to free himself. Houdini became convinced that an escape from a straitjacket would be an effective one to perform on stage. He obtained a straightjacket from his friend and then, after weeks of strenuous practice, was ready to try it before an audience. Eager volunteers buckled Houdini in, carried him to a cabinet and then closed the curtains. He had gained some slack by holding his crossed arms rigidly as the sleeve straps were fastened. Straining every muscle, a little at a time, he forced one sleeve and then other over his head. Then, he opened the straps with the pressure of his fingers through the canvas. He twisted, turned, and finally squirmed free. He threw off the restraint and burst through the curtains to take a bow.
No one applauded. The escape had fallen flat because the audience had not witnessed his struggle. They assumed that a hidden assistant had released him. Houdini had not yet discovered the showmanship that would allow him to hold an audience enthralled.
The Houdinis had their worst winter season so far in 1896 and new bookings eluded them until the spring. In August, they were in so much trouble financially that Harry wrote to both Harry Kellar and Herrmann the Great and offered the services of he and Bess as assistants. Kellar wrote back to say that he was filled at this time but offered Houdini luck in the future.
In the fall of 1897, Houdini toured with a midwestern medicine show. Dr. Hill, the owner, sold bottled cure-alls to crowds that gathered in small towns to watch the free entertainment supplied by members of his troupe. He then offered another show, for a ticket, later on in the evening.
In one town, Dr. Hill heard that a professional spirit medium had been attracting sizable audiences in the area and Houdin offered to stage a séance as part of their performance. Harry made his debut as a “Spiritualist” on January 8, 1898 in the Galena, Kansas opera house. Tied to a chair in his cabinet by a committee from the audience, he pretended to go into a trance. Once the curtains were closed, a mandolin played softly and bells and tambourines jangled before flying off over the heads of the crowd. When the curtains opened, Houdini was still firmly tied. Once more, the curtains closed and he was “freed from his bonds by the spirits”. Houdini then walked to the front of the stage, closed his eyes and passed on messages from the dead.
Houdini had hurriedly prepared for this, the most convincing part of his performance, by listening to local gossip, reading back copies of the Galena newspaper, and copying names and dates from tombstones in local cemeteries. When Houdini pretended to contact the spirit of a lame man whose throat had been cut and spelled out the victim’s name, several people actually fled from the theater!
The medicine show tour ended and Houdini still found it difficult to book his magic and escape act. He and Bess traveled for a time as mediums before they signed on to play another season with the Welsh Brothers Circus. At 24, Houdini was still on the bottom rung of the show business ladder. He promised his wife that he would try for only one more year and then, if he was not a hot, he would give up magic and find another, more profitable, line of work.
While playing in St. Paul, Minnesota, early in 1899, Houdini was approached by a short, plump, German man after his show. Could Houdini, the man asked, free himself from other manacles, or only those used in the show? Houdini boasted that the restraint had yet to be made that could hold him. The next evening, the man returned with his own handcuffs, locked them on Houdini’s wrists and pocketed the key. When the brash young magician easily escaped from the manacles, the man introduced himself as Martin Beck, the acclaimed booker for the Orpheum vaudeville circuit. He offered Houdini a trial date in Omaha if Harry would put together a new act with dramatic escapes.
Soon after, with Beck’s assistance, Houdini left the small time behind and the enigmatic showman began his journey to become an American, and then worldwide, sensation. In Omaha, where he played for a week and received $60 --- the most money he had ever earned at one time --- the escape artist slipped out of five pair of police shackles and a set of regulation leg irons. By the time he reached California, his salary had jumped to $90.
In San Francisco, Houdini was stripped to the skin in the office of the San Francisco detective force and examined by a police surgeon. He then proceeded to slip out of 10 pairs of handcuffs, a wide leather belt used to subdue dangerous prisoners and a regulation straitjacket. The escapes took place behind the closed door of a closest and the veteran detectives could come up with no explanation as to how it was done. The lengthy newspaper account never mentioned that Houdini had visited the detective bureau in advance to inspect the restraints and never mentioned the kiss he exchanged with Bess prior to being placed in the closet. There was no way that they could know about the clever method the Houdinis had devised --- where Bess slipped a key to her husband with her tongue in the midst of their kiss!
When Houdini’s salary soared to $150 per week, he ran large ads in the trade papers to make sure that the theatrical world knew of his accomplishments. Martin Beck used the ads, as well as the lengthy newspapers stories of his feats and box office reports from the Orpheum tour, to sell Houdini to the Keith Theater circuit in the East as a headliner.
To publicize his first date at the Orpheum Theatre in Kansas City, Houdini escaped from handcuffs at the Central Police Station. When he returned after playing the Keith theaters, he introduced his second major publicity stunt. Stripped naked, fastened at his wrists and ankles by five pairs of irons, he was locked in a cell. In less than eight minutes, he escaped from not only the manacles but the cell, too! Needless to say, newspaper headlines screamed his name and Houdini rode the wave of popularity to several sold-out shows.
Eager to travel abroad, Houdini and Bess sailed for England without a booking. He had to convince a dubious theater manager that he could escape from handcuffs at Scotland Yard before he received his first British contract. In July 1900, he opened to acclaim at the Alhambra Theater in London and then traveled to the Continent, where he set new box-office records in Dresden and Berlin. The demand for vaudeville handcuff acts became so great that he brought his brother Theo from New York and sent him on tour as “Hardeen”. Within a year, Houdini was the most popular attraction in Europe.
Houdini never turned down any opportunity for publicity. When Werner Graf, a German policeman, wrote a derisive article in July 1901, accusing Houdini of lying when he said that he could escape from any sort of police restraint, Houdini sued Graf for slander. He fought the case through two German appeals courts but he eventually won the case. Houdini celebrated by issuing a new advertising lithograph showing himself in a tuxedo and manacles, standing before the highest German tribunal. “Apologize in the name of King Wilhelm II, Kaiser of Germany”, the lithograph was titled and it included a few words on Graf’s forced apology and the fact that he had to pay all of the magician’s court costs.
He loved publicity but he was never the sort to ignore an insult, either. Engelberto Klepini, an escape artist with the Circus Sidoli, advertised in 1902 that he had defeated the American in a handcuff competition. He likely assumed that Houdini would never see the advertisement but not only did Harry see it, he traveled from Holland to Dortmund, Germany to confront his detractor. Wearing a disguise, he took a seat in the stands. He sat through the show until Klepini told the audience he had beaten Houdini in an escape contest. At that point, Harry leapt into the circus ring, ripped off his disguise and, waving a handful of bank notes, challenged the startled performer. He would give Klepini 5,000 marks if he could escape from a pair of Houdini handcuffs --- and he would offer another 5,000 if Houdini could not escape from his!
Prodded by the circus’ business manager, Klepini agreed to allow Houdini to lock him into a set of French letter cuffs the next night. Before show time, the business manager was shown the manacles and Houdini showed him how the five cylinders could be turned to spell out c-l-e-f-s, the French word for keys, and open the handcuffs. Klepini confidently entered his cabinet but after 30 minutes, the structure was moved to the side of the ring so that the rest of the show could continue. After the program ended, workers lifted the cabinet again. Klepini ran out and darted across the ring to the manager’s office --- still shackled. It was almost 1:00 a.m. when the manager ordered Klepini to give up. Harry spun the cylinders until the letters f-r-a-u-d fell into place. The cuffs sprang open. He had changed the combination before the manacles were placed on his competitor’s wrists.
If the police did not challenge Houdini in a city where he played, Houdini challenged them. During an engagement in Moscow in May 1903, he dared the chief of the Russian secret police to imprison him on one of the “escape-proof” jails on wheels that had been designed to transport enemies of the state to Siberia. Houdini had seen one of these strange horse-drawn vans on the street and had examined it while the horses were drinking from a trough. Escape was impossible from the front, sides, bottom or top but the entrance door at the back was fastened with a single padlock --- located just below a barred window that a slender arm could pass through. Houdini was stripped, searched, chained hand and foot, and then locked in the wagon. The entrance door was turned away from the police, who watched from the far side of a courtyard. Harry escaped within 20 minutes. The indignant police refused to confirm his escape, but the news spread rapidly, and soon handsome lithographs appeared showing the American magician outwitting the Russian secret police.
Houdini returned to America and found himself in great demand. His exploits in Europe had been widely told at home and he was soon selling out theaters all over the country. Four months after his return, he staged his most remarkable prison break so far. In March 1906, officials locked the naked magician in the Washington, D.C. cell on “Murderer’s Row” that had once held Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President James Garfield. The officers then locked Harry’s clothes in another cell and returned to the warden’s office. Working quickly, Houdini freed himself and then proceeded to open all of the doors and to shift the prisoners from one cell to another. He met no resistance, and in fact, the prisoners were highly entertained, although surprised by the sudden appearance of a naked man. After changing the cells of all of the men on the entire cellblock, Harry locked the cells, dressed and knocked on the warden’s door. The entire feat took less than 27 minutes.
That winter, Houdini jumped from the Belle Island Bridge in Detroit and got out of two pairs of handcuffs while submerged below the surface of the icy water. Some stories say that the river was actually frozen over at the time and Houdini jumped into the water through a hole that had been cut into it. The story goes on to say that he almost drowned before he found the opening again and could be pulled out. In truth, though, it was cold that day but the river was not frozen. Regardless, this exploit, like his subsequent bridge jumps, made front-page news.
Houdini made the first of the escapes for which he would become the most famous --- from a padlocked water can --- at the Columbia Theatre in St. Louis in January 1908. He went offstage to put on his bathing suit while a committee inspected a large, galvanized container, much like the milk cans that dairies supplied to farmers. The volunteers looked on as assistants filled the container with water. While this was being done, Houdini was building the drama by grimly reminding the audience that a man could only live for a short time without “life sustaining air.” He suggested that they start holding their breath the moment that his head disappeared from view into the tank. He entered the can feet first and quickly disappeared into the water. Within 30 seconds, most of the spectators were gasping for air --- but Houdini had not appeared. He stayed out for sight for nearly two minutes. This act of endurance won him a large round of applause, but the most thrilling part of the act was still to come.
This time, before Houdini went back into the water-filled can, his wrists were handcuffed. More water was added until the can overflowed onto the stage. Quickly, his assistants jammed the top onto the can and secured it with six padlocks. Escape seemed impossible!
A curtain was drawn around the can and time began to tick by. Audience members who had again gulped in a large breath of air as Houdini vanished into the can now gasped for air with loud, whopping coughs. The clocked ticked --- thirty seconds passed, then sixty, then ninety. Houdini’s chief assistant, Franz Kukol, came from backstage with an ax in his hands, prepared to break the locks to save the magician. He leaned toward the curtain and listened closely, but there was no sound. Two minutes passed, then three. Kukol raised the ax. The tension in the theater was nearly unbearable. Something must have gone terribly wrong. Audience members began shouting to the assistants on the stage, urging them to break open the locks and to free Houdini! Finally, Kukol leaned forward with the ax and started to pull back the curtain around the milk can. Just as he did though, Houdini, dripping wet but wearing a wide smile, ripped the curtain aside and stepped out into full view. As he took a bow, the rafters of the theater quaked from the sound of the audience applause.
Preparation for his next spectacular feat took place in Germany. While playing at the Hansa Theatre in Hamburg in November 1909, he bought a Voisin biplane after witnessing a short flight by a local aviator. Within a month, the showman had learned how to pilot the plane on his own. He had followed the development of aviation with fascination since the Wright Brothers had flown at Kitty Hawk and dreamed of taking flight. He knew that no one had yet conquered the air over Australia and he was determined to be the first. The crated biplane was stored in the hold of a ship and in January 1910, Houdini sailed for Australia.
Houdini was appearing at the New Opera House in Melbourne and, as usual, planned a spectacular stunt to publicize the show. On February 18, more than 20,000 people lined the Queen’s Bridge and the banks of the Yarra River to see the manacled escapologist plunge into the murky waters below. A much smaller crowd was present less than a month later at Digger’s Rest, a field just outside of the city, when Houdini flew the first plane on the continent. Eager to take advantage of some good flying weather, Houdini went to the field after his show and slept in the tent that served as a hangar for his biplane. On March 16, at 5:00 a.m., Houdini’s plane was wheeled out on the wooden planks that served as a take-off area. He donned a pair of goggles and a cap and climbed behind the steering wheel. With a wave to Bess, the propeller was started, the mooring line was cast off and the engine began to roar. The plane shot forward and up, soaring gracefully into the morning sky. Houdini circled the field and then headed back toward the runway. As the plane touched down, the assembled audience clapped and laughed with approval. Houdini came in for a perfect landing after the first sustained flight in Australian history.
While playing in England the next year, Houdini worked on a new device that would take the place of the padlocked water can --- and lead to even more acclaim. When it was completed, the new “Chinese Water Torture Cell” was crated and stored until another blockbuster attraction was needed to bolster his act.
When he returned to the United States in the fall of 1911, Houdini released himself after being tied to the plank by three sea captains. He also escaped from a deep-sea diving suit, even after the headpiece had been bolted to the shoulders. Then, he accepted his strangest challenge of all. A “sea monster”, which looked something like a cross between a whale and a giant squid, had been found on a beach near Boston and the Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts dared Houdini to “play Jonah.” The manacled magician was forced through a slit in the embalmed carcass on the stage of a theater. Assistants “sewed” the opening closed with a metal chain, would more chain around the carcass and then padlocked it. Working behind the cover of a curtain, Houdini freed himself in 15 minutes. Afterward, he said that he would never try anything like it again; he had almost been overcome by the fumes of the embalming fluid that taxidermists had used inside of the creature.
Houdini kept his name in the papers --- and drew huge crowds to the theaters where he played --- during the summer of 1912 by escaping from heavy wooden crates that had been nailed and boarded shut and then dropped in the river. Since performers in America, Europe and Australia had copied his water can escape, Houdini introduced the “Chinese Water Torture Cell” in his act during his fall tour with the Circus Busch in Germany.
A committee of volunteers was chosen prior to the show and they examined the metal-line mahogany tank, along with the cage that was to be lowered into the water-filled chamber. After they snapped the cuffs on his wrists, they also examined the heavy enclosures on his ankles and the massive frame that was fitted over them. Houdini was then hauled upward, turned upside down and lowered down into the water. Assistants locked the top of the tank and pushed a canopy over it to cover the top. Houdini was visible through the plate glass on the front of the tank until the drapes around it were closed. Two assistants stood by with axes; ready to break the glass in case of emergency. Suspenseful minutes passed and then Houdini parted the curtains to show-stopping applause.
Houdini returned home to the United States the following summer because he wanted to spend some time with his mother. Cecilia was now frail and weak and at the age of 72, her health was failing. Harry played a single, month-long engagement at Hammerstein’s Roof Garden in New York City, so that he could be close to her. The last time that he saw her would be at his bon voyage party when he returned to Europe. He was in Copenhagen on July 17, being interviewed by several newspapermen when a cable arrived for him. Houdini ripped open the envelope and discovered that his beloved mother had died. He fell unconscious to the floor. Houdini breached his Copenhagen contract, canceled the rest of his European bookings and returned to New York for the funeral. It was the greatest below the great magician had ever suffered. He did not resume his European tour until September. He often said that the death of his mother had been “a shock from which I do not think recovery is possible.”
Houdini was working in the United States when the Great War broke out in 1914. Since the European theaters were closed to him for the duration, he perfected a new publicity stunt to bring in the crowds to American theaters --- a straitjacket escape made while dangling high in the air, upside down and dangling from the top of a building. More than 20,000 people turned out to watch him wriggle out of his bindings in Providence. Another 50,000 turned out in Baltimore and twice that many gathered in the nation’ s capital. Houdini ended the stunt by letting the straitjacket fall a dozen stories of more to the street below. Then, he extended his arms and took a bow while still hanging in mid-air.
Houdini registered for the draft in 1917. At the age of 43, he likely knew that he would not be inducted but he used the opportunity to offer his services performing at training camps, in Red Cross shows, and staged his straitjacket escape high above Broadway as members of the Society of American Magicians and their wives sold war bonds in the street. Houdini had recently been elected the President of the prestigious society and under his leadership, new affiliates were being formed all over the country.
On January 7, 1918, Houdini introduced the biggest illusion ever staged at the New York Hippodrome --- or anywhere else! He called it the “Vanishing Elephant” and for this trick, he obtained the services of Jennie, a 10,000-pound elephant who was placed inside of a wooden box that was roughly the size of a small garage. Once she was inside, Houdini fired a pistol. His assistants opened the front curtains and removed a circular section at the back of the box to allow the audience to see through the stage curtains at the rear --- the elephant was gone! Houdini had been booked for six weeks at the theater with this illusion but the impact of the stunt prolonged the engagement to 19 weeks, the longest that Houdini had ever played.
“With this baffling mystery,” wrote Sime Silverman, the editor of Variety, “Houdini puts his title of escape artist behind him and becomes the Master Magician.”
There was no question about it --- Houdini had finally arrived.
But Houdini was as troubled as he was famous. He was still depressed over the death of his mother and soon became obsessed with it. After she died, he was observed many times at the cemetery where she was buried, lying face down on her grave and holding long conversations with her. He felt that he had to communicate with her and that was when he turned to Spiritualism.
But Houdini, having conducted fake séances during a low time in his career, soon discovered that the mediums he visited were trying to pass off cheap magic tricks as the work of the spirits. He knew he could duplicate their methods on stage and it was not long before his efforts to reach his mother became secondary to his need to expose the frauds. He quickly became very bitter and willing to believe that all of the mediums were fakes. He began investigating their methods and claims and later became a self-appointed crusader against them.
Meanwhile, his career continued to soar. Before he closed at the Hippodrome, the magician signed a contract with B.F. Rolfe of Octagon Films to star in a movie serial called The Master Mystery. Houdini would play Quentin Locke, an undercover agent for the Justice Department, who used his expertise as an escape artist to thwart the efforts of the villain of the serial. In different scenes, Houdini’s character was buried alive in a gravel pit, tied in the bottom of an elevator shaft as the car was lowered to crush him, suspended upside down over boiling acid, and even strapped into an electric chair. Somehow, though, he always survived. Houdini broke three bones in his left wrist while filming one of the early scenes but production continued. He had to wear a leather wrist support when he returned to perform at the Hippodrome in August. In spite of this, he managed all of his escapes and illusions without a hitch.
Houdini made his first Hollywood feature film, The Grim Game, for Paramount Pictures in the spring of 1919. His left wrist was fractured again when he fell during a jail escape scene. His second film, Terror Island, was made soon after and confident that he could write and produce movies, as well as star in them, he formed the Houdini Picture Corporation. The Man from Beyond and Haldane of the Secret Service followed the pattern of his earlier films with Houdini playing a hero who managed to escape from his adversaries’ diabolical traps and tortures. The films enjoyed a modest success but were not enough to keep Houdini from his real calling.
In 1920, during a tour of England, Houdini met Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and a spokesperson for Spiritualism. The two of them became good friends, despite their opposing views on the supernatural. Houdini was delighted to learn that there was at least one intelligent person who believed in Spiritualism and found that man in his friend Conan Doyle. The author was convinced of the value of the movement to the world and had given up most of his lucrative writing career to lecture about Spiritualism around the world. He also found that Houdini’s knowledge of the spirit world was as vast as his own, although their attitudes differed. The two men would become great friends, then bitter rivals, their strange relationship ending only with the magician's death.
Click Here to read an account of the friendship between Doyle and Houdini!
He met a number of British mediums through Conan Doyle but encountered nothing but trickery at their séances. His earlier feelings about fraudulent mediums began to re-surface and Houdini felt that someone needed to counteract the propaganda that had been spread by credulous believers after the war. Ashamed of having masqueraded as a medium during his medicine show days, Houdini began making notes for a book.
In 1922, Sir Arthur arrived in New York on a nationwide lecture tour and had the chance to see The Man From Beyond as Houdini’s guest. Impressed by the exciting scenes, particularly one when Houdini’s character rescued a young woman just before she plunged to her death over Niagara Falls, Doyle called the picture “one of the really great contributions to the screen.”
Unfortunately, though, the friendship between the two men was just about to splinter apart. As described earlier in the book, the rift between them formed after Lady Jean’s failed attempt to contact Houdini’s mother in an Atlantic City hotel room. It deepened soon after when Doyle took the side of Spiritualists like J. Hewat McKenzie who made public claims that Houdini escaped from his stage traps by supernatural means.
In retaliation, Houdini launched an all-out attack on psychic fraud. Making personal appearances to promote his film The Man from Beyond, he projected slides of famous mediums and denounced the deceptions they performed during their séances. He answered questions about the methods of false mediums in newspaper columns in cities all over the country. Though he continued to perform in vaudeville, most of Houdini’s offstage hours were spent tracking down and exposing what he called “vultures who preyed on the bereaved.” Often he attended séances wearing a false beard, mustache or other piece of disguise, behind which he could observe the happenings without being detected. When he had gathered enough evidence to make an exposure, he would leap up, tear off his disguise and shout something like “I am Houdini! And you are a fraud!”
His activities received extensive press coverage but he was not doing it for the publicity. More than anything, Houdini wanted to find a genuine medium --- a real psychic who would put him in touch with his mother.
In addition to merely visiting mediums and attending séances, Houdini also began to feature Spiritualistic manifestations during his stage shows, showing how so-called “spirit forms” and “ectoplasm” could easily be created by a clever magician. Houdini would not the first to do this, but his shows were undoubtedly the most dramatic.
Houdini publicly stated: “I am willing to be convinced. My mind is open, but the proof must be such as to leave no vestige of doubt that what is claimed to be done is accomplished only through or by supernatural power.”
To prove that he did have an open mind, the magician made a pact with a number of his friends (including Dunninger) that if he should die, he would make contact, if at all possible, from the other side. He devised a secret code with the one person that he trusted most, his wife Bess, so that if a message should arrive from the beyond, that she would be able to determine that it was really from Houdini. Some have suggested that Houdini came up with the idea of the “death pact” because he was already receiving some foreboding of his death (which was just three years away) but this is not the case. He merely wanted to demonstrate that he believed in the possibility of the other side.
And while Houdini may have been willing to believe in the unexplainable, he was still unwilling to suffer those he considered to be fools and frauds. In 1923, he took time off from his vaudeville engagements to travel across the country on a lecture crusade against fraudulent mediums. His book, A Magician Among the Spirits, would be published the following year.
Later in 1923, Houdini joined a panel that was put together by Scientific American Magazine, which offered a reward for any medium that could prove their psychical gifts were genuine. Medium Nino Pecoraro (who would later be publicly exposed by Dunninger) applied for the Scientific American prize money while Houdini was still on the road with his lecture tour. A telegram from publisher Orson Munn brought the magician from Little Rock, Arkansas to New York to attend a test séance. Fellow committeemen planned to tie the Italian medium with a single long rope and Houdini literally exploded. Even amateur escapologists could free their hands when trussed up in such a manner, he told them. Houdini slashed the rope into short lengths and secured the medium himself. After that, the medium produced no manifestations.
Houdini returned to his lecture circuit, only to hear three months later that the investigative panel had deadlocked over a medium named Mina Crandon, who used the stage name of Margery. They stated that they believed Crandon to be genuine and were prepared to give her the $2,500 reward. J. Malcolm Bird, an associate editor for Scientific American, was a supporter of Crandon’s and was eager to give her the magazine’s endorsement. He allowed word of the panel’s favorable findings to reach the press. “Boston Medium Baffles Experts”, one headline announced. “Houdini the Magician Stumped”, cried another.
Houdini, who had not been present during Crandon’s investigations, much less stumped, was stunned to think the magazine would even consider approving a medium that he had never seen. Publisher Orson Munn called him in for a consultation and he publicly told Scientific American that he would forfeit $1,000 of his own money if he failed to expose Margery as a fraud.
When it was discovered that Houdini was now going to be involved in the investigations of Margery, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, an avid supporter of the medium, was outraged. He called it a “capital error” placing such an enemy of Spiritualism into the investigation. He wrote: “The Commission is, in my opinion, a farce.” Mina Crandon, however, seemed to welcome the opportunity to test her mettle against Houdini. The prize money meant nothing to this wealthy woman but the opportunity to win the approval of such a prestigious committee --- at the expense of the mighty Houdini --- proved too great a temptation for her to resist.
Houdini traveled with Orson Munn by train to Boston and on the way, he reviewed the findings of his colleagues on the investigative panel. To his way of thinking, the investigation had been badly handled from the start. Margery did not perform under the test conditions that other mediums were forced to. She was allowed to hold her test séances at her home in Boston, which opened things up widely for the possibilities of fraud. Most of the committee members had availed themselves of the Crandons generous hospitality during the proceedings, staying in their home, eating their food and enjoying their company. Houdini believed that this had badly compromised their objectivity and later, it was learned that accepting food and a bed from the Crandons were the least of the problems. One investigator had actually borrowed money from Margery’s husband, while another hoped to win his backing for a research foundation. Worse yet, the “distinguished” panel was not unaware of Margery’s physical attractions. Years later, at least one committee member would tell of his amorous encounters with the celebrated medium.
Mina Crandon certainly created a firestorm of controversy in the early 1920s but in truth, she was a rather unlikely medium.
Mina Stinson had been born in Ontario in 1888, the daughter of a farmer. She moved to Boston when she was 16 so that she could play the piano, coronet and cello in local bands and orchestras. After working as a secretary, an actress and an ambulance driver, she married a grocer named Earl P. Rand, with whom she had a son. They remained happily married until a medical operation introduced her to Le Roi Goddard Crandon, a prominent surgeon and a former instructor at the Harvard Medical School. She divorced Rand in 1918 and married Crandon a short time later.
Mina had no psychic experiences early in life and in fact, had no interest in the spirit world at all until her husband became interested in the early 1920s. One evening in May 1923, Dr. Crandon invited a number of friends to his home for a “home circle” meeting. The group gathered around a small table and soon had it tilting in response to the sitter’s questions. Crandon suggested that they each remove their hands form the table, one at a time, to see which individual was responsible for the paranormal activity. One by one, each of them took their hands away but the table only stopped rocking when the last of the sitters lifted her hands. Dr. Crandon had solved the mystery --- the medium was his own wife.
At first, the idea of being a medium seemed like a lark to Mina. Throughout the summer of 1923, the Crandons held one séance after another at their home. Each time, Mina seemed to exhibit some new ability. It seemed that Dr. Crandon only had to read about some new spirit manifestation before his wife could duplicate it.
Within a month of her first official séance, Dr. Crandon announced a plan to place his wife under hypnosis so that they could try and make contact with the psychic control who would serve as her spirit guide. At first, Mina resisted this idea, claiming that she didn’t want to miss any of the “fun” while she was under hypnosis. Eventually, though, she gave in to her husband’s wishes and soon, a male voice made itself heard to the Crandon home circle.
The voice turned out to belong to Mina’s brother, Walter Stinson, who had been crushed to death in a railroad accident in 1911. From this point on, Walter’s spirit was a regular presence in the Crandon séance room. He proved to have a strong personality, a quick wit and was given to using rough language. Many visitors to the séance room became convinced of what they heard simply because they could not imagine that such coarse and vulgar language would come from the mouth of the pretty doctor’s wife. A number of observers noted that Walter’s voice did not seem to come from Mina at all. The sound seemed to emanate from another part of the room and would continue even when Mina was in a trance or had a mouth filled with water. The effect seemed so remarkable that one skeptic, seacrching for a plausible explanation for what he had experienced, wondered if perhaps Mina was able to speak through her ears! Walter became well known as Mina’s spirit guide and, along with his sister, began to find fame all over the world.
But Mina hardly needed Walter’s help to become a popular medium – especially among her male sitters. Unlike old and ungainly mediums like Helena Blavatsky or Eusapia Palladino, Mina resembled nothing so much as a light-hearted flapper. Even Houdini conceded that she was an exceedingly attractive woman, and one psychic researcher warned his colleagues to “avoid falling in love with the medium”. She usually greeted her sitters wearing nothing but a flimsy dressing gown, bedroom slippers and silk stockings. This attire, leaving almost nothing to the imagination, was intended to rule out the possibility of trickery or concealment, but it also tended to distract male visitors. Mina’s slender figure, fashionably bobbed hair and light blue eyes made her, in the words of one admirer, “too attractive for her own good.” To make matters more titillating, it was rumored that it was not uncommon for her to hold sessions in the nude and according to some, she was especially adept at manifesting ectoplasm from her vagina.
Dr. Crandon believed that his lovely wife was a “remarkable psychic instrument” and her took her abroad to build up a consensus of favorable opinion from European experts. One of these was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who declared her to be a “very powerful medium” and said, “the validity of her gifts was beyond all question.” J. Malcolm Bird, from Scientific American, shared Doyle’s opinion and wrote a series of articles extolling her virtues. It was Bird who gave her the name “Margery” in an effort to protect the Crandons privacy. Under this name, her fame steadily grew.
By bringing Margery to the attention of Scientific American, Conan Doyle had inadvertently started the most controversial portion of her career. With the urging of Bird, the panel had deadlocked over whether or not genuine phenomena were occurring in Margery’s presence. No one would commit to anything without Houdini’s opinion, which was why Orson Munn brought him back into the investigation. Not everyone was happy about this, however. J. Malcolm Bird who (unbelievably, given his opinions about Margery to start with) had been assigned to observe, organize and record the investigations with Margery. Bird wanted Houdini disqualified from the panel and for this reason, started the investigations without him.
Houdini traveled to Boston, though, anxious to see the medium for himself.
On July 23, Houdini called at the Crandon house, leaving his disguises and tricks behind. He wanted to see her perform under the same circumstances that his colleagues had experienced. The medium, meanwhile, relished the idea of converting the notorious debunker to her cause. Some observers saw the séance as an acid test --- not just of Margery’s authenticity but of Spiritualism itself.
Houdini watched and observed as a spirit bell rang, a voice called out to him in the darkness, and a megaphone crashed to the floor at his feet. If these manifestations impressed him, he gave no sign of it. When the lights came back on, Houdini politely thanked his hosts and left.
On the drive back to the hotel though, he finally spoke about what he was feeling. “I’ve got her,” he said. “All fraud.”
Houdini was impressed by what he had seen at the Crandon home and very impressed with the famous Margery --- though not by her supernatural powers, he quickly assured Orson Munn. At his hotel that night, he explained how and why his conclusions about Margery differed from those of some members of the panel. One feat that had puzzled the panel was the ringing of a “spirit bell box”, a small, wooden clapper-box that sounded an electric bell when pressed on the top. Although sitters on either side of her held Margery’s hands, and her feet were in contact with theirs, the bell box rang many times during the séance, a happening that she attributed to Walter.
Usually, the bell box sat on the floor between Margery’s legs, but Houdini had insisted that it be placed on the floor at his own feet. Regardless, the bell rang repeatedly anyway. Houdini had a ready answer for this: “I had rolled my right trouser leg up above my knee. All that day, I had word a silk rubber bandage around that leg, just below the knee. By night, the part of the leg below the bandage had become swollen and painfully tender, thus giving me a much keener sense of feeling and making it easier to notice the slightest sliding of Mrs. Crandon’s ankle or flexing of her muscles… I could distinctly feel her ankle slowly and spasmodically sliding as it pressed against mine while she gained space to raise her foot off the floor and touch the top of the box.” In other words, Margery’s foot, and not a spirit, had been responsible for the ringing of the bell.
Another of the evening’s mysteries had involved a megaphone that, according to the spectral voice of Walter, had levitated in the air above the sitter’s heads. Walter commanded that Houdini tell him where to throw the object and the magician instructed him to throw it in his direction. Moments later, the megaphone crashed to the floor in front of him.
Houdini had an explanation for this too. Earlier in the evening, when one of Margery’s hands was free, she had snatched up the megaphone and had placed it on her head like a dunce cap. In the total darkness of the séance room, no one could have seen her do this. She later made the megaphone fly across the room by simply snapping her head forward. Houdini said: “This is the slickest ruse that I have ever seen…”
In the wake of his first séance, Houdini refused to speak publicly about Margery. He did not reveal his opinions over what had occurred that night. Instead, he asked that more stringent tests be performed. It was rumored that Margery had somehow outwitted Houdini -- and rumors also flew that perhaps her powers were genuine after all.
Houdini ignored all of this and set about making plans for additional séances. To assure proper control at future sittings, Houdini designed a special “fraud preventer” cabinet, a crate with a slanted top that had openings at the top and sides for the medium’s head and arms. Once inside, Margery’s movements --- and her chances for deception --- would be severely limited. Reluctantly, Margery agreed to the séance from inside of the cabinet, but not before Houdini and Dr. Crandon exchanged such harsh words that they nearly came to blows. Dr. Crandon had earlier boasted to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that he was willing to “crucify” any investigators who doubted his wife. Needless to say, Houdini was high on his list of potential victims!
The first séance with the cabinet was not a success. Shortly after Margery entered her trance, Walter came though, and the committee asked that the spirit ring the bell box, which had been placed into the cabinet with her. Almost immediately, Walter exclaimed that Houdini had done something to the bell so that it would not ring. An examination of the bell revealed that a piece of rubber had been wedged against the clapper so that it would not ring! Outraged, Dr. Crandon accused the magician of trying to sabotage the proceedings, a charge that Houdini repeatedly denied.
A short time later, Houdini was accused of cheating again. A collapsible carpenter’s ruler, which could have been used to manipulate the bell box and other apparatus from within the cabinet, was discovered at Margery’s feet. Walter’s voice echoed in the séance room: “Houdini, you god damned bastard, get the hell out of here and never come back!”
In Houdini’s opinion, the folding rule had been planted in the box in order to make him look bad. He swore that he had not placed it there and the Crandons made the same claims. They blamed Houdini for the ruler and he blamed them. He resented anyone that would take their word --- an especially the word of Walter, the spirit guide --- over his.
There were many, including some of the panel, who believed that Houdini had been the one who was caught cheating this time. He was widely discredited for it, leading some to doubt the integrity of some of his earlier investigations. In any case, Scientific American finally declined to grant the prize to Margery, in large part because of Houdini’s exposure. The confrontational magician had quarreled, often violently, with every member of the committee. J. Malcolm Bird, whom Houdini suspected of active collusion with the Crandons, resigned as secretary of the panel. He was angry with Houdini and he continued to insist should have been disqualified at the very beginning.
Houdini further outraged Bird, the Crandons and their supporters when he published a small book called Houdini Exposes the Tricks Used by the Boston Medium Margery. He was adamant about the fact that Margery was doing nothing more than offering clever tricks. In his final verdict on the medium, he wrote: “My decision is, that everything which took place at the séances which I attended was a deliberate and conscious fraud…”
From the other side, Walter chimed in his final words about Houdini. He ended them with a prediction: Houdini would be dead within a year, he said. Houdini managed to defy this prophecy, but not by much. He died in 1926 and in an interview with the press, Margery had only good things to say about the magician, praising him for his virile personality and great determination.
Despite Houdini’s exposures, Margery emerged from the debacle relatively unscathed. She continued her séances and by the end of 1924, she had began to produce even greater manifestations, including “spirit arms” that rang the bell box and caused things to fly about in the séance room. For more about Margery, click here.
Like Margery, Houdini quickly recovered from the accusations that were thrown his way after the Scientific American investigations. That same fall, he embarked on another nationwide lecture tour, blasting the fraudulent mediums that he was trying to drive out of business. In the fall of 1925, he opened a new full-evening show that cast him in three roles: magician, escapologist and debunker of mediums. In every city along his route, Houdini offered $10,000 to anyone who could exhibit a Spiritualistic manifestation that he could not duplicate. The shows sold out all over the country and Houdini found himself in the position of extending tour dates because the demand for tickets was so high. In the spring of 1926, he returned to New York with the intention of spending the summer months relaxing and devising new mysteries for his fall season.
Instead of relaxing though, he was confronted with a new psychic sensation. Hereward Carrington, one of the few Scientific American committee members to continue endorsing Margery, began trumpeting about a new medium --- “Egyptian Miracle Man”, Rahman Bey. The slender, bearded mystic claimed to be able to influence his body with his mind, slowing the pulse in one of his wrists while increasing the other, thrusting steel needles through his flesh, and resting with a sword blade under the back of his neck, with another under his heels, as a man holding a sledge hammer cracked a stone slab in his chest. While mystifying to audiences --- and apparently, the gullible --- these stock tricks were well known to magicians who had traveled with circuses or performed in dime museums.
In July, Rahman Bey allowed himself to be enclosed in a metal box and remained in the Dalton Hotel swimming pool for an hour. Houdini was challenged to duplicate this marvelous feat and he gladly accepted.
He was sealed into a container of the same size and was placed in the Shelton Hotel pool. An hour and a half later, assistants took the box from the water and opened it. Tired, but otherwise in good condition, the magician told reporters that there was nothing supernatural about the stunt. The secret, he explained, was to remain calm, move as little as possible, and breathe with short, regular intakes of air.
Houdini’s fall season began in September in Paterson, New Jersey. It would be during this tour that the show began to be plagued with problems and mishaps and soon, the curtain would fall on the great magician for all time.
In Providence, Rhode Island, Bess became ill with ptomaine poisoning. Harry called a doctor immediately and arranged for a nurse to come to New York and travel with her. He was less worried about his own health. On the night of October 11, a chain slipped during Houdini’s famous Chinese Water Torture Cell escape and fractured his ankle. A doctor in the audience advised him to end the show and go to the hospital but he refused. In fact, he finished the entire performance painfully hopping on one foot. Afterwards, he stopped at Memorial Hospital in Albany for treatment and x-rays. He was ordered to stay off his feet for at least one week, but he continued his shows anyway. He fashioned a leg support for himself and went on to Schenectady and Montreal.
On the afternoon of October 22, two McGill University students, who had heard Houdini give a lecture the week before, stopped by the magician’s dressing room at the Princess Theater. One of the young men was drawing a portrait of Houdini when a third student, J. Gordon Whitehead, came in and began talking to the magician. Houdini was very courteous to the young men but was also occupied with his mail. He wasn’t paying close attention when Whitehead asked if it was true that Houdini could withstand powerful blows to the stomach. He absently replied that he could as long as he had time to brace himself in anticipation of the punch. The boy, thinking that Houdini had given permission for just such a demonstration, suddenly leaned forward and struck him four times in the abdomen with a clenched fist. When Houdini looked startled, the boy quickly backed away, explaining in a panic that he thought that Houdini had given him permission to hit him. The artist and his friend thought Whitehead had gone mad and grabbed for the boy to pull him away. Houdini stopped them with a pained wave. Whitehead felt terrible seeing the performer so clearly in pain, but the magician soon recovered enough to reassure the young man and then step onto the stage for his show.
Throughout the evening, Houdini was seen wincing in pain and late that night, he admitting to crippling pangs that continued to get worse. He was unable to sleep when he returned to his hotel room and Bess, believing that he had a stomach cramp or a strained muscle, massaged him in an effort to make him more comfortable.
His performances over the next two days consisted of hours of agony, save for brief intermissions when he fell into a restless sleep. After his final Saturday show, he finally told his wife about what had happened in the dressing room. By then, it was too late to get a doctor. An assistant wired the show’s advance man in Detroit and told him to have a physician ready that could see Houdini when they arrived. The train arrived late and Houdini went straight to the Garrick Theater rather than to the Statler Hotel, where Dr. Leo Dretzka was waiting in the lobby. When the doctor finally got to the theater, he found Houdini busy helping his assistants with props for the evening show. There was no cot in the dressing room where Dr. Dretzka could examine the magician, so Houdini stretched out on the floor. He was diagnosed as having acute appendicitis. He had a fever of 102 degrees but refused to go to the hospital for the emergency surgery that he needed. He was scheduled to perform at a sold-out show that night and was determined to be there. The theater manager had already told him that the house was full. Houdini replied: “They’re here to see me. I won’t disappoint them.”
By the time that he took the stage, his fever had gone up to 104. He was tired, feverish and tormented by abdominal pains, plus the broken ankle from a few weeks past. He somehow managed to perform the entire show, though, although his terrified assistants were constantly forced to complete some motion that Houdini couldn’t manage. Spectators reported that he often missed his cues and that he seemed to hurry the show along. Between the first and second acts, he was taken to his dressing room and ice packs were placed on him to try and cool his fever. This was repeated between acts two and three as well. Toward the end of the evening, he began doing what he called “little magic” with silks and coins, card sleights and accepting questions and challenges from the audience. He remained on the stage throughout the evening but just before the third act, he turned to his chief assistant and said “Drop the curtain, Collins, I can’t go any further”. When the curtain closed, he literally collapsed where he had been standing. Houdini was helped back to his dressing room and he changed his clothes but still refused to go back to the hospital.
He went to his hotel, still convinced that his pain and illness would subside. It was not until the early morning hours, when Bess threw a tantrum, that the hotel physician was summoned. He in turn contacted a surgeon and Houdini was rushed to the hospital, of course, against his will. An operation was performed immediately but the surgeons agreed that there was little hope for him to pull through. His appendix had ruptured and despite the efforts of medical experts, it was suggested that Bess contact family members.
Despite the seriousness of his condition though, Houdini managed to hang on until the early afternoon of October 31. In the darkness, he turned to Bess and his brother, Theo, who he affectionately called "Dash", and spoke quietly to them: "Dash, I‘m getting tired and I can‘t fight anymore".
A moment later, Houdini stepped through the curtain between this world and the next.
THE HOUDINI SEANCES
Many mysteries still surround the death of Houdini, although many of these mysteries have come about thanks to the fact that there are at least seven different versions of how his death occurred. They include him dying in the arms of Bess in Boston and Chicago, dying while hanging suspended upside-down in a glass tank, dying while performing at the bottom of a river, dying while trapped in a locked casket and others. What actually happened is what you have just read in the preceding portion of the chapter and it is known that Houdini died of a ruptured appendix. It’s likely though that the appendix did not rupture when the young man punched him in the abdomen in his dressing room. This could have caused the actual rupture, but Houdini was probably suffering from appendicitis before the incident. However, the infamous punch is generally accepted as the legendary cause of death.
And more mysteries came about in the days following his death as reports from clairvoyants who claimed to have predicted Houdini’s death, and to have witnessed signs and omens of it began, coming in. A Mr. Gysel stated that at 10:58 on the evening of October 24, a photograph of Houdini that he had framed and hung on the wall suddenly “fell to the ground, breaking the glass. I now know that Houdini will die,” he allegedly said.
Gysel’s prediction came as no surprise to Houdini’s Spiritualist adversaries, who had been predicting his death for years. Sooner or later, they were bound to be correct! In 1924, Margery’s spirit guide, Walter, had given him “a year or less” and he was not the only one. According to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, he and others in his “home circle” had recorded an ominous message about the magician several months before his death. The message read: “Houdini is doomed, doomed, doomed!” And on October 13, a medium named Mrs. Wood wrote a letter to the novelist Fulton Oursler that read: “Three years ago, the spirit of Dr. Hyslop said ‘the waters are black for Houdini’ and he foretold disaster would claim him while performing before an audience in a theatre. Dr. Hyslop now says the injury is more serious than has been reported and that Houdini’s days as a magician are over.”
According to some accounts, Houdini himself had premonitions of the coming events. Among his clippings was one from 1919 recording the collapse, onstage in Detroit, of a comedian named Sidney Drew. The performer had taken ill in St. Louis, but had continued to play, against all advice, until in Detroit, when he could simply go no further. Those who discovered this clipping among Houdini’s belongings must have found the death of the comedian to be eerily similar to that of Houdini himself. Why the magician would have saved it is unknown.
His friend, fellow magician Joseph Dunninger, also had an eerie story to recall after Houdini’s death. He said that on one early morning in October 1926, Houdini called him in New York and asked him to come with his car to West 113th Street, as he was in a hurry and had to move some things. When the car was loaded, he asked Dunninger to drive through the park.
Dunninger said that as they got to the exit on Central Park West, around 72nd Street, Houdini grabbed him by the arm and urged him to go back to his house. Puzzled, Dunninger asked him if he had forgot something. “Don’t ask questions, Joe,” Houdini replied, “just turn around and go back.”
Dunninger drove back to the house and when they arrived, Houdini climbed out of the car and stood looking at the house in the rain. He stayed that way, water dripping down his face and soaking his clothing, for a few minutes and then he got back into the auto without saying a word. Dunninger drove off and when the two men again approached the western exit of the park, he glanced over and saw that Houdini’s shoulders had started to shake. He was crying. His friend asked him what was wrong and Houdini gave a rather cryptic answer: “I’ve seen my house for the last time, Joe. I’ll never see my house again.”
“And as far as I know,” Dunninger later wrote. “He never did.”
Not long after Houdini’s death, the famous “Houdini Séances” began and not surprisingly, continue today, although the official sanction of the Houdini estate ended years ago. While Bess planned to honor her husband’s requests about attempting contact with him after death, this may not have been what prompted her to seek the secret code that he promised to send her from beyond the grave, if possible. Like her husband had been at the death of his mother, Bess was at a loss as to what to do with her life with Houdini gone. They had been together since Bess had been a young woman and she had been living inside of his closed world, filling the role as his wife and assistant for decades. She had been his partner in a very real sense and he always stated that Bess was his “beloved wife... and the only one who had ever helped me in my work.” Although their life had not been perfect, it had never been dull and as huge as Houdini’s ego had been, he never made it a secret that he depended on her totally. With him gone, Bess seemed to be drifting and empty. It’s no surprise that she wanted desperately to speak with him again.
But her life moved shakily on. While she was not rich, Houdini had left a trust fund for her and substantial amounts of life insurance had been carried on him. She had to pay heavy inheritance taxes but she had more than enough to live comfortably for the rest of her life.
She sold their house on West 113th Street, moved to Payson Avenue in another part of the city, and became lost in alcohol and misery. She tried opening a tea room and thought of taking a vaudeville act on the road, but none of these projects really got off the ground. She soon began to spend her time attempting to contact her husband. Every Sunday at the hour of his death, she would shut herself in a room with his photograph and wait for a sign. She spread the word that she was waiting for a secret message from her husband and word spread far and wide that Bess had offered $10,000 to any medium who could deliver a true message from Houdini.
Almost weekly, a new medium came forward claiming to have broken the code, but none of them did until 1928, when famed medium Arthur Ford announced that he had a message for Bess. He told her that the message had come from Houdini’s mother and consisted of a single word, which was "forgive". With this, Bess had a startling announcement to make --- claiming that Ford’s message was the first that she had received which "had any appearance of the truth."
In November, another message came to Ford, this time from Houdini himself. In a trance, the medium relayed an entire coded message: "Rosabelle, answer, tell, pray, answer, look, tell, answer, answer, tell."
After this information was relayed to Bess, she invited Ford to her home and he asked her if the words were correct. She said they were and Ford asked her to remove her wedding ring and tell everyone present what "Rosabelle" meant. This was the word that made the message authentic, a secret known only to Bess and Harry themselves. It was the title of a song that had been popular at Coney Island when they first met. The rest of the message was a series of code words that spelled out the word "believe". The code was one that the Houdinis had used during the “mind-reading act” they perfected in their early days touring with the circus.
This seemed to make the message authentic and appeared to be the final clue that Houdini had promised to relay from the next world. But did Houdini actually communicate from the other side?
Not surprisingly, there were soon accusations of fraud leveled against Arthur Ford. Even though Bess claimed the message was correct, many claimed that Ford had gotten the code from a book about Houdini published in 1927. The press, the skeptics and Houdini’s friends refused to accept that Ford had broken the code and Bess, on their advice, withdrew her reward offer.
So, did he really break the "impossible" code? Arthur Ford certainly maintained that he had, going to his grave in 1974 with the firm belief that he had actually received a message from Houdini. In 1928, Ford had been the pastor of the First Spiritualist Church of Manhattan and was a respected member of the psychic community. He had also recently distinguished himself by challenging the magician Howard Thurston to a debate at Carnegie Hall, which Ford won. Thurston, who had been carrying on Houdini’s tradition of exposing fraudulent mediums, was stymied by being unable to explain some of the effects that Ford produced. After he came forward with the code, jealous colleagues turned on Ford and newspaper reporters and debunkers began to charge him with perpetrating a hoax, along with Bess, despite both of their claims of innocence. Shortly afterwards, Arthur Ford was expelled from the United Spiritualist League of New York but was later reinstated “on the grounds of insufficient evidence.”
But was he a fraud? Many people believe so and state that he actually found the “secret” code on page 105 of a book that was published the year before. Incidentally, the code was not one that was specially prepared by Houdini and Bess. It was very old and had been used in their act even though it had been around for years. Despite all of this however, it should be noted that while Ford could have easily found the code somewhere --- there has never been an adequate explanation (outside of a fraud perpetrated with Mrs. Houdini, which was denied by both parties) as to where he got the message that he gave to Bess!
Could it have come from the other side?
Bess Houdini continued to hold séances in hopes of communicating with her late husband but as the years went by, she began to lose hope that she would ever hear from him. The last "official" Houdini séance was held on Halloween night of 1936, 10 years after Houdini had died. A group of friends, fellow magicians, occultists, scientists and Bess Houdini herself gathered in Hollywood, on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel. Eddy Saint, a former carnival and vaudeville showman who had also worked as a magician had arranged the gathering. He had been recommended to Bess a few years before in New York to act as her manager, although concerned friends had actually hired him to watch over her and to protect her from being taken advantage of. A genuine affection developed between then and eventually they began sharing a bungalow together in Hollywood, a place where Bess had enjoyed living during her husband’s brief movie career.
Coverage for the Final Houdini Séance was provided by radio and it was broadcast all over the world. Eddy Saint took charge of the proceedings and started things off with the playing of “Pomp and Circumstance”, a tune that had been used by Houdini to start his act in the later years. He noted for radio audiences: “Every facility has been provided tonight that might aid in opening the pathway to the spirit world. Here in the inner circle reposes a “medium’s trumpet”, a pair of slates with chalk, a writing tablet and pencil, a small bell and in the center reposes a huge pair of silver handcuffs on a silk cushion.”
Saint continued coverage of the event, finally crying out to make contact with the late magician: “Houdini! Are you here? Are you here, Houdini? Please manifest yourself in any way possible... We have waited, Houdini, oh so long! Never have you been able to present the evidence you promised. And now, this, the night of nights... the world is listening, Harry... Levitate the table! Move it! Lift the table! Move it or rap it! Spell out a code, Harry... please! Ring a bell! Let its tinkle be heard around the world!”
Saint and the rest of Bess’ inner circle attempted to contact the elusive magician for over an hour before finally giving up. Saint finally turned to Bess: “Mrs. Houdini, the zero hour has passed. The 10 years are up. Have you reached a decision?”
The mournful voice of Bess Houdini then echoed through radio receivers around the world. “Yes, Houdini did not come through,” she replied. “My last hope is gone. I do not believe that Houdini can come back to me --- or to anyone. The Houdini shrine has burned for 10 years. I now, reverently... turn out the light. It is finished. Good night, Harry!”
The séance came to an end, but at the moment it did, a tremendously violent thunderstorm broke out, drenching the séance participants and terrifying them with the horrific lightning and thunder. They would later learn that this mysterious storm did not occur anywhere else in Hollywood --- only above the Knickerbocker Hotel! Some speculated that perhaps Houdini did come through after all, as the flamboyant performer just might have made his presence known by the spectacular effects of the thunderstorm.
Legends or lies? Who can really say? Houdini was (and remains) a riddle. On one hand, he was an open-minded seeker of truth but on the other, a heated disbeliever in all things supernatural. If it can be said that a man is gone, but never forgotten, this should be said about Harry Houdini. He is truly, like Spiritualism itself, an American enigma!