A Magician Among the Spirits
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 1920�s 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. At about this same time, Erich became interested in magic and stage performing. Legend has it that he 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 that says "when the legend is greater than the truth -- print the legend!"
A young Harry and Bess shortly after they were married
Erich was determined to become a professional magician and later began appearing in New York beer halls and theaters, taking the name of Houdini, which was based on the name of Robert Houdin, a famous French magician. He played traveling shows and theaters for several years, meeting his wife, Bess, while performing at Coney Island. He employed 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. Soon, his escapes became more daring and he allowed police officers and various officials in the cities where he played to design their own challenges for him as a publicity stunt. Houdini never failed!
It was not long before the enigmatic showman became an American and worldwide sensation, performing to sold-out crowds. He became an expert in the field of magic and even today, magicians and scholars have no idea as to the extent of his secrets of magic or how many of his stunts were performed. Houdini�s many journals and notes remained in the possession of his brother after his death and when his brother died, they were destroyed.
But Houdini was as troubled as he was famous. He was obsessed with the death of his mother, having been almost unnaturally close to her during her lifetime. 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.
In a short time, Houdini�s visits to the Spiritualists revealed a number of fake mediums who were using poor stage magic and trying to pass the tricks off as the work of the spirits. He claimed that he could duplicate the tricks on stage and it was not long before his efforts to reach his mother became secondary to his need to expose the fraudulent mediums. He quickly became very bitter and willing to believe that all of the mediums were fakes. He began investigating their methods and claims and became a self-appointed crusader against them.
Houdini and his beloved mother shortly before her death
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. In 1922, a rift formed between the two men after a failed attempt by Lady Jean Doyle to contact Houdini's mother.
The rift between the two men, which began with this event, deepened shortly afterward when Conan Doyle, and other Spiritualists, began stating that Houdini�s exposure of mediums was simply to cover the fact that he was a medium himself! They claimed that many of his extraordinary escapes were actually done by Houdini "dematerializing" from the traps that he had placed himself in. "This ability", Doyle stated publicly, "to unbolt locked doors is undoubtedly due to Houdini�s mediumistic powers and not to any normal operation of the lock. The effort necessary to shoot a bolt from within a lock is drawn from Houdini the medium, but it must not be thought that this is the only means by which he can escape from his prison. For at times, his body can be... dematerialized and withdrawn."
Now, Houdini was placed in the classic magician�s "catch" position, meaning that he could only go so far in denying the Spiritualist claims. By going any further than he had, he would have to expose how his escapes were accomplished, which he could never do. His reply was simply that all of his escapes were managed by purely physical means. He stated that his crusade against Spiritualism was simply a way to protect the general public from charlatans but he, however, was able to keep an open mind on the subject and did not assume that all mediums were frauds. Spiritualist leaders declared that Houdini�s actions did not agree with his words and so the magician made a pact with a number of friends. The pact promised that whichever of them died first, he should make every attempt to contact the others by way of a secret code.
But Houdini still could not escape the claims being made by Doyle, so he devised a plan to make the author realize that all of his tricks were just that - tricks. He assured Doyle that he would give him proof that magic was accomplished through simple trickery. For this, he agreed to a simple test but the results of the test were so eerie that Houdini never practiced the trick again!
Click Here for the Story of the Strange Friendship between Conan Doyle and Houdini, including the strange test where Houdini planned to show Doyle that his escapes and illusions were only tricks!
Despite the private "death" pact that Houdini had made with his friends, he continued to debunk the mediums in his stage shows and through articles and books, showing how so-called "spirit forms" like "ectoplasm" could easily be created by the clever stage magician. But not all of the things that he witnessed during his psychic investigations was he so sure could be debunked. He kept vast files and records of his investigations and when he died, these reports came into the possession of Joseph Dunninger, Houdini�s friend and fellow conjurer. In the wealth of material, there was a record of one case that baffled Houdini. Follow this Link to the Case that Mystified Even Houdini and find out how this photograph played an important part!
Houdini was baffled by the case and admitted that he had no satisfactory explanation for the photograph. His friend Joseph Dunninger wrote that Houdini made no attempt to debunk or explain the photograph. �He did not see the light. It made itself only evident on the photograph,� said Dunninger. �This report shows that Houdini was willing to believe if the proof was brought before him... and was willing to give credit whenever credit was due.�
While Houdini may have been willing to believe in the unexplainable, he was still unwilling to suffer those he considered fools and frauds. In 1923, Houdini joined a panel from Scientific American magazine that had offered a reward to any medium who could prove their psychic gifts were genuine. The investigative panel had deadlocked over a medium named Mina Crandon, who used the stage name of Margery. In 1924, they stated that they believed Crandon to be genuine and were prepared to give her the $2500 reward. Houdini was shocked and traveled to Boston to witness a seance for himself. What happened next remains shrouded in mystery -- although it is clear that Crandon did not trust Houdini and the magician himself had stated that he was determined to expose the medium as a fraud. Click Here to Read More about Margery and the Controversial Tests that Houdini subjected her to.
Houdini quickly recovered from the scandal surrounding the Margery investigations and he went on to continue his work against the Spiritualists until his death on Halloween of 1926. At that time, the curtain fell on the great magician for all time - or did it?
On the night of October 11, a chain slipped during Houdini�s famous Underwater Torture 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 was ordered to stay off his feet for at least one week, but he continued his shows anyway.
It was the afternoon of October 22 when two students, who had heard Houdini give a lecture the week before, stopped by the magician�s dressing room before the evening show. Houdini was very courteous to the young men but was also occupied with his mail. He wasn�t paying close attention when one of the boys 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 sharply 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 boy 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. His performances over the next two days consisted of hours of agony, save for brief intermissions when he fell into a restless sleep. He was examined by doctors upon his arrival in Detroit and was diagnosed as having acute appendicitis. He had a fever of 102 degrees but refused to stay at the hospital. He was scheduled to perform at a sold-out show that night and was determined to be there.
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 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 morning hours of October 31. In the darkness, he turned to Bess and his brother, Hardeen, who he affectionately called "Dash", and spoke quietly to them. "Dash, I�m getting tired and I can�t fight anymore", he murmured, then turned away. Houdini then stepped through the curtain from this world to the next.
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 then he had predicted his demise on December 25, 1925. According to his former friend, 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 that �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 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!
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 S�ances� 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 and filling the role as his wife. 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 there 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.
Bess Houdini at one of the many s�ances that followed her husband's death
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 and 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 which spelled out the word "believe" - 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 mind-reading act 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 fraud, 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 s�ances 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 s�ance was held on Halloween night of 1936, ten 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. The gathering had been arranged by Eddy Saint, a former carnival and vaudeville showman who had also worked as a magician. 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 S�ance 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 that �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 ten 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 ten years. I now, reverently... turn out the light. It is finished. Good night, Harry!�
The s�ance came to an end, but at the moment it did, a tremendously violent thunderstorm broke out, drenching the s�ance 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 an American enigma!
(C) Copyright 2003 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.