Houdini, Harry (1874–1926)
Escape artist and investigator of claims of Spiritualist mediums.
Houdini was born Ehrich Weiss on March 24, 1874, in Budapest,
Hungary, and taken to Appleton, Wisconsin, as a child,
although he later claimed to have been born on April 6, 1874
(eastern Europe still being on the Julian calendar at that time).
Weiss began his professional life as a trapeze performer. He
went on to become the foremost conjuring magician and escape
artist of his day.
Weiss derived the name Houdini from Jean Eugene Robert
Houdin (1805–1871), a famous French illusionist who took
pride in exposing fake performers of religious marvels. Houdini
was similarly very proud of his amazing feats and spent many
years exposing so-called Spiritualist frauds. The story of his
many adventures are recounted in his 1924 book A Magician
Among the Spirits. That same year he served as a member of the
committee appointed by Scientific American to investigate the
mediumship phenomena of ‘‘Margery’’ (i.e., Mina Crandon).
He was later accused of allowing his eagerness to prove fraud
to lead him to tampering with the experiments.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, an enthusiastic Spiritualist,
claimed that some of Houdini’s own incredible feats were accomplished
through psychic or supernatural powers. This infuriated
Houdini, and at one time caused a break in his longstanding
friendship with Doyle.
Houdini’s death was precipitated by a reckless blow to the
stomach from a student who visited him in his dressing room
at the Princess Theater in Montreal on October 22, 1926. The
student, J. Gordon Whitehead, had asked if it was true that
Houdini could sustain punches to his midsection without injury.
When Whitehead punched him, Houdini had been sorting
his mail and was somewhat distracted.
Given permission to take a few trial punches, the student
struck Houdini several times with powerful blows, and Houdini
was clearly unprepared. That evening he suffered severe abdominal
pains but completed his stage shows and took the train
to Detroit, where he was booked for two weeks.
The train stopped at London, Ontario, where a telegram
was sent to Detroit to request a medical examination. The doctor
diagnosed acute appendicitis and ordered an ambulance,
but Houdini refused and completed his show at the theater.
After the show, his wife Bess pleaded with him to go to the hospital,
and eventually, on the morning of October 25, he went
to Grace Hospital, where he was found to be suffering from advanced
peritonitis. He died on October 31, 1926.
The Houdini Code
Houdini’s uneasy feud with Spiritualism persisted after his
death, when various mediums claimed to convey messages
from him lamenting his arrogant denunciation of Spiritualism.
But one message was quite different. Among the challenges
Houdini continuously issued to mediums was one that could be
met only after his death. He stated that if spirit survival was
possible, he would communicate with his wife, Bess, in a secret
two-word code message known to no one else. A reward of
$10,000 was offered for successfully communicating this code
message.
Three years after Houdini’s death, the medium Arthur
Ford gave Bess Houdini a two-word message, ‘‘Rosabelle believe,’’
in the special code used by the Houdinis in an early
mind-reading act. Rosabelle had been a pet name used by Houdini
for his wife. Bess Houdini signed a statement that Ford was
correct. This was witnessed by a United Press reporter and an
associate editor of the Scientific American, but 48 hours later the
New York Graphic stated that the story was untrue, that a reporter
had perpetrated a hoax, possibly with the connivance of
Ford and Bess Houdini.
The original scoop story evaporated in a confusion of
charges, countercharges, and denials, and Bess Houdini did
not refer to the matter again in public. Many believe the evidence
favors the original claim that Ford really did break the
Houdini code by a mediumistic message from the beyond. Bess
Houdini died February 11, 1943.
Sources
Cannell, J. C. The Secrets of Houdini. London, 1931. Reprint,
Detroit Gale Research, 1976.
Christopher, Milbourne. Houdini The Untold Story. New
York Thomas Y. Crowell, 1969. Reprint, New York Pocket
Books, 1970.
———. Mediums, Mystics, and the Occult. New York Thomas
Y. Crowell, 1975.
Ernst, Bernard M. L., and Hereward Carrington. Houdini
and Conan Doyle The Story of a Strange Friendship. Albert and
Charles Boni, 1932. London Hutchinson, 1933.
Fitzsimons, Raymund. Death and the Magician The Mystery of
Houdini. London Hamish Hamilton, 1980.
Ford, Arthur, and Margueritte Harmon Bro. Nothing So
Strange. New York Harper & Row, 1958.
Houdini, Harry. A Magician Among the Spirits. New York
Harper & Brothers, 1924. Reprint, New York Arno Press,
1972.
———. The Right Way to Do Wrong. Boston H. Houdini,
1906.
———. The Unmasking of Robert Houdin. New York Publishers
Printing, 1908.
Kellock, Harold. Houdini His Life-Story. New York Harcourt,
Brace, 1928.
Pressing, R. G., comp. Houdini Unmasked. Lily Dale, N.Y.
Dale News, 1947.
Silverman, Kenneth. Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss.
New York HarperCollins, 1996.
Spraggett, Allen, with William V. Rauscher. Arthur Ford The
Man Who Talked with the Dead. New York New American Library,
1973.