The Houdini Séances are an American tradition dating back to 1926. Every Halloween, the anniversary of the magician’s death, groups around the country gather together by candlelight in an attempt to summon the Great Escapist from beyond the grave. Each and every time, Houdini fails to show his ghostly face, the candles are blown out, and the seance is proclaimed unsuccessful. Or so we’re told. What the skeptics conveniently leave out is that one such séance, performed just two years after the magician’s death, proved so successful that Houdini’s wife issued a signed statement of it’s legitimacy to the press.
You would think that such a monumental occasion would be more of a focal point in the history of the world’s most famous magician, but instead, the successful séance became the target of an organized attempt to rewrite history. Harry Houdini may have returned from the grave on January 8, 1929, only to be pushed right back in by unbelievers with an agenda.
Harry Houdini was never a believer, though he claimed he wanted to be. When his mother, Cecilia Weiss, died in 1913, her last word, “forgive”, made a considerable impression on him. He began to visit a number of spirit mediums in an attempt to receive confirmation that his mother was still out there somewhere beyond the veil, but, the more séances he attended, the more Harry began to believe that all mediums were frauds taking advantage of the vulnerable. None of them repeated his mother’s last word, and to him, this proved it was all a sham.
For the rest of his life, he used his talents as an illusionist to reveal the sneaky tricks used by unscrupulous mediums to dupe the grieving out of cash, and his mission gained a small, but impassioned following. At times, though, his quest to expose mediums became almost pathological, famously resulting in nasty spat with Mina “Margery” Crandon, a Boston Medium known as the “Blonde Witch of Lime Street”.
When Houdini heard that Scientific American was about to endorse Margery after attending her séances, he flew into a rage, vowing to expose her, and after taking in just two of her performances, he did just that, catching the Blonde Witch ringing bells with her toes, lifting the séance table with her head, and other feats of misdirection that, as a magician, he almost admired. “The slickest ruse I ever detected,” he said of her performance.
When Houdini announced to the séance attendees that the game was rigged, Margery wasn’t happy.. and neither was Walter, her spirit guide. “Houdini, you goddamned son of a bitch,” Walter yelled. “I put a curse on you now that will follow you every day for the rest of your short life.” This didn’t deter the magician, and he took his exposé public, publishing pamphlets that described in detail exactly how Margery performed her “tricks”.
Adding insult to injury, Houdini even launched a series of humorous stage performances that aimed to reproduce her séances. They proved to be a smash hit, and before long, Houdini didn’t just have Margery’s career in a death grip, he was strangling the entire Spiritualist movement, complete with a laugh track as he choked the life from it.
But it was Walter, The Blonde Witch’s vengeful spirit guide, who would have the last laugh. In August 1926, Margery was asked how she was dealing with all of the ridicule, and Walter answered for her: “Houdini will be dead within a year,” he sneered.
Houdini died on October 31, 1926, a painful death from septic poisoning, the result of a ruptured appendix after taking a vicious punch to the stomach.
It didn’t take long after Houdini’s death for hundreds of mediums to come out of the woodwork, each claiming that they’d received messages from the magician. There was only one problem: Harry Houdini had prepared for this situation, telling his wife, Bess, that should he ever return from the grave, he would speak to her in a code only she would understand. This way she would know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that it was really him reaching out from the afterlife and not the work of a huckster.
For the next year, Bess would lock herself in a dark room each Sunday afternoon, gaze upon a portrait of her late husband, and wait for a sign. A year went on, and when her own attempts couldn’t bring forth the coded message, Bess took things a step further. Not only did she offer a $10,000 bounty to any medium who could bring her the coded message, but on Halloween night, the anniversary of Harry Houdini’s death, a séance would be conducted in an attempt to bring forth his spirit.
Behind the scenes, however, there were scores of private attempts to make contact with the Great Escapist. While none of them came close, one man named Arthur Ford, a pastor from the First Spiritualist Church in New York City, piqued the interest of Bess Houdini. He claimed that on February 8, 1928, he had gone into one of his usual trances in the company of a small group of friends, when an anxious spirit by the name of Cecilia approached. Ford claimed that it was none other than Houdini’s mother, who had come to tell her son Harry to “forgive”.
When Bess learned about Ford’s alleged contact with Cecilia, she wasted no time writing to Ford:
Strange that the word forgive is the word Houdini awaited in vain all of his life. It was indeed the message for which he always secretly hoped, and if had been given to him while he was still alive, it would I know have changed the entire course of his life—but it came too late. Aside from this there are one or two trivial inaccuracies—Houdini’s mother called him Ehrich—there was nothing in the message which could be contradicted. I might also say that this is the first message which I have received which has an appearance of truth.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, an old friend of Houdini’s and a staunch believer, called the message “an outstanding case” of contact with the other side, but skeptics had their issues. A year before, Bess had told the Brooklyn Eagle that any messages from a ghostly Houdini would have contained the word “forgive”. Genuine contact or hoax, it was clear that Ford’s message couldn’t be counted as hard evidence, and in any case, Harry’s true secret message still hadn’t been received.
The following year, Ford and a handful of his congregation met Bess at her home on Payson Avenue in New York. He’d come to tell her what she’d been waiting to hear: Houdini had come through. Ford claimed that on the previous day, January 5, 1929, he’d been given the code words that would prove, once and for all, that the magician’s spirit lived on past death.
“Rosabelle, answer, tell, pray-answer, look, tell, answer-answer, tell,” was the message given.
Bess was stunned. It was, without a doubt, the coded message that her husband said he’d return with. She immediately arranged for another séance to be conducted, and despite the skepticism of her close friends, that very same evening gave an interview to the New York Times, saying, “They are the exact words left for me by Harry, and I am absolutely convinced that my husband talked to me and that there is life beyond the grave.”
In order to understand why the message was so important, we need to understand Houdini’s code. Early on in their career, Harry and Bess performed a telepathy act together. As they spoke to one another on stage, it appeared to the crowd as innocent conversation, but in reality, they were using a carefully chosen selection of key words to silently communicate letters of the alphabet. The code worked as follows:
This code was a closely-guarded secret. No one, save for Houdini and his wife, knew the code, so when it appeared from the lips of a medium, Bess was left with no other option than to believe.
In their code, the message read: “Rosabelle, believe.”
At noon on January 8, Bess met with Arthur Ford and they proceeded with the planned séance, eager to speak with the spirit of the late magician. Ford went into a trance, and before long, was speaking through a voice he claimed to be Houdini’s.
“Rosabelle, sweet Rosabelle, believe!” said the voice. “Thank you, sweetheart, now take off your wedding ring and tell them what ‘Rosabelle’ means.” Bess took off her ring and began to sing the lyrics to a song she had performed in one of her first shows with her late husband: “Rosabelle, sweet Rosabelle, I love you more than I can tell. Over me you cast a spell. I love you, my sweet Rosabelle.”
The lyrics were inscribed inside her wedding ring, a fact that Houdini’s alleged spirit shared with the crowd.
“Spare no time or money to undo my attitude of doubt while on earth,” the spirit continued. “Now that I have found my way back, I can come often, sweetheart. Give yourself to placing the truth before all those who have lost the faith and want to take hold again. Believe me, life is continuous. Tell the world there is no death. I will be close to you. I expect to use this instrument many times in the future. Tell the world, sweetheart, that Harry Houdini lives and will prove it a thousand times.”
Bess was so convinced that she issued a signed statement to the press.
The statement was written on her own stationary and read:
“Regardless of any statements made to the contrary, I wish to declare that the message in its entirety and in the agreed-upon sequence, given to me by Arthur Ford is the correct message pre-arranged between Mr. Houdini and myself.”
Bess was thrilled that her husband had finally come to prove there was life beyond death, but the same could not be said for the critics of Spiritualism. They were seething.
It had only been two days since Bess and Ford had performed the successful séance, but already, the skeptics were at their throats. That day the headline of the New York Evening Graphic, a notorious tabloid, read in big bold letters: “HOUDINI MESSAGE A BIG HOAX! ‘Séance’ Prearranged by ‘Medium’ and Widow.”
The piece went on to allege that Bess had concocted an elaborate scheme, giving her late husband’s secret code to Arthur Ford before the séance, and claimed the entire performance was arranged as a sly promotion for a lecture tour that the two were planning to embark on. Even more scandalous is that Evening Graphic reporter Rea Jaure claimed that she’d received the scoop from Ford himself. According to Jaure, Ford had admitted that he’d actually paid Bess for the secret cipher.
Joseph Dunninger, one of Houdini’s old colleagues, reportedly visited Bess following the séance to stress that he believed the entire thing to be a ruse on Ford’s part. Despite Bess’ insistance that she believed the message, Dunninger pointed out that the “secret code” wasn’t so secret anymore. A year earlier Harold Kellock had published their cipher in Houdini, His Life Story, a biography authorized and written with documents provided by Bess. Dunninger then reminded the press of this fact, and the public, and so on and so forth.
Bess refuted the claims of fraud, but it was too late, the damage was done. The public was outraged, and as far as they were concerned, Arthur Ford was a conman, Bess Houdini was hungry for the spotlight, and Houdini was deader than a doorknob.
In the years that followed, Bess recanted her statements, saying that she never truly believed that she’d ever made contact with Harry’s spirit. In the eyes of the world, the matter of Houdini’s afterlife was resolved, and it’s here that the narrative has come to an end for nearly a century since.
But should it?
In the beginning, there’s no reason to doubt that the attempts at making contact with the spirit of Harry Houdini were genuine, at least when it comes to the intentions of Bess. For an entire year, she tried in vain to contact her husband on her own before resorting to the famous Halloween séances. Even those, as far as we know, were less than successful.
By the time Arthur Ford entered the picture, things were murkier. By all accounts, Bess quickly found herself between a rock and a hard place. Those who had followed Houdini’s work debunking mediums were furious that his wife was in a position to potentially damage her husband’s message. Meanwhile, Spiritualists had discovered an opening in which they could push their own agenda.
Bess was, at first, an innocent bystander in a war that has been raging since the beginning of time: Skeptics vs. Believers. The Skeptics would have you think they won this battle by “proving” that Houdini never returned, and by all accounts, they probably did win. Today, Spiritualism is all but dead save for a handful of small communities like Cassadaga, Florida and Lily Dale, New York, and as far as Houdini is concerned, history now believes that the only “successful” Houdini séance was a hoax. But for those who look closer, the answer isn’t nearly as clear.
Since the Great Magician hit the dirt in 1926, there’s been a move to push only one side of the story, with complete disregard for any evidence of the contrary. Take, for instance, the sincere plea that Bess Houdini wrote to the New York Evening Graphic days after Rea Jaure accused her of rigging the séance.
This letter is not for publicity, I do not need publicity. I want to let Houdini’s old friends know that I did not betray his trust. I am writing this personally because I wish to tell you emphatically that I was no party to any fraud.
Now regarding the séance: For two years I have been praying to receive the message from my husband; for two years every day I have received messages from all parts of the world. Had I wanted a publicity stunt I could no doubt have chosen any of these sensational messages. When I repudiated these messages no one said a word, excepting the writers who said I did not have the nerve to admit the truth.
When the real message, the message that Houdini and I agreed upon, came to me and I accepted it as the truth, I was greeted with jeers. Why? Those who denounce the whole thing as a fraud claim that I had given Mr. Arthur Ford the message. If Mr. Ford said this I brand him a liar. Mr. Ford has stoutly denied saying this ugly thing, and knowing the reporter as well as I do I prefer to believe Mr. Ford. Others say the message has been common property and known to them for some time. Why do they tell me this now, when they know my heart was hungry for the true words from my husband? The many stories told about me I have no way to tell the world the truth of or the untruth, for I have no paper at my beck and call; everyone has a different opinion of how the message was obtained. With all these different tales I would not even argue. However, when anyone accuses me of giving the words that my husband and I labored so long to convince ourselves of the truth of communication, then I will fight and fight until the breath leaves my body.
If anyone claims I gave the code, I can only repeat they lie. Why should I want to cheat myself? I do not need publicity. I have no intention of going on the stage or, as some paper said, on a lecture tour. My husband made it possible for me to live in the greatest comfort. I do not need to earn money. I have gotten the message I have been waiting for from my husband, how, if not by spiritual aid, I do not know.
And now, after I told the world that I have received the true message, everyone seems to have known of the code, yet never told me. They left it to Mr. Ford to tell me, and I am accused of giving the words. It is all so confusing. In conclusion, may I say that God and Houdini and I know that I did not betray my trust. For the rest of the world I really ought not to care a hang, but somehow I do, therefore this letter. Forgive its length.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for her as she relates her frustrations with the disbelief she’s come up against. All of her skeptical friends seemed to have already known the secret code, but strangely, chose not to reveal it until Bess had come under scrutiny. Some friends they were.
Sure, it sounds pretty convenient, but hey, we all know that Arthur Ford purchased the code from Bess after being outed by the New York Evening Graphic reporter, right?
Wrong. Ignoring the fact that it would have been obvious career suicide for him to tell a newspaper reporter that he was a fraud, Ford never even met with Rea Jaure. In fact, Ford’s lawyer presented three witnesses who could all vouch that he was in another part of town when the interview allegedly occurred.
But wait, even if Ford didn’t pay for the cipher, and never met with with Rea Juare, the secret code had already been published in Harold Kellock’s Houdini biography anyway, so he could have used it to figure out the secret, right?
Wrong again. Despite what Joseph Dunninger would have the world believe, those who actually bothered to read the book in question would find that the section dealing with their code was not only incredibly brief, but not nearly descriptive enough to have provided the ten word answer necessary to meet Harry and Bess’ previously-arranged criteria.
Also suspicious is the fact that Bess never paid out the $10,000 prize she owed to Arthur Ford. When The New York Times inquired as to why, Bess claimed that the offer was withdrawn before the séance on the advice of some kindly Spiritualists. They, she said, wanted the motivations behind their work to be free from that of monetary gain.
If the unscrupulous Spiritualists were really out to empty the wallets of grieving widows, as so many of its critics had claimed, surely they’d have gone for the big score – ten grand was a lot of money in those days.
The deeper you dig, the more you find that in the aftermath of the infamous séance, the whole truth was never allowed to surface.
In the year that followed, Arthur Ford was kicked out of the United Spiritualist League of New York, a direct result of Bess Houdini recanting her statements. In spite of the enthusiastic interviews she had given the press and the signed statement issued on her own stationary, she now claimed that she had never once believed she was speaking to her dead husband. On March 19, 1930, Bernard M.L. Enrst, Houdini’s lawyer, issued the following statement to the press:
“For three years she had sought to penetrate beyond the grave and communicate with her husband, but had now renounced faith in such a possibility: she denied that any of the mediums presented the clew [clue] by which she was to recognize a legitimate message.”
It doesn’t take a skilled magician to see that smoke and mirrors were in play, and within a short time, the United Spiritualist League saw through the illusion as well, finding no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of Arthur Ford, and reinstated his membership.
Despite her new stance, Bess continued to hold her yearly séance for four more years, with the “final” séance held atop the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood. Of the event, she issued a statement:
“Now that Houdini, Carter and Thurston have joined forces on the other side of the grave, I am going to make, here in Hollywood, the one supreme effort to contact these great magicians and maybe together one of them may ‘come through’.”
It was a huge ordeal, drawing large crowds and even producing an LP of the event (which, for what it’s worth, was likely recorded in a studio after the fact). It was such a smash hit, that in reality, the official séance would continue indefinitely, handed off by Bess to her trusted friends to perform every year to this very day.
Why, if she had “renounced faith in such a possibility”, would she have continued her attempts at contact?
If you were so inclined, you could easily come to the conclusion that Bess was coerced into disavowing the earlier messages, likely out of a need to distance herself from the death rattle of Spiritualism, or possibly because there’s more to gain from continued attempts at contact with Harry than a single successful one. On that point alone, it’s worth noting that Bess kept a publicist on her payroll for sixteen years after her husband’s death.
Bess Houdini died on February 11, 1943. Presumably, no one has tried to contact her.
Regardless of where you fall on the scale of belief, it’s easy to see that the conditions surrounding the Houdini séance were never anything but a complete mess. With both sides pushing and pulling Bess to represent their own best interests, anyone who claims to know the truth about the séance is either misinformed or purposefully disingenuous. The fact is, there is every reason to believe that there was a chance, however minuscule, that the ghostly spirit of Harry Houdini had successfully manifested in that room on January 8, 1929.
Ready for the worst part? If Houdini truly did pull off the greatest performance of his career, clawing his way back to proclaim life beyond the grave, then we have to accept that he was bullied right back into the afterlife by the very people who he’d trained to disbelieve. And you know what they say about magicians: the good ones never perform the same trick twice.
Want to attend a real séance? Read more about THE SEANCE With Ghost Stalkers‘ John E. L. Tenney at Planet Weird HQ, where you can find out how to be part of an unprecedented, year-long experiment into the possibility of spirit communication.
What do you think? Did the ghost of Harry Houdini manage to come back to give a final message to his beloved Rosabelle? Or was the entire thing just one big hoax? We want to hear your side. Make contact on Twitter @WeirdHQ, reach out on Facebook, or summon up a conversation in the comments below!