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The Haunted and Haunting Houdini

Published: 10/31/2011

Harry Houdini (Wikimedia Commons/Bettmann/Corbis)Leave it to Harry Houdini to die on Halloween.

After all, the world-famous magician wasn’t just noted for his sleight of hand and escape-artist abilities. He also had a keen, and very public, interest in the spiritual world. His most prominent hobby was debunking psychics and mediums. So for Houdini to pass through the veil on Halloween – the day when the spirit world is said to be closest to ours – was, honestly, almost too obvious.

Not that he chose the day. In fact, Harry Houdini died of a ruptured appendix, and he spent several days in the hospital before his death. On that day, Halloween 1926, he left behind a promise to contact his wife Bess from beyond the grave if he possibly could. Why would a famed skeptic promise such a thing? It all started with his mother.

It’s not that Houdini’s beloved mother taught him to seek out or fear the spiritual world. Cecilia Weiss was very close to her son, and then later to her daughter-in-law as well (“my two sweethearts,” Houdini called Mother and Bess). His mother’s death in 1913 was a severe blow to Houdini, “a shock from which I do not think recovery is possible.” In his grief, he turned to Spiritualism and would attempt to contact his mother beyond the grave.

Harry Houdini with his
Harry Houdini with his "two sweethearts" (Wikimedia Commons)


A popular movement that began in the 1840s, Spiritualism was at its height in the 1910s and ‘20s. At its core, it is a religion with God at the center, but some unusual features of the religion include the belief that mediums can contact and channel the dead. Sessions with mediums were quite in vogue at the time Cecilia Weiss died, and Houdini, desperate to communicate with his mother, scheduled several séances. To his dismay, he found only fraud. And he was in a position to know fraud when he saw it, having conducted fake séances earlier in his show-biz career.

Mediums of the time were known to perform various tricks, which seemed convincing to participants desperate to contact their loved ones who were gone too soon. But they were easily spotted by someone in the know, like Houdini. The mediums used darkness and distraction to their advantage, making the gullible believe that their loved ones were talking to them, ringing bells, even materializing within ectoplasm. Houdini referred to these charlatans as “vultures who prey on the bereaved.”

Houdini went to medium after medium as he attempted to contact his mother. Before long, he had encountered so many fakes that debunking frauds surpassed communicating with Mother as his primary aim. He began attending séances in disguise, wearing a fake beard or mustache or a distracting hat. When, inevitably, he had seen enough to know he was dealing with fakery, he would leap up and tear off his disguise, crying something like, “I am Houdini! And you are a fraud!”

Harry Houdini demonstrates how easily
Harry Houdini demonstrates how easily "spirit photographs" can be faked – thereby debunking them (Wikimedia Commons)


Houdini began to travel the country and lecture about the fraudulent practices of mediums. His quest became well-known and, in 1923, Scientific American magazine invited him to join a panel that aimed to find a legitimate medium. A prize of $2500 was to be given to the first medium who could not be debunked. Houdini took them up on the offer to join the panel, but found that most of the other committee members were so eager to find truth in Spiritualism, they were quick to overlook fraud.

In 1924, the Scientific American panel took on Mina “Margery” Crandon, a popular medium who claimed to channel her dead brother, Walter Stinson. Known as the Boston Medium, she had the committee so enthusiastically convinced of her abilities that they were ready to declare her the real deal without even consulting Houdini. When he found out, he stormed over to Boston to test her validity.

Crandon did her best to stand up to Houdini’s scrutiny. She conducted memorable séances for him, complete with convincing spirit-talking, bell-ringing, levitating objects, and more. But while Houdini wanted to believe, he saw through Crandon’s ruses. Among other things, he discovered her ringing a bell surreptitiously with her foot. He also deduced that she had taken advantage of a chaotic moment to place an object on her head (she later flung it across the dark room and claimed it was thrown by the spirits). Ultimately, Scientific American voted against awarding Crandon the prize.

Houdini was never convinced in his lifetime that the dead could contact the living. But he vowed to continue trying to make it happen, even after his death. He made a pact with several of his friends that if he could contact them from the afterlife, he would. He arranged a secret code with Bess – if the deceased Houdini found a way to contact her, he would use this code so she would know it was really him.

After Harry Houdini’s death on October 31, 1926, Bess conducted many séances, attempting to create circumstances and atmospheres that would help her beloved husband contact her. Several mediums claimed to have heard from Houdini and presented messages with his code (which, conveniently, was included in a book published not long after his death). Evidence for their claims was shaky, so Bess continued to hold yearly séances each Halloween, until 1936. That year’s séance was broadcast on the radio. When repeated begging didn’t bring a message, Bess officially gave up, stating, “My last hope is gone. I do not believe Houdini can come back to me – or to anyone. … It is finished. Good night, Harry!”

At that moment, a violent thunderstorm broke out, with torrential rains and frightening pyrotechnics. The séance participants later learned that this thunderstorm was extremely small – it was localized above the radio station and didn’t affect any other areas of the city.

Very impressive, Harry.



Written by Linnea Crowther. Originally published October 2010.

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