Harry Houdini: The Ultimate Escape

An excerpt from

The Secret Life of Genius:

How 24 Great Men and Women Were Touched by Spiritual Worlds

by John Chambers

On Sunday, October 24, 1926, the great Hungarian-American escape artist and investigator of fake mediums Harry Houdini was hospitalized after being punched repeatedly in the stomach two days before.

The next day, Robert Gysel, an investigator who worked for Houdini, wrote to a friend, "Something happened to me in my room on Sunday night, October 24, 1926, 10:58. Houdini had given me a picture of himself which I had framed and hung on the wall. At the above time and date, the picture fell to the ground, breaking the glass. I now know that Houdini will die. Maybe there is something in these psychic phenomena after all."

Houdini died six days later, on October 31, from peritonitis and other complications arising from the unexpected flurry of blows delivered to his abdomen in his dressing room on Friday night, October 22. He had just completed a standing-room-only performance at the Princess Theater in Montreal, Canada. The wielder of the blows was a twenty-two-year-old McGill University student named J. Gordon Whitehead, who said he wanted to test Houdini's claim that his abdominal muscles were so tough they could take any punch without his being injured. At the time of his death, Harry Houdini was fifty-two years old.

The escape artist's world-famous stunts, such as escaping from a box that had been nailed shut and dropped into the Hudson River in midwinter with Houdini manacled inside, were achieved through a skillful combination of mental acuteness, discipline, and brawn. Yet another side of Houdini was on display when, in the decade before his death, he made separate post-life pacts with more than twenty friends, providing each with a unique code by which that friend would be able to tell if Houdini were attempting to communicate with him after the escape artist's death.

One of these friends was W. J. Hilliar. Arriving at Hilliar's Billboard magazine office in New York on December 2, 1917, Houdini dropped a copy of Roget's Thesaurus on the newspaperman's desk. Opening the volume, Hilliar saw a penciled inscription. He began to thank his visitor for the gift, but Houdini interrupted him. As authors William Kalush and Larry Sloman tell the story in The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero, Houdini whispered: "Hilliar, there is our code. But never breathe it to a living soul. If I go first and you get a message from me which includes these words, you will know it is genuine."

Hilliar used the book over the years, always noting the inscription on the front page, but when he picked it up three days after the magician's death, he was stunned to see that while Houdini's signature was still prominent, the code words had faded away. Hilliar consulted handwriting experts, who told him that penciled words should never fade away. A minute examination revealed that the indentations of the pencil still existed, and one night Hilliar carefully traced over them. He was shocked to discover the next morning that the code had once again faded from the page.

Houdini seemed to be manifesting himself in other post-life circumstances. When he posed for the marble bust that eventually adorned his grave, he had three clay copies made. He kept one and gave one to Harry Day and one to Joe Hyman. Ten days after Houdini's death, Hyman's copy fell on the floor and shattered. A few days later, the exact same thing happened to Day's copy.

Harry Houdini performed difficult escapes up to the very last days of his life. During the last dozen years of that life, he spent a great deal of time exposing fraudulent mediums. After Houdini's death, his wife, Bess, offered a reward to anyone who could pick up post-life messages from the escape artist. At one point, medium Arthur Ford seemed to have won the award, but the jury is still out as to whether Houdini made the greatest escape of all, returning, at least in message form, from the land of the dead.

Houdini's angry denial of an afterlife may have masked a certain vulnerability to the notion that the dead survive. The authors of The Secret Life of Houdini tell this story:

Houdini had been spurred to develop his improved [diving] suit when a friend of his in Melbourne, Australia, drowned while deep-sea diving. Eerily, the two men had had plans to meet for dinner that night. His friend's death hit Houdini hard and he "formed a strong impression" that the friend had attempted to communicate with him, urging him to invent a safer suit.

As we will see, Kalush and Sloman also present evidence in The Secret Life of Houdini suggesting that Harry Houdini did not die accidentally, but was murdered.

Ehrich Weiss, who later took the name Harry Houdini, was born to Jewish parents in Budapest on March 24, 1874. The family emigrated to Appleton, Wisconsin, when the future escape artist was four years old. Houdini's father was a sometime businessman and part-time rabbi who never really learned English; as a result, Houdini's preteen years were poverty-stricken. He left home at twelve and worked as a vaudeville/circus performer all through his teens. By his early twenties, he was famous in Europe as an escape artist. He rose to the pinnacle of success in the United States in his thirties, electrifying audiences with such feats as being lowered into the East River in New York in midwinter bolted into a coffin (he emerged an hour later) and escaping from a straitjacket hanging upside down from the side of a Manhattan skyscraper.

Only five feet four inches tall and weighing 150 pounds, Houdini was a wiry mass of impeccably trained muscle. He was in perfect shape when he died; certainly, without the accident, he would have lived for many more years.

A year before his death, Houdini told his wife, Bess, that if there was survival after death, he would send her an encoded message from the spirit world. After he died, Bess offered a $10,000 reward to the medium who delivered Houdini's message. More than two years after Houdini's death, and after three months of seances, the celebrated psychic Arthur Ford transmitted the decoded words "rosabelle believe" to his waiting wife.

Houdini's wife vowed that, yes, this was the agreed-upon message. All around the world, the media trumpeted the news of the great escape artist's ultimate escape. For a brief moment, Houdini's fame returned. Then skepticism set in, even on the part of Bess, who took back her claim that Arthur Ford had come up with the agreed-upon message. But such was the charisma of Harry Houdini that many would continue to believe he had returned, and do so to this day.

During his lifetime, particularly among his fellow professionals, Houdini was known as a man of outstanding ability and courage but also as somewhat less than a saint. Some claimed he owed his fame to his powers of self-promotion. Others saw his espousal of certain social causes as simply a means of garnering publicity. As mentioned earlier, Houdini spent a great deal of time exposing phony mediums, even attending bogus seances incognito and afterward re-creating the hoaxes onstage. Stage professionals regarded his medium-bashing, which included testifying before Congress in favor of a bill banning mediumship, fortune-telling, and other "occult" activities initially from Washington, D.C. (the bill sank into legislative oblivion), as the height of hypocrisy. It was of a piece, they said, with his highly publicized exposures of fake mediums that included his re-creating of their hoaxes onstage. After all, hadn't Houdini been a fake medium himself in the early years of his career? And hadn't he attended seance after seance after the death of his mother, longing to reconnect with the woman who had been the light of his life? His rivals and others wondered if (along with his ceaseless need to promote himself) bitterness over his failure to posthumously contact his mother was the real reason behind his obsessive and vicious bashing of the world of mediums.

Over the years, the power of Houdini's legend to deflect criticism has faded. Many of his contemporaries and near-contemporaries have stepped forward to point out the warts on Houdini's superbly muscled body. William V. Rauscher is a clergyman, professional magician, and researcher into paranormal phenomena. He knew many of those who claimed to bear witness to the dark side of Harry Houdini. In The Houdini Code Mystery: A Spirit Secret Solved, written primarily for professional magicians, Rauscher assembles their testimony. He concludes that for all his acknowledged courage, persistence, and skills, Houdini was hardly a hero in the classical, ancient-Greek mold, but rather one more in keeping with our tawdry modern world. The data Rauscher assembles also throws light on that greatest of Harry Houdini mysteries: whether he really spoke to his wife from the afterworld.

Rauscher asserts that central to Houdini's character was a mother fixation so severe that "even as a grown man he liked to sit on her knee, his head resting on her breast, listening to her heart." It was while at a press conference in Copenhagen that he received the cable containing the news of his mother's death; reading it, the Great Houdini "crumpled to the floor in a dead faint." He stipulated that a bundle of his mother's letters be placed under his head in the coffin he was buried in, and his instructions were obeyed. A further indication of his mother fixation was that Houdini "literally froze" in the presence of any other woman except his wife, Bess, claims Rauscher. This may have helped scuttle his acting career since -- though he was not without talent -- he was forever unable to play up to his leading lady. Rauscher believes that the Great Houdini was at the very least infertile (he and Bess never had children) and probably impotent.

Rauscher asserts that out of all this there arose in Houdini a rage that boiled over into a ruthless will to succeed. According to the old magician hands Rauscher interviewed, Houdini stole whole acts from other magicians and stage artists, and sometimes sabotaged their performances. From time to time he bribed people to swear he had performed feats he hadn't, such as that of allegedly escaping from a locked cell in a Chicago police station in 1901. One of Houdini's rivals, speaking in his old age, claimed that Houdini had tried to maim a competitor (the German escape artist "Minerva") by having his assistants put acid in her water barrel. The portrait that emerges from Rauscher's book makes us believe that Houdini could well have prearranged his seeming "return from the dead."

Rauscher also focuses on some of Houdini's contemporaries who may have been involved in any plot on Houdini's part to fake a return from the dead. One of them was Arthur Ford. Rauscher and Ford were close friends for fifteen years, up to the latter's death in 1972. Rauscher writes:

Ford, an urbane, educated, emotionally up-and-down personality, often reminisced wryly and sometimes wistfully (but never, to me, cynically) about "the good old days." Curiously, he would never, except on the rarest exceptions, discuss the Houdini Message episode. However, he could reflect on a vast procession of former "sitters" (as a medium's clients are called) ranging from movie stars and the intelligentsia to royalty. He had a rare gift (along with less admirable traits, such as episodic alcoholism, a touch of fraud, and a confused sexual identity) of not taking himself seriously -- in private, at least.

Whatever his reservations about Ford, Rauscher believes he was a genuine medium. He writes: "If you ask me, 'Do you really believe that Ford sometimes -- not always, not perhaps regularly, but sometimes -- talked with the dead,' the evidence of my own experience compels me to answer: YES!"

Houdini's Code Message came to Ford in nine seances (conducted from November 28, 1928, to January 7, 1929) from the medium's ostensible spirit guide "Fletcher." Only one word was produced per session. The encoded message finally rendered up was "Rosabelle . . . answer . . . tell . . . pray-answer . . . look-tell . . . answer." The code was this: that each word channeled after the word Rosabelle stood for a number, and that number indicated where the letter stood in the alphabet. This "telepathic" code is fairly well known -- at least to stage magicians -- but at the time of these seances no one knew that Rosabelle was Houdini's pet name for Bess, and that this name was inscribed on the inside of Bess's wedding band. When the final, climactic seance took place in Ford's apartment on January 7, Fletcher asked Bess at the conclusion to show her wedding ring to the assembled witnesses. Fletcher also communicated the phrase "I pull the curtain," which Houdini had used with Bess in their first years together as man-and-wife stage magicians.

Despite Bess's insistence that "Rosabelle believe" was the agreed-upon message, accusations of fraud surfaced just two days later. On January 9, Rea Jaure of the New York Graphic -- one of the reporters who was present at the final seance -- asserted that the message was a hoax engineered by Ford and Bess, with the connivance of none other than Rea Jaure herself. This barefaced lie, advanced by Jaure solely to sell newspapers, had to be quashed in the courts, even though not a shred of evidence existed to support Jaure's claim, and Ford and Bess had immediately issued denials.

The world-famous "mentalist" William Dunninger quickly leaped into the fray, declaring that the fraud had been perpetrated by a curvaceous one-time stage assistant to Houdini named Daisy White and a twenty-eight-year-old "fish handler at the Fulton Market" named Joseph Bantano. Again, not a shred of evidence could be brought forward to support this claim, and with Daisy White threatening to sue for libel, Dunninger dropped the charges.

Arthur Ford had been fairly well known as a medium for some time. But it was because of his role in the Houdini Code Message affair that his career really took off. This didn't change a bit when, a year or so later, Bess changed her mind about the message from Houdini and declared that "Rosabelle believe" was not at all the posthumous message she and her husband had agreed on. However, those who still wished to believe could come up with all sorts of psychological and emotional reasons why Bess might have issued this untrue disavowal, so the legend of Houdini's "return" from the dead lived on, and continues to thrive to this day.

Rauscher has come up with one new piece of evidence regarding the controversy surrounding Houdini and the afterworld. His source is Jay Abbott, a New York Spiritualist and long-time, intimate friend of both Ford and Bess. Jay Abbott spoke to Rauscher in April 1973 -- just three months before Abbott's own death, in July of that year.

Abbott told Rauscher that Ford and Bess often dated before the final Houdini seance, that Bess was in love with Ford, and that her ring had fallen off as she was washing her hands in her apartment one day when Ford was there. Ford had retrieved the ring, held on to it just long enough to surreptitiously read its contents, then returned it to Bess. That was how, said Abbott, the psychic had become the only person besides Bess and Houdini to know the words inscribed inside the ring. Ford put this knowledge to good use at the final seance.

Abbott insisted Bess had known nothing about Ford's deception. For Rauscher, however, this revelation was final proof of something he had suspected for many years, namely, that ". . . Arthur Ford and Bess Houdini were in full cahoots. It was a mutually agreed-upon grand and glorious hoax. Both were full partners. It was like Ragtime and the Roaring Twenties all rolled into one!"

William Rauscher's contentions in The Houdini Code Mystery have attracted controversy. Martin Ebon, author of numerous books on paranormal phenomena, expressed the belief in 2001 that in making such charges, Rauscher was caught in a fundamental contradiction: "On the one hand, he says Arthur Ford sometimes actually did communicate with the dead. But, if he says this, then he has to accept that his 'control spirit,' Fletcher -- or whatever energies Fletcher personifies -- has some sort of objective reality bound up with the control spirit's connection to an 'afterworld.'"

What role, then, asks Ebon, did Fletcher play in the unfolding of the cycle of nine seances that ended with Fletcher's delivering the final, fake, two-word message to Bess? Was Ford able so easily to persuade Fletcher to go along with the conspiracy? Or was Ford able to put his spirit control aside so easily and make it all up himself?

Ebon contends that if Ford was able to do these things so easily, then "he wasn't really psychic, and he never really communicated with the dead." But, says Ebon, Rauscher himself asserts that Ford really did sometimes communicate with the dead. "Then he has to deal with the problem of what role Fletcher played in this conspiracy. I think the presence of a real Fletcher, with all the unpredictability you get in channeling phenomena, would have made it very difficult for Ford to pull off any sort of a systematic hoax."

Rauscher's quotes from Jay Abbott show Abbott to have a less-than-perfect memory, and suggest he may have had his own ax to grind; Rauscher speculates that Abbott may have been speaking out of the shadow of his own soured personal relationship with Arthur Ford.

In The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero, authors William Kalush and Larry Sloman are more focused on exploring whether Houdini was intentionally killed by J. Gordon Whitehead, the McGill University student who, without warning, hammered Houdini's abdomen with punches. For many years, Houdini had been attacking the Spiritualist movement and its mediums in every way he could; the authors wonder if Houdini's actions had not built up such a wave of resentment from believers in an afterlife that the nominal head of the worldwide Spiritualist movement, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle -- author of the Sherlock Holmes stories and many serious works on Spiritualism and the spirit world -- had not put out a fatwah, so to speak, against Houdini, or even hired Whitehead to murder him. To back up their theory, Kalush and Sloman offer only slim bits of circumstantial evidence and much speculation. One has to wonder if the highly intelligent and esteemed Doyle, known for going out of his way to help people, and with a worldwide reputation to maintain, would have felt any need to, or even been capable of contemplating, committing such a crime.


Reprinted by permission of Destiny Books, Copyright 2009. All rights reserved.


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