Houdini's Promise to Prove Life After Death

Updated on November 21, 2017

Life and Career

Ehrich Weiss, known professionally as Harry Houdini or the Great Houdini, was a world-renowned magician and “escape artist” who began his entertainment career with a trapeze act. Born in Budapest in 1874, he came to the United States with his family, where they first settled in Milwaukee and later moved to New York.

As a child Ehrich began to perform on the trapeze, then as a young man developed a sleight-of-hand magic act and worked for a time in a circus. In 1894, by this time known as Houdini, he married Beatrice “Bess” Rahner, also a stage performer, and they continued working together throughout his career.

In the early 1900s he experimented with escape acts, most notably involving handcuffs, chains, and straitjackets, as well as submersion in a locked underwater chamber. He continued to gain greater fame as a performer, and he and Bess toured across the country and in Europe. Always physically fit, Harry utilized his strength and agility to develop a successful vaudeville act in which he demonstrated his intricate escape and illusion techniques. His popularity with audiences led him to make several movies and start his own film production company, but he eventually gave up this venture in 1923, claiming it was not profitable enough.

Houdini
Houdini | Source

In Search of Truth

From the late 19th century, spiritualism had become a popular diversion in the US and abroad. Mediums held seances to contact spirits, which often produced phony results aided by props. Houdini believed that many of these practitioners were preying upon people in their time of grief who were desperate to contact deceased loved ones. By 1923 he became intent upon debunking these purveyors of false hope and learning whether spiritualism had any basis in fact.

Harry was always very close to his mother Cecilia, and some say his interest in mediums and spirit contact was prompted by her death in 1913. In any event, he was troubled by spiritual charlatanism and determined to expose it. He joined a Scientific American Magazine committee formed for the purpose of authenticating mediums. The magazine was offering a reward to anyone who could prove their mediumistic abilities, but none were able to satisfy the requirements.

Final Days

By 1925 Houdini had begun a popular show during which he personally offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could produce a supernatural event that he was unable to disprove. On October 22, 1926, while on tour in Montreal and recovering from a recently broken ankle, Houdini was resting on a couch in his dressing room. The story goes that a McGill University student named J. Gordon Whitehead and a couple of his friends were visiting with Houdini there. During the course of the conversation Whitehead allegedly decided to test a claim that Harry had made about being able to withstand abdominal blows. Whitehead suddenly delivered several hard punches to Houdini’s stomach while he was reclining on the couch and unable to prepare for it.

Following this incident Houdini experienced a great deal of pain, but traveled to Detroit for his next appearance without seeking treatment. Suffering from a high fever following a show on October 24 at the Garrick Theater, he finally agreed to be hospitalized and was taken to Grace Hospital in Detroit. There he was diagnosed with appendicitis and underwent surgery, which revealed a ruptured appendix and peritonitis with little hope for recovery.

Harry Houdini clung to life for another week, but finally died on October 31, 1926, at the age of 52, with his wife Bess by his side. His funeral was held in New York City with burial in Queens on November 4, 1926. Approximately 2,000 mourners were in attendance. The question persists to this day whether the blows to his abdomen on October 22 led to his death, or whether he had coincidentally developed appendicitis and failed to seek treatment until his appendix had ruptured and peritonitis set in.

Houdini in 1899
Houdini in 1899 | Source

The Houdini Seances

In 1927, the year following Houdini’s death, Bess Houdini held the first of several seances in an attempt to contact her deceased husband. Harry had told her he would deliver a message to her in the form of a secret code, known only to her, if he were able to do so from the other side. She attempted to make contact privately, and she also offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who might be able to deliver the message to her. A medium named Arthur Ford was apparently able to meet the challenge, and Bess publicly accepted the results. Ford stated that he had been able to receive the coded message, which contained the words “Rosabelle believe.” In January 1929 Bess and Ford participated in a seance in which Houdini purportedly came through. However, this was soon decried in the newspapers as a hoax, with allegations that Houdini’s secret code had already been revealed and that Ford was a fraud. Eventually Bess did withdraw her support of Ford, and stated that she did not believe he had been able to communicate with her husband.

She continued to hold seances, however, with the final one taking place on Halloween night, October 31, 1936, the tenth anniversary of Houdini’s death. The event was a rather elaborate production staged on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood, with an audio recording released later. At the end of it, Houdini had failed to come through, and Bess announced that she had officially given up her efforts to reach him.

I now reverently turn out the light. It is finished. Good night, Harry.

— Bess Houdini

Although Bess apparently finally turned out the light, believers everywhere continue to seek a message from the Great Houdini, with seances held on Halloween night each year.

Houdini with his mother, Cecilia, and his wife, Bess
Houdini with his mother, Cecilia, and his wife, Bess | Source

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