Today is the ninety-second year anniversary of the punch that ended the life of Harry Houdini. Houdini, a legendary historical figure whose name has become the literal byword for illusion, stage magic, and daredevil acts of escape, actually died on HALLOWEEN night of 1926, of peritonitis. He had lingered for eight days after being suckerpunched in the gut by an exuberant fan. Houdini, who was known to be able to withstand massive amounts of bodily damage, had not been prepared for the assault—and it killed him.
But, according to paranormal legendry, Houdini was so fated to go; cursed, really, as "Walter," the "spirit control" of one Margery "Mina" Crandon, the "Blonde Witch of Baltimore," had so intimated.
"Lay off the Mediums!"
Walter's warning went unheeded by the Great Escape Artist, who had made a fabulous career and phenomenal wealth by freeing himself from handcuffs, leg irons, straightjackets, milk cans, water cabinet devices, prison cells, etc. He did this while suspended from chains and pulleys over freezing lakes, in the middle of downtown intersections, always seeming to escape death in just the nick of time; always to incredulous cheers, applause, and, eventually, the love of a million American souls. Houdini, the son of dirt-poor Hungarian Jews who had immigrated here to find their fortune on America's reputedly golden shores, seemed to exemplify what that dream, for so many, entailed.
Houdini had been born plain Erich Weiss in Hungary, in 1874. In America, he had, as a child, encountered a book detailing the exploits of famed French magician, Jean Eugene Robert-Houdan. This book so impressed Houdini that, upon entering a career in vaudeville, he adapted the stage name as his own.
Vaudeville was where Harry Houdini met one of the two women that would most help define his life: Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, "Bess."
The couple married in 1894. Her staid, conservative and ROMAN CATHOLIC parents were, unsurprisingly, not thrilled about their daughter marrying a Jew. Keep that one in mind for later.
Bess and Harry worked a stage magic and mentalist act for a number of years as "The Houdinis." However, it wasn't until Harry began the handcuff escapes, the straightjacket escapes, and other increasingly dangerous daredevil stunts that his fame (and fortune) began to skyrocket. Soon, he was drawing in huge crowds, and attaining wealth and fame the likes of which a poor Hungarian immigrant's son could only have once dreamt of in his most heated imaginings.
In 1916, Houdini faced a tragedy he had, hitherto, not counted on. His sainted mother Cecilia passed away, leaving him emotionally devastated. His friend, the vaguely walrus-like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was a prominent member of the Spiritualist movement, faith, belief. Oddly, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, the rationalist ratiocinator, is known to have become a thoroughly gullible man who uncritically accepted the pronouncements of any charlatan or fraud claiming contact with the "spirit world." Not so Harry.
The man who had made vast wealth "gulling the rubes" with acts of magic, trickery and illusion, had always sneered at the "fortune telling racket," and had been involved in "busting them up" before. Now, desperate to contact his dead mother, Houdini went to his friend Doyle and Lady Doyle, and asked for a séance.
Lady Doyle, a medium, went into trance, and began "automatic writing," ostensibly delivering messages from the "other side," messages from Houdini's mother. The resultant document did nothing to convince the grieving Houdini. Quite the opposite.
Houdini noted the document was in English. His mother, he maintained, never learned English; she always spoke Yiddish. Strike one.
Secondly, there was, most prominently, a CHRISTIAN cross drawn on the top page of the paper. Houdini's mother, of course, was a Jew. Houdini maintained it would be a dark, cold day on the Other Side before his mother would draw a CHRISTIAN cross on the top of a page of alleged "communications." Strike two. There was no third strike.
Accusations of outright fraud against Lady Doyle effectively ended the friendship between the two celebrated figures. Houdini, incensed at what he knew were a seedy group of fakers and con-men using basic magic tricks and phony props to dupe people out of their money. was thus spurred onto undertaking what, eventually, became a one-man crusade against Spiritualism. Houdini went all over the country, haunting (no pun) fortune teller's dens, storefront spook shops, and other places where cold clammy wax hands were manipulated in the dark by guys with fishing poles and wire. He did this, often undercover. The "Eliot Ness of Spook Busters," he was there decades and decades before James Randi, Penn and Teller, and other skeptics and debunkers would come forth to expose the underhanded methods of phony psychics.
He became the bane of what author Lamar Keane later termed the "Psychic Mafia." But, would the literal karmic backswing catch him in its grip?
When He Wasn't Prepared
Horror author H.P. Lovecraft, himself a skeptical atheist as well as, ironically, a weaver of mind-blowing and grotesque supernatural tales, ghost wrote the story "Imprisoned With the Pharaohs" for Houdini, for Weird Tales magazine in 1924. We mention this in passing, just as we mention that we had an elementary school teacher that told the class an apocryphal Houdini story, wherein Doyle and Houdini finally agree to meet, despite their differences, at a restaurant. Supposedly, Doyle challenged Houdini to name the time and place he had visited a certain spot or locale or something, and Houdini, ever obliging, produces a levitating ball with a pen in it that quickly writes the correct information.
None of that makes ANY sense of course, and didn't really happen, but it is instructive to note how influential Houdini was, how much his mere presence fired the imagination of such a wide swathe of humanity, from Lovecraft to my teacher. And still does.
Getting back to our story, though, it was 10/22/26 (It will be noted eleven twenty-two is simply eleven, plus eleven and eleven. There are people who read vast significance into the number "11:11," claiming to see it constantly. One could think of the Twin Pillars of Solomon's Temple, the Two Pillars of Masonry, the two pillars to which Samson was chained when he brought down the palace of the Philistines. Also of course, the Twin Towers, destroyed in nine ELEVEN. Nine plus one and one of course being... but this digression into numerology is too much, perhaps...).
After the show, Houdini brought some college punks backstage for autographs. One of them, a massive intellect whose name seems curiously unrecorded, asked Houdini if it was really true he had abdominal muscles "like unto cast iron." Before the escape artist could prepare himself, however, the punk hauled off and hit him in the gut. Cast iron his abdominal muscles, in point of fact, were not.
Houdini died eight days later, Halloween night, 1926. He was held in the arms of his brother.
Houdini and Bess had secretly agreed, years earlier, that, should anything ever happen to him (a distinct and real possibility, considering the extreme danger he often put himself in for his acts) that he would attempt to contact her, if he could, from the "Other Side." To that end, they had a little coded phrase no one else knew; certainly, no medium, phony or otherwise, could possibly discover it through trickery.
The phrase was two simple words from an old Tin Pan Alley number. They'd both loved that song since their days in vaudeville. The words?
For years afterward, Bess tried, supposedly unsuccessfully, to contact Houdini at seances held on Halloween night, every anniversary. Others claim that the medium Arthur Ford was able to glean the little phrase from his spirit control "Fletcher." Which account is correct? Who, at this point, can ever say?
The Great Houdinis
One of my favorite books in high school, in a period when I was thoroughly plumbing the depths of my life-long fascination with sort-of arcane and occult interests, was a paperback novelization of a movie called The Great Houdinis (1976), by Melville Shavelson. The film starred Paul Michael Glaser and Sally Struthers, as Harry and Bess.
That is only marginally related to this article, one supposes. More interesting is why I wrote it.
Yesterday, editing a small pamphlet I am publishing on spiritualism (small "s"), I got on the section about Houdini, and was busily collecting photos for it, when I realized I had decided to edit the thing on the exact same day that Houdini had received that famous punch, ninety-two years earlier. Coincidence? Are there any such things as coincidences? Or, does the universe function in a more meaningful, organized, intelligent way? I once had the eerie "coincidence" of hunting for an image to draw one morning, finally hitting on an ancient photo of the plaster death mask of Abraham Lincoln. After completing it satisfactorily, I looked up the date of the Lincoln Assassination. I had, just by coincidence, decided upon that image on the anniversary of the killing at Ford's Theater in 1865, a hundred and forty years to the day.
So, these coincidences seem to point to a more vast intelligence working behind the scenes. And, who knows? Perhaps the human personality, surviving bodily death, CAN reach out to communicate with certain blessed individuals, if they are ready to receive the message.