TRTZ no 36 : The Houdini Seances

Harry Houdini died October 31st 1926


On tonight’s show we will be looking at the man that became the legend which spawned so many myths – Harry Houdini.

In particular we will focus on his involvement with scepticism, spiritualism and hear about the pact he made with his wife about ‘his return from the beyond’.

But First..

Some odd and decidedly weird news..

Veg Theft

A California man attempted to steal nearly a thousand pounds of avocados worth $1,500, but was caught on surveillance tape on his way out of the grove. Barron Stein has a history of avocado theft, was sentenced to probation and banned from possessing more than 10 avocados at a time. No word what he planned to do with the stolen cargo.

Do Not Pass Go – Do Not Collect £200

A 60-year old woman in New Mexico stabbed her boyfriend when a game of Monopoly went horribly wrong. Police say Laura Chavez admitted attacking the 48-year-old man with a kitchen knife and cracked a glass bottle over his head, because she thought her boyfriend was cheating.

Unlucky Mucky

A man in Northern Ireland wound up in jail after concocting a bizarre scheme to get rich. Paul Moran caused $5000 in damages to his apartment building after placing a pile of his poo onto an electric heater, causing a sizable fire.  Apparently, he thought it would compress into a precious jewel, but no go.  His lawyer blamed a long history of drug abuse for his actions.

Naming the Morgue

Ten leading crime writers are competing for the honor of having a morgue named after them.

Scotland’s University of Dundee said Monday it will name its new morgue and research facility after whichever writer gets the most votes in an online poll and fundraising effort.

Kathy Reichs, Lee Child, Tess Gerritsen, Harlan Cobden, Mark Billingham and Val McDermid are among the authors taking part in the “Million for a Morgue” campaign. Each person who votes donates 1 pound ($1.60) to a money-raising campaign. The university hopes to raise 1 million pounds ($1.6 million) for the new facilities at its Center for Anatomy and Human Identification

Quick Thinking

Colorado Springs police say a man’s girlfriend unexpectedly came home just before another woman was due to visit, so he called police to report his new acquaintance as a burglar.

The Gazette reports ( that 24-year-old Kevin Gaylor was cited with a misdemeanor of false reporting to authorities.

Police say Gaylor had invited a woman he met online to come to his home after 3 a.m. Wednesday so they could get better acquainted, but his girlfriend came home first.

Police say that when the other woman arrived, Gaylor called police and falsely reported an intrusion.

Gaylor has an unlisted phone number and couldn’t be reached for comment.

Baby Art

A performance artist who said giving birth is the “highest form of art” has delivered a baby boy — inside a New York City art gallery

The Microscope Gallery in Brooklyn said Marni Kotak gave birth to a healthy infant, weighing 9 pounds, 2 ounces, and 21 inches long.

The 36-year-old artist had set up a home-birth center at the gallery, turning the space into a brightly decorated bedroom with ocean blue walls and photo-imprinted pillows.

The gallery said in a statement that “Baby X” was born at 10:17 a.m. Tuesday. It didn’t say how many people witnessed the birth or give any other detail.

The gallery said a video of the birth will be added to its upcoming exhibition.

The Face

The image of the man’s face, seemingly in some distress, was sent toUrology, the International Society of Urology’s official journal, and was published in the journal’s September volume.

G. Gregory Roberts and Naji J. Touma, from Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, had conducted the ultrasound to examine an unusual mass in the testicle of a 45-year-old patient.

Writing in the journal, they said: “The residents and staff alike were amazed to see the outline of a man’s face staring up out of the image, his mouth agape as if the face seen on the ultrasound scan itself was also experiencing severe epididymo-orchitis,” wrote the authors, referring to an inflammatory condition.



UFO Mix-Up

Police have released audio of a 999 caller claiming to have spotted a UFO with blazing lights from his window – only for him to ring back a short time later and admit what he’d spied was actually the moon.
The confused caller rang Hertfordshire police just after 8pm to say that “bright flights floating in the sky” were “flying over our house”.

Sure it was “not an aeroplane” but that the UFO was “hovering”, the bamboozled observer’s claims were treated seriously with call handler asking whether any recognisable engine noises could be made out.

The caller replied – accurately, as it turns out – that the object was too far away.

During the course of the call, the mistaken witness insisted the object was heading his way… before noting “it’s stopped now”.

You can hear the actual 999 call in the show – but whilst trying to locate it on the net I found this other story from a couple of years ago reported in The Telegraph newspaper

7:39 PM BST 04 Jul 2008

The moon was mistaken for a “bright, stationary” UFO which had been loitering for at least half an hour, by a confused local in South Wales who made a 999 call to the police.

Today officers released a transcript in order to highlight the time wasted by unnecessary 999 calls.

The bizzare conversation ran as follows:

Control: “South Wales Police, what’s your emergency?”

Caller: “It’s not really. I just need to inform you that across the mountain there’s a bright stationary object.”

Control: “Right.”

Caller: “If you’ve got a couple of minutes perhaps you could find out what it is? It’s been there at least half an hour and it’s still there.”

Control: “It’s been there for half an hour. Right. Is it actually on the mountain or in the sky?”

Caller: “It’s in the air.”

Control: “I will send someone up there now to check it out.”

Caller: “OK.”

After the police patrol car arrives, the script reveals the exchange between the control room and the police officer sent to the scene.

Control: “Alpha Zulu 20, this object in the sky, did anyone have a look at it?”

Officer: “Yes, it’s the moon. Over.”

A police spokeswoman said: “This was a recent example of an inappropriate 999 call to South Wales Police.

“Yes, we can all see the comical side but calling 999 with an unnecessary non-emergency call could block a genuine call for vital seconds and put lives at risk.”


Harry Houdini was born Erik Weis on March 24th, 1874 and died October 31st, 1926 in Hungary.

He was a magician and escapologist well known for his elaborate and sensational performances. He was also known as an actor, film producer and a skeptic devoted to exposing the fraudulent among psychics, mediums and other such claimants of the supernatural.

The name ‘Harry Houdini’ is alleged to have come from his admiration for French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, and the forename from Harry Kellar, whom Houdini also admired.  Despite this, Houdini went on to expose Jean Houdin as a fraud in The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin.

He had six siblings, Herman, Gottfried, Nathan, Leopold, Carrie and Theodore. His father was Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weisz and his mother was Cecelia Steiner.

When he and his family moved to the US (Wisconsin) in 1878, his name was changed to Ehrich Weiss, and his father served as Rabbi of the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation.

He began his career in the public eye from as early as the age of nine when he became a trapeze artist under the name ‘Prince of the air’.

Houdinis’ official career in magic began in 1891, though didn’t gain much notoriety until 1899 when he met Martin Beck in Illinois, who advised him to play to his strengths – escape acts – praising him on his deftness with handcuffs.

Prior to this, in 1893, he met Wilhelmina (Bess) Beatrice Rahner, who was to become his wife, partner in many of his performances and stage assistant.  She replaced his brother in the act that debuted at Coney Island as ‘The Houdini Brothers’.

Bess Houdini

1912 saw the introduction of his most famous act, the Chinese Water Torture Cell, wherein he was suspended upside-down in a locked cabinet filled with water and had to hold his breath for three minutes plus in order to escape.

His television and film appearances and direction include a 15-part serial called the Master Mystery, The Grim Game, Terror Island, The Man from Beyond and Haldane of the Secret Service, but he cast off the burdens of filmhood in 1923 after little real success.

Houdinis’ reputation for debunking fraudulent members of the paranormal industry seemed to begin in the 1920s and earned him some enemies, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the writer behind Sherlock Holmes, who believed in many of the phenomena Houdini debunked.

It may have been instigated by the death of his mother in 1913.  Houdini was believed to have a close relationship with his mother and he hired many a medium in vain attempts to reach her again.  Subsequently, he studied their methods, becoming familiar with the way illusion and manipulation was used to achieve the result a so-called medium desired and becoming adept at using them himself.

His mother may also have been one of first audiences. He begged for coins as a child to assist his mother, and upon his return to the family home, he would tell her to ‘shake me, I’m magic’, and the coins would tumble from his thick hair. This trick is rumoured to have remained with him, his hair being one of the places people suspected he kept keys and other items necessary for getaway during his escape acts.

His pursuit of chicanery amongst mediums earned him quite a name for himself along with many enemies, to the point of having to wear a disguise in his exploits.  He would bait them during his shows before explaining the secrets behind their acts in the last few minutes.

At one point, he offered a $5,000 reward to anyone who “can ‘put over’ anything in so-called psychic phenomena that I cannot detect.”

In 1922, he was additionally asked by Scientific American magazine to join a psychic committee to further assist the investigation of claims made by mediums. The magazine also offered a cash prize, this time of $2,500, to any medium who could bring about a paranormal event that the committee could label as genuine. Sadly, nobody ever won it.

He went as far as saying that “The first step towards the lunatic asylum is the Ouija board. Anyone who claims to be able to talk with the dead is either a self-deluded person or a cheat. Can the Dead Speak to the Living? I say they do not.” This was part of a speech he gave in many towns on his quest to expose fraudsters, the opening part of which was entitled ‘Can the Dead Speak to the Living?’

His one-time friend Arthur Conan Doyle fell out with him ensuing his debunking of Mina Crandon, also known as Margery: The Boston medium, with whom Doyle was friends, not to mention his firm belief in many of the claims Houdini debunked.

Houdini discovered that Crandon was ‘levitating’ the table with her head and making a bell ring with her foot during her performances.  He went on to offer her a reward of $5,000 if she could demonstrate any real phenomena in front of an audience in Boston. She rejected the offer.

After Houdini debunked Crandon, Doyle wrote an article in the Boston Herald slamming Houdini and the Scientific American Committee, who were also involved.  Houdini returned the favour with the threat of legal action.

Despite his mounting reputation, he insisted that he did not oppose spiritualism at all, only those who exploited it for financial purposes.  He also pointed out that while he had called the Ouija Board a step towards lunacy, he believed in the possibility of contact between the dead and living.

Thus, the Houdini Séance was born.  He said that if it were possible to reach the living from the other side, he would try, and after his death on Halloween in 1926, his wife and several others began the annual attempt that would continue for ten years.

There is some speculation as to what caused Houdinis’ death.  It is generally believed that he died from peritonitis after his appendix burst, but as to what caused the appendicitis in the first place there are varying stories.

After one of his performances, two students approached him, one of whom (Samuel J. Smilovitch) had either done a sketch that impressed Houdini or asked to do a sketch of him.

Houdini reportedly invited them backstage and while one student sketched him the other (Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead) had chatted to him continually until the question of his strength was raised.

Houdini had injured his foot earlier and struggled a little in moving anywhere at speed.

Houdini affirmed that he had great strength and allowed the students (And Jack Price, a friend of Houdinis’ who was also present) to feel the muscles of his forearms, shoulders and back.

This went on to raise the question ‘Is it true that punches in the stomach do not hurt you?’ from Whitehead.

While Houdini apparently responded ‘unenthusiastically’ that his stomach could ‘resist much’, White asked if he could hit him in the stomach and proceeded to strike him somewhat zealously from Houdinis’ reclined position, until he motioned for him to stop.

Price said that he had protested during the minor ‘attack’, saying ‘Hey there, you must be crazy, what are you doing?’.

As Houdini had injured his foot, he stated afterwards that he had not been able to properly prepare himself to withstand the blows by rising to his feet, and that the student had come at him somewhat more suddenly than he had expected and with considerable force.

Other accounts of this incident made by others present including Bess, a nurse named Sophie Rosenblatt and a niece of Bess’ all seem to differ in some minor details.

There were suggestions that Whitehead was actually a boxer, that the invitation to hit Houdini in the stomach was just a casual remark that Whitehead misinterpreted and that Houdini didn’t actually say he could withstand such a thing in the first place.  In any case, after statements were taken from Price and Smilovitz, Houdini’s insurance company deducted that the death was in relation to what had occurred in the dressing room and paid double indemnity.

Later that day, Houdini was suffering from severe pains in his stomach. Despite this, he went on to perform his show that evening and another the next day.

The day after this was a Sunday, and his wife insisted that he see a doctor.  Unfortunately, they were delayed on their way to Detroit and Houdini went straight onstage without an examination.

Backstage, the Doctor finally managed to pin him down, finding that he was running a fever of 104 and diagnosing acute appendicitis.  Houdini should have gone to hospital then, but he said that he would ‘do this show if it’s my last’, and Bess did not hear the diagnosis in order to stop him.

Many accounts of his decline from this point say that he had to be rescued from one of his escape attempts, and that he collapsed onstage. Neither of these accounts are true.

Instead, Houdini persisted until the third act, when he decided to return to his hotel and summon the resident physician (Apparently still refusing to go to hospital by this point as he had been advised previously).

The physician went on to call a surgeon and the surgeon again pointed out that he really ought to go to hospital, which he still would not do.

After the arrival of his personal physician, they seemed to collectively persuade him to go to hospital at last, where he had his already ruptured appendix removed.

Houdini seemed to get better, before declining again and having to go through another operation.  This second operation also seemed to show improvement in his condition, but he took another turn for the worst before passing away on the 31st of October.

While the assumption circulated that Houdinis’ death was caused by the blows to his stomach, it has since been ascertained that this is actually impossible, as no case of appendicitis has ever been brought on by trauma alone.

It is now thought that he probably already had appendicitis before enduring the blows, which would have worsened the condition rather than cause it.  Additionally, Houdini probably wouldn’t have dismissed his pain had he not been struck, realising it was something serious and following medical advice.

Houdini’s funeral prompted the attendance of over 2000 mourners.

The gravesite bears the crest of the Society of the American Magicians who perform a broken wand ceremony there every November.

The ceremony involves breaking a wand to symbolise that the wand has lost its’ magic i.e. the magician has died.  Houdini’s’ funeral was the first to feature this tradition.

The séance itself was designed to involve a personal message between Bess and Houdini so that she could be sure it was him.

Together they came up with a coded message which Bess eventually divulged to the press after closing the door on the whole affair when no contact was obtained.

The message was ‘Rosabelle – answer – tell – pray – answer – look – tell – answer, answer – tell’.

‘Rosabelle’ was a message of sentiment between husband and wife, being the name of the song Bess sang during the act where they first met.  It was also inscribed on her wedding ring.

The rest of the message was the result of a spelling code that magician and assistant might use to communicate onstage without the knowledge of the audience.  Each word or pair of words in the message related to a single letter of the alphabet.  Thus, ‘answer’ represented a B, ‘tell’ an E, ‘pray’ an L, ‘look, tell’ an I, and ‘answer, answer’ a V.

Therefore the message translated as ‘Rosabelle – Believe’.

In 1929, Arthur Ford, a clairaudient, claimed to have broken the aforementioned code and received a message from Houdini himself.

At the time, Bess was stricken with flu and had additionally taken a fall down a flight of stairs prior to this; therefore she was not of sound mind owing to the medication and fever.

Despite this, she allowed the séance to go ahead in her home on the 8th of January and Ford made contact with his ‘guide’, an entity known as Fletcher.

Fletcher told Ford the message ‘Rosabelle – answer – tell – pray – answer – look – tell – answer, answer – tell.’

Bess apparently signed a document to verify the authenticity of the occurrence, but it was later pointed out that she was not ‘in a state to know what she was doing’.  The code had also been published in a book by Harold Kellock the year before.

Soon after, on January 10th, the event was declared a hoax in the New York Evening Graphic because Jaure (Writer of the original article on the séance) had met Ford in a hotel and accused him of instructing his colleagues of offering Bess money to play along because Ford couldn’t get the code from the spirits.

In addition, she said she had a copy of letter they had given Bess containing the words to be announced by Fletcher (The spirit guide) from Houdini, suggesting it was premeditated.

She and two others (Plummer and Churchill), also involved in the magazine, signed sworn statements to that effect. Plummer and Churchill were in a room in the hotel where they could hear the accusations being made by Jaure.

Both Ford and Bess denied this and Ford said it was a blackmail attempt and that he never went to the apartment where this supposedly took place.

However, in April, Science and Invention published the letter containing the premeditated code, also publishing a letter from Bess stating that she had not given Ford the code either and a diagram of the place Plummer and Churchill had listened to the conversation.

Ford did not deny (Or accept) the accusations and neither did he ever come forward to collect the $10,000 offered by Bess as a reward to anyone who managed to contact her husband.

Bess went on to state that “There was a time when I wanted intensely to hear from Harry. I was ill, both physically and mentally, and such was my eagerness that spiritualists were able to prey upon my mind and make me believe that they had really heard from him.

On October 31st, 1936, after having made attempts to contact Houdini every Halloween for ten years, Bess decided that this would be the last séance with which she would partake.

This séance was broadcast on the radio, and as it drew to a close she rather poignantly announced to the listening audience that, “Houdini did not come through. My last hope is gone. I do not believe that Houdini can come back to me, or to anyone…The Houdini Shrine has burned for ten years. I now, reverently… turn out the light. It is finished. Good night, Harry!

It is interesting to note that a violent thunderstorm broke out moments after this and that it was present only in the vicinity of the hotel where this was taking place.  Much speculation surrounds this event.

Henceforth, though this was the last séance with which she participated, the séances went on, becoming a Halloween tradition of sorts.  She personally requested that Walter B Gibson, a magician, continue the séances when that time of year arrived again.

The Pennsylvanian Houdini Museum still holds the official Houdini séance and many hold their own in the hopes of some day ‘getting in touch’.

Bess died on February 11th, 1943, aged 67 in California.  She had stated that she desired to be buried beside Houdini, however, her family did not wish her to be buried in a Jewish cemetery and she was instead put to rest at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in New York.  The plaque by Houdinis’ gravesite does bear her name all the same.

(Thanks to Catherine for her research)

Finally if you’re in Conrwall in November you might like to have a look at this … DaiseyMae1ACORN



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