Houdini, was a world renowned magician and escape artist. In fact, there is no other magician/escape-artist that bears the history and mystique that Houdini achieved. Even today, his name is synonymous with "magician". Houdini took great pride in his art. His magic. His showmanship. But never did he forget that it was all "illusion". When Houdini's beloved mother died, he almost couldn't bear it. He sought, in vain, to receive a message from her, some sign that life survived death, that his mother could still be found somehow, and communicated with. He desperately hoped for this, even visiting psychics and mediums the world over to find someone that could reunite him with his deceased mother. Alas, he was not successful in these efforts. And what was worse, was that more than simple failure, he found instead: raud.
Houdini was the world's greatest magician and as such, he was a master of illusion. In this, he was uniquely qualified to spot the very illusions, he himself was so familiar with. And spot them he did! To his horror, he found that the great "psychics" were so unscrupulous, that they would manipulate the bereaved and grieving, and use carnival tricks and illusion on their victims in order to make them believe that something spiritual was taking place, that they were in fact, in contact with their deceased loved ones. Psychic after psychic, was shown to Houdini as fraud after fraud. It so disgusted him, that he decided to do something about it. He took upon himself a crusade, to expose these charlatans who would prey upon the naive and the grieving. After all, Houdini was an honest magician, but these people were twisting his art, and deceiving people into believing the illusions were real. Houdini would have none of it. He began visiting every psychic of any report, and he would join their seances, and at an opportune moment, Houdini would leap to his feet, point his finger at the psychic, and accuse him of fraud, revealing to those present the illusions and exact tricks, slight of hand, etc.. that he would catch them using.
This crusade began to be so successful that psychics the world over, were terrified that Houdini would choose them next. Houdini was so well known for his efforts, that he was forced to resort to using disguises because the psychics would not willingly allow Houdini to join their seances, with very few Exceptions. Along with this reputation, Houdini received the praise of many, as well as invitations to address Congress on the subject. Houdini was called upon to testify before a Congressional committee, which was considering an Anti-Fortune-Telling bill. Interestingly, Houdini's detractors used the very same accusations against Houdini as revealed in this letter that Houdini had written to a trusted friend:
278 WEST 113TH STREET
My dear Hartley:
The enclosed will give you an idea of what the spiritualists are trying to do. Put a joker in the law under the guise of religion and shielded by the Bible they can tell fortunes. They have such a law in Illinois and for twenty-five dollars in the District of Columbia, the beautiful city of Washington, you can obtain a clairvoyant medium license. Sell you all kinds of lucky charms, make you the most ridiculous offers under the guise of communicating with the dead. I have been called to Washington where I speak for the Committee before Chairman McLeod against a fortune-telling bill.
Senator Copeland and Congressman Bloom are fathering an anti-fortune-telling bill and it is causing a lot of excitement among the spiritualists who must eventually cease to prognosticate in their religion. They always send forth the cry that I am attacking their religion. This is only a smoke screen on their part as I respect the genuine believer in their faith. Will
keep you posted.
Regards and best wishes,
Although Houdini was very successful in his mission to expose charlatans parading as psychics, still, Houdini always hoped that one day, some "psychic" could present valid and documentable evidence that contact could be made with the other side. Especially, Houdini was also concerned that if he died before his wife, she herself, could become the victim of one of these tricksters. Houdini devised a plan...
He and his wife, had often used a Code, a method of communicating in their vaudeville act, where they had performed a psychic routine. Certain words, stood for a letter of the alphabet, so that when a word, such as "Rosabelle" was spoken by Houdini's wife, Houdini, and only Houdini, would know that she was giving him one letter of the word he would later reveal by supposed "psychic" means. This Code was so familiar to both of them, that they could use it almost unconsciously. Houdini told his wife that if one of them were to die, and a psychic purported to have made contact with the deceased, that they would use The Code to communicate through the psychic, and in this way, they would know it was real, because it was a "secret code" that only they knew. This was the code, that Ford purported to reveal to Bess, Houdini's widow. The problem was, that she had earlier revealed the code to a newspaper writer, who had written an article about the late Houdini. After the news broke of that, Ford was labeled a fraud, with the same enthusiastic headlines he had received when he first announced his "success" at contacting Houdini's mother from the other side and revealing the message. The counter-claims of fraud could not undo what had been done. Ford was famous. And with his fame, came profit and celebrity and a following all his own. In our time, a more modern magical duo, known as Penn & Teller, would revive this piece of history, as the event was reconstructed as part of a book by the magicians, called: Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends. Here is the excellent excerpt from their book:
THE HOUDINI SPIRIT MESSAGE
Bess opened a tearoom after Houdini died. She needed company. She had been married thirty-two years. People knew her only as the widow of her husband. She sat with customers, all down-and-out showbiz cronies, and reminisced about the old days.
Weeping in her tea, she'd show her friend how Harry had inscribed inside her ring the words of "Rosabelle," the song she sang when they first shared a bill on Coney Island, where they fell in love:
Rosabelle, sweet Rosabelle,
I love you more than I can tell.
Over me you cast a spell.
I love you my sweet Rosabelle.
Her friend would smile and ask her for a loan. The tearoom failed.
Bess became an author, wrote a screenplay based on Harry's life. It never sold. She tried becoming what she'd lost -- "The Greatest Lady Wizard" -- failed and sold her documents and recollections for publication in Houdini, His Life Story. The book, made from her notes, included table of the code that she and Harry used in vaudeville mind reading.
To the press, Houdini was still news, which meant that Bess now answered questions for him. "Did Houdini think there was a life beyond the grave?"
"He hoped there was, but would not let himself believe until he heard his mother's voice speak through a spirit medium the word 'forgive' -- that was her dying word, you know. He never heard.
"He was afraid that if he died before me, crooked mediums would come and take advantage of my grief, deceive me with their tricks and make me say things that would discredit Harry's work exposing fraud and superstition. So he made a plan that whoever died first would try to reach the other in a code, a system we both knew so well by heart that even death would not make us forget. The medium who brings ten words from Harry will win ten thousand dollars as reward."
Bess made this statement to the Brooklyn Eagle, March 27, 1927.
In February 1928, the pastor of the First Spiritualist Church of New York, the Reverend Arthur Ford, became entranced by his celestial guide.
He said Cecilia Weiss, Houdini's mother, was present, saying, "All this later life my Harry sought to hear from me a certain word I spoke before I died, 'forgive' -- that was the word -- his wife Bess knew it, no one else. Contact her. See if what I say is true."
They sent the message on to Bess. She was impressed. "This is the first time," Bess wrote in reply, "that any spirit message had appearance of the truth. Had Houdini heard that word, it would have changed, I think, the whole course of his life. Strange in the message that she called him Harry, not Ehrich as she called him all his life. But, of course, she has that heavy German accent. It really is a trivial mistake."
In December 1928, Bess came down with influenza, badly. On New Year's Day she tumbled down a flight of stairs and hurt her back. Delirious, she cried "Harry, dear, why don't you come back to me from the other side?" She reached her arms out, as though grasping him, and said, "I knew you would come back to me, my dear!" Then she blackened out.
As she lay ill on her couch, two members of Ford's congregation came, bearing a message which they said had come one word at a time through Reverend Ford. It took, they said, ten seances and several months before the ten-word message was complete: "Rosabelle, answer, tell, pray, answer, look, tell, answer, answer, tell."
They saw a look of shock, asked if the words made sense to her.
They did. The two advised her to arrange for Reverend Ford to come and hold a seance in her home.
Two days later, Bess was lying on the sofa, a bandage on her head, as Arthur Ford, sitting blindfolded with a handkerchief, went into a trance. As witnesses looked on he spoke the words he'd written in the note, "Rosabelle, answer, tell, pray, answer, look, tell, answer, answer, tell," in a strange voice which he said was Houdini's.
He asked her whether what he said made sense to her. She said it did. Then he went on: "Thank you, sweetheart. Now take off your ring and tell the witnesses what 'Rosabelle' means." Then softly Bess began to sing,
Rosabelle, sweet Rosabelle,
I love you more than I can tell.
Over me you cast a spell.
I love you my sweet Rosabelle.
The Houdini voice explained what this song meant to Bess and Harry, then went on: The strange words of the message were the cues from the Houdinis' vaudeville mind reading. Each word or pair of words stood for a letter of the alphabet. They spelled "believe."
Almost gloating now, the voice explained: "Rosabelle, sweet Rosabelle, BELIEVE! Spare no time or money to undo the attitude of doubt I had on earth. Teach the truth to those who've lost the faith, my sweetheart. Tell the world there is no death."
And that is what Bess did. Next day the headline -- "Widow, Ill, Communes with Houdini" -- showed up all around the world. And on that January 9, Bess made a statement to the New York World. She said "I did not know what words Harry would use. Of course I knew that it would be in code, but, when he said 'believe,' I was surprised."
What could have made Bess act the way she did? How could she be surprised to hear from Ford things she had told the press in interviews or given to be published in a book? What made her think the word "believe" was more than something Reverend Ford had just made up to make a point and publicize himself?
Was she unbalanced? After three decades in Houdini's shadow, was the light too much? Her health was always "fragile." What did "fragile" mean? They say she loved champagne. And in the latter years, when "health" prevented her from working in the show with Harry, they say she often sat backstage and sipped.
There was a darker possibility. When the insurance money started to run low, and she had sold Houdini's props, had Ford offered Bess publicity and profits from a lecture tour they'd make to "spread the good word" of life after death?
That's what the press thought, not surprisingly. Almost overnight the headlines changed: "Houdini Message a Big Hoax!" they said. Investigative journalists obtained a copy of the letter Ford had sent two days before the seance, in which he claimed to have received the "code words" from his "guide." This, they said, was evidence that Bess and Ford had hatched the plot together. Ford was accused of fraud and brought to trial by his own congregation. He was not convicted, but the cloud of doubt remained.
Bess never spoke to Reverend Ford again. She disavowed the message: "I was ill, both physically and mentally. Such was my eagerness that mediums were able to prey upon my mind, make me believe, and say things that would bring my husband shame."
Bess kept a candle burning for ten years in her apartment by a picture of Houdini. And each year on Halloween she took that candle to a seance, hopeful.
In October 1936, high on the famous Knickerbocker Hotel roof in Hollywood, she tried one final time. No handcuffs opened, and no trumpet spoke. No message wrote itself upon the slate. No table rose. No tambourine stood up and danced.
Bess made a little speech: "I do not think that Harry will come back to me or anyone. I think the dead don't speak. I now regretfully turn out the light. This is the end, Harry," she said. "Good night!" And she blew the candle out.
Teller has made an excellent case for fraud on Ford's part. And it should not be so unexpected. Psychics are paid entertainers. They are actors and illusionists. I once constructed a brief article on what would be possible if psychics could really predict the future or leave their bodies, spiritually, at will. One internet surfer even came across this article and asked permission to use it in an argument he was having online with someone else in a newsgroup concerning psychics and fraud. I was happy to oblige. It takes only a moment of thought to realize that if psychics really had the power they claimed to, that they would be nearly superhuman in the things they could accomplish with such abilities. For instance, a country would have no need of espionage programs or secret intelligence agencies such as the CIA or FBI, because someone could merely step outside their body and go into a KGB meeting and collect all the secret information they needed. There would be no more missing children if people could really contact the spiritual world, because if the child was dead, from the spirit world he could tell the psychic where his body had been discarded and who the criminal was. There would be no more starvation because a good and well-meaning psychic that knows the future could go into any casino and place all the right bets and never be wrong, raking in all the money he wanted, and pass it on to the needy. There would be no more money spent on dissaster reporting groups, because a psychic could simply tell everyone where a tornado or earthquake was going to hit, saving thousands of lives each year.
There would be no more mysteries of the past about how famous people, like Marilyn Monroe for instance, "really" died, because a psychic could simply go to the spiritual world and ask her how she died. Where's Jimmy Hoffa? No more mystery, just go to the spirit world and he can tell us where he is buried. Think of all the money that could be saved on trials? Why have a trial? A psychic would know if any witness was lying, and they could just get the facts straight from the spirit world. Think of the money that could be made in stocks? Someone that could leave their body could go into any board meeting and know whether a company should be sold, or was about to merge and the stock go up. In fact, if a person could tell the future and leave their bodies, there would be no limit of the ways that these abilities could translate into massive sums of money being made, which could all be used for the public good if the psychic chose. But of course, none of these things can happen, because psychics are obviously paid entertainers....... Or are they?
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