Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Houdini Séance


Every Halloween since 1927, a séance has been held to see if
legendary magician Harry Houdini would try to contact the living from
the world beyond death. It was the night of October 31, 1936.
Halloween night. The men and women sat at the round table with joined
hands. They awaited the message - the message they had hoped for every
Halloween night for the past 10 years. But the message did not come.
Finally, one woman rose from the table and announced to the others - and
to a listening radio audience - "Houdini did not come through," she
said. "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!" The woman was Bess Houdini, wife of the famed magician and
escape artist. And this was the last séance she would participate in
to try to contact her dead husband. But the séances themselves did
not stop. Every October 31, from 1927 up to the present day, a séance
has been conducted with hopes of contacting the spirit of Harry Houdini.
So far, the great Houdini has not made his presence known. The
Houdini séance has been a Halloween tradition since the first
anniversary of his death. The magician died at the age of 52 on October
31, 1926 from peritonitis - an internal infection - as the result of a
ruptured appendix. Shortly before his death, Houdini made a pact with
Bess that if he could, he would return and make contact with her from
the other side. They devised a coded message that only he and Bess knew;
this would prove that it really was Houdini breaking through from the
afterlife. But after 10 séances in 10 years, Bess had not received
her beloved husband's personal message. Oddly enough, Harry Houdini
did not necessarily believe that spirits of the dead could be contacted.
Aside from his fame as a stage magician and astonishing escape artist,
Houdini was just as well known - especially in the later part of his
career - as a debunker of spirit mediums and phony séances. He felt,
however, that if it were possible for anyone to come back, he would find
a way to do it. In the 1920s, spiritualism was at a new height in the
US and Britain. There was a strong, popular belief in the notion that
it was possible to communicate with the dead through séances and
channeling psychics knows as mediums. The movement had begun in the
mid-1800s, grew in popularity over 20 years, then slowly fizzled out
toward the turn of the century as more and more mediums were exposed as
frauds. But after World War I, there was a resurgence in the
spiritualist movement as many families longed to contact those who had
perished in battle. And the mediums were right there to fill the need
for a public so willing to believe. The best mediums were masterful
tricksters and showpeople, and their séances were thrilling
multimedia performances of spirit channeling, levitating tables,
floating instruments that played themselves, written messages from the
dead and spontaneous manifestations of ectoplasm. The performances were
ingenious and succeeded in fooling many otherwise intelligent people.
Houdini, being a magician and a rather ingenious fellow himself, knew
that these séances were just clever hoaxes. Houdini vs. The Mediums
Early in his career, however, Houdini wasn't above staging some phony
séances of his own. According to Houdini: A Magician Among the
Spirits, "Houdini hosted special Sunday night performances for the
California Concert Company, a Midwestern medicine show, in 1898. During
séances, Houdini floated tables and played musical instruments while
tied to a chair. After the company disbanded, he and his wife Bess
continued to give séances for local union halls and dime museums
until they signed with the Welsh Brothers Circus later that same year.
In 1899, Houdini's career skyrocketed and he left the medium business
behind." In the 1920s, Houdini became an active crusader against the
spirit mediums he felt were exploiting gullible people who grieved for
lost loved ones. As he traveled the country performing his act, he would
seek out the local mediums and expose their deceptions. Because he was
so well known, Houdini often attended these séances in disguise. In
1922, Scientific American magazine asked him to join a "psychic
committee" to help investigate the claims of mediums. The magazine
offered a cash prize of $2,500 to any medium who could produce a
supernatural manifestation to the satisfaction of the committee. No one
ever won the prize. One of the most famous mediums to take on the
challenge was a beautiful young woman named Mina Crandon, who gained
renown as "Margery, the Boston Medium." But she too failed under the
sharp eye of Houdini, who caught her levitating the table with her head
and ringing a bell with her foot. Houdini later offered Crandon $5,000
if she could demonstrate any supernatural phenomena on stage in her home
town of Boston. She declined the invitation. Naturally, Houdini was
not popular among mediums around the country, as he was a threat to
their livelihood. His crusading also made him an adversary of Sir Arthur
Conan Doyle, esteemed author of the Sherlock Holmes novels, who was a
staunch believer and advocate of spiritualism, and a defender of Mina
Crandon. After Houdini and the Scientific American committee denounced
Crandon, Doyle wrote an article for the Boston Herald criticizing the
committee. Houdini, in turn, threatened to sue Doyle for his "harsh
remarks." Annual Séance
Since the Halloween night when Bess Houdini turned off the light at her
husband's portrait, the séances to contact the dead magician have
continued in many parts of the country, both officially and
unofficially. It may be impossible to tell whether or not Houdini is
really being channeled at any of these annual séances because the
secret coded message Houdini devised with his wife has since been
revealed - by Bess herself. "The message was based on both
sentimentality and an old vaudeville mind-reading routine," according to
Houdini - magictricks. com. "The message was, 'Rosabelle- answer- tell-
pray, answer- look- tell- answer, answer- tell.' Bess's wedding band
bore the inscription 'Rosabelle,' the name of the song she sang in her
act when they first met. The other words correspond to a secret spelling
code used to pass information between a magician and his assistant
during a mentalism act. Each word or word pair equals a letter. The word
'answer' stood for the letter 'B,' for example. 'Answer, answer' stood
for the letter 'V.' Thus, the Houdinis' secret phrase spelled out the
word 'believe'." In 1929, a young medium named Arthur Ford claimed he
had successfully received the secret message from Harry Houdini. Upon
investigation, however, it was discovered that Ford's claim was a hoax.
Bess, it seems, had inadvertently revealed the message to reporters more
than a year earlier. Even though Bess gave up the séances herself,
she asked magician Walter B. Gibson to carry on the October 31
tradition. For many years, Gibson, along with several other magicians,
held the séances at the Magic Towne House in New York City. Countless
other "unofficial" Houdini séances have been held by local psychics
across the country throughout the years - all in good fun, but with no
definitive proof of so much as a "hello" from Harry Houdini. Today,
the official Houdini Séance is held at The Houdini Museum in
Scranton, Pennsylvania. And true to the times, they have been conducting
séances on the Internet. About.com

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