Although Harry Houdini died in 1926, his name remains synonymous with incredible demonstrations of stage magic and daredevil escapes. For Spiritualists and mediums, however, his name is also synonymous with the devil at worst, the Grand Inquisitor at the least. Houdini developed a strange kind of ambivalence, a love-hate attitude, toward the spirit world that, according to many of his biographers, developed after he failed to contact the spirit of his deceased mother through a medium. Others have commented that Houdini, known as a notorious self-promoter, initiated the highly publicized attempts to expose fraudulent mediums only because of the attention that such exploits would receive in the press.
Houdini was born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest, Hungary, on March 24, 1874, and he was only 13 weeks old when his family emigrated to the United States and settled in Appleton, Wisconsin. He was only a boy when he read the memoirs of the great French conjuror Robert-Houdin (1805–1871), who is today known as the "Father of Modern Magic." Ehrich became so impressed with the life and the talent of Robert-Houdin that he resolved to become a magician, and when he was 17, he added an "i" to his idol's name and became "Houdini."
Houdini practiced long hours with a childhood friend who also aspired to become a master conjuror. When his friend's interests drifted elsewhere, Houdini began playing carnivals and amusement parks with his brother, Theodore, billing themselves as the Houdini Brothers. Houdini also added the first name Harry, which was an adaptation of his family nickname, "Ehrie."
The Houdini Brothers' first major booking was at the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893, and Houdini found great audience response to their act when he spontaneously added a handcuff escape during an evening performance. After the fair ended, he billed himself in a solo act as the "Handcuff King" and played a successful run at the Kohl and Middleton Dime Museum in Chicago. When that engagement came to a close, he rejoined Theodore in their double-act and played various
Until they decided to try their luck in England in July 1900, the Houdinis barely managed to survive in show business. There had been brief stints with a circus, a burlesque show, a traveling medicine show, and an illfated attempt to begin a school of magic. Houdini was featuring escapes more and more in their act, but even the publicity gained from such risky ventures as freeing himself from a prison cell under the watchful eye of law enforcement officers didn't bring customers to the theaters. Utilizing his bold personality to the utmost degree, Houdini managed to secure a contract with the Alhambra Theatre, one of the largest music halls in London. By July 1901, Houdini and his daring escapes were receiving top billing all over Europe—and it wasn't long before accounts of his dangling from tall buildings wrapped in chains, freeing himself from casks, kegs, and trunks submerged in rivers, and escaping from coffins, giant milk cans, and huge mail bags were creating a stir back in the States, where audiences had once been unmoved by the Great Houdini.
It is difficult to ascertain exactly when or why Houdini became the great nemesis of Spiritualist mediums—or even if he really did, in fact, set about instituting any sort of vendetta against them. Some writers and researchers believe that Houdini truly did believe in survival of the spirit after physical death, and his supposed vicious attacks against spirit mediums were but an expression of his great disappointment that he never really found any whom he felt had truly provided him with actual proof of his mother's afterlife existence. Others maintain that he only set out to expose mediums as a means of keeping himself in the headlines.
Houdini's friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930), the creator of Sherlock Holmes and an avid supporter of Spiritualism, suggests his sincerity in seeking to pierce the veil of death. During the Doyles' lecture tour of the United States in June 1922, Houdini and Beatrice joined Sir Arthur and Lady Doyle for a brief vacation in Atlantic City. On June 17, Houdini's mother's birthday, Lady Doyle said that she felt she could establish contact with her. Houdini later claimed that he had kept an open mind regarding the alleged communication, but he publicly renounced the messages that Lady Doyle had produced through automatic writing. Houdini doubted that his mother would have begun writing the message by making a cross, since she had been Jewish. And since she spoke only broken English and couldn't write the language at all, he was skeptical of the answers that she had written so perfectly. Doyle was outraged at what he felt was his friend's betrayal of trust and the belittling of a spirit communication. Their friendship ceased after Houdini's statement.
Houdini's attacks on Spiritualist mediums also draws a parallel in many researchers' minds to his strange vitriolic assault on his childhood hero, Robert-Houdin, who provided the source of young Ehrich Weiss's inspiration to be a magician as well as the origin of his professional name. As he was beginning his own rise to fame, Houdini wrote a book about Robert-Houdin in which he not only ceased praising him, but ruthlessly sought to destroy the great conjuror's reputation. In The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin (1908), Houdini twisted facts and fictionalized others in order to fit the accusations that he had contrived. Houdini's critics point out that this kind of underhanded procedure was what he appeared to do with so many mediums. While Houdini's admirers state that he exposed some of the most famous mediums of the day as being fraudulent, his critics protest that he resorted to trickery, then loudly claimed that he had caught them in deceit when it was truly he who was the deceiver.
Dr. Walter Franklin Prince, head of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) at the time of Houdini's campaign against mediums, stated that the magician showed "considerable bias by his selection of mediums and phenomena." According to Prince, Houdini "only chose to investigate those [mediums] already deemed spurious or very dubious by careful researchers in America and Britain, and ignored psychics and phenomena generally treated with respect by the same people."
Houdini's most publicized encounter with a medium was his alleged exposure of the famous Boston medium Mina "Margery" Crandon (1888–1941) in 1924. The investigating committee, sponsored by Scientific American magazine, had sought Houdini's expertise as a magician, but many of the members soon became irate over his attempts to employ trickery against the medium. Although Houdini claimed that he had caught Crandon in fraudulent actions, certain committee members felt that the medium's spirit guide, Walter, had been the one who had exposed Houdini and the tricks that he used in his attempts to confuse Crandon.
The great magician's crusade against fraudulent mediums, as well as his career as a conjuror and escape artist, was cut short on October 22, 1926, when a student who was visiting backstage at a Montreal theater wished to test Houdini's much vaunted muscle control, and caught him off guard with a punch to the stomach that ruptured his appendix. Houdini died nine days later on Halloween.
The controversy over whether or not the Houdini after-death code was broken will no doubt continue to rage on for many years. Houdini pledged to his wife, Bess, that if at all possible he would communicate with her after his death, and in order to prove his identity beyond all doubt and to eliminate the possibility of deception, the magician's prearranged message was a secret known only to Bess. To add to the mystique, Houdini, the master showman, stated that a seance should be held each anniversary of his death in an attempt for him to transmit the code words to a medium.
The Reverend Arthur Ford (1896–1971), formerly an orthodox clergyman, had become a trance medium and had gained an international reputation for the accuracy of his spirit communication, receiving accolades from such luminaries as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who called him one of the most amazing mental mediums of all times. In 1929, Reverend Ford received a message that he believed to have originated from Houdini and conveyed it to Bess Houdini's attention. Immediately a storm of fierce arguments pro and con erupted in the media. Perhaps betraying their own personal prejudices, some feature writers championed the authenticity of Reverend Ford's relayed communication from Houdini, while others quoted the magician's widow as saying that the message was incorrect.
On February 9, 1929, however, Beatrice Houdini wrote Reverend Ford to state with finality: "Regardless of any statement made to the contrary: I wish to declare that the message, in its entirety, and in the agreed upon sequence, given to me by Arthur Ford, is the correct message prearranged between Mr. Houdini and myself."
Critics of the paranormal downplay Ford's having received the code from the spirit of Houdini. They insist that Bess Houdini had inadvertently revealed the code to several reporters the year before when she explained that the message her late husband would pass on from the world beyond was based on their old vaudeville routine that utilized a secret spelling code that would pass information from her to Houdini. The various words in the code spelled out Harry's and Bess's secret message: "Roseabelle, believe."