Welcome to the midnight blog sitter post by Paul Andruss. Tonight we follow on from the story of the Collingley Fairies to another mysterious and oft disputed authenticity of spiritualism. The great Houdini yearned to speak to his mother on the other side.. and this is his story.
Rosabelle : B-E-L-I-E-V-E by Paul Andruss
Houdini with his ‘Two Sweethearts’ : Mother & Wife
World-renowned illusionist and escapologist Harry Houdini was devoted to his mother. Devastated when she died in 1913, he blamed himself for being on tour and not by her side. Harry was suspicious of claims made by professional mediums, yet his grief was so great he allowed his friend Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Homes and a devout spiritualist) to persuade him to attend séances to contact her departed spirit.
Instead of desperately needed solace, all Harry found was fraud and calumny. Easily spotting the stage magician tricks that professional mediums used to dupe the grief stricken, he wasted no time in exposing them.
Despite Harry Houdini’s life-long crusade to expose fraudulent spiritualists he never abandoned hope there was an afterlife. Perhaps it was vanity, as much as anything else, that made him promise Bess, his wife: if possible he would return to prove the existence of a life after death.
Houdini made the same pact with around 20 friends as well as Bess. To each individual he entrusted a unique secret coded message, making it easy to prove any message from beyond the grave was genuine.
On Halloween 1926 Harry Houdini died in hospital from blood poisoning caused by a ruptured appendix. Most film versions of his life have Harry dying on stage, suffering agonising abdominal pain while drowning inside his Chinese-Water-Torture-Cabinet. In fact Harry died in hospital after an operation to remove his appendix and drain the infection spreading through his body.
Some of Houdini’s friends openly reported mysterious events after Harry’s death: an inscription from Harry mysteriously vanished from a book; framed photographs fell from walls and a sculptured bust of Harry shattered. But none of these events were considered the unique proof Harry promised.
Soon after Harry’s death spiritualist mediums began contacting his wife Bess. Their messages were vague uplifting blandishments about how swell things were on the other side and Bess dismissed them as rubbish. Frustrated by time-wasters, Bess issued a $10,000 reward to anyone able to provide the unique secret proof she and Harry had agreed.
Legend has it Bess offered the £10,000 for a 1-year period, and it was not until the year expired that a medium got in touch with a 10-word coded message from Harry.
In fact two and a half years elapsed before Arthur Ford told Bess he had the agreed message. Arthur Ford and an entourage (including two journalists) arrived on 8 January 1929 for a scheduled meeting at Bess’ apartment. Bess, recuperating from a fall a few days earlier, had her press agent and an old friend in attendance as witnesses.
The medium Arthur Ford delivered the message: ‘Rosabelle – answer- tell- pray, answer- look- tell- answer, answer- tell’
He then added Houdini said the code was one used in one of their mind reading acts. He instructed Bess to tell the assembled group what Rosabelle meant.
In a tremulous voice Bess began to sing a song from her first show with Houdini: ‘Rosabell sweet Rosabell I love you more than I can tell.’ The message, translated from the mind reading code, was B-E-L-I-E-V-E
Stifling tears Bess confirmed it was indeed the secret message and had been delivered as she and Harry agreed. She then dramatically swooned.
The next day the story made headlines around the world courtesy of the journalists attending the séance. It seemed not even eternity could hold Houdini.
When the spiritualist medium gave Bess the coded message she had agreed with her husband, Harry Houdini, before his death, Bess swooned exclaiming… ‘Yes, yes. That is the message. Harry – Harry!’
Medium Arthur Ford with the invalid Bess who had taken to her bed
Soon afterwards Bess recanted, claiming it was a magician’s trick. It may not surprise anybody to know it was a trick; but it was Bess who was the magician’s stooge.
Stooge seems a harsh word to describe a grieving widow. It is not meant as an insult. All magicians’ used stooges – accomplices, planted in the audience – to be chosen seemingly at random, and used at crucial points to help the magician achieve the impossible.
The truth is Bess was not a strong, independent woman; not Houdini’s equal partner. Like most marriages of the period, while Houdini was the big man; the breadwinner, Bess played second fiddle as his devoted, adoring companion; in short the wife.
Houdini treated her like child. Constantly reassuring her with love-notes and arranging exaggeratedly romantic, clandestine dates together. Bess and Houdini could not have children. Anecdotal evidence suggests Bess had a medical condition. She was described as frail and was often ill.
There was never any doubt Houdini’s mother came first. If Bess was resentful she did not show it. It was not until her mother-in-law’s death Bess got her husband’s full attention.
Even then she shared him with the phony mediums he used, and exposed in trying to contact his mother. And she shared him with flesh and blood rivals too: Houdini’s other women.
Perhaps because of their claustrophobic relationship, Houdini’s death devastated Bess. The first anniversary of his death found her physically and mentally exhausted. A diary entry for October 1927 reads; ‘Dined at Village Grove – home early, no drink or weed.’
The widow Bess: as trapped by Houdini’s death as she was by his life.
Bess had been drinking heavily, using prescription drugs and marijuana, since before Houdini’s death. Now her addictions spiralled out of control. She mixed with ‘colourful characters’ in the wild jazz-age nightclubs she frequented – including Arthur Ford; the medium who would deliver her husband’s secret coded message.
Although Bess claimed not to know Ford, she had been infatuated with him for at least a year before the séance. They planned a lecture tour together based on its successful outcome – the grieving widow and the medium who bought her sceptical husband back from the dead.
As if this was not damning enough, one of the journalists who witnessed the Houdini séance claimed she wrote the story before it actually happened. The whole charade was dictated – word for word- the previous day by Bess.
In a classic entrapment scenario, she invited the medium Arthur Ford to discuss the previous day’s séance in her apartment while her editor and a colleague, concealed in the kitchenette, recorded everything on a Dictaphone. Initially triumphant, Ford’s bubble was soon burst as he realised the journalist would not succumb to his charms, wheedling, or even threats.
On Halloween 1936, on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood, Bess conducted a final Houdini séance. Like all the others it failed. At its conclusion, Bess dramatically put out the candle she had kept burning beside the photograph of her husband since his death. She later commented… ‘Ten years is long enough to wait for any man.’
The widow Bess on the cover of an American magazine for magicians
You can find more about Paul Andruss via his about page on his blog: http://www.paul-andruss.com/about/
Buy Paul’s books: https://www.amazon.com/Finn-Mac-Cool-Paul-Andruss-ebook/dp/B018OJZ9KY
Thanks to Paul for another post that lifts the veil of mystery on stories that have mesmerised us for generations. Please send it through all the parallel universes we might inhabit… thanks Sally