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Halloween, Houdini and happenings long ago

Atria Books
Book makes interesting claims about Harry Houdini's life and death.
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OKLAHOMA CITY – It was 87 years ago today – Halloween – that magic’s most famous icon, Harry Houdini died of peritonitis, the result of a ruptured appendix.

And since then many have tried to contact Houdini. There are no reports that I have seen or heard confirming any success in reaching the great illusionist from beyond the grave.

Nevertheless, they still try. Particularly on October 31st.  

And what an amazing life Houdini led. There was nary a challenge he didn’t accept, from policemen and other challengers around the world. Escapes that defy explanation, in only that he was born with talents that allude most mortals.

Reading The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero, by William Kalush and Larry Sloman, I am enchanted by this man's life and achievements. And by his willingness to be honest - as honest as he could be, anyway - about his life and career. Perhaps there is more he could tell us, even now, from the afterlife. Some folks seem to think that is possible.

“The idea that the dead could communicate with the living had an allure for a young Houdini. Being the son of a rabbi had predisposed Harry to a belief in God and a hereafter. It was not such a radical jump to embrace Spiritualism, but from the very beginning, Houdini’s experiences with mediums were frustratingly disappointing,” write Kalush and Sloman. After a medium claimed to get in touch with President Abraham Lincoln, one of Houdini’s heroes, Houdini essentially wrote off Spiritualism – a rage at the time – and communicating with the dead.

But after an experience in Milwaukee, where Houdini realized his dismissal of Spiritualism may have been too hasty, Houdini and his mother paid to have a séance and Rabbi Weiss – Houdini’s father – was allegedly contacted, according to the authors.

They write: “Instead of advice, (Rabbi Weiss) was far more interested in telling his wife and son how happy he was in the afterlife. ‘It seemed strange to me that my father, knowing our pinched circumstances, would say any such thing,’ Houdini wrote.”

So, it would seem that Houdini’s heart was both here in “reality” and beyond. After all, he did make a pact to communicate from ‘the other side’ if possible, leaving “three different codes” with three people, including his wife Bess Houdini, who held a séance annually on the anniversary of his death for the first 10 years after his passing.

Houdini, it should be noted, had no problem exposing phony spiritualists and mediums. And there were plenty. Perhaps they were jealous of Houdini and angry that he would unmask their fraudulent activities. In fact, in The Secret Life of Houdini, published exactly seven years ago today, the authors suggest that Houdini may have been murdered by poisoning. After all, there was no autopsy and while he was suffering in his last days, a Canadian “doctor” used an “experimental serum” on the famed illusionist.

And little known is that Houdini, like other notorious figures (John Wilkes Booth, Aleister Crowley), was working “with the espionage services of the United States and Britain” and allegedly “packed a derringer wherever he went.”

Pretty wild. And as an aside, as I was writing this piece, the Bauhaus song "Bela Lugosi's Dead" came on, with that seance-like "tap-tap-tap" percussion. Eerie on a Halloween morn.

But back to Houdini ... Bess, ever his biggest supporter, was unsuccessful in reaching her late husband. But the tradition has continued. Many, many people have tried to contact Houdini. Perhaps this will be the year. After all, psychic and self-described spirit medium Alan Hatfield, of Halifax, Nova Scotia (Halifax is where Houdini performed his first ever jail escape in the late 1890’s, and it was also the site of one of Houdini’s first headlining performances).

Hatfield reportedly said: “My specialty is EVP – electronic voice phenomena. I’ve been to the Titanic site twice and recorded voices there and at Deadman’s Island and other places through the years.”

And checking out www.alanhatfield.com, he has a pretty good track record. The website features many examples of EVP recordings.

Added Hatfield, speaking to Nova Scotia’s Chronicle Herald newspaper: “We open the doorway and usually someone will oblige. We’re hoping Harry Houdini will, and maybe his wife, Bessie.”

Of course this being Halloween – All Hallow’s Eve – and tomorrow being November 1st – All Saint’s Day – the name “Hatfield” does stick out to me, since that dream that I refer to in “A ticket to Hatfield” seems to sync with all of this. Perhaps the “golden ticket” to a Juliana Hatfield concert was really more about getting my attention about that name (as it also did recently with the late James “J.H.” Hatfield, the author who wrote Fortunate Son, about George W. Bush’s drug use in the 1970’s and who died in 2001, right before the 9/11 attacks – a documentary about him and Sander Hicks was featured in Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky’s film Horns and Halos. Hatfield always said – “If anything happens to me – get it out to the press”).

Houdini may not show up in Halifax. He always said Hollywood was his favorite place. As it is has been noted, “The nine or so months that he stayed here may have been the happiest time of his life.” He was there in 1919 filming two picture for Lasky-Famous Players.

Houdini lived at 2435 Laurel Canyon Blvd in an area later to be known as a haven for artists and rock stars – and even the military, as researcher Dave McGowan has noted. It was adjacent to there, in 1935, when Bess Houdini threw a cocktail party for 500 visiting magicians and their wives and held a séance in hopes to contact the spirit of her late husband.

And so the attempts to reach Houdini continue. But just the fact that we are talking about him, gives us the knowledge that Harry Houdini is really immortal, just as “Tony” (Johnny Depp) tells the wealthy woman in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (which we noted here) as she sees boats going down a river in her fantasy world, boats featuring images of Rudolph Valentino, James Dean and Princess Diana. She notes that, like Houdini, they are all now dead. And now, suggests Tony, this woman must follow likewise and join them in a boat featuring Anubis, the god of the Dead.

“Yes … but immortal nevertheless. They won’t get old or fat. They won’t get sick or feeble. They are beyond fear because they are … forever young. They’re gods … and you can join them.” Eerily ironic in that Depp replaces the actor Heath Ledger in this scene, who had himself died prematurely during the production of the deeply esoteric film.

There are still questions surrounding Houdini’s death … and life. Perhaps one day those mysteries will be solved. Perhaps on some future Halloween.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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