The Harry Houdini Séances: The world-famous magician was fixated on trying to contact his dead mother. After he died, his wife held annual séances to try to contact him.
On June 17, 1913, after learning of Cecilia Weiss’s death from a stroke, her son, the famed magician Harry Houdini, said, “If God in his greatness ever sent an angel on Earth in human form, it was my mother.”
It’s a statement that would not have seemed out of character for Norman Bates in Psycho.
I was struck by a 1907 photograph of Houdini, his arms draped over his wife, a young Beatrice (Bess) Rahner Houdini, on his left, and a stern-faced Cecilia Weiss on his right. His mother looks directly at the camera lens, cold and unamused. A note scrawled in the top left corner reads, “My two Sweethearts. – Houdini.”
At the time this photograph was taken, Bess and Harry would have been married for 13 years. Bess gazes lovingly at her husband, who appears suspended someplace between – and this could be the result of my own sick mind – pleasure and self-satisfaction. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but this image gives me the creeps.
After Cecilia’s death, Harry became ﬁxated on trying to contact his mother through séances. This was at the height of the Spiritualism trend both in America and abroad, and Houdini took note that these fraudulent mediums preyed upon the vulnerability of those in mourning – often using the same vaudevillian sleight-of-hand tricks that he and Bess mastered in their early traveling magic acts. While his mother’s death pushed Houdini to search for genuine contact with the dead more fervently, he had been passionate about disproving fake mediums for years before.In his 1924 book, A Magician Among the Spirits, he wrote: “I, too, would have parted gladly with a large share of my earthly possessions for the solace of one word from my lovely departed [Cecilia] –just one word … and became deeply interested to discover there was a possible reality of the return, by Spirit, of one who had passed over … and ever since have devoted to this effort my heart and soul…after twenty-ﬁve years of ardent research I declare that nothing has been revealed to convince me that intercommunication has been established between the Spirits of the departed and those still in the ﬂesh … it is with the deepest concern that I have watched this great wave of Spiritualism sweep the world in recent months and has taken such a hold on persons … especially those suffering from bereavement, that it has become a menace to health and sanity.”
But Houdini’s numerous attempts to contact his dead mother proved to be ineffective. They also led to a rift in his friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In 1922, Doyle’s wife told Houdini that she would hold a séance in Atlantic City’s Ambassador Hotel, and convinced him that she could successfully contact Cecilia from beyond the grave. Lady Doyle produced “automatic writing” from Cecilia, which was immediately called a farce by Houdini, because his mother could not speak nor write in English when she was alive. Harry had always told Bess that if he died before her, he would ﬁnd a way to contact her from the spiritual world if it were somehow possible.
Following Houdini’s death on Halloween 1926, Bess – apparently unscathed after being the third in a slightly incestuous spiritual ménage à trois – began holding annual séances to contact him. She was quoted as “… taking up the magician’s wand laid down by her husband’s dying hand.” These Houdini séances were coupled with a shrine that she built for him, including his image placed inside a wooden chest with a red light bulb that she kept illuminated for ten years.But, try as she might, Bess was never able to contact Harry from beyond. As she told the Associated Press in a 1930 interview, “If I had succeeded in communicating with Houdini, I would shout it from the housetops.”
The ﬁnal Houdini séance took place on October 31, 1936, on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel in Los Angeles, at 8:30 p.m. Bess was accompanied by her “manager” (and lover), Edward Saint. The event proved to be unsuccessful, and at the end of the recording, Bess solemnly states, “Yes. Houdini did not come through. My last hope is gone. I do not believe that Houdini can come back to me, or to anyone. After faithfully following through the Houdini ten-year compact, after using every type of medium and séance, it is now my personal and positive belief that spirit communication in any form is impossible. I do not believe that ghosts or spirits exist. The Houdini shrine has burned for ten years. I now reverently turn out the light. It is ﬁnished. Goodnight, Harry.”
“Ten years is long enough to wait for any man.”
There are some fairly rare LPs of the audio from the ﬁnal Houdini séance still kicking around – a 1959 version and a 1975 reissue – and I suggest that you all go out and buy them, but I would selﬁshly like them for myself. Here is a audio recording posted on Youtube.
Believing that the end was near – she died of a heart attack on February 11, 1943 aboard a train from Los Angeles to New York, where she hoped to spend her final days – Bess Houdini gave a short interview to journalists in Los Angeles seven days before her death. In a feature story that appeared in The Oregonian nearly a month later, she was quoted as saying, “I did everything I could in trying to contact Harry – absolutely everything.” But she didn’t succeed because, she said, “there was no ghost to do his part.”
That said, she didn’t discount others’ efforts to summon Harry’s ghost. “Many of these people were sincere in their expressions,” she said. “I am sure they really thought they had seen or heard Harry. However, nothing will ever convince me that they did.”
I have always been drawn to this piece of history because of Bess Houdini’s quote, “Ten years is long enough to wait for any man.” This was originally included in a 1943 New York Times article based on the same final interview. I think there is a larger – and implicit – story being told about love, longing, and suspension of disbelief when we talk about the Houdini séances.
Harry Houdini is buried in Machpelah Cemetery in Queens with his mother, father, brothers, sister and a slew of other family members – but not Bess. There is a gravestone and plot placed there for her, as per Harry’s wish, but the ﬁnal death year has two blank squares, never to be carved. Bess was raised Catholic, and her family fought to have her buried in a Catholic cemetery in Hawthorne, NY. Perhaps there was one “Sweetheart” too many, after all.