Hollywood, Houdini and the Halloween Seance of 1936

Houdini, performing suspended upside down outside B.F. Keith’s Theatre, 15th and G St. NW, Washington, D.C., Jan. 1922. Photo: National Photo Company. Prints and Photographs Division.

This is a guest post by Mark Dimunation, chief of the Rare Book & Special Collections Division.

It was a setting befitting the showmanship of Harry Houdini:

The bright, clear, cold evening of Halloween, 1936, atop the roof of Hollywood’s high-profile Knickerbocker Hotel. There, the lights of Los Angeles glittered in the distance. Here, at 8 p.m., a dimly lit séance. Atop a table in the center of the attraction lay a pair of locked handcuffs on a silk pillow. A trumpet. A tambourine. Nearby, an invitation-only audience of 300 was crammed into a set of bleachers, waiting to see if the dead might come to life.

This was Bess Houdini’s final attempt to contact the spirit of her husband, the master illusionist who had died on Halloween 10 years earlier, and the expectations were high.

“The zero hour of the 10th anniversary of our departed friend is fast nearing the end,” began Edward Saint, the séance’s moderator, in a melodramatic flourish.

The session atop the hotel was recorded and, if you’re interested in more on the world of magic, you can also survey the Houdini and the McManus/Young Collections in the Rare Book and Special collections Division at the Library. They’ll take you deep inside the world of Houdini, one of the early 20th century’s most compelling personalities.

Bess Houdini, seated, at the last seance, and Edward Saint, right, with beard. Other men unidentified. Photo: New York World-Telegram and the Sun  Newspaper Collection. Prints and Photographs Division.

That Halloween night in L.A., Saint sat in a huge, oversized chair, the back of which extended well above his head. It was perched by the side of a small shrine to Houdini, replete with the man’s photograph beneath a dim bulb. Bess sat in an identical chair on the other side of the shrine. The set was near the edge of the hotel’s roof, so that the city’s HOLLYWOODLAND sign (as it then read) was clearly visible behind them. Across the country, more than 20 simultaneous séances were also getting underway, all reaching out for Houdini, as Saint said, “to come through.”

Among the others seated around the table were Charles Fricke, judge of the California High Court; two journalists; the past president of the California Spiritualist Organization; and several other high-end magicians and seers. As they had done each Halloween for the nine years since Houdini’s death, the group gathered in an attempt to contact Houdini’s spirit. This 10th attempt was, by an agreement Harry and Bess had made before his death, to be the last.

For the family and friends of a man who spent much of his career debunking spiritualism, sponsoring a Houdini séance seemed a serious contradiction.

He had, after all, attended séances in an attempt to contact his deceased mother and found them to be stuff and nonsense. He challenged mediums to demonstrate any ghostly communication that he could not, as a magician, replicate by a trick. The rapping on the table, the ghostly moans, things floating in the air … he showed that it was all done with special effects, hidden wires and the like.

But before Houdini’s death, he and Bess made a pact that the first to die would try to contact the survivor from the beyond.  If contact was not made within 10 years, the pact would be broken and the notion of communication with the dead refuted. Houdini promised Bess that his spirit would deliver a message in code and open a pair of locked silver handcuffs. Their secret code word was “Rosabelle,” followed by the phrase: “answer – tell – pray – answer – look – tell – answer – answer – tell” – a shorthand used between the two when they had been on stage together. In their code, it spelled “Believe.”

That coded promise was, as it turned out, final proof of the man’s genius.

After his death, spiritualists across the country, if not the world, said Houdini had contacted them. In Chicago, his ghost supposedly walked in to a room. In Kansas City, the ghost wrote a letter. In New Zealand, it drank a cup of tea. But — thanks to Houdini’s foresight — none could claim he had spoken in the code that only his wife knew.

Therefore, this séance was the last gasp.

Saint, who conducted most of the ceremony, was Bess Houdini’s business manager and companion — and a former carnival showman. He had the dramatic patter down, delivering a 10-minute oration on Houdini’s career before intoning a solemn Christian prayer.

Then:

“Ooooohhh, thou disembodied spirits,” he begins, “those of you who have grown old in the mysterious laws of spirit land, we greet thee….. Houdini … are you here? … Are you here, Houdini?” he said, his voice rising, “Please manifest yourself in any way possible … We have waited Houdini, oh so long…now this is the night of nights…SPEAK HARRY!”

“Pomp and Circumstance” followed, the stage music Houdini had used for his show openings and closings. The group waited for contact, for a message from Houdini. It never came. On the last part of the séance played to the radio audience, Bess announced: “Houdini did not come through. My last hope is gone. I do not believe that Houdini can come back to me or to anyone. … 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. Good night, Harry!”

It was over.

The Rare Book Division holds the documentation of this event, including the radio script. Once viewed, of course, it becomes clear that the entire séance was scripted beforehand. It is replete with speaking instructions – “Pause.  Speak slowly.” It was all show business, kids. Nobody on the stage thought Houdini was going to “come through.” Perhaps a fitting bit of artifice to end Houdini’s life-long crusade against fraudulent spiritualists.

In 1943, nearing death, Bess recalled her decade-long vigil. She wasn’t sorry she had stopped, saying, “10 years is long enough to wait for any man.” And, on that score, we can agree, she closed the book.

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