Houdini was the most famous escape artist of all time. But was he able to escape Death?
If anyone could return from The Other Side, it certainly would have been Houdini. Like many people, Houdini desperately wanted to believe that Spiritualism exists, that we can communicate with the spirits. The loss of his mother was devastating to him, and he sought comfort in the advice of the spirit mediums of the day. Unfortunately, many of those mediums were pure frauds, using magic tricks to fool the public into thinking the spirits were speaking through them. Of course, Houdini recognized tricks when he saw them, and decided to devote half of his stage act to duplicating the methods used by the mediums, exposing the frauds to the public. This pitted the famous magician against the popular mediums of the day, including Margery Condon. The exposure of Margery's methods became a large part of Houdini's show, right up until the end of his life.
But just because Houdini was skeptical did not mean that he was a complete disbeliever. On the contrary. Despite his skepticism, Houdini and Bess promised each other that whoever died first would try to contact the other "from the other side". He and Bess devised a secret message, a code phrase that would be used. The phrase was one they had used years before in their vaudeville mindreading act. The message was, "Rosabelle- answer- tell-pray, answer- look- tell- answer, answer- tell". Bess' wedding band bore the inscription "Rosabelle", the name of the song she sang in her act when they first met. The other words correspond to a secret spelling code used to pass information between a magician and his assistant during a mentalism act. Each word or word pair equals a letter. The word "answer" stood for the letter "B", for example."Answer, answer" stood for the letter "V". Thus, the Houdinis' secret phrase spelled out the word "BELIEVE".
After Houdini died in 1926, Bess began the tradition of holding a séance on the death annivarsary to see whether Houdini, the Man No Jail Could Hold, could indeed escape from death. These séances, of course, provided rich publicity, and Bess was dedicated to promoting the Houdini name.
In early 1929, a very ill Bess was approached by "Rev." Arthur Ford, a young and eager medium. Within weeks, Ford triumphantly announced that he had successfully delivered the correct message to Houdini's widow. It did not take long for the press to discover that Ford's claim was a hoax; and that Bess had inadvertently revealed the message to several reporters a full year before.
In 1936, the "Final Séance" was held on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel in Los Angeles. Ten years was enough, and Bess admitted that she had never received the message from Houdini.
But that was not the actual final séance. The magic fraternity quickly took on the task of conducting the annual séances, with numerous notable magicians heading the table, including Walter Gibson, Houdini's ghostwriter. The group photo of the 1948 séance at the left shows Walter Gibson, Sidney Radner, Bob Lund, Litska Raymond and Chrystal Dunninger at the table.
Despite all of the effort, attention and interest, Houdini has apparently not spoken to anyone since he breathed his last earthly words to his brother Hardeen on Halloween night in 1926.