KEELY BROWN
Special to the Daily

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November 1, 2007
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Houdini and the spiritualists

Well, another Halloween has come and gone, and Houdini didn't appear at his own annual seance. Since Houdini himself would have been skeptical of such a feat, it's really no surprise.

For those of you not au courant with the story, master magician and escape artist Harry Houdini died on Halloween in 1926. This was during an era when spiritualists, mediums and seances were inordinately popular, and Houdini had told his wife Bess, that if it were possible, he would come back. He even gave Bess a code, based on an old vaudeville routine they did together.

After 10 years of annual seances with no spirit manifestations from her late husband, Bess gave up and made this public statement: "Since the failure of the 10-year test, it is my opinion that all concerned have struck a mighty worldwide blow at superstition."

So it would seem. But Bess had passed the torch onto interested friends, who wanted a continuation of the annual event " presumably until something happened. The annual Houdini seance grew every year, to where it now encompasses all of cyberspace.

In a feat of publicity that Houdini, the master of showmanship, would have loved, the Houdini Museum in Scranton now hosts a live internet seance every year for 24 hours throughout Halloween.

This week's results? Apparently nil, nada " not a sausage, as the Brits say. But even if he could come back, can you blame Houdini for not taking advantage of the heaven-sent offer?

What on earth, literally, would he have to come back for? He has his beloved Bess, who died in 1943, with him on the Other Side. If he came back, he would probably take one look around, say, "Jeez, things sure have changed around here!" and hightail it back to the hereafter.

Houdini himself wouldn't have believed in his second coming anyway, because he didn't believe in spirit manifestations. In fact, he spent much of his life and career debunking spiritualists and mediums " an admirable mission that history and forensic specialists now tell us probably led to his untimely death at the age of 52.

The accepted story is that Houdini suffered from appendicitis while on tour, for which he refused to seek medical treatment. After one of his shows, a college student met him in his dressing room and challenged him on his widely publicized feat of being able to take a hard punch to his abdomen. Before Houdini had a chance to prepare by expanding his diaphragm (an old singer's trick that enables the torso to take a blow) the despicable moron student (sorry, but it's hard for me to be objective here) sucker-punched him hard, causing Houdini's appendix to become inflamed.

Peritonitis set in and he died a week later.

However, there's a wonderful new conspiracy theory that seemingly proves that Houdini was poisoned in a carefully-planned murder committed in order to protect the careers of several popular spiritualists of the time. You have to imagine the circumstances " this was the age before television, when radio was still in its infancy. In this era of live entertainment and vaudeville, spiritualists ran riot, and several of these performers became as popular " and as wealthy " as today's rock stars.

But it wasn't all harmless fun. Many of these "mediums" rooked people out of their life savings, promising contact with a beloved family member in return for huge sums of money. Since Houdini always passionately repudiated any claims to supernatural powers and was always quick to point out that his own escapes and feats of magic were nothing but mere trickery, he expected this same integrity from others " an expectation that, however admirable, was too idealistic.

In order to expose these fraudulent mediums, Houdini actually went undercover to seances, giving him an opportunity to figure out how all the trickery was done, from table levitation to spirit voices and manifestations. He outlined these tricks of the trade in a series of lectures and performances nationwide, as well as several well-written books.

In a recent biography, "The Secret Life of Houdini," authors William Kaluch and Larry Sloman present the possibility that Houdini may have been murdered, poisoned by some of the very spiritualists he sought to expose. There is much in this theory to fascinate "especially when you read of factual events such as the mysterious injection of "experimental serum" given to him, unauthorized, shortly before he died.

And then, there is the letter written by Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, who was not only an ardent spiritualist but also a friend of the mediums Houdini debunked. In writing to a fellow spriritualist, Conan Doyle remarked that Houdini would "get his just desserts very exactly meted out... I think there is a general payday coming soon." Houdini's mysterious death took place a scant two years later.

In a lovely twist of irony, one person who has come out in favor of the autopsy is Anna Thurlow, the great-granddaughter of "Margery," one of the most famous mediums of Houdini's time " and one he exposed relentlessly. To make things even more interesting, Margery's husband was a doctor, and a famous enemy of Houdini.

Houdini's autopsy hasn't yet been scheduled, but its approval by family members has already ensured that it will definitely be done sometime in the near future " and I know that this is one celebrity autopsy report I don't want to miss.

In the meantime, if you've got a hankering for ghost sightings during this season of All Saint's Day and the Day of the Dead, you can visit You Tube and type in the words "Ghost girl vanish behind car." This one's a real beauty " a parking lot surveillance video, sent in from Japan, of a ghost drifting among the cars. If you type in "Car accident ghost" you can see another good one. They're both supposed to be authentic; whether they are or not, they're creepy and entertaining, which is really the main point, isn't it?

And if you're sick of the whole hobgoblin season, you can still take heart. Halloween is over, and you know what that means? The beginning of the Christmas season, that's what.


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The Summit Daily Updated Nov 1, 2007 06:34PM Published Nov 1, 2007 06:34PM Copyright 2007 The Summit Daily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.