Wednesday, March 26, 2014

"Ghosts ... Are the Bunk"

Continuing the enabling of my Houdini obsession from last time.

If there’s one thing we know about Harry, it’s that he was a terrible momma’s boy. One of his early notebooks tells of his jumping, while chained from head to foot, into a river. “Ma saw me jump!,” the entry reads; it’s a phrase into which his entire career can be encapsulated.
When his mother, Cecilia Weiss, died in 1913, he was devastated and spent the remaining thirteen years of his life trying to contact her in the spirit world. This is what actually led to his falling-out with Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle and his wife were ardent spiritualists. Conan Doyle himself was convinced that Houdini accomplished his feats through supernatural means. The final straw was Lady Conan Doyle claiming to have contacted Cecilia through automatic writing. The problem was the message was headed with a cross – the Weisses were Jews (Harry’s father was a rabbi) and the letter was written in English, a language Cecilia neither spoke nor wrote. Houdini accused the Doyles of fakery and the friendship was over.

Houdini and Conan Doyle before their 
friendship gave up the ghost.

Houdini was consumed with contacting the dead. He went to medium after medium and each of them exceeded the last in the cheapness and obviousness of their tricks. Houdini realized that, while he could easily spot the frauds (he delighted in going to seances in disguise, and when the “psychic” had pulled his or her best stunts, Houdini would rise, yank off his wig and glasses, shout “I AM HOUDINI!,” and expose the trickery), the average person could be easily taken in. 

Harry's seance disguise. Good enough to fool a medium.

His stage shows became triple-headers, with one act devoted to escapes, the second to performing illusions, and the third to exposing the tricks mediums used to cheat their victims.He even testified before a Congressional committee investigating fraud mediums (and I was stunned to find his testimony was similar to dialogue I'd written for him before I ever read it).
In a word, "No."

In the wake of World War I, spiritualism took off as parents, spouses, and loved ones tried to contact dead soldiers. It got to the point where Scientific American offered a large cash prize to any medium who could produce a genuine paranormal phenomenon. Houdini managed to become a member of the judging committee, and even offered his own prize ($10,000) for any effect he couldn’t reproduce. (The prize remains uncollected.) He never met a challenger he couldn’t expose. The closest – and his archenemy, if he had one – was Minna Crandon, the wife of a Boston doctor. Crandon was known professionally as “Margery," and she and Houdini battled for years (though as much as they opposed one another, they shared a bizarre friendship (there were even rumors they had an affair). Most notably, though, there was even speculation that she was part of a ring that arranged for Harry’s death.

 "Margery" "producing" "ectoplasm."

Despite the film and some legends, Houdini didn’t die while performing the Water Torture Cell escape – though the actual circumstances of his death are mysterious. What we do know is that in late October, 1926, he broke his ankle – which made performing the Water Torture Cell escape (which involved him having his ankles locked into a device that was hauled up and locked into place at the top of the cell), well, torturous. While performing in Toronto, he was visited in his dressing room by a group of college students from McGill University. One of them asked if it was true if Houdini’s stomach muscles were indeed strong enough to withstand even the hardest punch. Houdini was distractedly reading mail, and said yes, and one of the students proceeded to punch him as hard as he could.

The only known photo of the man who may or may have not been 
J. Gordon Whitehead, who may or may not have punched Houdini, 
and who may or may not have ruptured his appendix.

From here, the story gets murky, with numerous conflicting accounts. The man who punched him – J. Gordon Whitehead – may or may not have been a student; he may or may not have been J. Gordon Whitehead; “Whitehead” may or may not have been hired by a cabal of spiritualists to kill Harry; Houdini may have been lying on a couch or standing; the punches may or may not have ruptured his appendix. (I’ve read “conclusive” medical evidence both making and debunking the case that such blows could rupture an appendix.)

Regardless, his appendix did indeed rupture, but, being the stubborn cuss he was, he insisted on performing when his show went on in Detroit – even with a temperature of 104° and being in terrific pain. The performance went on mostly as planned (though he had to take a couple of breaks), but there are reports that those who’d seen him perform before knew something was wrong, while those who were seeing him for the first time suspected nothing.

Finally, the pain became too great for him to ignore the pleading of his doctor to go to the hospital. He was admitted and diagnosed with a ruptured appendix, and medicine in 1926 being what it was, he was a dead man. Most men would have been finished within a matter of hours, but such was his physical condition and his will to live that he hung on for a matter of days, finally dying on Halloween, 1926.

Bess Houdini, his widow, held annual Halloween seances to try to contact Harry, but gave them up in 1936, figuring if he hadn’t been able to make it back in ten years, he wasn’t coming back at all. To this day, though, the seances continue, most of them unofficial, but the “official” séance still convenes every October 31, and is always well-attended, usually with a number of magicians in attendance.

Bess trying to reach Harry.

He was buried at the Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, along with the rest of his family – excepting Bess, who, being a Catholic, wasn’t allowed in. I finally made the pilgrimage a few years ago and was stunned at how run down the place was. I’ve since found that the place went bankrupt. I don’t remember having to sneak in, but that’s apparently par for the course. Regardless, my friend and I were the only people seemingly for miles around. I placed a stone on the grave, paid my respects, and left sad at how overcrowded and frowsy the place felt. 

 The old view from the street.

The Houdini plot was in pretty good shape, but everything else felt abandoned – especially the administration building. But – and this was the discovery I made yesterday – it’s been torn down, giving Harry’s bust a clear view of the street.

Harry's new view. (Though he's actually down there to the right.)

The good news is that Harry’s reputation lives far beyond his life. There’s a play off-Broadway right now about his battles with Conan Doyle and Margery, there’s a Broadway musical in the works, and an upcoming TV biopic starring Adrian Brody.

And, of course, there’s my own Houdini plays.

Not bad for a dead guy.

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