Every Halloween, a group that has included celebrities, master magicians and ghost writers waits patiently for Harry Houdini to return from the grave. He hasn’t come back yet, but this has ceased to dispirit the séance-goers, who in recent years have moved the event to the internet.
“We are asking everyone to attempt to contact Harry Houdini sometime during Halloween for the 24 hours of October 31st,” reads a banner on the website of the Harry Houdini Museum, which is located in Scranton, Pennsylvania. “Email us with any results and lack of results. No kooks please, this is a serious Halloween test and tribute.”
The Hungarian-American magician slipped out of straitjackets while suspended upside down 30 stories above the street, made elephants disappear and was buried alive, twice; once in a pit in Santa Ana, California, in 1917 and nine years later in a sealed coffin at the bottom of the swimming pool at New York’s Hotel Shelton. But when a McGill University student named Joselyn Gordon Whitehead punched him in the gut while supine on a couch posing for a sketch, Houdini doubled up in pain and died several days later, on October 31, 1926.
“These blows fell on that part of the stomach to the right of the navel,” said another student who had witnessed the event. “I do not remember exactly how many blows were struck. I am certain, however, of at least four very hard and severe body blows, because at the end of the second or third blow I verbally protested against this sudden onslaught.”
The séance tradition was begun by Houdini’s widow, Bess. Before Houdini died the couple had agreed upon a code he would whisper in her ear should he ever return to her after death. Bess spent nine Halloweens waiting for Houdini, a ritual that grew increasingly flamboyant. A decade after his death the séance was held on the roof of Hollywood’s Knickerbocker Hotel. An hour passed and nothing happened. The celebrity guests rose to leave when all the sudden a crack of thunder split the air and a torrent of rain fell from the heavens. Could it be the great Houdini, some surely thought.
But the handcuffs left for Houdini to unlock remained locked, the trumpet there for him to blow was never blown and a bell set up for him to ring was never rung. Most importantly, the agreed upon code was never whispered in Bess’s ear. She organized no more séances. “Ten years is long enough to wait for any man,” she later said. Afterward it was revealed that she had told the secret code to a reporter years earlier: Rosabelle-answer-tell-pray, answer-look-tell-answer, answer-tell.
Bess asked Walter B. Gibson, creator of the fictional character, “The Shadow”, which he had written more than 300 books about, to carry on the séance tradition. Gibson held the séance at the Magic Towne House, a well-known New York City magic spot. Gibson asked Dorothy Dietrich, a famous escapist and the first woman ever to catch a bullet in her teeth, to take over the séances after he died. Dietrich brought the tradition to the Houdini museum.
Halloween Houdini events have been held in other places. For 68 years, both magicians and the non-magical journeyed to his grave at New York City’s Machpelah Cemetery for a ceremony whose climax involved breaking a wooden wand and chanting: “The curtain has at last been rung down.”
The scene sometimes got ugly. Graves were toppled and stone benches smashed. In 1994, the owner of the cemetery, weary of the annual vandalism, decided to shut its gates on Halloween. “The type of individual who goes out to cemeteries this time of year generally doesn’t have good intentions,” the owner told a New York Times‘ reporter in 1995.
The most serious damage for Houdini fans was no doubt what happened to the bust atop his grave: in 1975 it was smashed to bits with a sledge-hammer. “The thinking is that he went to the grave with secrets in his head, so if I bust open the head, I will find the secrets,” the chairman of the Houdini Committee said in a 2002 interview.
Come Halloween, Houdini may finally reveal those secrets to the world, via the internet.