Still waiting for a message beyond the grave

inside the mysterious mind and world of Harry Houdini
inside the mysterious mind and world of Harry Houdini

HANK AND VERNE RELAXED a bit as the house lights came up and most of their row in the theater left for the concession stands or to take bathroom breaks. The members of their bus tour occupied a row of seats and part of the one in front. They were glad their tour of Las Vegas included the Magi-Ganza, a variety show with ten up-and-coming magicians. Hank and Verne, themselves, earned a little extra spending cash as a magic team working private parties in their home town. They had honed their skills for years by sending off for various magic kits and poring over Blackstone’s books. They had worked up a pleasant patter. It kept them busy in their retirement years.

“My gosh, I just now realized it was his birthday this past week,” Verne said. “He was born on March 24, 1874.”

“Who?” Hank was curious about what had popped into his friend’s head.

“Harry Houdini, of course,” Verne replied.

Then, Hank said, “I never thought about it, but I had a grandfather born in 1878. Granddad was an actual contemporary of Houdini, I suppose.”

“It was so odd. I had heard of the man all of my life, equated him with great magicians, but I always thought Houdini was his real name and that he must be Italian, because it kind of sounded Italian—the name. It was not until I read the wonderful book, Ragtime, by E. L. Doctorow that I realized that that was not really his name. Houdini was in fact, Ehrich Weiss, and his father was a Hungarian Rabbi that moved his family to America in 1878. They arrived on the S S Fresia and first settled in Appleton, Wisconsin,”

Verne started to explain.

The haunting eyes of Harry Houdini
The haunting eyes of Harry Houdini

Ragtime. How I loved that novel, and I don’t read much fiction. The author so skillfully wove the tales of several real people, fictionally, but with a historical basis for everything. He even hinted about a couple of ways that Houdini may have accomplished some of his feats by cutting pockets in the calluses of his feet to hold razor blades and padlock keys—genius! And when they made it into a movie in 1981, I loved seeing Jimmy Cagney come forward and play a late-in-life role in that picture as the New York police commissioner. He was great. He should have taken on some more roles at that age.” Hank visualized some of the vibrant movie scenes in his head.

“Houdini was a hard worker. He had many early failures but he persevered until he became famous for many stunts, including The Mirror Challenge, the Milk Can Escape, The Chinese Water Torture Cell, and the Suspended Straitjacket Escape,” Verne continued.

“He also escaped from a box thrown overboard a ship—that is the one I remember,” Hank said, with a click of his mouth. “He was chained up inside. We don’t know how these things work. I am sure a lot of skill and safeguards are involved, but it seems that he undeniably risked his own life many times to make his feats credible. He achieved enduring fame. He even made an elephant disappear once, I believe, in front of a crowd of people.”

“But, I am most interested in his final mystery. He has not yet completed the feat, to my knowledge,” Verne interrupted.

“And what is that?” Hank raised his eyebrows.

“He promised that if it were at all possible, that after he died he would send a message from beyond the grave.”

“Oh, yeah, that! That is fascinating.” Verne remembered the famous promise. “It is so ironic that he died young, not as a result of a dare-devil stunt at all, but of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix. Isn’t that right?”

Verne explained what he knew. “He did have a ruptured appendix, but there is a mystery to that, as well. He was very fit—he had to be. Every muscle in his body was as hard as a rock, when tensed. He often told some of his young fans, ‘Hit me in the stomach. It won’t hurt me.’ He would tense up his abs and they would punch him and their fists would just bounce off.”

“Yes! He was a small man but very strong,” Hank agreed.

Verne continued. “Shortly before he died, a young fan decided to punch him in the stomach while he was resting, reclined. It was a sneak attack. There are some that feel this act actually ruptured his appendix. Houdini was in his dressing room. He had been working with a broken ankle and had to rest. He was caught by surprise by the young man’s blows and did not have the opportunity to tense his muscles first. He was only fifty-two and died on Halloween.”

“Sad, indeed, but we will never know for sure if the punches killed him, will we?” Hank asked this rhetorical question.

Verne’s explanation continued. “Long before, he had told his wife, that if he died before she did, that he would try to send her the message, ‘Rosabelle, believe.’ It was their own secret code as ‘Rosabelle’ was their favorite song from their days of courtship. Not only did she try to receive his messages daily in their home, his wife, Bess, held séances for ten years on the Halloween, the anniversary of his death, to try to receive the message. The last séance was held on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel. All of the attempts were unsuccessful, so she abandoned the séances after ten years. There is a known recording of some of this last séance.”

“And now we suppose they are together in spirit anyway, in the afterlife, and there is no longer a reason for Houdini to try to contact her,” Hank surmised.

“Huh? I had never thought of it like that, but you are right,” Verne agreed. “If they are together, there is no reason for him to get in touch with her, now. Yet, every Halloween, all over the world, people hold séances—sometimes they are very important people and fellow magicians—to see if Houdini will send his message from beyond. He died way back in 1926.”

“I have no doubt that wherever Houdini is, he is still trying to send a message, anyway. It would be important for him to break though—another big stunt. Several magicians, some headlining right here in Las Vegas, and other people, including those people who advertise that they are able to talk to the dead, have claimed to have been contacted by Houdini.”

“I don’t buy it, do you?” Hank was immediately suspicious.

“No. I think that that would be the last thing he would do. He would not contact another escape artist or magician, and help them feather their own nests. It is his stunt, after all. He will contact someone with whom he has sentimental ties, emotional ties, or maybe an unknown.”

“He was a small but remarkable man. I don’t think there will ever be another like him. He was fascinated by aviation and became a pilot. He also appeared in movies, and he spent a large amount of time debunking spiritualists and charlatans.” Hank’s admiration for the man would never wane.

As their bus-mates returned to their seats, and the lights dimmed for the second half of the Magi-Ganza, Hank and Verne let their minds wander. Wheels were tuning. Just how hard would it be to get a message from Harry Houdini, a message sent from somewhere in the ether?

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