It was the night of October 31, 1936. Halloween night. The men and women sat at the round table with joined hands. They awaited the message -- the message they had hoped for every Halloween night for the past 10 years. But the message did not come.
Finally, one woman rose from the table and announced to the others - and to a listening radio audience - "Houdini did not come through," she said. "My last hope is gone. I do not believe that Houdini can come back to me, or to anyone... The Houdini Shrine has burned for ten years. I now, reverently... turn out the light. It is finished. Good night, Harry!"
The woman was Bess Houdini, wife of the famed magician and escape artist. And this was the last séance she would participate in to try to contact her dead husband. But the séances themselves did not stop. Every October 31, from 1927 up to the present day, a séance has been conducted with hopes of contacting the spirit of Harry Houdini. So far, the great Houdini has not made his presence known.
The Houdini séance has been a Halloween tradition since the first anniversary of his death. The magician died at the age of 52 on October 31, 1926 from peritonitis -- an internal infection -- as the result of a ruptured appendix.
Shortly before his death, Houdini made a pact with Bess that if he could, he would return and make contact with her from the other side. They devised a coded message that only he and Bess knew; this would prove that it really was Houdini breaking through from the afterlife. But after 10 séances in 10 years, Bess had not received her beloved husband's personal message.
Oddly enough, Harry Houdini did not necessarily believe that spirits of the dead could be contacted. Aside from his fame as a stage magician and astonishing escape artist, Houdini was just as well known -- especially in the later part of his career -- as a debunker of spirit mediums and phony séances. He felt, however, that if it were possible for anyone to come back, he would find a way to do it.
In the 1920s, spiritualism was at a new height in the US and Britain. There was a strong, popular belief in the notion that it was possible to communicate with the dead through séances and channeling psychics knows as mediums. The movement had begun in the mid-1800s, grew in popularity over 20 years, then slowly fizzled out toward the turn of the century as more and more mediums were exposed as frauds. But after World War I, there was a resurgence in the spiritualist movement as many families longed to contact those who had perished in battle.
And the mediums were right there to fill the need for a public so willing to believe. The best mediums were masterful tricksters and showpeople, and their séances were thrilling multimedia performances of spirit channeling, levitating tables, floating instruments that played themselves, written messages from the dead and spontaneous manifestations of ectoplasm. The performances were ingenious and succeeded in fooling many otherwise intelligent people. Houdini, being a magician and a rather ingenious fellow himself, knew that these séances were just clever hoaxes.
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