World-renowned illusionist and escapologist Harry Houdini was devoted to his mother. Devastated when she died in 1913, he blamed himself for being on tour and not by her side. Harry was suspicious of claims made by professional mediums, yet his grief was so great he allowed his friend Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Homes and a devout spiritualist) to persuade him to attend séances to contact her departed spirit.
Instead of desperately needed solace, all Harry found was fraud and calumny. Easily spotting the stage magician tricks that professional mediums used to dupe the grief stricken, he wasted no time in exposing them.
Despite Harry Houdini’s life-long crusade to expose fraudulent spiritualists he never abandoned hope there was an afterlife. Perhaps it was vanity, as much as anything else, that made him promise Bess, his wife: if possible he would return to prove the existence of a life after death.
Houdini made the same pact with around 20 friends as well as Bess. To each individual he entrusted a unique secret coded message, making it easy to prove any message from beyond the grave was genuine.
On Halloween 1926 Harry Houdini died in hospital from blood poisoning caused by a ruptured appendix. Most film versions of his life have Harry dying on stage, suffering agonising abdominal pain while drowning inside his Chinese-Water-Torture-Cabinet. In fact Harry died in hospital after an operation to remove his appendix and drain the infection spreading through his body.
Some of Houdini’s friends openly reported mysterious events after Harry’s death: an inscription from Harry mysteriously vanished from a book; framed photographs fell from walls and a sculptured bust of Harry shattered. But none of these events were considered the unique proof Harry promised.
Soon after Harry’s death spiritualist mediums began contacting his wife Bess. Their messages were vague uplifting blandishments about how swell things were on the other side and Bess dismissed them as rubbish. Frustrated by time-wasters, Bess issued a $10,000 reward to anyone able to provide the unique secret proof she and Harry had agreed.
Legend has it Bess offered the £10,000 for a 1-year period, and it was not until the year expired that a medium got in touch with a 10-word coded message from Harry.
In fact two and a half years elapsed before Arthur Ford told Bess he had the agreed message. Arthur Ford and an entourage (including two journalists) arrived on 8 January 1929 for a scheduled meeting at Bess’ apartment. Bess, recuperating from a fall a few days earlier, had her press agent and an old friend in attendance as witnesses.
The medium Arthur Ford delivered the message: ‘Rosabelle – answer- tell- pray, answer- look- tell- answer, answer- tell’
He then added Houdini said the code was one used in one of their mind reading acts. He instructed Bess to tell the assembled group what Rosabelle meant.
In a tremulous voice Bess began to sing a song from her first show with Houdini: ‘Rosabell sweet Rosabell I love you more than I can tell.’ The message, translated from the mind reading code, was B-E-L-I-E-V-E
Stifling tears Bess confirmed it was indeed the secret message and had been delivered as she and Harry agreed. She then dramatically swooned.
The next day the story made headlines around the world courtesy of the journalists attending the séance. It seemed not even eternity could hold Houdini.
Read Part 2 of the story: Rosabelle Believed- But did Bess?