Thursday, October 29, 2009

The "Final" Houdini Seance, part one

Those who are aware of my real identity know that I'm a big Houdini aficionado, and that I spent many years researching Houdini's life and writing about him.

Like Houdini, I don't believe in "mediums" or "spiritualists." Nevertheless I find it fascinating that 83 years after Houdini's death, people are still holding seances in the hopes of hearing from him. As great a showman and "escapologist" as Houdini was, so much of his mystique today, his larger-than-life mythology, is inextricably linked to mysticism and the supernatural. The "spirit of Houdini" has never been able to answer the question of whether consciousness lives on beyond the grave, and ironically, it's his very silence on this matter that has contributed to his immortality.

Great personalities who die young remain larger-than-life forever, and people never forget a great unsolved mystery. Thus Houdini's premature death at the height of his fame, as well as the enduring "cliffhanger" of his promised return from the grave, have kept his memory alive for 83 years, and will no doubt keep it alive for centuries to come.

In honor of the anniversary of Houdini's death (Halloween), I bring you a transcript of the final "official" Houdini seance, performed on the rooftop of the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood on October 31, 1936. The recording was released in 1959 and is introduced by a narrator; I've included that preamble here. As the whole recording is really long, I'm going to split it into three posts. The second installment will contain hints about Houdini's "secret vault" -- (a mystery within a mystery).

Transcript, Part One:

Narrator [
George L. Boston]: Houdini, the greatest showman that ever walked this Earth, died October 31, 1926. Prior to his death, he was seeking out and exposing fraudulent spirit mediums. He boasted that there was nothing that a spirit medium could produce by way of alleged psychic phenomena that he could not reproduce by trickery. Despite this he took no chances. He and his wife, the late Beatrice Houdini, resolved between them that, whichever one died before the other, that one would try to contact the survivor. They further agreed upon a secret code. This was decided upon to prevent fraudulent mediums or magicians from claiming that they were able to contact either one of the Houdinis. It was further agreed that the survivor would use every type of conceivable seance to contact the deceased. That, once each year, on the anniversary of the death, the survivor would hold a small gathering of friends, so that some message might possibly be heard. All attempts were to be discontinued after ten years.

Houdini died first; his widow did not succumb until 1942.

For nine years after Harry Houdini’s death, she tried to reach him. Once she seemed to believe that Arthur Ford, the celebrated spirit medium, had actually reached her husband. Later she decided she had been mistaken; that Mr. Ford had not received the real code message.

There were, during those years, almost daily reports of Houdini’s spirit visiting mediums all over the world, but not a single instance could actually be proven. It is notable, however, that Houdini definitely did not contact the one living person he had loved most -- his wife.

Thus it went, til October 31, 1936. This was the tenth anniversary of Harry Houdini’s death. After this date Mrs. Houdini was to stop searching; the tenth seance was to be the final one. In charge of arrangements was the late Dr. Edward Saint, an old-time showman and Mrs. Houdini’s business advisor. Dr. Saint decided the affair should achieve epic proportions, and proceeded accordingly.

The roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood, California was rented for the occasion. Now the Knickerbocker is just about one block from the intersection of Hollywood and Vine, the movie capital’s most fabulous street. A bleacher-like seating arrangement was built, which could accommodate about 300 people, and fully this many were invited by engraved invitation. Sound equipment and a special lighting system was installed. Seats for the inner circle were arranged directly in front of the bleachers. As early as 7 o’clock in the evening the invited guests began to assemble. People from all walks of life, but chiefly magicians, spiritualists, newspapermen, and others who had special interest in the affair.

Up there on that roof it was uncommonly cold. The sky above was clear and bright, with the stars shining brilliantly. It was so cold that most of the invited guests were actually chilled. Making up the inner circle were: Mrs. Houdini and Dr. Edward Saint; the Honorable Charles Fricke, a judge of the California High Court; two newspapermen; a past president of the California Spiritualist Organization; a member of the American Institute of Psychic Research, Hereward Carrington; and two magicians. One of the magicians was Caryl Fleming, then president of the Pacific Coast Association of Magicians, and the other was a publisher of a magazine devoted to the concerns of the conjurers, William W. Larsen Sr.

On a table in front of Mrs. Houdini and Dr Saint was a small altar bearing a picture of Houdini. Over the table [clearly he meant to say “altar” - A.U.] a tiny light which had burned for ten years. On a low stand in the center of the inner circle was a small table. On it was located a pistol, loaded with blank cartridges; a tambourine; a locked pair of handcuffs which had never been unlocked since Houdini’s death; a slate; a bit of chalk; a large bell; and a trumpet. In addition to manifesting himself to Mrs. Houdini, via the secret code, Harry Houdini’s spirit was to be prevailed upon to shoot the gun, unlock the cuffs, talk through the trumpet, and so on through the list of objects. Such were the proposed tests.

Now it seems that Dr. D. Jalini [I am uncertain of the correct spelling. - A.U.], a well-known west coast mystery worker, and a few other outstanding magicians, didn’t really believe that anything was going to happen. They feared that the invited guests and the waiting world were doomed to bitter disappointment, and possible disillusionment. So, they offered their services to help better matters. It would be excellent, they told Dr. Saint, to get Houdini’s handwriting on the slate, and they could assure its appearance there. Or to cause a dove to fly up from the center of the table, seemingly created out of nothing.

Dr. Saint wisely refused these generous “offers.” The seance was to be conducted on a strictly legitimate basis; the tricks of the conjurers were taboo. Promptly at 8 o’clock began the regal music of Pomp and Circumstance -- this was the last music that Houdini ever used; he had always opened and closed his act with this music. Here is the actual voice of Dr. Edward Saint, recorded during the seance on that memorable night, October 31, 1936. [ be continued...]

Next time: Part Two, the actual seance from 1936.


  1. I have a CD-R of this recording. it's nice to see the LP cover. Do you have that LP?


  2. No, I wish I had the LP because the picture is really eerie! I have a CD-R of the recording, too.

    There's a guy in Texas who sells Houdini memorabilia (I've bought from him once before). The LP cover is from his site, I think he has one or more of the LPs for sale but sadly they don't fit into my budget. ;-)

  3. Thank you for this. BTW, if you like Houdini, I think you'll dig my blog:

  4. John, your Houdini website is excellent! I predict it will become one of my new favorite procrastination destinations.