A Call to Houdini's Ghost

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Secret Code from the Netherworld

Leave it to the great showman Houdini to die on Halloween. This year marks the 75th anniversary of his passing. Perhaps now — with psychics preparing a séance in Detroit — the great escape artist will speak, as he promised his wife he would.

Houdini became obsessed with the occult after his mother died. He consulted with psychics to contact her, a common practice in his day, and found they were using the same sleight-of-hand and stage magic that he was using.

The magician made headlines going from town to town, daring psychics to prove their powers onstage. In 1922, Houdini even joined a panel, sponsored by Scientific American, that offered a $2,500 cash prize to any medium able to produce a true physical manifestation. Several mediums came forward, but none could pass the panel's test.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the famous Sherlock Holmes character, was a great admirer of Houdini. But Doyle was a true believer in the occult, and the two often clashed on the subject. "My opinion of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is that he is a menace to mankind," Houdini once wrote.

But as an escape artist, Houdini couldn't resist the challenge of coming back from the dead. This is a man who risked being chained to a wooden crate and dumped in New York's East River to thrill audiences.

In his most famous stunt, the water torture cell, he'd hang by his ankles, locked in chains, as he was lowered headfirst into a glass tank. As the clock ticked, the audience could see Houdini's eyes bulge as he seemed to run out of breath. He was, at the time of his death, one of the most famous performers in the world.

In anticipation of his own death, he and his wife Bess even worked out a special code so that she wouldn't be fooled by a fraud.

‘10 Years Is Enough to Wait for Any Man’

Bess honored his request. For 10 years, she held séances, the last one in 1936, broadcast over radio from London. She finally stopped, she told friends, because "10 years is enough to wait for any man."