ONE OF the most passionate exposers of mediums was Houdini, the magician. In the
early twenties he threw the entire weight of his reputation as a magician behind
his declaration that all mediums were fakes, and that he could duplicate any
trick a medium could do.
Although he later played a significant part in providing me with status as a
medium, I never met Houdini. He died in 1926 and at that time I was much too
inconspicuous to attract his attention. The influence of Houdini upon the whole
Spiritualist Movement cannot be understood without some comprehension of the
distinction which was Houdini's.
Houdini the Magician and Anti-Spiritualist
Here was a man who could break out of handcuffs of every invention and
contrivance in any part of the world. He could beat the Fiji coin divers at
their own game. He staged underwater stunts that astounded the medical
profession by the length of time he could hold his breath. He broke out of
packing cases built on-stage by local carpenters. Before astonished audiences he
caused an elephant (not a rabbit) to disappear and he walked through a brick
wall. He was exactly what he called himself, the master magician of his day.
In the early twenties Houdini turned his fabulous tenacity to exposing the whole
Spiritualist Movement. There were probably then about a million people in the
country who called themselves Spiritualists. In these days when university
research in the field of parapsychology has made psychic interests respectable,
when extrasensory perception is seriously considered in psychology courses, when
the physical scientists are far less dogmatic about the non-physical world than
was formerly the case, it is difficult to recover the violent reaction of the
orthodox against Spiritualism in Houdini's day. In the orthodox mind all
Spiritualists were equated with the lunatic fringe and all mediums were tools of
the devil, even if there were no devil. Here Houdini took his stand with the
orthodox and lined up his targets.
I have always felt that Houdini was initially honest, even if publicity-minded,
in insisting that mediumship, particularly physical mediumship, could be faked.
He himself had hoaxed audiences with fake mediumship, and in his mind to be able
to trick an audience was to do so. In his early days he had simulated the kind
of séance in which material objects are supposed to move by supernormal power,
and added assumed authenticity to the act by having himself handcuffed, tied to
a chair and placed in a cabinet in such fashion that the audience concurred in
his assertion that he could not possibly be the one to set off the tambourine,
bell and other paraphernalia on the table in front of the cabinet. Lights went
out and the ensuing jingling and knocking were very convincing, as well they
might be since Houdini was able to extricate himself from the handcuffs in a
matter of seconds, set off his "effects," and relock himself before the lights
Houdini the Exposer of Mediums
Years later, when he was much more widely known, he acknowledged his former
fraudulence and developed an act in which he demonstrated the many devices and
tricks which he said he had found mediums using. It was after his mother died,
however, that he turned to exposing mediums in the big-time manner. It has
always seemed to me that he was striking out at people who believed what he
himself could not believe - that life goes on. He would leave no one with
comfort he could not have. His sentiment for his mother ran deep, even though it
often expressed itself melodramatically. There is no doubt but that Houdini
informed himself in the field of psychic phenomena, but always from the point of
view of looking for the catch. When he read a report based on the testimony of
top scientists, he merely averred that they were not as clever as he in seeing
through a ruse. He collected a pretentious library, and searched out physical
mediums all over the country. Mediums who simply brought through verbal
communication were branded liars before he started. He liked to uncover facts
upon which to base a story of an exposé but he was not dependent upon facts. As
the self-appointed exposer of fraudulent mediumship and ridiculer of
Spiritualists, he built himself the biggest reputation in America, and probably
in the world.
Nevertheless, that he was at times in touch with genuine communication seems to
me certain from opinions I have had from persons who knew him well. I surmise
that genuine trance mediums found his antagonistic attitude extremely hard to
work with. It is my impression that his mother tried to reach him and could have
identified herself if he had been receptive. For instance, Sir
Doyle reported that when he and his wife were traveling in America, Houdini and
his wife Beatrice visited them for several days at their hotel in Atlantic City.
By that time Lady Doyle herself had developed mediumship and did automatic
writing in a semi-trance state. Doyle said that on this occasion Houdini
received a general message from his mother which moved him greatly, although in
spite of his emotion he would not authenticate the message. No doubt it lacked
essential words he was waiting for her to say. Eventually Doyle broke with
Houdini, accusing him of prejudice and duplicity.
The 'Margery' Investigation
The occasion which brought Houdini into final disrepute with most of the
professional research men in the psychic field was an investigation of the
famous physical medium
Margery, wife of Dr. L. R. G. Crandon, for sixteen years
professor of surgery at Harvard University Medical School, conducted by The
Scientific American. The investigating committee was composed of impeccable
scientists and psychologists, including
Gardner Murphy, now director of research
at Menninger Foundation. Houdini asked to be added to the committee. As the
séances continued the committee became increasingly doubtful of Houdini's
scrupulosity, not to say impartiality, and made public statement of the fact.
By that time Houdini's reputation was at stake. If distinguished men could prove
him wrong in his accusations, the whole country would have a chuckle at his
expense, and to be laughed at was one thing he could never accept. Moreover, his
enemies the Spiritualists - or so he considered them - would also have a field
day. Actually, many Spiritualists had defended Houdini, being more eager than
anyone else to have their ranks cleared of frauds.
This was the state of ferment in 1926 when Houdini died, leaving a widely
publicized message that if there were anything to the claim for survival he
would get through to his wife, Bessie, with a code message which only she could
decipher. That this curious last message would have anything to do with my
future would have seemed a farfetched idea at the time.
Showdown with magician Howard Thurston
However, the Houdini virus was contagious and other magicians also broke out in
eruptions against spiritualism and mediumship. Among the best known of the
magicians was Howard Thurston. Thurston was a tall, suave and handsome man, whom
I had always considered a thorough gentleman. Therefore I was surprised when in
1927, the old New York World ran a story to the effect that Thurston
claimed he had exposed over three hundred mediums, that Spiritualism had broken
up more homes than the old-time saloon, and that he had a gadget resembling a
watchcase in which was concealed a rubber spook that could be blown up and
operated in such fashion that it could duplicate all the phenomena of the séance
room. I asked the World to let me answer this story, but they refused.
There was nothing particularly newsworthy about me. But the United Press
Association indicated that they would carry my reply if I made a good story.
Now how could I make a good story of fraudulent accusation of fraud? I thought
over the fact that magicians such as Houdini and Thurston kept on issuing open
challenges to mediums, offering ten thousand dollars for the production of any
stunt they could not reproduce by trickery. I felt there had been about enough
of this talk and that someone should make some kind of public refutation which
would carry weight. Therefore when a friend of mine, with United Press,
suggested that I turn the tables and offer ten thousand dollars to Thurston if
he could prove his charges, I was held back only by ten thousand good reasons.
Another friend, John Bowman, president of the Bowman Biltmore Hotel Corporation,
overheard the suggestion and handed me a certified check. It was posted and I
Now the press had a story they could use with relish and they did a thorough
coverage. Thurston began to explain to his friends that his press agent had
overplayed his hand. But the press demanded a showdown. So a night was set when
we were to meet in Carnegie Hall. In spite of the publicity I was surprised to
find the Hall packed. Apparently all the magicians were there and the press was
amply represented, not to overlook the public.
I spoke first and challenged Thurston, "I will not ask for the names of the
three hundred mediums you have exposed, but ask only that you give me the name
and address, time, and place of exposure of twenty-five, along with proof that
you did expose them." Thurston named only three, none of them living. I could
have done better than that. I then asked him to give me the names of only
twenty-five families that had been broken up over Spiritualism. He had no names.
I could have furnished them, knowing the movement better than he did, for there
are always individuals who make a mania of their particular religious beliefs
and ride their families to death.
He grew more nervous as we approached the matter of his rubber spook. I
explained to the audience the method of testing physical mediumship. However,
without these customary preliminaries, I was only going to ask that in good
light before the audience Thurston produce this rubber spook and let it walk
over to me and tell me the real name of my father. Certainly a kindergarten test
for a medium. But Thurston had forgotten to bring the spook along. By that time
I felt sorry for him.
The next day the newspapers carried a complete account of the encounter, one
paper headlining the story: FORD AND THURSTON PUT ON SHOW AT CARNEGIE HALL ...
IT FLOPPED IN THE SECOND ACT. Thurston explained to the press again that his
press agent had got him into this fiasco, hoping to capitalize on the Houdini
technique for getting publicity. Reasonably, Thurston's ire was high against me,
which I regretted for I admired his magicianship. I supposed our encounter was
Another Encounter with Thurston
About four years later I was in Detroit. Thurston had his magical show at a
leading theater. I went with a friend. At one point in his routine Thurston did
what he called his Spirit Cabinet Trick, and I was surprised to find on the
printed program: "This is a trick to amuse you and it is NOT an attack upon the
religious beliefs of anyone." When he finished this trick he called for the
house lights and had them focused upon me. What next, I thought, deducing that
someone had recognized me and told him I was present. Needing revenge, he would
embarrass me if he could. Instead, he said to the audience, "What I have just
done is a trick, but in the audience is a man whom I firmly believe can help you
to communicate with your beloved dead." Then he asked me to come to his dressing
room after the show.
When my friend and I went backstage to meet him, Thurston then told me that when
we had our encounter in New York he knew very little about psychic things; just
what everyone thinks he knows which is usually less than nothing. But he had
determined to get back at me so he began sitting with reputable mediums wherever
he could find one. "Now as a magician I know the limits of a trick," he said.
"Under my own conditions and in my own hotel room I have proofs of survival
which, satisfy me. I am now a member of the American Society for Psychical
We became good friends and I later attended several séances in his house.
Communication from Houdini's Mother
I had no more contact with the magicians, except that I occasionally attended a
show, until the evening of February 8, 1928, when a group of friends which
included Francis Fast were having a sitting with me. During the trance Fletcher
[Ford's spirit guide]
announced that a woman he had not seen before was very eager to say a word. "She
tells me that she is the mother of Harry Weiss, known as Houdini." Fletcher
appeared very much interested in this person, and began to quote her. Fast took
down her message.
"For many years," said Houdini's mother, "my son waited for one word which I was
to send back. He always said that if he could get it he would believe.
Conditions have now developed in the family which make it necessary for me to
get my code word through before he can give his wife the code he arranged with
her. If the family acts upon my code word he will be free and able to speak for
himself. Mine is the word 'FORGIVE!' Capitalize that and put it in quotation
marks. His wife knew the word and no one else in all the world knew it. Ask her
if the word which I tried to get back all these years is not 'FORGIVE!' I tried
innumerable times to say it to him. Now that he is here with me I am able to
get it through. Tonight I give it to you, and Beatrice Houdini will declare it
to be true."
Houdini's wife, Beatrice, Confirms Ford's Message
When I wakened and the group told me about this extra message which had been
slipped in, I was not much interested. Houdini's supposed exposition of mediums
had always annoyed me; I thought of him as a wonderful magician with an
otherwise bigoted mind and a colossal conceit, and I did not care to have
anything to do with him. However, the men at the sitting wanted to give Mrs.
Houdini her message. I particularly valued the judgment of Francis Fast, and
agreed. Therefore on the following day a copy of the message was taken to Mrs.
Houdini. She was completely amazed, and as newspaper files attest, made a public
statement over her signature that this was "the sole communication received
among thousands up to this time that contained the one secret key-word known
only to Houdini, his mother, and myself."
To me she wrote:
67 Payson Avenue
New York City
My dear Mr. Ford,
Today I received a special delivery letter signed by members of the First
Spiritualist Church, who testify to a purported message from Houdini's mother,
received through you. Strange that the word "forgive" is the word Houdini
awaited in vain all his life. It was indeed the message for which he always
secretly hoped, and if it had been given him while he was still alive, it would
I know, have changed the entire course of his life - but it came too late. Aside
from this there are one, or two trivial inaccuracies - Houdini's mother called
him Ehrich - there was nothing in the message which could be contradicted. I
might also say that this is the first message which I have received among
thousands which has an appearance of truth.
That one word "forgive" was not the whole of the
mother's message to her daughter-in-law but the rest was of an intimate family
nature which concerned Mrs. Houdini and her husband's relatives.
In that first séance the last thing Fletcher had reported about Houdini's mother
was simply, "She is going now, and she says that since this message has come
through it will open the channel for the other." The other to which she referred
was a pact Houdini had made with his wife. He had sworn to get a message through
to her if such a thing as survival should prove real. The message was to be
based upon a ten-word code which they had used in one of their early shows and
which no one but himself and his wife had ever known. The press had given
considerable coverage to their agreement. In the months following his death
interested persons in various parts of the world were constantly purporting to
have received the message from Houdini. And just as regularly Mrs. Houdini
disclaimed the messages. It was a poor month when there was no newspaper mention
of Houdini and his code.
Breaking the Houdini Code
After the message from Houdini's mother, no further word came for several
months. To be sure, no one made any attempt to follow up. Then in November,
1928, the first word of Houdini's own message came through in a sitting for a
group of friends, none of whom had known Houdini. The spelling out of the entire
message took a portion of eight separate sittings covering a period of two and
one-half months. Four of the sittings were with groups of friends and four with
individuals, one a New York physician, Dr. John Tanner, and another, Mr.
Hamilton Emmons, of England, then visiting in this country.
Fletcher's method was to announce a word as he got it, no matter what else he
happened to be talking about, and then apparently to wait until he was sure of
another word and make another opportunity. One night he announced, "The first
word is ROSABELLE and it is going to unlock the rest." A fortnight later a
second word was added - NOW. At a third sitting Fletcher said, "Here is a lady
I've been working with for a long time but the only word I get from her tonight
is LOOK. This is the sixth word in the code." The sitters presumed that the lady
to whom he referred was Houdini's mother. Still later Fletcher asked that four
new words be added - ROSABELLE, ANSWER, PRAY and TELL.
At the next to last sitting, Fletcher said, "Let me give you the words from the
beginning, because I have to work hard to get them." His last comment was, "This
man tells me now that he has put the next five words, which explain these, in
French. I have not got them yet. I want to give you the other words because,
working on the French words, I may forget the others."
At the final sitting Fletcher said, "This man who is communicating tells me it
has taken him three months working out of the confusion to get these words
through, and that at no time has he been able to do anything without his
mother's help. TELL - that is the last word! You now have ten words. Go over
them carefully. It has been a hard job getting them through, 'But I tell you,'
he says, fairly shouting, 'they are right!' Now he wants to dictate the exact
message you are now to take to his wife. This is to be written down in longhand,
Fletcher then asked the time, which was 9:23 P.M. He said this was to be noted;
also that the medium was in deep trance, that the medium's pulse was at that
moment sixty-three, which he asked to have verified; also he wanted the names of
those present set down. Fletcher then continued with great exactness, "A man who
says he is Harry Houdini, but whose real name was Ehrich Weiss, is here and
wishes to send to his wife, Beatrice Houdini, the ten-word code which he agreed
to do if it were possible for him to communicate. He says you are to take this
message to her and upon acceptance of it, he wishes her to follow out the plan
they agreed upon before his passing. This is the code:
"ROSABELLE ** ANSWER TELL ** PRAY ** ANSWER ** LOOK
** TELL ANSWER ** ANSWER ** TELL.
"He wants this message signed in ink by each one
present. He says the code is known only to him and to his wife, and that no one
on earth but those two know it. He says there is no danger on that score, and
that she must make it public. Announcement must come from her. You are nothing
more than agents. He says that when this comes through there will be a veritable
storm, that many will seek to destroy her and she will be accused of everything
that is not good, but she is honest enough to keep the pact which they repeated
over and over before his death. He says, 'I know that she will be happy, because
neither of us believed it would be possible.'"
Fletcher then added, "Her husband says that on receipt of this message she must
set a time, as soon as possible, when she will sit with this instrument while I
Fletcher, speak to her, and after he has repeated this message to her, she is to
return a code to him which will be understood by her and by him alone. The code
that will be returned by her will be a supplement to this code, and the two
together will spell a word which sums it all up, and that word will be the
message which he wants to send back. He refuses to give that word until he gives
it to her."
The following day two members of the group, Mr. Fast and Mr. John W. Stafford,
associate editor of The Scientific American, both strangers to Mrs.
Houdini, as were all the members of the group, delivered the message to her. She
was lying on a couch, having suffered a fall the week previous. She read the
report, then stirred with emotion, dropped it at her side, and said, "It is
right!" Then after a moment she asked in wondering, "Did he say ROSABELLE?" Upon
being assured that he had, she exclaimed, "My God! What else did he say?" They
repeated all they had recorded.
Houdini Communicates with Beatrice
Following her husband's suggestions, she arranged to have me come to her house
the next day, accompanied by three members of the group and a representative of
the press. Two of her own friends joined us.
As soon as I was well into trance, Fletcher came through, announcing, "This man
is coming now, the same one who came the other night. He tells me to say,
'Hello, Bess, sweetheart,' and he wants to repeat the message and finish it for
you. He says the code is one that you used to use in one of your secret
mind-reading acts." Then Fletcher repeated the ten words as he said Houdini was
giving them to him. "He wants you to tell him whether they are right or not."
Mrs. Houdini replied, "Yes, they are."
"He smiles and says, 'Thank you, now I can go on.' He tells you to take off your
wedding ring and tell them what ROSABELLE means."
Drawing her left hand from under the cover she took off the ring and holding it
before her sang in a small voice:
Rosabelle, sweet Rosabelle,
I love you more than I can tell,
O'er me you cast a spell,
I love you, my Rosabelle!
Fletcher continued, "He says, 'I thank you, darling.
The first time I heard you sing that song was in our first show together years
Mrs. Houdini nodded her head in assent.
"Then there is something he wants me to tell you that no one but his wife
knows," Fletcher went on. "He smiles now and shows me a picture and draws the
curtains so, or in this manner.
Evidently that was the clue for the unfoldment of the next part of the code, for
Mrs. Houdini responded in French, "Je tire le rideau comme ça."
Through Fletcher, Houdini went on, "And now the nine words besides ROSABELLE
spell a word in our code." Very exactly he then explained the code. "The second
word in our code was ANSWER. B is the second letter in the alphabet so
ANSWER stands for B. The fifth word in the code is TELL, and the fifth
letter of the alphabet is e. The twelfth letter in the alphabet is L
and to make up twelve we have to use the first and second words of the code."
Continuing in this intricate way to the end he said, "The message I want to send
back to my wife is: 'ROSABELLE, BELIEVE!'"
Fletcher then asked, "Is this right?"
"Yes," answered Mrs. Houdini, with great feeling.
In conclusion Fletcher repeated Houdini's final words. "He says, 'Tell the whole
world that Harry Houdini still lives and will prove it a thousand times and
more.' He is pretty excited. He says, 'I was perfectly honest and sincere in
trying to disprove survival, though I resorted to tricks to prove my point for
the simple reason that I did not believe communication was true, but I did no
more than seemed justifiable'. I am now sincere in sending this through in my
desire to undo. Tell all those who lost faith because of my mistake to lay hold
again of hope, and to live with the knowledge that life is continuous. That is
my message to the world, through my wife and through this instrument."
The code was:
1. Pray =
6. Please =
2. Answer =
7. Speak =
3. Say =
8. Quickly =
4. Now =
9. Look =
5. Tell =
The message itself was:
answer (1 and 2) =
answer (2 and 3) =
The code had been a handy device employed in Houdini's instructions to his wife
during their act. Mrs. Houdini commented that the code was such a secret that
"even though the stage-hands knew the words, no one except Houdini and myself
knew the cipher, or the key, and its application."
Was it a Hoax?
Facsimile of statement made by Mrs. Houdini the
day after receipt of the message. Witnesses: Mr. H. R. Zander,
Representative of the United Press; Mrs. Minnie Chester, life-long friend of
Mrs. Houdini and Mr. John W. Stafford, Associate Editor of Scientific
From the moment that Mrs. Houdini pronounced the
message genuine there began a flood of attack ranging from the ludicrous to the
vicious. Mrs. Houdini's veracity was questioned; she was accused of giving the
code to someone who then gave it to me - as if there could be any comfort for her
in securing a message she already knew from a source she did not believe
existed. She was also scored for selling out her own husband who had so widely
publicized his conviction that all mediums were fakes. Consistently she avowed
the genuineness of the messages and defended having made them public. "It was
what he wanted me to do, and I am doing it."
I was likewise accused of fraud, of course, and was once also approached by an
ingenious blackmailer. Then a man impersonating me fabricated a newspaper story,
only one tabloid printed, after which he confessed his hoax under promise of
immunity from criminal prosecution. Three individuals brought charges to the
United Spiritualist League of New York City that I had been in cahoots with Mrs.
Houdini and the press. The president of the board of trustees of the First
Spiritualist Church redeemed my character, Mrs. Houdini stood her ground, and
the respectable press was meticulously fair. I never attempted to collect any of
the fabulous sums offered for breaking the Houdini code, although I am sure a
legal case could have been made. However, I did receive an enormous amount of
publicity. Maybe Houdini had a hand in that! He may have been paying his
respects to the fact that my act had been performed not while handcuffed but
while sound asleep.
The above article was taken from Arthur Ford's "Nothing So Strange" (New York:
Harper and Row, 1958). It was originally titled "A Round with the Magicians".
The sub-headings were added by the webmaster of this website.