After-death Houdini Séance

face of a prisoner

In Hollywood on Halloween in 1936, the year of the tenth anniversary of Harry Houdini’s death, a nationally broadcasted séance on the roof of a Hollywood hotel attempted to communicate with Houdini.^ After a showy, unsuccessful attempt to communicate with Houdini, his wife Bess declared, “It is finished. Good night, Harry.”^ Those statements combine a line from Jesus’ last words (John 19:30) and a quotidian example of communication with an intimate. Provocative, sentimental and jarringly ironic, their combination suggests that the séance was skillfully staged.

After Houdini’s death, spiritualists sought to convert the grieving Bess Houdini to spiritualism. These efforts, as well the the diegesis of public, staged séances to communicate with Houdini, generated conflicting reports about whether Bess believed that spiritual communication was possible. Covering the 1936 Houdini Hollywood Halloween séance, the New York Times reported:

‘He has not come,’ sobbed his widow, Beatrice Houdini.^

The New York Times reported in 1943:

Mrs. Beatrice Houdini, who spent ten years trying to reach her husband, Harry Houdini, in the spirit world, renounced today her long-cherished faith in communication after death, and added that she was skeptical about any form of life hereafter. … “Ten years is long enough to wait for any man,” she remarked today.^

Bess formally renounced spirit communication years before this article. Bess stated in her will, dated Apr. 29, 1940, “I do not now nor did I at any time believe in spirit communication or spirit messages.” In addition, “She expressed her desire to be ‘cremated’ and that any type of service be held regardless of creed with the definite exception of ‘Spiritualistic creed or belief.’ ”^

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