Anybody who’s ever been around me for more than an hour will know that I’m completely obsessed with the life and history of Harry Houdini! From tattoos to books, I have them all! His life story reads like a roller coaster ride – full of unexpected twists and turns like a mystery thriller novel. A household name for decades, he is History’s most famous entertainer, yet nobody really knows anything about him, especially the Irish! Most people assume that he was nothing more than an entertainer who had the ability to free himself from any restraint bestowed upon him. Most also believe that he tragically died during an intense underwater escape. Both assumptions are completely wrong.
What if I told you that Harry Houdini’s death is still to this day shrouded in mystery, and that most history scholars believe that it was not an accident, but a murder. Recent research shows that the world’s most exciting entertainer had an equally exciting life off the stage as he did on, including a friendship with Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes) which went awry, causing them to become deadly enemies, his one man crusade against the Spiritualism industry in America, love affairs, and even an involvement in international espionage for MI6 in the United Kingdom.
Early in his career, Houdini used to boast that he could absorb a blow/punch to the stomach from any man without so much as flinching, which he did successfully for many years. However, little did he know that this feat would eventually be his downfall. In 1926, Houdini (aged 52) was giving a performance at McGill University in Montreal. After the show, a small number of students came into his dressing room to interview him and draw his portrait as he lay down on his sofa. One student, Jay Whitehead, asked Houdini whether he could still take any punch to the stomach, to which he answered ‘yes‘. As Houdini began to get up from the couch to prepare himself, the student charged at him and suddenly launched a series of violent blows to Houdini’s abdomen, which subsequently ruptured his appendix. Houdini went on to give three more performances with this injury, collapsing as he came off stage each time. When he finally sought medical attention, there was nothing the doctors of that time could do for him, and 9 days later he died of appendicitis on Halloween night, October 31st, 1926.
The facts and theories surrounding his death are astonishing. It was later revealed that Houdini’s attacker, Jay Whitehead, was a trained Boxer with ties to the Spiritualism industry. Houdini toured America for years exposing the techniques of these con artists and fraudsters who claimed they could contact the dead, and because of him, they would have lost an incredible amount of money and would have had it ‘in’ for him. At the head of the Spiritualism industry was the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and some theorize that he and some fellow conspirators had Houdini’s murder arranged. Because of a constant threat of attack from the Spiritualists, Houdini even had his own secret service of agents who would gather information for him before he entered any new towns. He even went so far as to buy a barber shop and trained an agent as a barber so that he could go there to get his haircut, while communicating and trading information incognito!
Another revelatory fact that has recently emerged is that Houdini was carrying on a love affair with Charmaine London, the wife of author Jack London (who wrote Whitefang). Some theorists believe that Houdini’s wife, Bess, had her husband killed because she found out about this affair. It was later found out that she had paid one of the witnesses of his dressing room attack a huge $200 to give a statement or an affidavit to the Police stating that the whole thing was an accident. At the time, Bess stood to earn a huge amount of life insurance money from the death of her husband, so long as it was seen to be an accident.
One more theory is based on the little known fact that Houdini was employed as an ‘intelligence agent’ for MI6, after he met a Kerry-man in Scotland Yard named William Melville, who was a superintendent there. As a world famous entertainer, Houdini regularly travelled across Europe into Russia and Germany with relative ease, carrying large cases of equipment and lock-picking tools. He spent time performing in their prisons, while he also spent time in the presence of the royal family there. He made for the perfect spy. Letters of evidence prove that Houdini was in fact passing letters full of information he had learned from his European experiences back to Scotland Yard. Some historians believe that he may have been murdered as a result of his activities as a spy for the United Kingdom!
What a way to go – leaving everybody’s heads spinning! On his death bed, Houdini promised his wife Bess that he would try everything in his power to contact her from ‘the other side’, and gave her a secret code that only they would know. He instructed her to attend every séance she could find, and should she ever hear the secret code uttered, she would know that it was Houdini trying to make contact from the other side. Not only that, but we would then know that it is indeed possible to speak to the dead! The code he gave her was as follows:
Rosabelle – Answer – Tell – Pray – Answer – Look – Tell – Answer – Answer – Tell
All gibberish? Not exactly! ‘Rosabelle’ was the name of a song that Bess was singing when Houdini first saw her, while the rest of the words each translate to a letter of the alphabet. When the code is translated and put together it spells out one word: BELIEVE. Pretty cool right?
Houdini inspired the masses with his incredible escapes, and as the World’s youngest escapologist, it’s an absolute honor and privilege to follow in his footsteps…which hopefully don’t lead me to an early grave!