Moment in Oddity - The Poison Squad (Suggested by: Scott Booker)
Ever have food poisoning? It's a nasty thing that leaves most wishing for the sweet release of death. Food poisoning doesn't happen nearly as often as it used to and much of that is thanks to the Poison Squad. At the turn of the 20th century, food producers were putting just about anything in as fillers for their food. There was borax, formaldehyde, chalk and copper sulfate added to food and things like lard were passed off as butter. This on top of the fact that keeping food free of bacteria was difficult before modern refrigeration and such. And the government didn't care. So a chemist named Dr. Harvey Wiley, who worked for the USDA, decided he needed to do something. He needed a way to get the government's attention, so that it started forcing food companies to label their food with ingredients. Dr. Wiley also worried about long-term effects of food additives. So he gathered together several strapping young men and named them The Poison Squad. This name reflected the fact that he was going to actively poison them. The squad became a pop culture sensation and really heroes for their efforts. In 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed. Soon, the formation of the FDA would follow. Poisoning a bunch of young men to prove how dangerous bad food could be, certainly is odd!
This Month in History - Houdini Debuts Milk Can Trick
In the month of January, on the 27th, in 1908, Houdini debuts his milk can escape trick at the Columbia Theater in St. Louis. Houdini poked the can and turned it upside down to reveal that there was no hole on the stage. Houdini stood in a blue bathing suit as he was handcuffed. The giant milk can was filled with water and Houdini stepped inside, sloshing water everywhere. A lid was put over the top and locked down with six padlocks. A cabinet was put in front of the milk can so no one could see it and two minutes later, Houdini peeked out from behind the cabinet, dripping wet and panting from holding his breath. He was free of the handcuffs, but the padlocks remained on the can. How he escaped, no one knows, but this became one of his most famous acts and he did it over and over. He would copyright his tricks, but never apply for patents for his inventions because he didn't want to give his secrets away.
The Houdini Estate crossed our radar about a month ago when our friend Maria posted on her Hollywood Exhumed Instagram account about a brush fire near the location. This was a bit concerning because while most brush fires are easily put out, this is California where one spark can burn down half the state! This got us to wondering if the Houdini Estate was haunted, which lead us down a path of wondering why this estate carried the name of a man who never lived there. And this led to researching his house in New York and whether it was haunted. Many listeners are probably very familiar with the stories of seances trying to conjure a message from Houdini. Has Houdini made his presence known from the other side of the Veil? On this episode, we explore the fascinating life and legend of Houdini and share the history and haunts connected to this amazing man who just may still be with us!
We've done an episode on Spiritualism, Ep. 191, and we talked about the fact that Houdini effectively stopped the Spiritualism movement from continuing to grow. Does this mean that Houdini didn't believe in the afterlife or ghosts or even the ability to speak with spirits. We don't think so, but it certainly gave him fire to expose the rampant fraud that was a part of the movement. Houdini was world renowned as an escape artist and an illusionist, which made him perfect for revealing fraud by demonstrating how mediums were doing what they did during seances. Houdini's talent for magic started early. He was born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary on March 24, 1874 to Mayer Weisz and his second wife, Cecilia Steiner. The Weisz family emigrated to Wisconsin four years later and changed the spelling of their name to Weiss and Erik's to Ehrich, which eventually became Harry because the family called him Ehrie. Harry grew up in Appleton, Wisconsin where his father served as a rabbi. No one knows where Harry got his first taste of magic, but he was fascinated with it and soon found an idol in Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin. This is where he would get the inspiration for his stage name of Houdini. He simply added an "i" to his idol's name. There are those who claim that Harry apprenticed with a locksmith when he was a kid and that is how he learned to pick locks and he became so proficient, he could do it with his eyes closed. It's an interesting legend to be sure.
Houdini started his stage career at the age of nine doing a trapeze act, calling himself Ehrich the Prince of the Air. In 1887, Houdini and his father moved to New York and the family later joined them. During the day, young Ehrich worked in a necktie factory and at night, he entertained in the beer halls. He started his professional magic career at the age of seventeen. His brother Theo had joined him and worked as his assistant. The two brothers' most famous act was Metamorphosis. Houdini would lock Theo in a box, a curtain would drop and when it rose a few seconds later, Houdini had switched places with Theo and was now in the locked box. Theo would go on to become a very successful magician himself, performing in Europe as Hardeen and he was the one who pioneered the escape from a straitjacket act. He inherited Houdini's equipment upon his death. Even though the magic was good, Houdini was not getting much traction with it and even considered quitting and opening up a magic school.
It was during a performance at Coney Island in 1894 that Houdini met Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, a singer and dancer with The Floral Sisters. She went by the name Bess and was initially courted by Theo, but Houdini won her heart and married her on June 22, 1894. Bess then became his stage assistant and would do that for the rest of Houdini's life. The couple traveled as The Houdini's and performed with the circus. The magic career still was not taking off and Houdini decided to add something else to the act. He had figured out how to get out of handcuffs and this became his focus. In 1899, Vaudeville Impresario Martin Beck caught the act and he told Houdini that he wanted to manage him, but that he needed to focus on the escape acts. Beck soon had Houdini booked at the best venues in America and then took the act over to Europe. As part of the act, he challenged members of the audience to lock him up in the handcuffs, so they knew the handcuffs were real. Houdini would visit local jails and ask the police to lock him in shackles and he would get out of them. Soon, people were calling him the "King of Handcuffs." The shows became sell-outs across Europe and when he returned home, he upped the ante by doing high-profile escapes, one of which was breaking out of the jail cell that once held Charles Guiteau, the man who assassinated President James A. Garfield.
Handcuffs soon became straitjackets that Houdini got out of and he started adding other elements like water-filled tanks and crates that were nailed shut. Houdini returned to Europe again and again to perform and in 1902 The German Slander Trial took place. A police officer named Werner Graff from Cologne claimed that Houdini had bribed him to rig an escape from the city jail. The claim was posted in a Cologne newspaper and a civilian jail employee also claimed to have been paid to help with a public demonstration. Houdini was outraged and sued. He had been through this once before in Germany. The police had not been friendly when he was here before and the police challenged him to prove he was legit. He did that by allowing them to clamp his hands behind his back with thumbscrews, finger locks and hand and elbow irons. His mouth was taped shut and he was put under a blanket. He freed himself in six minutes. So Houdini was not going to let these accusations stand. He won the case by freeing himself from locked chains in front of the judge.
The Houdinis had become very wealthy at this point. Houdini adored his mother and he bought a dress that may have been made for Queen Victoria and then he held a reception for his relatives and presented his mother in the dress. Houdini claimed this was the happiest day of his life. In 1904, the Houdinis bought a brownstone in Harlem, New York City at 278 W. 113th Street. The brownstone recently got a new owner in 2018 who bought it for $3.6 million. Houdini and Bess lived in the Harlem townhouse for twenty-two years. They paid $24,000 for it at that time. The townhouse was built sometime in 1890 and Houdini quickly made the place his space, adding all kinds of neat contraptions. The Wild About Harry Blog writes of it, "Inside, Houdini had a gigantic sunken bathtub and a large mirror installed to practice his underwater effects. The bathroom tiles were engraved with an “H,” while Bess’s bathroom sported a “B.” Houdini also had the entire house wired for sound -- including an early “wireless” radio in the carpets -- so he could amaze visitors with mind reading effects. Even the front door was an illusion. It looked normal, but when you turned the knob, it opened from the hinge side."
Many family members would live with the Houdinis. One was Houdini's brother Dr. Leopold Weiss who was New York's first radiologist. He practiced out of the brownstone while he lived there. An intruder attacked Leo in the house in 1907 with a razor and the man as later captured. The reports never mentioned that this was Houdini's house. The year 1913 was a tough one for Houdini. He adored his mother and she passed away that year. The magician was away at the time and her body was kept in the parlor for a full week. The smell of decay stayed in the house for a long time and in 1914, Houdini tried to sell the house. He was unsuccessful, so they would rent it out. He and Bess eventually moved back into the brownstone in 1918. The house was filled with books and Houdini called it his library. He wept outside of the house before leaving on his last tour because as he told a friend, he would never see his house again. He died later that year. But perhaps he did see his home again.
Bess sold the house to their neighbors, the Bonannos, and left much of the furniture and Houdini's tricks there in the basement, where they remained long after her death. Rose Bonanno was their daughter and she up kept the house and the history, even leaving it on just DC current into the 1980s. She started hosting seances inside the house to try to contact Houdini and she even claimed to receive a phone call from him and he told her and others to look at "Paper Magic, page 118, Fig. 12." The group couldn't follow those directions entirely because apparently the book had no Fig. 12 on that page. (There is no Fig. 12 on page 118.) A live Halloween seance was broadcast from the house in the early 1970s. Rose's brother Charles inherited the house when she died in 1978. By that time, the house was in the middle of a slum. A Louis Moise bought the house in 1980 and the Houdini treasures were auctioned off. By 1985, a man named Mr. Wilkes owned the house and he claimed that Houdini's ghost was there. He told a visiting magician that the spirit of Houdini was a regular visitor and he said, "One night he turned the lights on and woke me up from a sound sleep." A man named Fred Thomas bought it in 1991. And, of course, it just recently sold a couple years ago. Thomas always maintained that there was no spirit in his home. He actually had no idea it had been Houdini's place until he started noticing that people kept taking pictures of it.
Houdini liked to write of his exploits and even attacked some of his magic rivals in publications. His idol Robert Houdin was one such person whom he wrote a book about, exposing him as a fraud. Many people don't know that Houdini loved aviation and became a pilot. In 1909, he bought a French-made Voisin biplane, which he crashed on his first flight with it. He later made three successful flights near Melbourne, Australia in 1910 with that plane. These were some of the first powered flights in Australia. Houdini started using film as a part of his vaudeveille act in 1906. In 1918, Houdini signed a contract to star in a 15-part silent serial that was called, The Master Mystery, which features Houdini playing an undercover agent who does several of his escape acts to thwart criminals. He was then signed by Famous Players-Lasky Corporation/Paramount Pictures and made two films: The Grim Game in 1919 and Terror Island in 1920. Film buffs claim that The Grim Game was Houdini's best film. He then launched his own studio called the "Houdini Picture Corporation" and made two films with that,"The Man From Beyond" and "Haldane of the Secret Service." He lost a bunch of money with these exploits and gave up the movie business in 1923.
It was during this movie time that Houdini took up residence in Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles. There is a bunch of confusion here, so let's break this down. We mentioned the Houdini Estate is what inspired this episode. While it carries his name, he never lived there. In 1919, Houdini rented a cottage located at 2435 Laurel Canyon Boulevard. He stayed there while making movies. There is some indication that Bess lived here after his death for a bit from 1934 to 1936. This cottage no longer exists. There was another house at 2400 Laurel Canyon Boulevard, which is today the Houdini Estate. This was the main mansion with the cottage as its guest house There is a pool there that Houdini did use to practice his tricks and acts. At 2451 Laurel Canyon Boulevard is The Mansion, which we mentioned in our Haunted Music episode. This is a home owned by Rick Rubin and is a recording studio that is really haunted. Some claim Houdini lived here too, but that is not true.
The Houdini Estate was built in the early 1900s in the Edwardian architectural style. Ralph M. Walker was the owner when Houdini lived in the cottage. This is a really cool place with hidden tunnels, caves, terraced gardens and the pool, which is a deep-water tank. This is what Houdini used for his practicing. When Bess lived at the cottage after Houdini's death, she hosted a party for 500 magicians and several seances at the bigger mansion. The Houdini Estate burned in 1959 and was rebuilt. Jose Luis Nazar is the current owner and the location is used for events. Fun Fact: After the estate burned down, the tunnels and caves became home for hippies and vagrants, one of whom called himself "Robin Hood." He thought Laurel Canyon was Sherwood Forrest and he would shoot arrows at trespassers. There are stories that this location is haunted by Houdini. The spectre of a man has been seen here, but no one can say for sure that it is Houdini. It is believed that a homeless man had died on the property at some time and some legends claim that it was Robin Hood.
Houdini continued to create new acts and even challenged audiences to come up with ideas for his acts. Cities he visited would challenge him in unique ways. Scranton, Pennsylvania filled a barrel with beer and asked Houdini to escape from handcuffs within the barrel. In 1911, a group of Boston businessmen came up with a really gross idea. A whale had washed up in the harbor and they challenged Houdini to escape from its belly. Thousands of people watched as Houdini was handcuffed, shackled in leg irons and then put inside the whale, which was then covered in chains and placed behind a curtain. Houdini was free in fifteen minutes, but said the embalming fluid nearly killed him. The Chinese Water Torture Cell would enter Houdini's act in 1912. This would become his trademark act and would remain in his performances for the rest of his life. Houdini would be suspended by his feet and lowered upside-down into a locked glass cabinet that was filled with water. The act forced him to hold his breath for more than three minutes to escape.
Houdini did share some of his secrets. He would enlarge his shoulders and chest when being locked into a straightjacket to give himself wiggle room. He picked locks with shoelaces, lockpicks and keys. And while Houdini had gone after some of his rivals, he was also the greatest proponent of magic and tried hard to bring as many magicians together as he could. The Society of American Magicians (a.k.a. S.A.M.) was founded in the back room of Martinka's magic shop in New York in 1902. Houdini became its President in 1917 and held that until his death in 1926. He expanded membership and sought to make this one large and strong unified group. Houdini also eventually became President of the Martinka & Co., which was the oldest magic company in America.
Houdini had loved his mother deeply and he was crushed by her death. He had been inconsolable and visited her gravesite often, calling out to her and talking to her often. He desperately wanted to speak to her again, even after death, and he sought out mediums with which he could do this. He ended up with nothing but disappointment. His worst experience came at the hands of his good friend, Arthur Conan Doyle's, wife. She offered to give him a reading from his mother. Mrs. Doyle sat at a table and wrote nearly a hundred words in response to questions Houdini asked. One part of this message read, "Oh, my darling thank God, thank God, at last I am through. I’ve tried, oh so often. Now I am happy. Why, of course, I want to talk to my boy, my own, beloved boy. Friends, thank you, thank you, with all my heart for this. You have answered the cry of my heart and of his. God bless him a thousand fold, for all his life for me - never had a mother such a son. Tell him not to grieve soon he will get all the evidence he is anxious for. I want him to know that I have bridged the gulf, which is what I wanted, oh so much. Now I can be in peace." Houdini knew it was a lie for several reasons. The writing was in English and Houdini's mother did not know the language. Mrs. Doyle drew a cross at the top of the page, but the Houdini family was Jewish. The experience happened on Houdini's mother's birthday, but she made no mention of the special date. The friendship with Doyle ended.
After a few years of this, Houdini was sick of all the fraud. He decided to make it his mission to weed out the frauds and he traveled the country revealing how mediums pulled off their demonstrations with his expertise in illusion. He always maintained that he believed it possible to communicate with the dead, but he found no evidence that any medium was communicating with spirits. While in Europe, he attended two seances a day and exposed 100 mediums. The magician joined a Scientific American committee that offered a prize to anyone who could prove they were a psychic. The committee built a fraud prevention box for mediums to sit inside. Houdini even testified before a congressional sub-committee in support of an anti-fortunetelling bill introduced into Congress in 1926. He angrily talked about how Spiritualism had entered the White House and that First Lady Harding and First Lady Coolidge had consulted mediums. He accused Spiritualism of running the government. It was meant to outlaw any kind of psychic activity for money. The bill failed because of the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom and Spiritualism is a religion.
The circumstances around Houdini's death are a bit of a mystery. He died on Halloween in 1926 of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix. How that appendix ruptured is the mystery. Some believe he was sick for days with appendicitis and never sought medical help, so the appendix finally burst. Another story claims a McGill University student named J. Gordon Whitehead gave Houdini a blow or two to the stomach that either Houdini wasn't prepared for or was too weak from being sick to tighten enough against. Houdini used to challenge people all the time to hit him hard in the stomach to prove how strong his stomach muscles were. He actually performed for the last time while sick at the Garrick Theater. He passed out during the show, but was revived and finished his performance. Supposedly his last words before dying were, "I'm tired of fighting." He was buried at Machpelah Cemetery in Queens.
As we have mentioned several times, seances have been held to contact Houdini ever since he died. Many of the early ones were hosted by Bess. She tried for ten years to contact him with no success. Early on, she would shut herself in her room every Sunday and try to get a sign from Houdini at the hour of his death. A medium named Arthur Ford got her attention when he gave her a word from Houdini's mother and that word was "forgive." Houdini had always wanted to hear that from his mother. The formal seances would be held every year on the anniversary of his death on Halloween. The last was the most famous and took place on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood. Bess lived in Hollywood in the 1930s with her manager and partner Edward Saint and Saint helped her with this final seance. At some point before he died, the Houdinis had figured out a code to use to let each other know that they existed after death. This was so that a spirit medium could not play tricks. Inside Bess' wedding ring was the word "Rosabelle," which had been the name of the song she sang in her act when the couple first met in Coney Island. The code was: Rosabelle – answer – tell – pray – answer – look – tell – answer – answer – tell. So now you know what Rosabelle means. The other words equaled certain letters. The word "answer" stood for the letter "B." "Answer, answer" stood for the letter "V". Thus, the Houdinis' secret phrase spelled out the word "BELIEVE." Bess never got that message. After the final seance she said, " "Houdini did not come through. My last hope is gone. I do not believe that Houdini can come back to me, or to anyone...The Houdini Shrine has burned for ten years. I now, reverently... turn out the light. It is finished. Good night, Harry!" She felt that ten years was long enough to try. But perhaps Houdini did show up at that last performance. He was a grand showman, so why would he just say a few words or tap out a message? At the end of the seance, there was a clap of thunder right before it started raining. Raining only over the Knickerbocker Hotel. Was that Houdini saying "hello?"
This was not it for seances. Bess asked Walter B. Gibson, who had been a friend and ghostwriter for Houdini, to continue hosting a yearly seance. Gibson passed this on to Dorothy Dietrich, a famous magician and illusionist known as the "Female Houdini." She owns the Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania and hosts the seances there. It claims to be the "only building in the world dedicated to Houdini." It features memorabilia and artifacts connected to Houdini and offers tours and magic acts. There are several museums in the world featuring Houdini artifacts and he willed his scrapbooks and other books to the Library of Congress. Bess Houdini died from a heart attack on February 11, 1943 in California at the age of 67. She was not buried next to Harry because she was Catholic. She is interred at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, New York.
The Houdini Magical Hall of Fame was located in Niagara Falls. It is permanently closed today and now runs as a Ripley's Moving Theater. The museum opened in 1968 under the direction of Henry Muller and Vince Delorenzo at a different location originally and then moved to the newer location in 1972. Hardeen (Theo) had kept Houdini's artifacts in storage for 40 years. He had been instructed to have everything burned when he died, but that didn't happen and they went up for auction. Houdini had not wanted his tricks and such to get out, so he would not have been happy about this. He wanted his secrets to remain his secrets. The building had nothing but issues from the beginning. There were six fires and a freak accident that hurt the director of the museum. He walked through a plate glass window. There was also a robbery. A final fire on April 30, 1995 destroyed the original Water Torture Cell and the museum never opened again. Ann Fisher did a seance in the building in 1974. She told Houdini that this would be the last time she would try to contact him if he didn't give her a sign. At that very moment, a pot of flowers fell to the ground and so did a book. The book fell open to a page featuring a poster of Houdini and titled "Do Spirits Return?" Was this a sign from Houdini or some other spirit playing games? People in the movie theater claim to hear disembodied voices. Another theater that claims to have Houdini's spirit is the Princess Theater in Montreal where he was punched before dying. His apparition was seen in a cape and top hat. That theater no longer exists and we think it was turned into a food court.
The possibilities for Houdini to be hanging around in the afterlife are numerous. His props and magical implements could easily have attachments. Could his spirit still be practicing in Laurel Canyon? Is his spirit still at the Houdini House? Houdini, are you still with us? That is for you to decide!