Harry Houdini was buried alive three times. Once without a casket, under 6 feet of dirt, in an attempt that nearly suffocated him. Twice he was submerged in a sealed casket in a swimming pool for more than an hour, escaping unscathed.
The final time he was buried, he was dead — killed at 52 by a combination of appendicitis and a few savage blows to the stomach from an overzealous fan — and it was in Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York (Machpelah also being the name of the Hebron tomb where every matriarch and patriarch minus Rachel is said to be buried). He died on Halloween in 1926.
On Wednesday night, Halloween 2018, a small group gathered at the Jewish Museum of Maryland to do what they’ve been doing since 1948: try to bring him back.
The JMM’s Houdini exhibit (“Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini”), a comprehensive look at the life of Erik Weisz, a rabbi’s son who became one of the most famous entertainers in history, has been running since June and will continue into January. A group of magicians, Houdini obsessives and respected collectors took the stage after a cocktail hour to attempt to summon the spirit of the long-dead Hungarian-born master illusionist at the trademarked “Official Harry Houdini Séance.”
In the hour or so before the proceedings began, “spooky” purple drinks were served with a light dinner, and schmoozing party magicians entertained small groups. A diorama of playing cards hung above the buffet, and there were miniature pumpkins and tiny, votive-sized candle holders on each high-top table.
Ann and Francis Menotti had traveled from State College, Pennsylvania, for the evening, though the séance wasn’t their main event; their son, also named Francis, was one of the magicians working the cocktail crowd. Ann, at least, wasn’t anticipating much in the way of spirits. “I’m not expecting anything in particular. I just want to experience it,” she said.
Jamie Clemmens, 26, dressed as a referee, and her fiancé, Vincent Snarski, also 26, dressed as Nintendo’s Mario, were similarly situated. “We heard about it on the radio, on 98 Rock,” Snarski said. “I’ve never been to a séance before.” “Me either,” added Clemmens.
Houdini was famous enough for exposing “fake” spiritualists and mediums during his lifetime that he was once called to testify before a Congressional committee on the subject. He didn’t embark on that crusade, however, because he didn’t believe communicating with the other side wasn’t possible — he very much believed it could be done — but rather, he wanted to expose the mediums as frauds for claiming success. What is even less known is that before he died, he promised his wife, Bess, that if it were possible for him to communicate with her after his death, he would do so through a séance, where she would hear the words “Rosabelle believe,” a reference to their favorite song, “Rosie, Sweet Rosabel” (which can be found on YouTube; there’s even a version recorded by Debbie Harry).
Bess Houdini took part in 10 séances following her husband’s death from 1927 to 1936. She never heard the code and gave up. (When she died, she was buried separately from Houdini, as her family did not want her in a Jewish cemetery).
One man did not give up: Sidney Radner, a protégé of Houdini’s escape-artist brother, Hardeen. Radner had found magic at a young age, and as a young Jew, found great inspiration in Houdini. In 1948, he decided to re-start the séance, and until 2011, Sid Radner and a group of friends and fellow enthusiasts — “The Inner Circle” they termed themselves — tried to communicate with Houdini in private.
There was at least one exception in 1987, when the séance was staged for television and hosted by William Shatner. “If Houdini would want to come back, he would want to come back in a glamorous, spectacular way,” Radner told the Racine Journal Times that year. He did not appear.
Radner died in 2011, one of the world’s premier collectors of Houdini memorabilia and a stalwart in the American magic community. His son, Bill Radner, now organizes the annual séance, which is open to the public. “There’s no trickery,” he told the JT. “It’s a legitimate effort to try to communicate with Houdini.”
The evening’s events began with a few short lectures from members of The Inner Circle, starting with an introduction from Tom Boldt. Boldt, the CEO of the construction firm The Boldt Company, has been involved with the séance since 1985. He was always interested in magic, but his fascination with Houdini began when a proposal came up to name a plaza being built in Appleton, Wisconsin — his hometown, and Houdini’s first American hometown after he arrived from Budapest — after Houdini (it was, in the end). He admires Houdini’s can-do spirit. “Here is this individual who basically came from a pretty impoverished family to become the No. 1 entertainer in the world,” he said. Though Boldt is not Jewish, he noted that many of the men and women who were readying themselves for the séance were. “It’s an ecumenical group,” he joked.
Ken Trombly, a personal injury attorney in Washington, D.C., performed magic at both of former President Barack Obama’s inaugural balls. “I’ve been into magic since I was about 8. I wasted the first seven years of my life,” he said, a joke he would repeat to open his lecture on the finer points of Houdini collecting, a subject on which he is an expert. Houdini, he told the JT, was a big believer in tikkun olam.
“Part of fixing the world was getting rid of those charlatans,” he answered, referring to the fake mediums.
After more lectures, the audience had a chance to ask questions. Recent revelations that Houdini may have been a Russian spy were debated. Houdini, as Trombly put it, “maybe had access to certain things, and maybe shared certain things.” Then, it was time for the séance.
Ten members of The Inner Circle were seated at the table with two special guests, under dimmed lights. First was Houdini’s grand-niece, Debbie Hardeen, brought to create a connection between a loved one and the spirit being called upon, a key element to a successful séance. The other was the medium, Maggie Salter.
Salter has been a medium for about 12 years, working mostly out of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with occasional work trips to Lutherville. “I began to realize that I had pretty heightened intuitive abilities, psychic abilities,” she told the JT, “and I started doing card readings. And as I explored that, I began to connect with spirits and realize that I was a medium.” Most modern mediums, she said, don’t use terms like “psychic” or “séance,” opting instead for “gallery” or “group session.” The former had become too laden with connotations of the occult, which freaked people out.
Boldt quieted the crowd before Salter began, and reminded them of the gravity of what they were about to undertake. “This is a serious effort. We would like to make a bona fide attempt,” he said. The crowd obliged, and was silent.
Salter began to try and make contact with Houdini. Besides having Debbie Hardeen around for help, there were items related to Houdini on the table; handcuffs he had broken out of, a bust modeled after the one at his cemetery, an old show program. Everyone at the table shut their eyes and a few placed their hands on the table.
Salter alternately reported feeling very hot and very cold, having a dry throat and the feeling that she was being contacted. She mentioned names, relationships and longings. She said that whoever she had made contact with felt that they had left work undone, and that despite all of their success, the spirit was filled with regrets. She noted the image of a hollowed-out book. “There’s a great deal of grief and sadness,” she said. All the while, The Inner Circle kept their eyes closed, occasionally chiming in if a name or a subject came up that could be conceivably connected to Houdini. Midge Markey, a Houdini expert from Kirkland, Washington, reported seeing one of the programs briefly flutter.
After about 45 minutes, the effort was abandoned. Houdini would not be appearing this year. “Maybe next year,” Trombly joked to the crowd.
It was not clear who believed Houdini could be summoned and who was there for fun, but it can be said that at one point, a high-pitched whining began — later revealed to be an alarm — and every head in the crowd turned to see what it was.