Harry Houdini and His Wife Bess
Till death do us part. These unifying words cement a promise. One of faithfulness, dedication, and loyalty. But what if they do not hold? Not due to unfaithfulness but exactly the opposite. An undying bond that extends into the afterlife. This was the intention of an experiment, one performed for a decade by Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, better known as Bess Houdini, the loving wife of the great magician Harry Houdini. She was convinced that love could survive in the afterlife and that there indeed was an afterlife to believe in. Houdini, a staunch disbeliever of such things in his later days, became fodder with his passing on Halloween of 1926. He left a code with Bess, “Rossabelle Believe” and for the next ten years, she held a seance on the anniversary of his death. Unwilling to let the love of her life go, or was it Houdini who was unable to let his spotlight fade? Either way, his legacy lived on through these simple words. It is a tradition that is still carried on today by magicians world round. A true magician never reveals his secrets, but US Ghost Adventures attempts to decode them in the pages below.
Harry Houdini was born on April 6th, 1874 in Budapest, Hungary. Born Ehrich Weiss, he was one of seven children born to Jewish Rabbi Dr. Mayer Samuel Weiss and Cecilia Steiner. His family immigrated to the United States in 1878, likely escaping anti-semitism that was rampant in Eastern Europe at the time. They settled down in Appleton, Wisconsin, and had an early interest in sports and athlete endeavors. Leaving school in the 3rd grade, he worked several odd jobs as a young boy to help make ends meet. He often shined shoes and sold newspapers. It was here, on the streets, that he developed his dazzling showmanship and learned the art of working for a crowd. He would often trick passerby’s with the classic three-cup trick, earning himself and his family a few extra dollars. By the age of 9, he made his first public appearance as “Ehric, Prince of The Air” in a visiting traveling circus. Working his way into the showcase with his charm and integrity. A dazzling trapeze act wowed the audience and a legend was born. The troubled Weiss ran away from home at the age of 12, living in shelters and on the street, but returned the next year to continue supporting his family.
When he was 13 his interest in magic arose when he and his brother Theo read the memoirs of magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin’. The young Weiss fell in love with the mystique of the French magician and adopted his last name, adding a simple I at the end. His first name developed naturally as a family nickname. Harry Houdini was born. He took his brother to their magic act on the streets. Dabbling in card tricks and other classic magic, Houdini finally found his niche in handcuff escapes. By 1899 he would be a Vaudeville star. Many tried to imitate his mind-shattering escapes but none could match him. Tried of imitators stealing his act he moved on to more daring escapes by 1908.
His athletic form and knack for picking locks allowed Houdini to force himself into dangerous situations and escape unscathed. An obsession began. How far could he push his limits and continue to cheat death? 1908 was the start of his milk can act. He filled a large milk can with water, locking himself inside, only to appear unscathed a matter of minutes later. The Chinese water torture act became his most well know trick. Houdini was dropped into a tank of water, tied in a straight jacket. In 1917 he nearly suffocated after being buried under six feet of dirt. This only fueled Houdini’s fire and obsession with cheating death. His wife Bess, a former singer and dancer in Vaudeville, supported Houdini throughout all these endeavors and the two made quite the couple. No records exist of their marriage and stories vary in regard to their meeting. But it was certain that they were deeply in love. By the 1920’s Houdini had become a common household name and enjoyed great success. President of the Society of American Magicians, he was a man of distinguished stature and was pushing 50. The 20s were a time of increased interest in spirituality, the afterlife, and the supernatural. Houdini, a man who knew how to perform a trick, labeled many psychics and mediums as hacks. He believed them all to be scams. That they gave a bad name to the name of magic. His loving wife however was an ardent believer in the afterlife. Their disagreement would soon be tested.
The death of Houdini came in a swift, unexpected blow. While on tour in 1926 he fractured an ankle setting up stage equipment. He was 52 years old now and the once sturdy magician refused to accept the onset of old age. While in Montreal a fan named J. Gordon Whitehead gave Houdini a series of punches to the gut. This may seem like an act of assault, but Houdini challenged his fans to do so. Claiming that he could withstand any number of blows due to his great physique.
Houdini In The Afterlife
These punches proved to be more than the great magician expected and he seemed to be in pain afterward. He continued to perform but collapsed several days later on stage. He would die on October 31st, 1926 of a ruptured appendix and acute peritonitis. Well before his passing he made a pact with Bess. He wanted to cheat death one more time. After his passing Bess was instructed to hold a seance. Ever the believer in the paranormal she obliged with enthusiasm, hoping to contact her beloved one more time. If properly contacted Houdini would respond with “Rosabelle Believe,” in honor of one of her favorite songs. Bess tried year after year to contact Houdini but only to no avail. By 1936 she threw in the towel. Famously stating “ten years is long enough to wait for one man.” She would go on to die of a heart attack in 1943 at the age of 67. Sadly enough, her family would not allow her to be interred in the same cemetery as her late husband, as she was Roman Catholic and Houdini Jewish. The tradition of holding a seance for Houdini is continued to this day by stage magicians across the world. There has still been no word for him. But, perhaps, he has been joined by Bess and no longer needs to cheat death the way he once did. For now, we can all enjoy our time on this earth with the one we love. Be sure to read more love stories from beyond in our weekly coverage of Valentine’s Day.
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