Saturday, October 31, 2020

The secret origins of the annual Houdini Seance

Today is the 94th anniversary of Houdini's death in 1926. To mark this occasion, let's take a deep dive into a Halloween Houdini tradition.

Halloween typically means Houdini seances galore! But due to the Covid pandemic, many of the annual Houdini seances are skipping this year. So does this break a chain that links all the way back to the first anniversary of Houdini's death? Not really. In fact, the origins of the annual Houdini seances as we've come to know them do not really link back to Houdini nor even Bess, but to a group of magicians in Detroit in 1946. But let's start from the top.

The general belief is that Bess Houdini held seances on the anniversary of her husband's death for 10 consecutive years. This was per an agreement made with Houdini on his deathbed. But even this "10 year compact" is not as clear cut as it seems. For starters, it does not appear Bess held her seances on Halloween at all! The only Bess seances I've been able to uncover were held on April 18, 1928, January 8, 1929 (the Arthur Ford seance), and July 25, 1935.

In fact, all the formality and traditions of the Halloween Houdini Seance really come into existence in the promotional material hyping the Final Houdini Seance of 1936, which in itself evolved from the original idea of being a seance that would try and contact Houdini, Thurston, and Carter with all three widows in attendance. So was there ever a 10 year compact? It's possible Bess elected to do these seances in private. But the public Halloween Houdini Seances as we've come to know them started with this "last" seance of 1936.

It should also be noted that the Final Houdini Seance was, for Bess, FINAL. She wasn't kidding when she announced, "It is finished." In the following years there where several attempts to interest Bess in another seance, one at the famous Winchester Mystery House. But Bess and Edward Saint turned them all down. They were done.

For the next ten years the world seems largely devoid of Houdini seances. Bess and Ed Saint passed away, as did others in Houdini's inner circle. Then in 1946 a group of magicians in Detroit decided to hold a seance to mark the 10 year anniversary of the Final Houdini Seance of 1936. The seance was the idea of Karrell Fox, a popular Detroit magician who would appear on the Ed Sullivan Show and became known as the King of Korn.

Fox told the papers, "Mrs. Houdini saw fit to select intelligent men, with above-average minds, who were not, however, magicians. We believe magicians, of which Houdini was one, will have a better chance of reaching him. For example, Mrs. Houdini had a lot of politicians in the audience. What ghost would want to talk to a politician?"

Fox's idea for a seance may have been prompted by another gathering in Toledo that same month. On October 16, the Rev. Howard Plummer told members of the Toledo Magician's Society that he had made contact with Houdini, and that the escapist had promised to return during a full moon. The Society announced they would make a new attempt in January.

Meanwhile, Fox's seance went forward on Halloween as planned. It was held in the basement of a downtown hotel where Fox operated his shop. His inner circle was made up of 13 men with a 14th chair left empty for Houdini. A pair of handcuffs said to have been used by Houdini and an autographed book and photo were placed on a table.

Exactly at midnight, the men joined hands and Robert Ungerwitter, another Detroit magician, called out to Houdini to show himself. After five minutes of silence, it was concluded the test was unsuccessful and Houdini had not come through. Only magician Al Monrie claimed to have seen something. But on reflection he concluded, "It must have been the flicker of the candle."

As with the announcement of the seance itself, news of the unsuccessful attempt, together with a photo of the 13 magicians, went national. As with the Final Seance of 1936, the Fox seance seemed to prove that Houdni seances, while unsuccessful in contacting Harry, where VERY successful in conjuring publicity.

This publicity did not go unnoticed by other magicians, and the following year, 1947, saw a boom in Houdini Seances. The Mystical Order of Magicians of the Orient (MOMO) held a seance in Japan that garnered news as far away as Massachusetts. A.L. Caroselli, a magic dealer who claimed to have been a close friend of Houdini, held a seance in his Detroit home and also captured headlines. But the two men who really embraced the Houdini seance idea (and publicity) were the two leading magicians of the day, Harry Blackstone and Joseph Dunninger.

Blackstone held his 1947 Houdini seance on the stage of the Nixon Theater in Pittsburgh with a group of magicians and newspaper men. In the center of the table was a lock that Blackstone said Houdini had given him as part of their own compact. If the lock opened, it was a sign that Houdini had returned. But the lock remained closed. As with the Fox seance the year before, the attempt began at midnight.

Meanwhile, in an office of a Manhattan skyscraper, Dunninger headed up what he called the "Waiting for Houdini" committee. The seance was also held at midnight. Dunninger possessed a 10 word code that Houdini had promised to communicate if he could. But the only manifestation during the seance was a telephone call from a man on the other end saying, "Hello this is Harry."

Both the Blackstone and Dunninger seances received press and both men vowed to try again the following year. The annual Houdini seance was on!

In 1948 a new group entered the scene with a seance held in the Greenwich Village apartment of Walter B. Gibson. The seance was sponsored by the recently revived Conjurer's Monthly Magazine, of which Gibson was editor. In attendance was collector Sidney Radner who brought along his "seance cuffs". These were yet another pair of handcuffs Houdini reportedly vowed to open in spirit form. Their attempt was unsuccessful, but the group vowed to make their seance an annual tradition. (This seance is generally seen as the genesis of what is today known as "The Official Houdini Seance".)

Dunninger was back in 1949 for a seance held in Houdini's Harlem home, which brought another dubious phone call from "Harry". Dunninger would continue his seances for the rest of his life, sometimes merging it with members of the 1948 group. Always the showman, Dunninger arrived in a hearse for what would prove to be his final seance at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in 1974. 

Blackstone continued his seances as well. But his enthusiasm for the ritual seems to have diminished along with the press. In 1951 he held his seance in a well lit room of the Omaha Herald Building. Sitting with his hands on his padlock and a deck of cards, Blackstone called out, "All right Harry, if you're around, let us know." After a minute and a half, Blackstone decreed the seance concluded. Blackstone entered the great beyond himself in 1965.

Today there are several annual Houdini Seances that have been around long enough to claim their own proud lineage and traditions. And while some claim to link back to Bess, Hardeen, and even Houdini himself, as far as I can tell, they ALL owe their start to the 1946 seance by the King of Korn, Karrell Fox. The secret origin of the annual Houdini Seance.


  1. A nice deep dive! I wasn't aware Bess held her seances on dates other than Halloween. Never would have guessed it was Karrel Fox who got the ball rolling.

    1. Thanks. I've been wanting to do something like this for a while. And note this story ends in 1974. I didn't want to get into the whole Original vs. Official Seance whatnot. That's the sequel. :)

      I bet what Bess did on Halloween was to sit by herself in front of the "Houdini Shrine" and meditate. One on one with Houdini's spirit if possible. This is what Houdini himself would do after friends or family died. I don't think she'd use a medium and all the seance malarky at these times. Until the Final Seance, which was very much a show.