Harry Houdini concocted a secret code to prove that the living couldn’t communicate with the dead.
If contacted, Houdini’s ghost would reveal a code only his wife would know.
Amazingly, the code was cracked in 1928 by a medium named Harry Ford!
The secret code was the one used by Houdini and Bess from a showbiz telepathy “bit”.
Ford claimed that he’d been given the code words that would prove that the magician’s spirit lived on past death.
“Rosabelle, answer, tell, pray-answer, look, tell, answer-answer, tell,” was the message given.
In their code, the message read: “Rosabelle, believe.”
The code consisted of ten units with each unit standing for a digit and each digit, in turn, representing the position in the alphabet of a letter in the coded message:
Ford speaking as Houdini said:
“Spare no time or money to undo my attitude of doubt while on earth. Now that I have found my way back, I can come often sweetheart. Give yourself to placing the truth before all those who have lost the faith and want to take hold again. Believe me, life is continuous. Tell the world there is no death. I will be close to you. I expect to use this instrument [Ford] many times in the future. Tell the world, sweetheart, that Harry Houdini lives and will prove it a thousand times.”
Bess was so convinced that she issued a signed statement to the press.
The statement was written on her own stationery and read:
“Regardless of any statements made to the contrary, I wish to declare that the message in its entirety and in the agreed-upon sequence, given to me by Arthur Ford is the correct message pre-arranged between Mr. Houdini and myself.”
Joseph Dunninger, one of Houdini’s old colleagues, reportedly visited Bess to stress that the entire thing was a fraud.
Dunninger pointed out that the “secret code” wasn’t so secret anymore.
A year earlier, Harold Kellock had published their cipher in Houdini, His Life Story, an authorized biography.
Two days after the séance, the notorious scandal-sheet, the New York Evening Graphic, headlined:
“HOUDINI MESSAGE A BIG HOAX!—‘Séance’ Prearranged by ‘Medium’ and Widow.”
They alleged Bess herself had given Ford the code in order to promote a lecture tour that the two were supposed to do together.
Even more scandalous is that Evening Graphic reporter Rea Jaure claimed that she’d received the scoop from Ford himself.
According to Jaure, Ford had admitted that he’d actually paid Bess for the secret cipher.
The news caused an uproar, and Bess wrote a moving letter to Walter Winchell, a columnist for the Evening Graphic:
When the real message, the message that Houdini and I agreed upon, came to me and I accepted it as the truth, I was greeted with jeers. Why? Those who denounce the whole thing as a fraud claim that I had given Mr. Arthur Ford the message. If Mr. Ford said this I brand him a liar. Mr. Ford has stoutly denied saying this ugly thing, and knowing the reporter as well as I do I prefer to believe Mr. Ford. Others say the message has been common property and known to them for some time. Why do they tell me this now, when they know my heart was hungry for the true words from my husband? The many stories told about me I have no way to tell the world the truth of or the untruth, for I have no paper at my beck and call; everyone has a different opinion of how the message was obtained. With all these different tales I would not even argue. However, when anyone accuses me of giving the words that my husband and I labored so long to convince ourselves of the truth of communication, then I will fight and fight until the breath leaves my body.
In the years that followed, Bess recanted her statements:
“For three years she had sought to penetrate beyond the grave and communicate with her husband, but had now renounced faith in such a possibility: she denied that any of the mediums presented the clew [clue] by which she was to recognize a legitimate message.”
Houdini’s greatest escape act had come to nothing.
Weirdly, Bess continued to hold her yearly séance for four more years, with the “final” séance held atop the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood.
It’s still performed every year on the anniversary of his death.
Any medium who can prove they contact the dead can still win a cash prize
Started by Houdini, the prize has been continued by the likes of James Randi, conjurer and author.
Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.