BREAKING THE HOUDINI CODE
By Arthur Ford (medium)
(March 24, 1874 – October 31,
1926) was one of the most famous magicians, escapologists,
and stunt performers of all time as well as an investigator
of spiritualists. ONE OF the most passionate exposers of
mediums was Houdini, the magician. In the early twenties
he threw the entire weight of his reputation as a magician
behind his declaration that all mediums were fakes, and
that he could duplicate any trick a medium could do.
Although he later played a significant part in providing
me with status as a medium, I never met Houdini. He died
in 1926 and at that time I was much too inconspicuous to
attract his attention. The influence of Houdini upon the
whole Spiritualist Movement cannot be understood without
some comprehension of the distinction which was Houdini's.
Houdini the Magician and Anti-Spiritualist
Here was a man who could break out of handcuffs of every
invention and contrivance in any part of the world. He could
beat the Fiji coin divers at their own game. He staged underwater
stunts that astounded the medical profession by the length
of time he could hold his breath. He broke out of packing
cases built on-stage by local carpenters. Before astonished
audiences he caused an elephant (not a rabbit) to disappear
and he walked through a brick wall. He was exactly what
he called himself, the master magician of his day.
In the early twenties Houdini turned his fabulous tenacity
to exposing the whole Spiritualist Movement. There were
probably then about a million people in the country who
called themselves Spiritualists. In these days when university
research in the field of parapsychology has made psychic
interests respectable, when extrasensory perception is seriously
considered in psychology courses, when the physical scientists
are far less dogmatic about the non-physical world than
was formerly the case, it is difficult to recover the violent
reaction of the orthodox against Spiritualism in Houdini's
day. In the orthodox mind all Spiritualists were equated
with the lunatic fringe and all mediums were tools of the
devil, even if there were no devil. Here Houdini took his
stand with the orthodox and lined up his targets.
I have always felt that Houdini was initially honest, even
if publicity-minded, in insisting that mediumship, particularly
physical mediumship, could be faked. He himself had hoaxed
audiences with fake mediumship, and in his mind to be able
to trick an audience was to do so. In his early days he
had simulated the kind of séance in which material
objects are supposed to move by supernormal power, and added
assumed authenticity to the act by having himself handcuffed,
tied to a chair and placed in a cabinet in such fashion
that the audience concurred in his assertion that he could
not possibly be the one to set off the tambourine, bell
and other paraphernalia on the table in front of the cabinet.
Lights went out and the ensuing jingling and knocking were
very convincing, as well they might be since Houdini was
able to extricate himself from the handcuffs in a matter
of seconds, set off his "effects," and relock
himself before the lights went on.
Houdini the Exposer of Mediums
Years later, when he was much more widely known, he acknowledged
his former fraudulence and developed an act in which he
demonstrated the many devices and tricks which he said he
had found mediums using. It was after his mother died, however,
that he turned to exposing mediums in the big-time manner.
It has always seemed to me that he was striking out at people
who believed what he himself could not believe - that life
goes on. He would leave no one with comfort he could not
have. His sentiment for his mother ran deep, even though
it often expressed itself melodramatically. There is no
doubt but that Houdini informed himself in the field of
psychic phenomena, but always from the point of view of
looking for the catch. When he read a report based on the
testimony of top scientists, he merely averred that they
were not as clever as he in seeing through a ruse. He collected
a pretentious library, and searched out physical mediums
all over the country. Mediums who simply brought through
verbal communication were branded liars before he started.
He liked to uncover facts upon which to base a story of
an exposé but he was not dependent upon facts. As
the self-appointed exposer of fraudulent mediumship and
ridiculer of Spiritualists, he built himself the biggest
reputation in America, and probably in the world.
Nevertheless, that he was at times in touch with genuine
communication seems to me certain from opinions I have had
from persons who knew him well. I surmise that genuine trance
mediums found his antagonistic attitude extremely hard to
work with. It is my impression that his mother tried to
reach him and could have identified herself if he had been
receptive. For instance, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle reported
that when he and his wife were traveling in America, Houdini
and his wife Beatrice visited them for several days at their
hotel in Atlantic City. By that time Lady Doyle herself
had developed mediumship and did automatic writing in a
semi-trance state. Doyle said that on this occasion Houdini
received a general message from his mother which moved him
greatly, although in spite of his emotion he would not authenticate
the message. No doubt it lacked essential words he was waiting
for her to say. Eventually Doyle broke with Houdini, accusing
him of prejudice and duplicity.
The 'Margery' Investigation
The occasion which brought Houdini into final disrepute
with most of the professional research men in the psychic
field was an investigation of the famous physical medium
Margery, wife of Dr. L. R. G. Crandon, for sixteen years
professor of surgery at Harvard University Medical School,
conducted by The Scientific American. The investigating
committee was composed of impeccable scientists and psychologists,
including Gardner Murphy, now director of research at Menninger
Foundation. Houdini asked to be added to the committee.
As the séances continued the committee became increasingly
doubtful of Houdini's scrupulosity, not to say impartiality,
and made public statement of the fact.
By that time Houdini's reputation was at stake. If distinguished
men could prove him wrong in his accusations, the whole
country would have a chuckle at his expense, and to be laughed
at was one thing he could never accept. Moreover, his enemies
the Spiritualists - or so he considered them - would also
have a field day. Actually, many Spiritualists had defended
Houdini, being more eager than anyone else to have their
ranks cleared of frauds.
This was the state of ferment in 1926 when Houdini died,
leaving a widely publicized message that if there were anything
to the claim for survival he would get through to his wife,
Bessie, with a code message which only she could decipher.
That this curious last message would have anything to do
with my future would have seemed a farfetched idea at the
Showdown with magician Howard Thurston
However, the Houdini virus was contagious and other magicians
also broke out in eruptions against spiritualism and mediumship.
Among the best known of the magicians was Howard Thurston.
Thurston was a tall, suave and handsome man, whom I had
always considered a thorough gentleman. Therefore I was
surprised when in 1927, the old New York World ran a story
to the effect that Thurston claimed he had exposed over
three hundred mediums, that Spiritualism had broken up more
homes than the old-time saloon, and that he had a gadget
resembling a watchcase in which was concealed a rubber spook
that could be blown up and operated in such fashion that
it could duplicate all the phenomena of the séance
room. I asked the World to let me answer this story, but
they refused. There was nothing particularly newsworthy
about me. But the United Press Association indicated that
they would carry my reply if I made a good story.
Now how could I make a good story of fraudulent accusation
of fraud? I thought over the fact that magicians such as
Houdini and Thurston kept on issuing open challenges to
mediums, offering ten thousand dollars for the production
of any stunt they could not reproduce by trickery. I felt
there had been about enough of this talk and that someone
should make some kind of public refutation which would carry
weight. Therefore when a friend of mine, with United Press,
suggested that I turn the tables and offer ten thousand
dollars to Thurston if he could prove his charges, I was
held back only by ten thousand good reasons. Another friend,
John Bowman, president of the Bowman Biltmore Hotel Corporation,
overheard the suggestion and handed me a certified check.
It was posted and I challenged Thurston.
Now the press had a story they could use with relish and
they did a thorough coverage. Thurston began to explain
to his friends that his press agent had overplayed his hand.
But the press demanded a showdown. So a night was set when
we were to meet in Carnegie Hall. In spite of the publicity
I was surprised to find the Hall packed. Apparently all
the magicians were there and the press was amply represented,
not to overlook the public.
I spoke first and challenged Thurston, "I will not
ask for the names of the three hundred mediums you have
exposed, but ask only that you give me the name and address,
time, and place of exposure of twenty-five, along with proof
that you did expose them." Thurston named only three,
none of them living. I could have done better than that.
I then asked him to give me the names of only twenty-five
families that had been broken up over Spiritualism. He had
no names. I could have furnished them, knowing the movement
better than he did, for there are always individuals who
make a mania of their particular religious beliefs and ride
their families to death.
He grew more nervous as we approached the matter of his
rubber spook. I explained to the audience the method of
testing physical mediumship. However, without these customary
preliminaries, I was only going to ask that in good light
before the audience Thurston produce this rubber spook and
let it walk over to me and tell me the real name of my father.
Certainly a kindergarten test for a medium. But Thurston
had forgotten to bring the spook along. By that time I felt
sorry for him.
The next day the newspapers carried a complete account
of the encounter, one paper headlining the story: FORD AND
THURSTON PUT ON SHOW AT CARNEGIE HALL ... IT FLOPPED IN
THE SECOND ACT. Thurston explained to the press again that
his press agent had got him into this fiasco, hoping to
capitalize on the Houdini technique for getting publicity.
Reasonably, Thurston's ire was high against me, which I
regretted for I admired his magicianship. I supposed our
encounter was over.
Another Encounter with Thurston
About four years later I was in Detroit. Thurston had his
magical show at a leading theater. I went with a friend.
At one point in his routine Thurston did what he called
his Spirit Cabinet Trick, and I was surprised to find on
the printed program: "This is a trick to amuse you
and it is NOT an attack upon the religious beliefs of anyone."
When he finished this trick he called for the house lights
and had them focused upon me. What next, I thought, deducing
that someone had recognized me and told him I was present.
Needing revenge, he would embarrass me if he could. Instead,
he said to the audience, "What I have just done is
a trick, but in the audience is a man whom I firmly believe
can help you to communicate with your beloved dead."
Then he asked me to come to his dressing room after the
When my friend and I went backstage to meet him, Thurston
then told me that when we had our encounter in New York
he knew very little about psychic things; just what everyone
thinks he knows which is usually less than nothing. But
he had determined to get back at me so he began sitting
with reputable mediums wherever he could find one. "Now
as a magician I know the limits of a trick," he said.
"Under my own conditions and in my own hotel room I
have proofs of survival which, satisfy me. I am now a member
of the American Society for Psychical Research."
We became good friends and I later attended several séances
in his house.
Communication from Houdini's Mother
I had no more contact with the magicians, except that I
occasionally attended a show, until the evening of February
8, 1928, when a group of friends which included Francis
Fast were having a sitting with me. During the trance Fletcher
[Ford's spirit guide] announced that a woman he had not
seen before was very eager to say a word. "She tells
me that she is the mother of Harry Weiss, known as Houdini."
Fletcher appeared very much interested in this person, and
began to quote her. Fast took down her message.
"For many years," said Houdini's mother, "my
son waited for one word which I was to send back. He always
said that if he could get it he would believe. Conditions
have now developed in the family which make it necessary
for me to get my code word through before he can give his
wife the code he arranged with her. If the family acts upon
my code word he will be free and able to speak for himself.
Mine is the word 'FORGIVE!' Capitalize that and put it in
quotation marks. His wife knew the word and no one else
in all the world knew it. Ask her if the word which I tried
to get back all these years is not 'FORGIVE!' I tried innumerable
times to say it to him. Now that he is here with me I am
able to get it through. Tonight I give it to you, and Beatrice
Houdini will declare it to be true."
Houdini's wife, Beatrice, Confirms Ford's Message.
When I wakened and the group told me about this extra message
which had been slipped in, I was not much interested. Houdini's
supposed exposition of mediums had always annoyed me; I
thought of him as a wonderful magician with an otherwise
bigoted mind and a colossal conceit, and I did not care
to have anything to do with him. However, the men at the
sitting wanted to give Mrs. Houdini her message. I particularly
valued the judgment of Francis Fast, and agreed. Therefore
on the following day a copy of the message was taken to
Mrs. Houdini. She was completely amazed, and as newspaper
files attest, made a public statement over her signature
that this was "the sole communication received among
thousands up to this time that contained the one secret
key-word known only to Houdini, his mother, and myself."
To me she wrote:
67 Payson Avenue
New York City
My dear Mr. Ford,
Today I received a special delivery letter signed by members
of the First Spiritualist Church, who testify to a purported
message from Houdini's mother, received through you. Strange
that the word "forgive" is the word Houdini awaited
in vain all his life. It was indeed the message for which
he always secretly hoped, and if it had been given him while
he was still alive, it would I know, have changed the entire
course of his life - but it came too late. Aside from this
there are one, or two trivial inaccuracies - Houdini's mother
called him Ehrich - there was nothing in the message which
could be contradicted. I might also say that this is the
first message which I have received among thousands which
has an appearance of truth.
That one word "forgive" was not the whole of
the mother's message to her daughter-in-law but the rest
was of an intimate family nature which concerned Mrs. Houdini
and her husband's relatives.
In that first séance the last thing Fletcher had
reported about Houdini's mother was simply, "She is
going now, and she says that since this message has come
through it will open the channel for the other." The
other to which she referred was a pact Houdini had made
with his wife. He had sworn to get a message through to
her if such a thing as survival should prove real. The message
was to be based upon a ten-word code which they had used
in one of their early shows and which no one but himself
and his wife had ever known. The press had given considerable
coverage to their agreement. In the months following his
death interested persons in various parts of the world were
constantly purporting to have received the message from
Houdini. And just as regularly Mrs. Houdini disclaimed the
messages. It was a poor month when there was no newspaper
mention of Houdini and his code.
Breaking the Houdini Code
After the message from Houdini's mother, no further word
came for several months. To be sure, no one made any attempt
to follow up. Then in November, 1928, the first word of
Houdini's own message came through in a sitting for a group
of friends, none of whom had known Houdini. The spelling
out of the entire message took a portion of eight separate
sittings covering a period of two and one-half months. Four
of the sittings were with groups of friends and four with
individuals, one a New York physician, Dr. John Tanner,
and another, Mr. Hamilton Emmons, of England, then visiting
in this country.
Fletcher's method was to announce a word as he got it,
no matter what else he happened to be talking about, and
then apparently to wait until he was sure of another word
and make another opportunity. One night he announced, "The
first word is ROSABELLE and it is going to unlock the rest."
A fortnight later a second word was added - NOW. At a third
sitting Fletcher said, "Here is a lady I've been working
with for a long time but the only word I get from her tonight
is LOOK. This is the sixth word in the code." The sitters
presumed that the lady to whom he referred was Houdini's
mother. Still later Fletcher asked that four new words be
added - ROSABELLE, ANSWER, PRAY and TELL.
At the next to last sitting, Fletcher said, "Let me
give you the words from the beginning, because I have to
work hard to get them." His last comment was, "This
man tells me now that he has put the next five words, which
explain these, in French. I have not got them yet. I want
to give you the other words because, working on the French
words, I may forget the others."
At the final sitting Fletcher said, "This man who
is communicating tells me it has taken him three months
working out of the confusion to get these words through,
and that at no time has he been able to do anything without
his mother's help. TELL - that is the last word! You now
have ten words. Go over them carefully. It has been a hard
job getting them through, 'But I tell you,' he says, fairly
shouting, 'they are right!' Now he wants to dictate the
exact message you are now to take to his wife. This is to
be written down in longhand, no notes."
Fletcher then asked the time, which was 9:23 P.M. He said
this was to be noted; also that the medium was in deep trance,
that the medium's pulse was at that moment sixty-three,
which he asked to have verified; also he wanted the names
of those present set down. Fletcher then continued with
great exactness, "A man who says he is Harry Houdini,
but whose real name was Ehrich Weiss, is here and wishes
to send to his wife, Beatrice Houdini, the ten-word code
which he agreed to do if it were possible for him to communicate.
He says you are to take this message to her and upon acceptance
of it, he wishes her to follow out the plan they agreed
upon before his passing. This is the code:
"ROSABELLE ** ANSWER TELL ** PRAY ** ANSWER ** LOOK
** TELL ANSWER ** ANSWER ** TELL.
"He wants this message signed in ink by each one present.
He says the code is known only to him and to his wife, and
that no one on earth but those two know it. He says there
is no danger on that score, and that she must make it public.
Announcement must come from her. You are nothing more than
agents. He says that when this comes through there will
be a veritable storm, that many will seek to destroy her
and she will be accused of everything that is not good,
but she is honest enough to keep the pact which they repeated
over and over before his death. He says, 'I know that she
will be happy, because neither of us believed it would be
Fletcher then added, "Her husband says that on receipt
of this message she must set a time, as soon as possible,
when she will sit with this instrument while I Fletcher,
speak to her, and after he has repeated this message to
her, she is to return a code to him which will be understood
by her and by him alone. The code that will be returned
by her will be a supplement to this code, and the two together
will spell a word which sums it all up, and that word will
be the message which he wants to send back. He refuses to
give that word until he gives it to her."
The following day two members of the group, Mr. Fast and
Mr. John W. Stafford, associate editor of The Scientific
American, both strangers to Mrs. Houdini, as were all the
members of the group, delivered the message to her. She
was lying on a couch, having suffered a fall the week previous.
She read the report, then stirred with emotion, dropped
it at her side, and said, "It is right!" Then
after a moment she asked in wondering, "Did he say
ROSABELLE?" Upon being assured that he had, she exclaimed,
"My God! What else did he say?" They repeated
all they had recorded.
Houdini Communicates with Beatrice
Following her husband's suggestions, she arranged to have
me come to her house the next day, accompanied by three
members of the group and a representative of the press.
Two of her own friends joined us.
As soon as I was well into trance, Fletcher came through,
announcing, "This man is coming now, the same one who
came the other night. He tells me to say, 'Hello, Bess,
sweetheart,' and he wants to repeat the message and finish
it for you. He says the code is one that you used to use
in one of your secret mind-reading acts." Then Fletcher
repeated the ten words as he said Houdini was giving them
to him. "He wants you to tell him whether they are
right or not."
Mrs. Houdini replied, "Yes, they are."
"He smiles and says, 'Thank you, now I can go on.'
He tells you to take off your wedding ring and tell them
what ROSABELLE means."
Drawing her left hand from under the cover she took off
the ring and holding it before her sang in a small voice:
Rosabelle, sweet Rosabelle,
I love you more than I can tell,
O'er me you cast a spell,
I love you, my Rosabelle!
Fletcher continued, "He says, 'I thank you, darling.
The first time I heard you sing that song was in our first
show together years ago.'"
Mrs. Houdini nodded her head in assent.
"Then there is something he wants me to tell you that
no one but his wife knows," Fletcher went on. "He
smiles now and shows me a picture and draws the curtains
so, or in this manner.
Evidently that was the clue for the unfoldment of the next
part of the code, for Mrs. Houdini responded in French,
"Je tire le rideau comme ça."
Through Fletcher, Houdini went on, "And now the nine
words besides ROSABELLE spell a word in our code."
Very exactly he then explained the code. "The second
word in our code was ANSWER. B is the second letter in the
alphabet so ANSWER stands for B. The fifth word in the code
is TELL, and the fifth letter of the alphabet is e. The
twelfth letter in the alphabet is L and to make up twelve
we have to use the first and second words of the code."
Continuing in this intricate way to the end he said, "The
message I want to send back to my wife is: 'ROSABELLE, BELIEVE!'"
Fletcher then asked, "Is this right?"
"Yes," answered Mrs. Houdini, with great feeling.
In conclusion Fletcher repeated Houdini's final words.
"He says, 'Tell the whole world that Harry Houdini
still lives and will prove it a thousand times and more.'
He is pretty excited. He says, 'I was perfectly honest and
sincere in trying to disprove survival, though I resorted
to tricks to prove my point for the simple reason that I
did not believe communication was true, but I did no more
than seemed justifiable'. I am now sincere in sending this
through in my desire to undo. Tell all those who lost faith
because of my mistake to lay hold again of hope, and to
live with the knowledge that life is continuous. That is
my message to the world, through my wife and through this
The code was:
1. Pray A 6. Please F
2. Answer B 7. Speak G
3. Say C 8. Quickly H
4. Now D 9. Look I
5. Tell E 10. Be quick J
The message itself was:
Pray, answer (1 and 2) L
Answer, answer (2 and 3) V
The code had been a handy device employed in Houdini's
instructions to his wife during their act. Mrs. Houdini
commented that the code was such a secret that "even
though the stage-hands knew the words, no one except Houdini
and myself knew the cipher, or the key, and its application."
Was it a Hoax?
Facsimile of statement made by Mrs. Houdini the day after
receipt of the message. Witnesses: Mr. H. R. Zander, Representative
of the United Press; Mrs. Minnie Chester, life-long friend
of Mrs. Houdini and Mr. John W. Stafford, Associate Editor
of Scientific American.
From the moment that Mrs. Houdini pronounced the message
genuine there began a flood of attack ranging from the ludicrous
to the vicious. Mrs. Houdini's veracity was questioned;
she was accused of giving the code to someone who then gave
it to me - as if there could be any comfort for her in securing
a message she already knew from a source she did not believe
existed. She was also scored for selling out her own husband
who had so widely publicized his conviction that all mediums
were fakes. Consistently she avowed the genuineness of the
messages and defended having made them public. "It
was what he wanted me to do, and I am doing it."
I was likewise accused of fraud, of course, and was once
also approached by an ingenious blackmailer. Then a man
impersonating me fabricated a newspaper story, which only
one tabloid printed, after which he confessed his hoax under
promise of immunity from criminal prosecution. Three individuals
brought charges to the United Spiritualist League of New
York City that I had been in cahoots with Mrs. Houdini and
the press. The president of the board of trustees of the
First Spiritualist Church redeemed my character, Mrs. Houdini
stood her ground, and the respectable press was meticulously
fair. I never attempted to collect any of the fabulous sums
offered for breaking the Houdini code, although I am sure
a legal case could have been made. However, I did receive
an enormous amount of publicity. Maybe Houdini had a hand
in that! He may have been paying his respects to the fact
that my act had been performed not while handcuffed but
while sound asleep.
Return to Articles
The above article was taken from Arthur Ford's "Nothing
So Strange" (New York: Harper and Row, 1958). It was
originally titled "A Round with the Magicians".
The sub-headings were added by the webmaster of this website.