BREAKING THE HOUDINI CODE
Arthur Ford (medium, pictured, left).
This 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".
(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
he later played a significant part in providing me with
status as a medium, I never met Houdini (pictured left)
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 time.
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
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
"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
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, Beatrice Houdini (pictured
left) 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
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."
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.
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