Houdini, Who Was Not a Believer,
Died on the Day of the Living Dead
Harry Houdini once made a promise that he was sure not to honor: if there’s life after death, he said, I’ll let you know. If he could pull that trick, it’d be a treat. But since that Halloween, 90 years ago, he’s sent no message, denying validation to many a believer.
The irony is that the great illusionist was a debunker of mediums, and left a coded message with his wife to unmask fraudsters. He knew the Big Sleep pulls no bluffs. Just don’t tell that to pilgrims who every year flock to his grave at New York Machpelah Cemetery, in Queens.
It must have taken guts. And those he had, until they literally burst out by blows, administered with his consent, by an admirer. When he died of acute Peritonitis, hundreds of new cults had flooded the world to claim ownership over the ‘supernatural’ phenomena and challenge organized religion.
The dominant figure of the so called Occult Movement, Helena Blavatsky, had died less than 30 years before, but not before inspiring a lot of deranged minds into believing that they too, had something different about them. And they did, alright, although not exactly what they believe they had.
NO RESPECT TO BELLS & WHISTLES
At the turn of the 19th century, backwater America was festering too with the roots of these messianic cults, led by an assortment of lunatics, snake oil salesmen, and plain mentally ill visionaries, many of which turned later into some of the tax-exempted religious faiths we have today.
A crucial difference between those who time forgot and say, a Joseph Smith, who went on to ‘invent’ Mormonism, was arguably sheer survival skill. And maybe an absurdly non-sensical ‘origins’ story, to rival any of the astonishingly fantastic tales upon which all three major religions of our time stake their claims.
In many ways, Hungarian-born Erik Weisz, whose ‘Harry Houdini‘ stage name topped a string of less known aliases, was ahead of his time in two main ways: he worked really hard to perfect (more)
* Hallowed Ground
* A Tale of Two Cities
almost undetectable ways of fooling people for a living. And he had a truly Cartesian, inquisitive mind.
THE BLOW THAT BROKE THE SPELL
He did fool Arthur Conan Doyle but that doesn’t count. After all, the author of literature’s sharpest-mind sleuth wasted years trying to validate the occult, a quest that all but cost him his reputation, and led twice to embarrassing public allegations of fraud.
Houdini, on the other hand, understood that, in his line of business, anything left to chance could cost him his life. The methodic zeal with which he unmasked many mediums had less to do with scientific empiricism and a lot with fear of dying by a mishap. Which wound up happening anyway.
Mostly because, despite the professionalism of his polished act, he was not above some flattery. The punches that fatally ruptured his appendix, were a dare to the supposed steely strength of his abdominal muscles he used to boast about. In that rare occasion when he did not hedge his bets, he lost it all.
LET SLEEPING MYTHS LIE STILL
The mediums of yesteryear, and their aura of depth and mysticism, are all gone now. Left are the institutional faith and organized religion, eternally feuding over monopoly of invisible beings, and a wholesale industry of charlatans competing to milk the life and savings of the faithful.
As it turns out, death has a stronger grip than straight jackets, handcuffs, and prison cells, even though his wife Bess refused to say that the great escapologist could not escape it. In 1929, on a written statement, she claimed that he did deliver her their pre-arranged message. No one believed her.
Fact is, Houdini, as billions of people famous or not, has remained and will ever be gone. Life is that brief gap between the moment something new happens, and the time when everything must be let go. If you’re holding for a word from your sponsor, you’re already wasted your phone call.
Plenty of cliches like those have been used about Houdini. But he did succeed in crafting a skill and a public persona that outlasted all of his tricks. That was no magic. Myths, certain facts, and even lies, may beat their expiration date; we, on the other hand, are definitely not built to last.