The 52-year-old had garnered fame throughout the world by performing dozens of spectacular public escapes from handcuffs, leg-irons, straightjackets, and water chambers. He even survived being buried alive on at least three occasions. Many of his stunts still defy explanation.
Following the passing of his mother in the 1920s, Houdini tried to contact her using mediums. When their efforts failed, he devoted his energy to debunking spiritualists, often appearing in disguise at séances to expose the fraudulent techniques employed by the false psychics.
Houdini devised a secret plan with his wife Bess, that if he died before her, he would speak the words “Rosabelle believe” during a séance, to prove to her that it was him. The phrase came from a play that Bess had once performed in.
In 1926, Houdini was on tour in Montreal when he was approached by a McGill University student who challenged the magician’s professed claim to be able to incur abdominal punches from anyone without injury since his stomach muscles were so strong. Houdini sustained several fierce punches from the man before he had the chance to tighten his muscles. The magician died from a ruptured appendix a few days later in Detroit brought on by the blows.
Houdini met with a “timely” death on the night of October 31, 1926. It was appropriate for Houdini to die on Halloween when the wall separating the living and the dead is said to be the thinnest. Bess Houdini held séances for the next ten years on that night in hopes of hearing her beloved husband’s words. In 1936, she gave up the ghost, so to speak, after a final unsuccessful attempt at reaching Houdini from the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood. As the night ended, she extinguished the candle that she had kept burning since Houdini’s death, signifying that her quest was over.
Other groups have carried on the traditional since then, but as of yet, no one has heard the words “Rosabelle believe” uttered by otherworldly lips.
THIS JUST IN: Writer Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Social Network) and my favorite composer (and former Boingo frontman), Danny Elfman, have just announced that they will be collaborating on a new Broadway musical called Houdini, starring Hugh Jackman. Can’t wait!