U.S. NEW YORK NY CULTURE
Halloween Séance Calls for Harry Houdini at Home
This year’s event on the anniversary of the famed magician’s death will be at the building where he once lived
The annual event to summon Harry Houdini’s spirit this year will be at Sojourn restaurant on the Upper East Side, located in the space where a young Houdini practiced tricks. Above, Houdini performed a rope escape, left, and a card trick in these undated photos. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS
It was to be the final escape.
Before Harry Houdini died on Oct. 31, 1926, he asked his wife to hold annual séances—and gave her a secret code so that she could verify his return.
“He said if anyone can come back, he would,” said George Schindler, the 87-year-old dean of the Society of American Magicians, where Houdini served as president
for nine years.
This Halloween marks the 90th anniversary of the famed magician’s death, and at least the 90th séance trying to summon his spirit.
The séances are now hosted by the Harry Houdini Museum
, based in Scranton, Pa., but this year museum officials selected an out-of-town spot for the event: the Upper East Side building where Houdini once lived.
A young Houdini practiced tricks in the space that is now Sojourn restaurant and lived with his family in the boardinghouse upstairs. Last week, the restaurant erected a plaque to Houdini’s memory.
“He kind of inspired me growing up,” said restaurant owner Sammy Musovic, a magic fan. Neighborhood old-timers had approached him for years about the site’s history, he said, prompting him to research it further and host the séance at the restaurant.
George Schindler, dean of the Society of American Magicians, speaks at Sojourn restaurant on E 79th St. about the séance on the 90th anniversary of Harry Houdini’s death. PHOTO: PETER SAMELSON
Even though he called for a séance, Houdini was skeptical.
“That would be the final test,” said the museum’s co-director Dorothy Dietrich. “He was looking for some kind of proof.”
During his life, he never found any. Houdini scorned the spiritualists of his era as scam artists.
The promise to contact a lost loved one “would be worth anything to anybody,” said Ms. Dietrich, making the grieving particularly vulnerable to swindlers. “Houdini spent pretty much his whole life exposing them where ever he went.”
At the Society of American Magicians, Houdini even founded a “debunking” committee that still exists today, although it has been more than a decade since it received any requests, Mr. Schindler said.
According to Ms. Dietrich, the code he gave his wife was a way of protecting her from being scammed, since nobody else knew it.
Still, the séances, which are free and open to the public, have seen some odd moments, said Ms. Dietrich, who has been leading them for more than 30 years. There was the time when a Houdini picture fell off the wall just as attendees asked for his spirit or when a candelabra started flickering despite no wind or air-conditioning drafts.
This year’s event begins at noon on Monday, just before the time of his death at 1:26 p.m. The code has since been revealed: It combines the words “ Rosa Bell,” a nod to the couple’s favorite ballad, with an encrypted spelling of “believe” that his wife understood.
Mr. Musovic said he was slightly nervous to be hosting a séance in his restaurant.
“The hocus-pocus thing you always got to worry about, you know?” he said. “I don’t want to disappear.”