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“Rosabelle, Believe:” The Houdini Controversy

Houdini Psychic Medium Controversy

“Guided By Spirit” Excerpt: Chapter 4

Arthur Ford (American medium, born 1896). As an army officer in World War One, Arthur Ford had never heard of precognition or clairvoyance, and was astonished by his first significant psychic experience. One night he dreamed that he saw a roster of a dozen men in his unit who died of influenza. The next day he saw a real list with the same names. A similar precognitive dream occurred later but with a list of men killed at the front.

Harry Houdini Eyes of Memory Never SleepLater he found out that his Aunty May was a medium, something rather uncommon for a Baptist family. In his early twenties, after the war, he took a college class in psychology and encountered information on parapsychology, the study of psychic phenomena. This led to more reading and experimenting with table-tipping. Having become a student preacher, in 1924 he visited a Spiritualist church in New York City. Then he met Fletcher, his spirit guide or “control”. He said that he would feel Fletcher’s face press into his, and he would lose consciousness.

Ford often expressed doubts about mediumship, something that adds to his credibility and should be remembered when we look at the Houdini case momentarily. At one point in his development, “My mediumship was still somewhat sporadic and I never knew whether I would get results or not. Sometimes no relatives appeared. Once he admitted to getting nothing for an entire year.

Ford got a very evidential reading from Eileen Garrett that contained information he did not know (ruling out telepathy). We noted Garrett’s skepticism earlier. Ford said, “Eileen Garrett …was as puzzled as I over the nature of mediumship, and as unsure as I that she wanted to be a medium.” It was Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories and an avid student of the mysteries of the paranormal, who convinced Ford to become a professional medium.

Harry Houdini, Beatrice Houdini, Psychic MediumsWhat catapulted Ford to fame was the controversy over his alleged success in bringing through a message from Harry Houdini to his wife Beatrice (Bessie) in 1929. Houdini, who died in 1926, had demonstrated (fraudulent) physical mediumship in his own acts, such as making musical instruments play while he was supposedly tied up. Partly on the assumption that he could fake anything that mediums did, he went on a crusade to expose Spiritualist mediums.

Nevertheless, Houdini wanted to see if he could communicate with his wife after death, and the two of them agreed on a code and a message known only to them. No fan of Houdini, Arthur Ford seemed to bring through a message for Beatrice, first from Houdini’s mother, then another from Houdini himself. Indeed, Beatrice agreed that it was their secret message: first “Rosabelle,” a song she had sung in their early days, then “Answer, tell, pray answer, look, tell, answer answer, tell.” The latter was based on a code used in Houdini’s fraudulent telepathy demonstrations and meant “believe.” Thus, the message, “Rosabelle, believe.”

Houdini Spirit Mediums

On January 9, 1929 the New York Evening Graphic ran a tall headline, “Houdini Message Has Been Successfully Transmitted From The Spirit World To His Widow Bessie Through The Mediumship Of Arthur Ford.” The next day they ran the contrary, “Houdini Message Big Hoax,” and accused Ford and Houdini’s widow of staging the entire thing as a publicity stunt for a lecture tour. The fact that the paper was a sensationalistic tabloid was not lost on other newspapers, which then carried the story in a more balanced fashion. It is odd that the Graphic accused Bessie of supplying Ford with the code for deciphering the alleged message, when it would be necessary and simpler to supply the message itself, perhaps an indication of the inept logic of the author of the tabloid article.

Houdini and Spirit MediumsThis is a complicated story to tell, much less unravel. However, the simplest argument to make from a skeptical perspective is that there is no way to rule out telepathy, since Beatrice Houdini knew both the code and the final message. In other words, Ford could have read her mind rather than communicating with Houdini and his mother through Ford’s control (spirit guide) Fletcher.

The issue is complicated by the possibility that the code was in general use among “mentalists” (magicians pretending to do telepathy). Although Beatrice put it in writing in 1929 that Ford had brought through the correct message, she also stated six years later that she had never gotten a meaningful message from her husband through a medium. And although she had offered $10,000 to anyone who could bring through the secret message, this offer was withdrawn apparently very close to the time she had her sitting with Ford in which she received and verified the message. Ford never received a penny of reward, but he received a great deal of publicity and came to be known as the medium of the century, if that title does not go to Eileen Garrett.

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