Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, a.k.a. Mrs. Bess Houdini

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena searches old newspapers to discover interesting stories about the life of Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, a.k.a. Mrs. Houdini – the wife of the famous magician.

Even if you have no interest in magic, chances are you have a passing knowledge of the master of magic himself, Harry Houdini (1874-1926). Popularized by film and known for his logic-defying tricks and escape stunts, Houdini is synonymous with magic. But how much do you know about his wife, Bess Houdini? Chances are very little.

Born Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner (1876-1943), Bess was interesting in her own right but spent most of her life in the shadow of her famous husband.

photo of Bess Houdini, c. 1900-1910

Photo: Bess Houdini, c. 1900-1910. Source: Findagrave; Wikipedia.

Newspapers are a great resource for finding the stories of your ancestors, whether they were famous or obscure. Here are six things you may not know about Bess Houdini, all discovered by searching GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.

1) She assisted her husband throughout their marriage.

It’s fairly well known that Bess assisted her husband during his magic act. It’s less well known that she also assisted him when he conducted shows debunking the work of spiritual mediums – people who claimed they could communicate with the dead.

article about the magician Harry Houdini, Charlotte Observer newspaper article 5 March 1924

Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, North Carolina), 5 March 1924, page 4

2) She was a performer before she met Houdini – and carried on after his death.

However, Bess’s talent was not limited to helping her husband with his act; she was an entertainer prior to her marriage and continued on after Houdini’s death. She started her career in a song and dance act on Coney Island known as “The Floral Sisters.” It was while doing this act that she met Harry’s younger brother Theo, and then Harry himself. They were married on 22 June 1894 when Bess was 18.

Bess continued performing after her husband’s untimely death in 1926. In this 1928 newspaper article she is said to “…take up the magician’s wand laid down by her husband’s dying hand.” One of the tricks she performed was where “she ‘froze’ an Indian ‘medicine man’ in a cake of ice.” It took 26 minutes to freeze the man in the ice block using solidified carbon dioxide gas, and he remained in that state for 15 minutes before the ice was chopped away to expose his face.

Mrs. Houdini to Continue His Craft, Rockford Republic newspaper article 13 January 1928

Rockford Republic (Rockford, Illinois), 13 January 1928, page 18

3) Newspaper articles about her are numerous, including those with her marital advice.

In this 1928 newspaper article, Bess gave some of her relationship advice and stories from her own marriage. Mrs. Houdini’s relationship revelation was that she kept some secrets from Harry – including the fact that she did not know how he did some of his magic tricks.

Magicians' Wives Like Magic Pretty Well, Plain Dealer newspaper article 5 August 1928

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 5 August 1928, page 103

She elaborated the point in another 1928 newspaper article:

Mrs. Houdini admits that while it is the magician’s business to mystify an audience it is the wife’s business to mystify the magician to the extent of convincing him that she understands his tricks whether she does or not.

article about Bess Houdini, Evening Tribune newspaper article 23 August 1928

Evening Tribune (San Diego, California), 23 August 1928, page 14

4) She tried to contact Houdini from the grave.

If there’s one thing most people know about Bess, it is her yearly attempts to contact Harry from the grave. A supernatural skeptic, Harry had promised Bess that if it was possible to contact the dead he would appear to her. So Bess tried for 10 years to contact Harry after his death. Not only did Bess try, but others also tried – including one who claimed success (see the 1929 newspaper article below). However, all attempts failed, and eventually Bess called it quits.

Four years into her yearly ritual, under the defeatist headline “Mrs. Houdini Gives Up,” Bess said of communicating with Houdini beyond the grave:

If I had succeeded in communicating with Houdini I would shout it from the housetops,” she told [the] Associated Press, “and I would carry a message of hope to all burdened souls, but I have none. There is nothing there.

article about Bess Houdini, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 23 March 1930

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 23 March 1930, page 6

Despite that 1930 headline, Bess kept trying to contact Harry from beyond the grave for another six years. Finally, in 1936 – ten years after her husband’s death – she made her last attempt. That final séance on the roof of a Hollywood hotel ended with Bess remarking: “He has not come. I turn out the light.” (Referring to an electric light that she had kept lit since his death 10 years prior.)

article about Bess Houdini, Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 2 November 1936

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 2 November 1936, page 1

A more light-hearted comment about her repeated attempts to communicate with her dead husband is quoted in one of Bess’s obituary notices:

Ten years is long enough to wait for any man.

Mrs. Houdini's Futile Trysts with Her Husband's Ghost, Oregonian newspaper article 7 March 1943

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 7 March 1943, page 51

5) While she couldn’t contact the deceased Harry Houdini, someone else claimed to have succeeded.

Arthur Ford, a minister from the First Spiritualist Church, claimed success in contacting Houdini more than once. One such claim came during a séance where John W. Stafford, an assistant editor of the Scientific American, and Mrs. Houdini were present. Ford claimed he had received the secret code that Harry Houdini had confided to Bess he would use to verify it was he who was contacting her from beyond the veil. Ford provided that code during the séance, part of which was a name from a song that Bess used to sing in her act, “Rosabelle.”

According to the report in this 1929 newspaper, Ford said to Bess:

The same man who came Saturday night is coming again. He says, Hello, Bess, my sweetheart. He says he wants to repeat the code you used in your mind reading act with him.

First of all, he says, Rosabelle. Do you know what that means?

Mrs. Houdini replied in a weak voice, Yes.

Then the words of the code came through Ford: Answer tell pray answer look tell answer answer tell.

Houdini's Spirit Talks to Widow, San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram newspaper article 9 January 1929

San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram (San Luis Obispo, California), 9 January 1929, page 3

At the time Bess confirmed that Ford had indeed contacted Harry and provided the correct code. Later though she recanted, perhaps due to friendly reminders that the “secret” message had been published previously in a biography about Houdini.

6) She died en route to New York aboard a train.

Bess Houdini died on 11 February 1943 aboard a train traveling through Needles, California. In ill health, she was hoping to make it to New York before her demise. Knowing that she was gravely ill, just prior to her death, she granted a last interview to journalists where she talked of hoping to see Harry Houdini again after death – and put a premature stop to anyone who would later claim supernatural contact with her.

obituary for Bess Houdini, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 12 February 1943

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 12 February 1943, page 17

She made that point emphatically at the end of the interview:

obituary for Bess Houdini, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 12 February 1943

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 12 February 1943, page 17

While the love story of Harry and Bess is sometimes held up as one of the greatest of all time, the couple was ultimately denied the right to be laid to rest next to each other. Harry was buried, along with members of his family, in the Jewish cemetery Machpelah in Ridgewood, New York, while Bess, a Catholic, was buried at Gates of Heaven Cemetery, Hawthorne, New York.

Genealogy Tip: The research I did into Mrs. Houdini’s life in newspapers was a good example of searching by trying all variations of a woman’s name. I found articles with her listed as Mrs. Houdini, Beatrice Houdini, and Bess Houdini.

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Ghost Stories & Séances: History and True Life Paranormal Events

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary searches old newspapers for stories about ghosts, séances and psychics – and tells two related stories from her own family’s history.

Starting in the Victorian Era, séances, psychics and spiritualists seemed to be everywhere, as more and more people believed they could talk to – or receive messages from – the spirit world, and thereby communicate with their departed spouse or child.

photo of a séance conducted by John Beattie, Bristol, England, 1872, from the Eugène Rochas Papers held at the American Philosophical Society Library

Photo: séance conducted by John Beattie, Bristol, England, 1872, from the Eugène Rochas Papers held at the American Philosophical Society Library. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The interest in séances and ghosts carried over into the early 20th century. This 1916 newspaper article reports there will be an “independent message séance” at the First Independent Spiritual Church, and another “message séance” at the home of Mrs. Jennie Cook – “held under the auspices of the Ladies’ Auxiliary.”

article about séances, Miami Herald newspaper article 23 July 1916

Miami Herald (Miami, Florida), 23 July 1916, section 2, page 12

Reactions to séances have been mixed throughout history. Some who turned to spiritual psychic mediums were true believers; others went out of curiosity or on a lark. And then there were the doubters who went to great lengths to debunk what they considered outrageous fraud.

Perhaps your ancestors were among those who attended séances; I know mine were – but whatever their reasons, marvelous reports of séances and ghosts filter through historical newspapers!

Genuine Manifestation Award

In 1937, a $10,000 reward was put up by “medium exposer” Joseph Dunninger for anyone who could provide a “genuine manifestation” – a contact with the spirit world. Spirit Medium Stanley K. Werner struggled and strained to produce a message from the ghost of deceased magician Howard Thurston, but failed. His wife had no better success.

photo of a séance, Heraldo de Brownsville newspaper article 22 July 1937

Heraldo de Brownsville (Brownsville, Texas), 22 July 1937, page 8

Mrs. Huntoon’s Ruse

This historical newspaper article from 1898 reports that Mrs. Huntoon, a well-known spiritualist, put on quite a show. For 50¢, her customers got to see spirits move, tin cans rattling and hands jingling bells from behind a curtain. Sometimes messages from the other side were received. One man heard from his dear departed wife, who wrote on a piece of paper: “My darling husband.” Mrs. Huntoon’s séances were elaborate ruses which many fell victim to.

article about a séance, Argus and Patriot newspaper article 19 January 1898

Argus and Patriot (Montpelier, Vermont), 19 January 1898, page 2

The journalist apparently agreed. He examined the written messages and reported that “the writing was a horrible hieroglyphic and all strangely alike.” The end of the old news article reports:

One of the men attending the séance said that Mrs. Huntoon was not so good now as she used to be.

Got It Wrong

The story from this next newspaper article has a humorous twist. At this séance in 1909, one of the participants asked the medium about his “very good friend who did all our work,” and who had departed several years earlier. He left out the part about this “friend” being in reality an old horse. The spiritualist “made a few mysterious motions and rapped on the table,” then reported good news: “Your friend is still in the west of Ireland and is married to a rich woman!”

article about a séance, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 26 December 1909

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 26 December 1909, page 3

My Family’s Ghost Stories

Now before we end, I have to tell you about two true life ghost stories in my family’s history.

The first has to do with a condemned government building in Indianapolis, Indiana. The locals believed it was haunted, so they tore it down.

As far as I know, my ancestor, David Macy of Indianapolis, didn’t believe in ghosts. He did, however, recognize a bargain when he saw it. The story is that he purchased the demolished building’s materials and used them to build his own home. Apparently, the ghosts didn’t follow the haunted lumber to his new house. You can see from this photo that Mary Ann (Patterson) Macy and her granddaughter were not a bit afraid to enjoy their front porch!

photo of Mary Ann (Patterson) Macy and her granddaughter

Photo: Mary Ann (Patterson) Macy and her granddaughter. Credit: from the personal collection of Mary Harrell-Sesniak.

The second family ghost story has to do with my Scott ancestors who lived in Saratoga, New York.

Their son was often sent by his mother Sophronia to deliver items to a neighbor named Sally Wheeler. Sally had a reputation for being a stern, old woman who lived with a servant. Once she told Sophronia that if anything ever happened to her, she should look in the clock to find money hidden there.

Well, eventually Sally Wheeler did pass away – but when the clock was examined, the money was gone. Afterward, Sophronia visited the estate’s lawyer and asked him about the money in the clock. The family story is that he became white as a ghost and shortly thereafter committed suicide.

Many years later, my grandmother wrote a letter about this. She reported that the story had virtually been forgotten until she and her parents went to a séance. At the end, the medium turned to my great grandfather and told him that she could see him as a frightened little boy outside the door of an old woman’s house. He knocked, the door opened, and the old woman took the items he was delivering to her. Believe it or not, but that is what my grandmother reported!

Now, as every good genealogist knows, you need to check the provenance of the ghost story.

Were these people real?

Yes, A. H. and Sophronia Scott are recorded living in dwelling house #188 on the 1860 U.S. Federal Census for Greenfield, Saratoga, New York. Eight family members were in the household. He was a farmer, as were two of his sons, including the one from the story.

Sarah “Sally” Wheeler was also real. She was age 52 and living in household #185 with her sister Syrissa Wheeler, age 57. With them were three men engaged in farming, or farm laborers. The sisters each owned $3,000 in real estate and $500 in personal property. Interestingly, Sarah and Syrissa Wheeler are buried in the Scott cemetery, although my Scotts are buried in Bailey Cemetery. (The links will direct you to the Wheeler memorials at Findagrave.)

Was the money ever found?

No, but the clock is real. It was given to my ancestor and is still owned by a family member. We all call this heirloom the Sally Wheeler clock.

Was there an estate lawyer who committed suicide?

There probably was a lawyer in Greenfield, but I have no idea who he was. If a kind reader can locate a corresponding death notice from 1894 or 1895 from the Greenfield area, please let me know.

If you have any séance or ghost stories to share, please send them along!

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Researching Old Ghost Stories & Haunted Houses in Newspapers

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post—just in time for Halloween—Gena writes about some of the ghost stories she found in old newspapers, stories spooky enough to raise the hair on the back of your neck!

It’s that time of the year when ghost stories abound. Do you have any favorites? Better yet, do you have any familial ghost stories? What ghosts linger on your family tree? Did your family live in a haunted house? Did a dead family member return from the grave to issue a warning? Did your ancestor come in contact with a ghost?

Wonder What Happened to That Old Cemetery?

There’s no doubt that in previous generations, death was an everyday part of life. Children frequently died from diseases and accidents, loved ones’ bodies may have been prepared for burial in their own home, and in some cases the local cemetery was adjacent to a family property. Maybe this close proximity with death made some people lackadaisical or even indifferent, as perhaps happened to this Indiana man.

The following 1902 newspaper article features a story about George Flowers, who purchased land that included a cemetery. After he bought the land he removed the 300 tombstones, throwing some into the river and using the rest to build a foundation for his house. Flowers built his home and farm on top of the cemetery—over the objections of his neighbors. Although still disturbing, you might be less shocked by this behavior from someone who was not familiar with those buried there— but this particular cemetery included the graves of his brother, sister, and two of his own children! Apparently, his thoughtless deeds resulted in his farm being haunted.

Spirits, Elements and Neighbors Turn on Man [George Flowers] Who Farms a Cemetery, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 24 August 1902

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 24 August 1902, page 5

Some of the details of this haunted farm story are downright spooky. After desecrating the graveyard, Flowers plowed the cemetery and planted it with melons and potatoes, as he did with the rest of his land. Well, the other melons and potatoes “grew in abundance,” but the ones planted in the cemetery were “eaten up by a strange bug.” Then the house started shaking violently, terrifying Flowers’s wife and two children into deserting the home. Finally, lightning struck the barn and burned the stock and building.

One sentence in this old newspaper article is especially striking: “The father seems to be impelled by some irresistible force to visit the haunted farm daily, only to flee again with increased fear.”

The Ghost in the Family

Whether just an old creepy abandoned house, one where an unfortunate death occurred, or a previous owner now deceased who won’t leave, most towns have a tale of a haunted house or a haunting. While many stories involve ghosts who are unknown to the current residents, in this 1913 newspaper article the family is haunted by one of their own.

This historical news article refers to the story of Jane Adams, a teenager who was murdered in her hometown of Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1910. Three years after her death (the newspaper erroneously says five years), her family lived in fear because she seemingly came back from the dead to haunt their home.

Say Home Is Haunted by Ghost of Murdered Girl [Jane Adams], Columbus Daily Enquirer newspaper article 11 May 1913

Columbus Daily Enquirer (Columbus, Georgia), 11 May 1913, page 1

According to the article: “Mary, a sister of Jane, declares she has frequently seen a hand protrude from closet doors, has heard queer noises at night, and has even observed the ghost’s flight from a closet through the house. The whole neighborhood is having an attack of fidgets.”

Further research into this ghost story reveals that on the night of her death, the murdered girl had gone out with her sister and a young man. After a walk to the pier she and the young man’s brother, who had joined them, were left alone. The prosecution at the time introduced evidence that Jane Adams was fighting for her honor when she was allegedly killed by William Seyler. William, after police questioning, admitted he was there when she died but denied any culpability. He claimed that they were arguing when she fell off the pier.

Ghosts Trying to Make Contact

While the previous newspaper article makes it sound as though the family was less than thrilled to be reunited with their dead loved one, in many cases Victorians wanted to have that chance to speak to and receive messages from beyond the grave. Spiritualism, a belief popular from about 1840 to 1920, provided hope to those who wanted to believe that the dead were not truly gone but could be summoned. Those desperate to hear from their deceased loved ones attended séances in hopes of making that contact. In this 1913 newspaper article about a mother who lost a child, not only does her deceased daughter provide information from the great beyond but she also makes a promise.

Reincarnation in [Samona] Family, Times-Picayune newspaper article 25 August 1913

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 25 August 1913, page 3

This is truly an eerie family ghost story. Their dead five-year-old daughter promised during a séance that in 14 months, on Christmas Day, she would be reborn along with a twin sister. According to the old newspaper article, 14 months later—exactly on Christmas Day—the mother did indeed give birth to twin girls, “one of whom bore on the face three marks identical with marks on the face of the dead child, and after a year began to manifest exactly the same moral and physical tendencies.”

There’s One in Every Family

And while there will always be true believers in ghosts as evidenced from numerous present-day television shows and ghost tours, there’s always that one person in the family who wants to take advantage of that belief and pull a joke—sometimes with unintended consequences. Consider this tale of two brothers from a 1908 newspaper article.

Boy Wounds the 'Ghost'; Shoots White-claded Brother [Henry Tomlinson] Standing on Cemetery Wall, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 8 January 1908

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 8 January 1908, page 6

I bet that’s one prank Henry Tomlinson regrets pulling on his brother!

Is there a story involving the great beyond in your family history? Record those ghost stories now to add interest to your family history—and please tell them to us in the comments section.