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