Halloween 2017: The Ghost of Harry Houdini

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, November 01, 2017

The magician and escape artist Harry Houdini died in Detroit 91 years ago, on Halloween. Before his death, Houdini had added "spiritual debunker" to his resume; he was disgusted by mediums who used the same sort of trickery he employed on the stage---not to entertain---but to exploit bereaved parties into believing their loved ones could communicate with them from beyond the grave. Houdini would even attend seances in ingenious disguises to expose their trickery. Before he died, he gave his beloved wife Bess a secret word and said after he died he would try to contact her using it. If anyone attempted to claim the great Houdini wanted to speak to her, he said, the secret word would confirm whether or not it was his ghost. For years, seances held on Halloween night have attempted to commune with the spirit of the great Houdini. None have been successful. They have continued long after Bess confirmed that no medium had uttered their secret. This year the official Houdini seance was held in Cleveland. Cleveland? Why would his ghost go to Cleveland? Why would anyone go to Cleveland? The only place worse than Cleveland. . . oh, never mind. Still, maybe they should have held this year's seance in Detroit, because he's stuck here. I had no trouble locating Houdini's ghost. The chains totally gave him away.

My son has been obsessed with Harry Houdini for about a year now. He's read all the kid-level biographies; his bedroom is plastered with reproductions of old Houdini show posters. Last year we took a day trip to the American Museum of Magic to see Houdini's milk can escape and other artifacts. He can recite more facts about Houdini than you could ever care to know and he's even has put on a handful of magic shows for the neighborhood kids (training involved me wrapping him in chains so many times that we only narrowly avoided the neighbors calling child protective services). I made him a strait jacket that impressed the guys at the local magic store and even though he promised he'd never put on his police-issue handcuffs unless he knew he had the key hidden careful on his person, at least one pair has been "picked" with my dremel. He knew he wanted to be Houdini's ghost for Halloween ever since I told him the story of the days leading up to his death, right here in downtown Detroit.

Legend says that some college kid in Montreal punched Houdini in the gut (something he apparently let every Tom Dick and Harry do) but this time he hadn't flexed his muscles and the punch ruptured his appendix. Houdini traveled to Detroit for what would be his last show at the Garrick theater (now demolished) near the site of the David Stott building. Would you believe I found Houdini's ghost doing a chain escape right on the site of the theater where he cut short his last show? What a showman!

From the theater, Houdini was taken to the nearby Statler Hotel, which was also demolished (albeit much more recently, so that visitors to the Super Bowl wouldn't have to see. . . an abandoned building. . . in 2005 Detroit. . .) Now it's a big hole in the ground and they'll probably build something there for millenials soon, but while we were walking around the site we noticed across the street that the famous Michigan theater parking garage was open and Houdini's ghost could not pass up the opportunity to perform in the same place they have filmed so many Eminem videos and car commercials. What a showman!

On that fateful day in 1926, a stubborn Houdini was hauled from the Statler hotel to Sinai-Grace Hospital, which like most places of historical interest in Detroit, is now a parking lot. Nonetheless, my visit to the parking lot on the corner of John R and Willis totally proved that the site is nonetheless haunted by the ghost of the great magician who died right there. What a showman!

The parking lot is right behind the Majestic Theater, which has led a lot of urban legends about Harry Houdini dying during an escape act at the Majestic Theater. If you try to tell my son this, you will receive a lecture about the actual circumstances of Houdini's death. Just a warning. From the hospital, Houdini's body was taken to the nearby funeral home at the corner of Cass and Alexandrine, which is still there, although currently abandoned and very creepy, at least until they turn it into something for millenials. I repeat: THE ABANDONED FUNERAL HOME WHERE HOUDINI WAS EMBALMED IS STILL THERE. It's a Detroit Halloween miracle. Of course, that place is haunted.

Last summer we hung out on the porch with a ouija board but my son got creeped out pretty fast, and returning on Halloween in the garb of his hero's ghost was pretty scary. But not nearly as scary as it will be when the millenials move in.

A note about the costume: I was stumped by this one for a long time. Ultimately he and I sculpted creepy Houdini-ish features on of those plain $1 plastic masks. We decided to make everything pure white but the eyes, including the old-timey magician's tuxedo (which looks exactly like the tux Derek Jeter wore to my first high school homecoming dance in 1991). I hate wigs so instead we just made a pathetic 1920s part with merino wool roving felted to a wool hood. The chains gave it a nice "Marley's ghost" feeling while being true to Houdini. But of course, it really came down to my son's embodiment of his hero while we were out on this adventure. He really got into it. What a showman!