The House in Laurel Canyon

The Spirited life and Death of Houdini & his Castle in the Hollywood Hills

On a dark night around 1918, a full moon was gazing down upon the Hollywood hills. On a rugged hillside stood a gothic, castle-like mansion that had been built several years before by the wealthy owner of one of the city’s largest furniture stores. In the boom-time of Hollywood, he had made hundreds of thousands of dollars with his expensive furnishings, which were in high demand by the actors and directors who had flocked to California. He had invested a large sum of his earnings into the construction of the Laurel Canyon home and on this night, thousands more were lavished on the costumed guests who attended a party at the mansion. The party was a costumed affair, given for both Halloween and for the fortieth birthday of the host’s son.

Harry Houdini

While music and reveling filled the air, the son stole away from the party and met with his lover on one of the balconies overlooking Laurel Canyon trail at the back of the house. The moonlight set a romantic mood and the two men gazed warmly into another’s eyes. It was an era when gay men dared not to reveal themselves, especially those who were the heirs to furniture empire. But the romantic mood did not last and for some reason, an argument ensued. The orchestra had just taken an intermission when a scream filled the air. The heir to the furniture fortune had pushed his young lover off the balcony and his body now lay in a pool of blood more than 30 feet below.

There was no question as to who had killed the man, but his father nevertheless hired the best lawyer that money could buy. In an effort to save his son, he spent nearly every dime that he had paying off policemen, prosecutors and event the trial judge himself. Finally, it was ruled that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute the furniture heir and the man, and the family name, were saved. Unfortunately, the furniture business and the spectacular mansion were sacrificed to save the son’s life and the business and property were sold. When the family vacated the house, Hollywood rumor reports that they were nearly penniless.

This was the first tragedy to occur that could be connected to the gothic mansion, but it would not be the last. In fact, it has been said that the place is cursed and that all those who occupied the house were plagued by bad luck and disaster. In addition to the murder, other strange events have taken place here over the years and many of those have involved the man who purchased the house from the furniture store owner. His name was Harry Houdini and he lived in the mansion during his short career with the fledging movie industry in the 1920’s. While he lived in the house, it became a frequent host to seances, strange experiments and more.. and some say this cursed castle may have finally cost the famous magician his life!

Houdini was born in Budapest, Hungary on March 24, 1874 but grew up as Erich Weiss in the small Wisconsin town of Appleton. Later, his father, Rabbi Meyer Samuel Weiss, moved the family to Milwaukee and he took over a Jewish congregation there. At about this same time, Erich became interested in magic and stage performing. Legend has it that he was apprenticed to a locksmith, where he learned to assemble and take apart locks with his eyes closed. It was a skill that would serve him well later in life.

He became determined to bec0me a professional magician and later began appearing in New York beer halls and theaters, taking the name of Houdini, which was based on the name of Robert Houdin, a famous French magician. He played traveling shows and theaters for several years, meeting his wife, Bess, while performing at Coney Island. He employed a variety of new and strange stunts in his act and devised incredible escapes that had never been attempted before. He became known for some time as the “Handcuff King”, due to the ease from which he escaped any restraints. Soon, his escapes became more daring and he allowed police officers and various officials in the cities where he played to design their own challenges for him as a publicity stunt. Houdini never failed!

It was not long before the enigmatic showman became an American and world-wide sensation, performing to sold-out crowds. He became an expert in the field of magic and even today, magicians and scholars have no idea as to the extent of his secrets of magic or how many of this stunts were performed. Houdini’s many journals and notes remained in the possession of his brother after his death and when his brother died, they were destroyed.

The public acclaim for Houdini sometimes troubled him. According to stories and anecdotes, even Houdini himself expressed an awe at the ease with which he escaped from his daring and dangerous traps. One evening, during a dinner party around 1924, a Captain Bartlett asked Houdini about one of his escapes. Houdini’s expression was said to have changed instantly. “ I cannot tell you,” he reportedly replied in a wavering tone, “for I do not know myself, and I always dread what might result should I fail.” Was this Houdini merely being theatrical, or, as some have claimed, were there frightening doubts in the back of the magician’s mind?

But Houdini was as troubled as he was famous. He was obsessed with the death of his mother, having been almost unnaturally close to her during her lifetime. After she died, he was observed many times at the cemetery where she was buried, lying face down on her grave and holding long conversations with her. He felt that he had to communicate with her and that was when he turned to Spiritualism.

Spiritualism, a movement based on purported communication with the spirits of the dead, began in New York in 1848 but enjoyed a great revival after World War I. The Spiritualists believed that the dead could communicate with the living through seances, which were held in darkened rooms and where all manner of ghostly phenomena was said to manifest. Houdini turned to the popular Spiritualist movement in hopes that he might be able to communicate with the spirit of his dead mother, but his hopes were quickly dashed.

In a short time, Houdini’s visits to the Spiritualists revealed a number of fake mediums who were using poor stage magic and trying to pass the tricks off as the work of the spirits. He claimed that he could duplicate the tricks on stage and it was not long before his efforts to reach his mother became secondary to his need to expose the fraudulent mediums. He quickly became very bitter and willing to believe that all of the mediums were fakes. He began investigating their methods and claims and became a self-appointed crusader against them.

In 1920, during a tour of England, Houdini met Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and a spokesperson for Spiritualism. The two of them became good friends, despite their opposing views on the supernatural. Houdini was delighted to learn that there was at least one intelligent person who believed in Spiritualism and found that man in his friend Conan Doyle. The author was convinced of the value of the movement to the world and had given up most of his lucrative writing career to lecture about Spiritualism around the world. He also found that Houdini’s knowledge of the spirit world was as vast as his own, although their attitudes differed. Still, even though he was jaded with the results that he had obtained with mediums in the past, Houdini continued to attend seances and hosted many of his own in his new home in Hollywood.

Not long after establishing a friendship with Conan Doyle, Houdini became involved with the new film industry in California. He believed that he would earn a fortune in this new aspect of his career and invested over $100,000 in the business. The venture was launched by one of his friends, Arnold deBiere, and Houdini starred in a number of the company’s own productions. He appeared in the films as an escape artist with a flair for the supernatural. The films included, The Man from Beyond, Terror Island, The Master Mystery and several short serials. Unlike his stage career, the movies never showed a profit and one of them, Haldane of the Secret Service, was a total disaster. After losing most of his investment, Houdini and his friend deBiere got into a violent argument at the Laurel Canyon mansion. They never again spoke of or to each other. As far as Houdini was concerned, deBiere was dead to him.

Houdini’s Hollywood investments had him spending a lot of time in southern California and he soon purchased a house here. He bought a looming castle from the estate of a local furniture magnate and soon moved in. The house certainly fit his theatrical personality with its parapets, battlements and spooky towers. The foundation of the mansion was honeycombed with tunnels, secret passages and chambers. One tunnel even ran beneath what is now Laurel Canyon Road.

One of Houdini's movie posters

In one of the castle’s lower chambers was a deep pool in which Houdini practiced his underwater escapes. For years, it was even rumored that in these subterranean passages was a hidden chest containing Houdini’s greatest secrets. If it’s here, it has never been found.

Seances were conducted regularly in Houdini’s home, mostly in an attempt to communicate with his mother, and also to expose the frauds who continued to prey on the public. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was an occasional guest at these events but their friendship was soon to end amid accusations of mistrust and deceit. The two men met up again in Atlantic City in 1922 and here, Lady Jean Doyle, who was said to be a medium, went into a trance and produced an emotional letter to Houdini from his mother, using her gift of automatic writing. Houdini was originally said to have been amazed by the message but later dismissed it as false, stating that he believed Sir Arthur and Lady Jean to be good people, although they had been misled by their contact with the Spiritualist movement. He did not believe they had deliberately tried to deceive him but he thought they were deceiving themselves with their own gullibility.

The rift between the two men, which began with this event, deepened shortly afterward when Conan Doyle, and other Spiritualists, began stating that Houdini’s exposure of mediums was simply to cover the fact that he was a medium himself! They claimed that many of his extraordinary escapes were actually done by Houdini "dematerializing" from the traps that he had placed himself in. “This ability”, Doyle stated publicly, “to unbolt locked doors in undoubtedly due to Houdini’s mediumistic powers and not to any normal operation of the lock. The effort necessary to shoot a bolt from within a lock is drawn from Houdini the medium, but it must not be thought that this is the only means by which he can escape from his prison. For at times, his body can be... dematerialized and withdrawn.”

Now, Houdini was placed in the classic magician’s "catch" position, meaning that he could only go so far in denying the Spiritualist claims. By going any further than he had, he would have to expose how his escapes were accomplished, which he could never do. His reply was simply that all of his escapes were managed by purely physical means. He stated that his crusade against Spiritualism was simply a way to protect the general public from charlatans but he, however, was able to keep an open mind on the subject and did not assume that all mediums were frauds.

Houdini and Conan Doyle

Spiritualist leaders declared that Houdini’s actions did not agree with his words and so the magician made a pact with a number of friends. The pact promised that whichever of them died first, he should make every attempt to contact the others by way of a secret code.

Houdini still could not escape the claims being made by Doyle, so he devised a plan to make the author realize that all of his tricks were just that... tricks. He assured Doyle that he would give him proof that magic was accomplished by mere trickery... but whether Houdini really accomplished this with the eerie illusion that he planned is a matter of opinion!

Three persons were present at the test, Houdini, Doyle and Bernard Ernst, the current president of the American Society of Magicians. A slate was hung in the center of the room by Doyle and he was given five, plain cork balls to examine. He chose one of the balls at random and placed it in a container of white paint. Doyle was then given a piece of paper and was told to walk anywhere that he wanted to and then write a message on the paper.

Doyle left the house, walked three blocks away and then turned a corner. He shielded the paper with his hand and wrote down a short message. Meanwhile, Ernst stayed in the room with Houdini to insure that the other magician remained in the room. When he finished writing, Conan Doyle folded the paper carefully and placed it in his pocket. He then returned to the house.

Houdini then told Doyle to pick up the paint-soaked ball and stick it on the suspended slate. The ball then inexplicably began to roll over the surface of the slate and it spelled out the biblical phrase, Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin... the exact words that Doyle had written on the paper!

Houdini claimed that it was all done by simple trickery but Doyle was more convinced than ever of his former friend’s supernatural powers. Ernst begged Houdini to explain how the trick worked, either to himself or Doyle, in the strictest confidence, but Houdini refused. Strangely, he would never use the trick again in any of his shows and no one has ever been able to reproduce it. At that time, Bernard Ernst admitted that the trick reminded him of a certain mind-reading stunt that Houdini had stopped using because, as it explained to Ernst, it was “too spooky”.

Despite the private “death” pact that Houdini had made with his friends, he continued to debunk the mediums in his stage shows and through articles and books, showing how so-called "spirit forms" like "ectoplasm" could easily be created by the clever stage magician. Then, in 1923, Houdini joined a panel from Scientific American magazine which had offered a reward to any medium who could prove their psychic gifts were genuine. The investigative panel had dead-locked over a medium named Mina Crandon, who used the stage name of Margery. In 1924, they stated that they believed Crandon to be genuine and were prepared to give her the $2500 reward.

Houdini was shocked and traveled to Boston to witness a seance for himself. What happened next remains shrouded in mystery... although it is clear that Crandon did not trust Houdini and the magician himself had stated that he was determined to expose the medium as a fraud. During the sessions, Houdini claimed to have seen Margery performing a number of tricks like making noises with her feet and lifting objects which were said to have moved on their own. In spite of this, he did not expose her publicly and asked that more stringent tests be performed. It was rumored that Margery had somehow outwitted Houdini.... and rumors also flew that perhaps her powers were genuine after all.

The following month, Houdini placed the medium in a wooden box with a hole in the top for her head and holes on each side so that her hands could be held during her entire seance. According to reports from the session, Margery’s spirit control, who was her dead brother Walter, took such a dislike to Houdini that the top of the box was allegedly ripped off by an invisible force.

The seance continued the next evening and Margery was placed back in the box. Shortly after she went into her trance and her spirit guide came through, the committee asked that she ring the bell which had been placed in the box with her. Immediately, Walter (the spirit guide) exclaimed that Houdini had done something to the bell so that it would not ring. An examination of the bell revealed that a piece of rubber had been wedged against the clapper so that it would not ring! However, there was no proof that Houdini has tampered with it.

A short time later, Walter also said that Houdini had placed a ruler inside of the box so that he could later accuse Margery of cheating. The ruler too was found and later, Houdini’s assistant would say that he had been instructed to place it there in case Houdini could not find another way to prove she was a fraud. It certainly appeared that Houdini had been caught cheating and he was widely discredited for it, leading many to doubt the integrity of some of his earlier investigations. In this case, the committee scheduled further tests of Mrs. Crandon but they were later cancelled. The decision on Margery’s abilities was split and because of this, the money was never awarded.

Houdini quickly recovered from the scandal and went on to continue his work against the Spiritualists until his death on Halloween of 1926. At that time, the curtain fell on the great magician for all time... or did it?

On the night of October 11, a chain slipped during Houdini’s famous Underwater Torture escape and fractured his ankle. A doctor in the audience advised him to end the show and go to the hospital but he refused. In fact, he finished the entire performance painfully hopping on one foot. Afterwards, he was ordered to stay off his feet for at least one week, but he continued his shows anyway.

It was the afternoon of October 26 when two students, who had heard Houdini give a lecture the week before, stopped by the magician’s dressing room before the evening show. Houdini was very courteous to the young men but was also occupied with his mail. He wasn’t pay close attention when one of the boys asked if it was true that Houdini could withstand powerful blows to the stomach. He absently replied that he could as long as he had time to brace himself in anticipation of the punch. The boy, thinking that Houdini had given permission for just such a demonstration, suddenly leaned forward and struck him sharply in the abdomen with a clenched fist. When Houdini looked startled, the boy quickly backed away, explaining in a panic that he thought that Houdini had given him permission to hit him. They boy felt terrible seeing the performer so clearly in pain, but the magician soon recovered enough to reassure the young man and then step onto the stage for his show.

Throughout the evening, Houdini was seen wincing in pain and late that night, he admitting to crippling pangs that continued to get worse. His performances over the next two days consisted of hours of agony, save for brief intermissions when he fell into a restless sleep. He was examined by doctors upon his arrival in Detroit and was diagnosed as having acute appendicitis. He had a fever of 102 degrees but refused to stay at the hospital. He was scheduled to perform at a sold-out who that night and was determined to be there.

By the time that he took the stage, his fever had gone up to 104. He was tired, feverish and tormented by abdominal pains, plus the broken ankle from a few weeks past. He somehow managed to perform the entire show though, although his terrified assistants were constantly forced to complete some motion that Houdini couldn’t manage. He remained on the stage throughout the evening but when the curtain closed, he literally collapsed where he had been standing.

An operation was performed immediately but the surgeons agreed that it was hopeless. Houdini managed to hang on until the early morning hours of October 31. In the darkness, he turned to Bess and his brother, Hardeen, who he affectionately called “Dash” and spoke quietly to them. “I’m tired of fighting, Dash”, he murmured, then turned away. Houdini then stepped through the curtain from this world to the next.

In the years following his death, Bess Houdini was contacted many times by mediums who claimed to have messages from her husband. She believed none of them because she and Houdini had agreed that should he contact her, he would do so using a code they had devised for their mind-reading act. The word spread far and wide that Bess had offered $10,000 to any medium who could deliver a true message from Houdini.

Almost weekly, a new medium came forward claiming to have broken the code, but none of them did until 1928, when famed medium Arthur Ford announced that he had a message for Bess. He told her that the message had come from Houdini’s mother and the message was a single word, which was "forgive". With this, Bess had a startling announcement to make..... claiming that Ford’s message was the first that she had received which "had any appearance of the truth."

In November, another message came to Ford, this time from Houdini himself. In a trance, the medium relayed an entire coded message.... "Rosabelle, answer, tell, pray, answer, look, tell, answer, answer, tell."

After this information was relayed to Bess, she invited Ford to her home and he asked her if the words were correct. She said they were and Ford asked her to remove her wedding ring and tell everyone present what "Rosabelle" meant. This was the word which made the message authentic, a secret known only to Bess and Harry themselves. It was the title of a song which had been popular at Coney Island when they first met. The rest of the message was a series of code words which spelled out the word "believe"... the final clue that Houdini had promised to relay from the next world. But did Houdini actually communicate from the other side?

Bess Houdini at one of the many seances that were arranged to contact her late husband.

Not surprisingly, there were soon accusations of fraud leveled against Arthur Ford. Even though Bess claimed the message was correct, many claimed that Ford had gotten the code from a book about Houdini published in 1927. The press, the skeptics and Houdini’s friends refused to accept that Ford had broken the code and Bess, on their advice, withdrew her reward offer.

So, did he really break the "impossible" code? Arthur Ford certainly maintained that he had, going to his grave in 1974 with the firm belief that he had actually received a message from Houdini.

Bee Houdini continued to hold seances in hopes of communicating with her late husband, although the last “official” Houdini seance was held on Halloween night of 1936. A group of friends, fellow magicians and Bess Houdini herself gathered in Hollywood, on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel. They attempted to contact the elusive magician for over an hour before finally giving up. At the moment they did, a tremendously violent thunderstorm broke out, drenching the seance participants and terrifying them with the horrific lightning and thunder. They would later learn that this mysterious storm did not occur anywhere else in Hollywood... only above the Knickerbocker Hotel! Some speculated that perhaps Houdini did come through after all, as the flamboyant performer just might have made his presence known by the spectacular effects of the thunderstorm.

Bess stayed on in the Laurel Canyon home until her death in the 1940’s. She lived there for several years and continued to bring in Spiritualists and psychics who claimed to be able to re-establish communication with Houdini. When she finally moved from the mansion and went to New York, her health, perhaps both physically and mentally, was not good.

After Bess moved away, the house was taken over by a beautiful woman writer who pioneered the women’s movement and wrote A Woman’s Call to Arms in 1950. People often referred to this mysterious author as the “Green Madonna” because whenever the moon was full, she would stand on one of the mansion’s balconies in a green negligee, a long green scarf and nothing else, and let the wind blow through her hair and clothing. One day, for unknown reasons, she simply abandoned the house and it was later sold.

On a dry day in 1959, a brush fire swept through Laurel Canyon and destroyed a number of the houses in the Hollywood hills. The Houdini mansion was one of them. What remained of the place was only the walls of the old building, the chauffeur's quarters and a portion of the garage. Today, nothing but ruins remain. Silent stone staircases still led to grassy ledges on what is now private property. It stands abandoned, but perhaps not empty.

The ruins of the Laurel Canyon House.

You see, some say that the ghost of Houdini does not rest in peace and that he still walks where his beloved castle once stood. Those who have come to the remains of the house, as many do on Halloween nights, claim to have seen a dark figure standing on the staircases or walking in the garden grotto. Many believe that this shape is that of Houdini himself. The magician always said that if it would be possible for him to come back, he would do so, and perhaps he has. Perhaps too... he is unsure as to just how to get back?

Haunted Places: The National Directory by Dennis William Hauck (1996)
Great American Mysteries by E. Randall Floyd (1990)
Impossible! Yet it Happened by R. DeWitt Miller (1947)
The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini by Ruth Brandon (1993)
Houses of Horror by Richard Winer (1983)
The Edge of the Unknown by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1930)
Unknown, but Known by Arthur Ford (1968)
A Magician Among the Spirits by Harry Houdini (1924)
The Ghost Hunter’s Guidebook by Troy Taylor (1999)

(c) Copyright 2001 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.