The Official Houdini Séance Returns to Milwaukee

Oct. 31, 2016
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This Halloween will mark the 90th anniversary of the untimely death of master illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini. The death of Houdini is, somewhat fittingly, still shrouded in mystery and legend. But many believe, as Houdini himself did, that death was only one more great straitjacket from which to escape. While he devoted his later years to exposing fraudulent mediums and spiritualists, Houdini and his wife, Bess, were true believers in the potential for the dead to communicate with the living. They made a pact that whoever was first to die would try to “reach out” to the survivor. For ten years after his death, Bess held annual séances, some lasting as long as a week, in the hopes that her dear Harry might make contact. But eventually, Bess moved on. “Ten years is long enough to wait for any man,” she allegedly said.

But the strange life and death of Harry Handcuff Houdini (his legal name, changed from Erik Weisz) has kept his “spirit” alive in certain circles, even if the spirit has preferred to remain quiet. This Monday, which also happens to be Halloween, the Official Annual Houdini Séance will be held in Milwaukee at the Oriental Theater. The “official” séance traces its linage to the original events held by the Houdini family. In recent years, the séance has become only one act in a much larger show. This year’s program includes magicians, escape artists, and speakers on Houdini’s life and legacy, all backed by music from Milwaukee’s own Prof. Pinkerton Xyloma and the Dead Man’s Carnival.

Milwaukee is certainly a fitting venue for the séance. Houdini lived in Milwaukee between 1882 and 1887 (ages 8-13), a period of his life that Houdini later declined to discuss with biographers. But thanks to some great investigative research by David Saltman, keeper of houdinifile.com, new light has been shed on Houdini’s years in the Cream City. Saltman will present his work at the séance, which includes stories about the young illusionist’s earliest public performances on the Grand Avenue Bridge and his training for underwater escapes by dunking himself in the Milwaukee River.

This will not be the first organized attempt to contact Houdini from his old hometown. The earliest publicized Houdini séance was held here in August 1948 by members of the Milwaukee Houdini Club. In the old Press and Radio Building at State Fair Park, a group of men sat around a table in a darkened room, holding hands while magician William “The Great” Morton tried to channel the master with a skull and two slate boards. When the lights came on, “The spirit of Houdini send greetings” had been scrawled on one of the slates. Morton then notified the stunned group that the message was an illusion of his own doing. That they failed to make contact left “no one surprised,” according the Milwaukee Journal. In 2000, the Official Séance made its first stop in Milwaukee, holding the invitation-only event at the Scottish Masonic Lodge on Van Buren Street. Once again, Harry Handcuff offered no sign of his presence.

Even if Houdini maintains his silence from beyond the grave, Monday night’s show should be a full and entertaining event. The program begins at 7:00 pm. Tickets are $15, available on the Oriental Theater website or at the door. For more info, visit the Séance’s Facebook page. 

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