Houdini’s legacy vanishes with historic Cass Corridor
By Zoe Villegas
Special to the Michigan Citizen
Spiritualism was a metaphysical religious craze widely popular at the turn of the 20th century. At a time when thousands grieved the loss of loved ones in World War I, lecturers, mediums and so-called “experts of the paranormal” appealed to the desperate longing hovering over the nation.
Audiences packed auditoriums to see mediums who claimed to contact the dead through séances. These séances were spectacles in the grand tradition of American traveling entertainment.
Onstage, mediums would produce “ectoplasm,” a wax-like film they claimed was the physical manifestation of a spirit. Thousands of Americans clung to the hope their loved ones could be reached through the practice.
With the advent of electricity, indoor plumbing and the automobile, advancement in society had been at so rapid a pace, the discovery of a portal to the afterlife seemed plausible. Some, however, believed spiritualism was a hoax that exploited the country’s grief.
With Halloween approaching, I want to elucidate a Detroit legend.
Harry Houdini (born Ehrich Weiss) was a self-made man who modernized a traditional art form for a new century. Houdini’s illusions evolved magic from a series of whimsical but overused tricks, to an art that connected with audiences who had recently witnessed phenomenal changes in society and their own lives. He would do anything to entertain his audience; even, legend has it, sewing himself inside a 1,600 pound “sea monster” found on the coast of the Atlantic and parading through Boston in it.
Despite these antics, Houdini fought staunchly against the manipulation of the masses through spiritualism. He worked tirelessly to debunk the theatrical methods of spiritualism. Houdini found himself at odds with giants like Arthur Conan Doyle and members of secret society, The Ghost Club, as he publicly denounced mysticism. Houdini did not doubt the existence of the paranormal. It was the presentation of illusion as reality he considered morally reprehensible.
On Oct. 29, 1926 Houdini was struck in the stomach during a performance after he’d contracted appendicitis — or so it was thought for decades. Now historians are questioning whether Houdini may have been poisoned — assassinated by a group of spiritualists who were threatened by loss of business because of Houdini’s exposure of their fraud. Houdini’s coffin was built during his last performance, and he died in the once luxurious Temple Hotel at 72 Temple Street in Detroit. He was embalmed at what later became the Detroit Art Music School on Cass and Alexandrine, and it is said his body lay at 4210 Trumbull Street, (now known as the Trumbullplex) before it was shipped to New York.
As a child, the receptionist for the Detroit’s Art Music School, a very elderly woman named Mrs. Hammond recounted the story to me of Houdini’s ghost visiting the halls every Halloween. Though I was unable to contact anyone for comment, the building was still surrounded by neighbors who were well aware of the folklore around the Detroit Arts Music School. “This school is where Houdini was sent when he died. I heard they were trying to re-open, but I saw a sign that it was for sale just a couple months ago, probably Dan Gilbert owns it now” said longtime Cass Corridor resident Horace Graves. Another passerby warned me “take pictures of the seals around the building. The seals are being sold.” The now fallen Temple Hotel experienced mocking publicity for asking an estimated $3 million for its sale. It sold last week for an undisclosed amount to DTE Energy. The present state of these historic properties seems as elusive and mysterious as the legends around them.
On Houdini’s death-bed, he gave his wife a code word only she would know. If Bess conducted a séance and heard the code word, she would find out for sure whether the practice of spiritualism could truly be a gateway to the dead. Every year since 1926, a séance at the Detroit Masonic Temple honors the tradition of Bess’s attempt to reach Houdini on the anniversary of his death.