& The Debunking Network

It is frequently stated in mainstream literature that Houdini never did return in spirit. However, there is evidence that suggests otherwise. According to Joseph Rinn, and others since, Beatrice Houdini offered a reward of $10,000 to any medium able to prove, to her satisfaction, the survival of her husband in the spirit world. I cannot fathom why, because mediums do not charge a great deal for their services, and most do not charge anything. Although Joseph Rinn was obsessed with high-profile monetary challenges, Houdini was completely against them, his view being, quite correctly, that they served no purpose whatsoever in psychical research, which makes one wonder why his widow would indulge in such foolishness. The answer has to be that she was ‘advised’ to do so by a ‘friend.’

There was one event that transpired three years after Houdini’s death in January of 1929, that plainly demonstrates the destructive nature of the debunking network.

Beatrice Houdini had been feeling unwell when she fell and cut her head, and so had taken to bed to recover. During this time, according to some accounts, the Reverend Arthur Ford, the minister of the First Spiritualist Church in New York City, happened to call on Mrs. Houdini. In fact it was she who requested his presence. The previous year, on 8 February, 1928, Houdini’s mother made contact with Arthur Ford while he was in a trance state. She passed to him the word ‘forgive,’ adding, that Bess, and Bess alone would understand. She did. This was the very word that Houdini longed to hear his mother say to him. Sceptics, clutching at straws, cited everything and anything from a newspaper article that supposedly revealed one of the words, to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who had met Arthur Ford when Ford was in England.

Now, almost a year later, Beatrice Houdini asked for the Rev. Ford to come and see her at her home. He duly arrived, and while there, went into a trance and relayed a message to Mrs. Houdini, apparently from her late husband. The message contained ten words, one single word, plus a nine-word code that she and Houdini had secretly arranged for this very purpose - as proof of life after death. The code itself was the same one that she and Houdini had used many years before in the psuedo-mindreading act. It consisted of ten words, each word representing a number. That number in turn represented a letter of the alphabet. Here is the code with the first ten letters of the alphabet:

Pray = 1 A * Answer = 2 B * Say = 3 C * Now = 4 D * Tell = 5 E

Please = 6 F * Speak = 7 G * Quickly = 8 H * Look = 9 I * Be Quick = 10 J

To secretly convey the letter F, one has only to begin a sentence with the word, such as, ‘Please, concentrate a little harder.’ By using combinations of the above words, any letter can be conveyed. For example, if the performer said, ‘Answer now!’ That represents the numbers 2 and 4, and the 24th letter in the alphabet is X. A good two-person act using a code like this will conceal the target words in longer sentences, and humorous remarks made to the audience. It is never quite as deliberate as the examples given. You must also remember that complete words need to be conveyed to the assistant, therefore the code has to become second nature to the partnership - a hidden language that is both automatic and natural. The first word delivered was ‘Rosabelle,’ the name of a song that Beatrice had sang during the first show that she and Houdini had done together. The nine words, or phrases, that followed had to be decoded using the system just given. This spelled out the word ‘B-E-L-I-E-V-E.’

Mrs. Houdini, totally convinced that the message was genuine, signed an affidavit to that effect. She had no doubts.


Surely the word of Mrs. Houdini on the authenticity of the message would be final. One would think so, but that is not how the debunking network operates. Remember, that if beaten on one front, they attack in other devious ways. The first thing they did was to concoct a newspaper report declaring Mrs. Houdini as 'delirious.' This appeared in the New York Times on 10 January 1929. They stated that she fell and banged her head, became ‘delirious,’ and knew not what she was saying. The truth is that she never did suffer from delirium or any other mental condition.

With Mrs. Houdini’s sanity taken care of, the discrediting of Arthur Ford quickly followed and without mercy. According to Rinn, they arranged for (probably bribed) a young female reporter of a New York City newspaper, to declare that she knew, fully twenty-four hours in advance, the contents of Arthur Ford’s trance message that he would deliver to Mrs. Houdini. She claimed to have obtained the information in ‘Spiritualistic circles.’ The journalist said that she wrote a report for her newspaper, the contents of which echoed the one in the New York Times. In that case she must have written the truth. She went on to say that she omitted the ‘conspiratorial’ information in her report in case it turned out to be a hoax. If you think about it, this does not make any sense.

She claims to have known twenty-four hours previously what Mr. Ford was going to say, then he went ahead and said it. How could she think it was a hoax? She knew it - he said it - sensational story. Of course, if she really knew nothing of the sort, then everything she said and wrote is in keeping with that lack of knowledge. If she really knew about a Spiritualistic conspiracy to deceive Mrs. Houdini, why then did she not warn her about this demon Spiritualist? If Mrs. Houdini was delirious, as the debunkers would like us to believe, the reporter could (and should) have warned a close friend. She did not because she obviously had nothing to report.

Joseph Rinn further claims that this reporter told her editor of what she had overheard while loitering on the periphery of ‘Spiritualistic circles.’ Disbelieving her (well she didn’t believe herself so we cannot blame her boss for disbelieving her too), he allegedly set a trap for Arthur Ford in an attempt to get at the truth. According to Rinn, and other writers, they invited Mr. Ford to an apartment where the newspaper editor, along with another reporter, hid himself in an adjoining room from where he could secretly listen. Apparently they got the truth out of Mr. Ford and they printed an article to that effect, under the banner headline, ‘HOUDINI MESSAGE A BIG HOAX!’ Where did this explosive article appear? Well, alas the meticulous Joseph Rinn fails to give the date and name of the journal, which he only refers to as ‘a New York City newspaper.’ Other writers were not as coy as Mr. Rinn as you will see in a moment.

If the above is true, why were the police not involved?

The assertion is that Arthur Ford attempted to extort $10,000 from Mrs. Houdini by fraudulent means. That this did not happen strongly suggests that the whole business was a vile conspiracy designed to publicly humiliate and discredit the Reverend Arthur Ford. In that sense it was more a case of criminal libel against a minister of the Spiritualist Church, and another example of the extremes to which some people will go to conceal the truth, and all in the name of psychical research.


That Joseph Rinn failed to mention either the name of the newspaper or its journalist is not surprising. The newspaper involved was the most notorious scandal-sheet of its day, the Graphic. And, the female reporter was, by reputation, as unscrupulous as they come. Her name was Rea Jaure. This information is available in several Houdini biographies, including the one by Milbourne Christopher (Houdini - the Untold Story, Cassel, 1969).

Rea Jaure was present when Arthur Ford delivered the message, along with a reporter from the New York Times. The account that she wrote in the Graphic, despite its reputation for scandal, contained the facts as she had witnessed them. That is why her report corresponded with the report that appeared in the New York Times.

So, why did the Graphic suddenly change its view? There are several published reasons as to why Rea Jaure and her boss turned against Arthur Ford. However, no other reason should be necessary if the hotel episode is to be believed. According to all accounts, the paper’s editor William Plummer, along with another member of staff signed affidavits stating that, while hidden in an adjoining room, they had written down everything that Ford had said. There were even independent witnesses who swore that they saw Ford enter the hotel. However, Ford declared that he never went to the hotel, and there were witnesses who could vouch for this also.

However, as often happens with this type of conspiracy, something went wrong. It turned out that a man, who somewhat resembled Arthur Ford, had been paid to go to the hotel and give the damning interview. The reason this was exposed is that whoever had hired the man - almost certainly someone from the Graphic - had refused to pay him the second instalment of his bribe, and so he ‘blew the gaff’ and exposed the deception.


After Houdini passed over, the great mentalist Joseph Dunninger took over Houdini’s mantel as the mouthpiece for the debunking network. Dunninger, though more articulate than Houdini, shared the same arrogance.

While Beatrice Houdini lay in her bed recovering from her illness and injured head, Dunninger paid her a visit. This was no social call; this was in fact his first mission as the debunking mouthpiece. He reminded Mrs. Houdini that the code she and her husband had used appeared in a 1928 Houdini biography written by Harold Kellock. This, however, was of minor significance. The code was not the mystery and can only be seen as a minor part of the evidence. The evidence was in the words that Arthur Ford delivered by way of the code.

James Randi lists Arthur Ford in his The Supernatural A-Z (Headline 1995). The (dis) information he cites is rather interesting. He claims that the Reverend Ford,

‘maintained huge files of data on all his sitters, and always travelled with a case full of information to be used to convince the sceptics and believers alike.’

This was a standard claim made by all debunkers when attacking Spiritualist mediums during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, and Randi is obviously quoting an earlier source. With the arrival of the mass medium of television, it became apparent that this was no longer a viable means of attack. Mediums now appeared in front of millions of witnesses and delivered the same convincing evidence to obvious strangers, some secretly chosen by the TV companies to avoid collusion. Claims of ‘secret files of data’ suddenly vanished from the debunker’s hidden agenda only to be replaced by accusations of ‘cold-reading.’

Cold-reading was always part of the debunker’s attack strategy, but now became the main accusation. Cold-reading is the subtle extraction of information from a sitter, without their knowledge, during a sitting. It is an art that takes years to perfect. However, someone watching who has knowledge of the secret principles will easily detect them if they are used. Cold-reading is an ancient art, used effectively by conjurors when attempting a pseudo-psychic performance. It is also used by fraudulent mediums, many of whom are conjurors trying to make a fast buck.

In his Supernatural A-Z, Randi goes on to state that Beatrice Houdini admitted late in her life that she had actually given Arthur Ford the ‘famous survival code’ which he then went on to use as proof of Houdini’s survival of death.

Here we see Randi implying that the ‘secret code’ was the vital part of the Arthur Ford message. As I have already shown, the code was the least important element.

Another accusation often cited is that Mrs. Houdini and Arthur Ford conspired to make money by selling their story to the newspapers. In a recent book by Richard O’Neill called Mysterious Facts - Men and Monsters (Colour Library Books Ltd, 1993), it states:

‘Spiritualists rejoiced when Beatrice said medium Arthur Ford had received a genuine message - but when it was claimed that she was plotting with Ford to make money from the sensational news, she denied her statement.’

The above raises two questions, the first being; why would Beatrice Houdini wish to partake in such a criminal venture. Surely she was already financially comfortable. Her late husband was one of the highest paid entertainers in the world. He was well off despite losing money in his film ventures. Secondly; who made the above claim in the first place?

In her book, The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini (Martin Secker & Warburg, 1993), Ruth Brandon answers the first question when she says that, according to Houdini’s lawyer, Mrs. Houdini was to receive half a million dollars in insurance payments.

As is usual, when the debunking network is active, the conclusions are contradictory and duplicitous, and rarely factual.

Some years after the controversy, Minnie Chester, the close friend who had nursed Mrs. Houdini when she was ill, said,

‘Until her death, Bess never denied that this was the exact message she and Harry had agreed on, that Halloween night when he lay dying. The newspapers decided it was all a hoax, that Harry Houdini hadn’t come back. Me? I believe....’ (The Great Houdini’s by M. Shavelson, W. H. Allen, 1977).

copyright 1997 Peter Duffie

Article reprinted without permission from my archives when the original could no-longer be found on the internet. If any objections by copyright owner, please contact

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