roosevelt and houdini -- 11/16/15

Today's selection -- from The Witch of Lime Street by David Jaher. Two of the most famous men of their era, magician and escape artist nonpareil Harry Houdini and former President Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt, met late in their respective lives aboard the Transatlantic ocean liner SS Imperator:

"It was on the Imperator, just before the Great War started, that Houdini met Teddy [Roosevelt] while sailing from England to America. Though men of different worlds, there was a tacit kinship between the Rough Rider and the escape artist: each had the curiosity and impulsive moods of a child; and each pursued his goals with relentless energy -- what H. L. Mencken said of Roosevelt could just as easily describe Houdini, that he was 'almost pathological in his appetite for activity.'

"Hoping to give the Colonel a thrill, Houdini wanted to leap handcuffed into the North Atlantic and free himself. The ship's captain forbade the antic, but while walking the deck with Houdini and discussing Spiritualism, Teddy suggested a different sort of exhibition: 'Give us a little seance,' he requested.

"All his life Teddy held more with the Biblical miracles. He was an honorary member of the American SPR, though, and increasingly aware of his own precarious mortality. His recent ill-conceived expedition to the River of Doubt [in the Amazonian rainforests] had been too much for him. Two of his party had died in the jungle, and he, delirious with a spreading infection and a 105-degree malarial fever, came within a whisker of being the third to be buried there. His health would never recover from the adventure.

"Though Houdini rarely conducted spiritist sittings anymore, he was happy to oblige the ailing colonel. On the appointed evening, he requested that the lights be turned up for the seance to follow; he was not the kind of medium, he said, who prepared his manifestations behind a veil or in a spirit cabinet. Turning to Teddy, Houdini asked if he wished to put a question to the spirits. Eagerly complying, Roosevelt wrote it on a piece of paper shielded from the magician, and then folded and sealed it in an envelope. Houdini held up two 'spirit slates,' which looked like small chalkboards. Upon revealing them to be blank, he asked the guest of honor to insert his envelope between them. As instructed. Teddy told the audience his question: 'Where was I last Christmas?'

Harry Houdini With Theodore Roosevelt aboard the SS Imperator

"Instantly Houdini untied the slates, revealing a multicolored map of the River of Doubt, the remote Brazilian estuary that Roosevelt had been navigating over the holiday. The Colonel roared in amazement. He had only just thought of his question; there would have been no time for such an elaborate ruse. 'By George, that proves it!' he bellowed. Another wave of excitement hit when it was discovered that the message was signed by the late English journalist W. T. Stead, whose ghost was held responsible for the phenomena. A medium in his own right, Stead had sailed to America at the behest of the spirits, but unfortunately had booked passage on the Titanic and met a frigid end in the North Atlantic. Tonight he had evidently come through from [the afterworld]; a friend of Stead's declared the signature authentic.

"News of the seance was transmitted to New York and Washington. No one could understand how Houdini had done it. The morning after the seance, Teddy put his arm around Houdini and asked, man to man, if the phenomena the previous evening was 'genuine Spiritualism.' With a smile and wink, the magician replied: 'It was hokus-pokus, Colonel.' There ended Teddy's brief enchantment with the spirits. He died six months after his son Quentin was lost in an air battle [in the Great War]; it was not for him to know the transcendent comforts of the new religion."


David Jaher


The Witch of Lime Street: Seance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World


Crown Publishers


Copyright 2015 by David Jahar


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