Weird California
Weird California - By Joe Parzanese

Houdini Mansion

Map 2398 Laurel Canyon Boulevard, Hollywood, California 90046

The stairs to what was the Houdini Mansion? - Photo by Scott W
The stairs to what was the Houdini Mansion? - Photo by Scott W

So you've probably heard that at some point in his career, the great Harry Houdini, escape artist extraordinaire, entered into the motion picture business, relocated to Hollywood, purchased a lavish estate on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, and spent much of his time there. The house had parapets, towers, an indoor theatrical stage, underground tunnels, secret passageways, basement pools and a secret deep dark cavern where Houdini kept a locked chest with all his greatest secrets. To this day no one's ever found it! The estate was destroyed in a massive fire in 1959, but Harry Houdini still haunts the site, roaming through what's left, cobblestones, and decrepit marble staircases that survived the fire. Occasionally one can see his ghost standing alone on a staircase, still haunting the ruins of his old estate. His form can also be seen wandering the garden grotto.

A good story, but what a load of garbage.

Shortly after the fire in 1959 everyone started assuming that the house that was burnt to the ground was Houdini's house. And although, it was magnificent, and creepy, and weird, everything Houdini's house should be, it wasn't his house. It's all rumor. A rumor that seems to have sprung up in the 1960s, especially after the house stayed vacant after the fire ripped through the area.

Houdini

Where did the rumor come from? Well no one really knows, but there are two likely sources. The first is that the house did at one time belong to R.J. Walker. Again according to conjecture and rumor, Walker was apparently a good friend of Houdini's and the rumor states that before his death, Walker bequeathed the house to Houdini. However, Houdini's name fails to appear on any of the property deeds, invoices, transfers of title, etc for the estate. Course, this rumor keeps alive with people claiming, that Houdini lived and stayed at the guesthouse across the street, which was connected by an underground passageway. And others claim that he visited once in a while when he was working on some movies in the area. In reality, Houdini would stay at the Alexandria Hotel when he was in town to perform his act. When he was in town to work on his movies, the movie studios often put him up as close to where they were shooting as possible. Even more, there has been no credible link established between R.J. Walker and Harry Houdini. And second reason for the rumor, Houdini's wife, Beatrice, moved into the Laurel Canyon area after Harry's death, ironically around the corner from the Walker Estate.

If you enjoy the hyped story, other aspects of the story state that the previous owner, the wealthy owner of several furniture stores (this makes some sense as supposedly R.J. Walker may have been a wealthy department store magnate) had a homosexual son who got into an argument with his lover, and threw him off a balcony letting him fall over thirty feet to his death. According to the story, this occurred during a party and the wealthy furniture store owner then spent every dime making sure his son escaped prosecution. The house, now cursed, was sold to Houdini, which as stated previously wasn't true (at least the selling of the house to Houdini part isn't true).

Houdini

The stories go on to say that Bess Houdini, Harry's wife, held séances in the guest house across the street of the burnt down mansion. She did hold séances but not in any guest house on Laurel Canyon Boulevard. And, of course, local children propagated ghost stories about Houdini along with other tall tales. Besides the scandalous murder of the son's lover, there are also stories that before the mansion was burnt down, the location was used to hang bandits from the trees at the street intersection. Also according to local school children in the sixties and seventies, a crazy homeless man apparently resided in the area of the burnt down mansion. The crazy vagabond apparently thought he was Robin Hood and spoke in old English using Laurel Canyon as his Sherwood Forest. Lastly, Laurel Canyon Boulevard apparently hides a cave where the notorious bandit Tiburcio Vasquez hid all his gold, just waiting for intrepid teenagers to find! It's no wonder that with all the stories about the location, that Houdini obviously lived there too.

In addition to ghostly sightings of "Houdini" at the site of the burnt down house, there have also been ghost sightings at the nearest intersection to the address of the Houdini House. These sightings consist of a ghostly old fashioned carriage pulled by two spectral white horses. The horses hooves make no sound, and the entire horse and carriage moves super fast, coming and going in just seconds. People have seen the apparition as they come down Lookout Mountain Road and then turn left onto Laurel Canyon Boulevard. Supposedly a few accidents have occurred as drivers swerve to avoid the ghostly carriage!

Houdini and his wife Bess
Harry Houdini and his wife Bess

Rumor also has the property up for sale back in 1999 for a reported $1,777,777.77. No clue if this is actually true though. Seven is often considered a lucky number.

According to Dennis Hauck's Haunted Places, Houdini's mansion is located at 2398 Laurel Canyon Boulevard, near the intersection of Laurel Canyon Drive and Lookout Mountain Avenue. I've never been able to find it, and am usually stuck in such horrible traffic on that street, that I give up in frustration.

So did Harry Houdini live in Laurel Canyon in Hollywood? Highly doubtful. His wife did after his passing, and maybe someone who might have been a friend of his lived there as well. But does that mean that Harry Houdini isn't weird? Absolutely not! In addition to his amazing career as an escape artist, Houdini's life, death, and after death are filled with weirdness and the strange.

Born in Hungary in 1874, Houdini was famous for a variety of escape tricks including: The Milk Can, The Chinese Water Torture Cell, and the Suspended Straightjacket Escape.

The Milk Can involved Houdini being handcuffed and then locked inside a milk can filled with water. Later versions had the milk can locked inside chests and even other milk cans. The Chinese Water Torture Cell involved Houdini being locked into stocks by his feet and then lowered upside down into a glass tank. Houdini was most famous though for escaping from a straightjacket while suspended by his ankles from a high building or crane.

Houdini

Houdini made a few movies most notably The Master Mystery a 15 part serial released in 1919. Afterwards he performed in The Grim Game and Terror Island. This led Houdini to start up his own film production company, humbly called the Houdini Picture Corporation as well as his own film laboratory business called The Film Development Corporation. Neither found much success and he found other things to entertain himself by 1923.

Starting in the 1920s after his mother died, Houdini became an avid debunker of spiritualists and mediums. The reason behind his new hobby was not that he didn't believe in the supernatural, but the opposite actually. He had apparently gone to several mediums in search of contacted with his departed mother, and instead of hearing from her, instead he simply discovered fraud after fraud. As a member of a Scientific America committee in 1922 he offered a $2500 cash reward to any medium who could demonstrate supernatural abilities. The prize was never collected and soon Houdini had to resort to showing up at séances in disguise with a police officer and a reporter in order to continue his debunking of the supernatural. As a result of his magical and special effects knowledge, Houdini was able to find something wrong with every medium and spiritualist he investigated. He ended up documenting his exploits at debunking the supernatural in his book, A Magician Among the Spirits. Houdini even went so far as to include various tricks of fraudulent mediums in his shows to demonstrate how easy it was to fake the shows they put on.

Arthur C. Doyle
Harry Houdini was at one point in his life friends with Arthur Conan Doyle

Houdini's pursuit of fraudulent mediums eventually ended up destroying his friendship with Arthur Conan Doyle, the writer of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle and his wife were very much into spiritualism and Doyle even believed that Houdini's tricks were actually accomplished with real supernatural magic as opposed to the standard non magical tricks that Houdini claimed. Doyle attributed Houdini with the power of dematerialization in order to get out of his elaborate traps. It's also believed that Doyle thought Houdini had the power to nullify other mystics' powers, thus allowing him to more easily debunk them. He documented his beliefs about Houdini in The Edge of the Unknown.

Doyle's and Houdini's relationship deteriorated when Arthur Conan Doyle's wife apparently attempted to perform a séance for Harry Houdini to his mother. She attempted to do something called automatic writing, the act of going into a trance and writing a message from Houdini's mother. Houdini became outraged, however, when the séance revealed false truths (the message came in English, which was a language his Yiddish speaking mother never mastered, the tone of the message did not sound like his mother, and the message apparently started with the sign of the cross when his mother was the wife of a rabbi). The Doyle's and Houdini's relationship never recovered. Ironically, it was their friendship though that initially put Houdini in contact with several spiritualists in which to debunk.

One of five of the Cottingley Fairy photographs
One of five of the Cottingley Fairy photographs

Additionally Doyle was also convinced of the veracity of the Cottingley Fairy photographs and has been linked to creating the Piltdown Man hoax of 1912 (which ironically stood for over 40 years, fooling the entire scientific community).

On Halloween 1926 at 1:26 pm, Harry Houdini died of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix. Supposedly his last words were "I'm tired of fighting." He had been fighting appendicitis for several days prior, but had refused medical treatment. A few days before he died, he took several surprise blows in the abdomen from a McGill University student named J. Gordon Whitehead. According to an eye witness, "he was hit three times before Houdini could tighten up his stomach muscles to avoid serious injury." Houdini use to claim that if he was prepared he could easily take hits to the stomach area and use to have people hit him all the time. On the 24th, sick and in pain, he arrived in Detroit, Michigan and went on for his last performance at the Garrick Theater. He even reportedly passed out during the show, but after being revived finished up his performance. He died several days later on October 31st. Although it is probably likely that Houdini's appendix would have burst anyway, despite the abdomen blows from Whitehead, the insurance company concluded the death was due to the incident.

Houdini, however, was not a complete skeptic in the supernatural, and even attempted to come up with a potential way to prove it. He stated that if there was a way to contact the living from the realm of the dead he would find it, and convey a coded message to his wife. The coded message was supposedly "Rosabelle believe", which was a phrase from a play in which his wife performed at the time they first met. Beatrice or Bess, his wife, held séances for ten years after his death attempting to contact her dear departed husband.

Knickerbocker Hotel
Picture from wikipedia.org

For ten years, she held séances at the Knickerbocker Hotel (now haunted), up on the roof. After ten years, and the last unsuccessful séance (including one incident in 1929 where the séance appeared successful, but was in reality faked), Bess put out a candle that she had kept burning besides a photograph of her husband. Although legend states that at the tenth and final of the séances, there was supposedly a large thunderclap, and a sudden rain storm over just the Knickerbocker Hotel. Afterwards Bess Houdini stated:

However, the tradition of holding séances to contact Houdini continues until today, held by magicians of all sorts all around the world. Bess Houdini passed on the tradition to Walter B. Gibson, an American author, magician and also the writer of the Shadow stories that appeared in Pulp novels. He wrote 282 of the 325 Shadow novels. He held the séances at Magic Towne House in New York City. Gibson, before he died passed on the séances to Dorothy Dietrich, an American stage magician and escapologist. She has been described as a female Houdini and has duplicated many of his tricks. She moved the séances to The Houdini Museum in Scanton, Pennsylvania. Dietrich also has followed in Houdini's debunking activities and has a $10,000 reward out for anyone who says they can contact the spirit of Houdini.

Weird Tales

H.P. Lovecraft ghost wrote a story for Houdini. "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs" or "Under the Pyramids" originally was published in Weird Tales in 1924. The owner of Weird Tales had heard Houdini regaling people with a tale on how he was tied up by Arabs and imprisoned in a deep chamber in the valley of the pyramids. In the story, of course, Houdini grandly escapes. Lovecraft was asked to write up the story and while doing research found out that the story was largely inaccurate and false. After finding out the truth, Lovecraft changed the story in certain spots like placing it under the Sphinx.

Houdini also commissioned H.P. Lovecraft and C.M. Eddy Jr. to write a book about debunking superstition. It was to be called "The Cancer of Superstition". Both writer's notes and beginning chapters do in fact survive, but Houdini's death ended any plans for the book, and his wife did not wish to continue the project.

In 1975 Harry Houdini received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The star is located on the northwest corner of Hollywood Blvd. and Orange Drive.

Additionally, Harry Houdini is said to haunt his New York House, now a private residence at 278 West 113th Street, New York, New York. This was, in fact, owned by the escape artist.

So there you go, the very bizarre life of Harry Houdini, his tricks, his magic, his movies, his time spent exposing psychics, his death, and the subsequent séances. The location attributed as his home has experienced fires, ghosts, murder, crazy homeless Robin Hoods, caves holding famous bandit's gold, and countless other stories turns out to not even be his former residence. And with several séances still happening every year on Halloween, for a man who never lived in California, he certainly is a pretty large weird foot note in it.

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Last Edited: 2012-10-24