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Works: The Houdini Code Mystery; A Spirit Secret Solved

An unpublished review from October 2000

The Houdini Code Mystery; A Spirit Secret Solved
By William V. Rauscher

7” x 10” hardbound with dustjacket; 192 pages; illustrated with 45 photographs plus five other reproductions and a tipped in miniaturized color handbill; 2000; Publisher: Mike Caveney’s Magic Words, 572 Prospect Boulevard, Pasadena, CA 91103.

I cannot in recent memory recall a more dramatic publishing contrast as that which exists between the beautiful production values of this book (including an exquisite dustjacket) and the exceedingly mediocre content contained within. Easily the worst volume in the catalog of both the author’s and publisher’s efforts to date, this qualifies as the poorest attempt at a book of magic “history” that I have come across in the six years of writing this column. Given recent published correspondence with the publisher, the thought occurs that some may allege this review to be motivated by other than the mere contents of the material. Allow me to assure all and sundry that nothing could be further from the truth.

The author is so embalmed by his own prejudices and agendas it is hard to itemize them all here, but his multiple operative premises in this text can perhaps be best summarized as follows: The villain of this work is Harry Houdini, about whom you may for the moment draw your own conclusions concerning his qualifications for villainhood (there is certainly little in the pages of this book sufficiently reliable as to assist you in making any informed judgment). The hero is Arthur Ford, an acknowledged (including by our author!) con man and liar who regularly faked mediumship, but whom the author insists actually did possess the gift of genuine mediumship, despite his acknowledged tendency toward “cheating” (the author’s term) – but who didn’t use his actual mediumistic in the particular case under discussion. Oh yes, to be complete, I should also mention that the author’s other operative premise seems to be the news – apparently by equal measure both astonishing and terribly frustrating to him – that some of what the general public thinks it knows about Harry Houdini might not have actually be true – indeed might even qualify as myth – and if we just clear up some of those details, and paint Harry Houdini as the human he actually was, then there wouldn’t be a myth anymore (and the world would finally embrace Howard Thurston – or, to your layman friends, “Howard WHO?” – as the all around great guy and greatest magician of all time that Bill Rauscher and John Booth insist he was). In other words, if folks would just understand that George Washington didn’t chop down that damn cherry tree, nobody would ever talk about him again, and he would go the way of Tiny Tim in the cultural zeitgeist.

Now, let me ask you: Is it just me, or does all that seem just a little odd? Well, that’s just the start of it. What we have here is essentially 190 pages of character assassination (if there was an antonym for hagiography, this book would be the defining model), starting with Harry Houdini, continuing on to Bess Houdini (repeatedly referred to by the author as a “lush,” and described at one point – this is the author speaking, not a source – as “a lush who could be duped by a bright 10-year old.” That sentence might as well be taken to summarize the author’s intentions as an objective reporter, much less as an historian or researcher. Then again, you could just about throw this book on the table like the I-Ching and open to any page where you could find an equivalent lapse in quality. And by the way, the character assassination does not end there; after thoroughly ripping over those who can no longer defend themselves, we even get a few healthy pot shots at the living, late in the book, as the author apparently settles some scores with some folks he describes as “friends” – and do let’s ask Larry Weeks if it’s true that with friends like these, who needs enemies?

The fact is, there is very little content indeed in this book, save for the final chapter of about eight pages, in which the author describes an alternate theory concerning the Houdini code “mystery,” courtesy of a man named Jay Abbott, whom the author met later in Abbott’s life, and who knew Bess Houdini and her late-in-life companion, Edward Saint. Abbott offered an alternate explanation as to how con man Arthur Ford might have obtained some of the information he transmitted in the notorious Houdini “message” – a theory, by the way, which the author declines to embrace! This information, such as it is, was aptly summarized in an excellent article about Beatrice Houdini by David Charvet and which appeared in the October 1995 issue of MAGIC magazine (the locating of which could well save you the cost and pain of attempting to read this book).

The book would be infuriating if it wasn’t downright hilarious, dripping with howlers from virtually every other page. When the Houdini message comes through, we are told that Houdini gets more press than he ever received in his lifetime; the sentiment is ludicrous when you consider that Houdini was not only regularly front page news in his lifetime, but sometimes consumed the entire front page, banner headline, photographs, and all. The author scratches his head in wonderment at why major newspapers, including The New York Times, would address the issue of the veracity of the Houdini message, insisting that it was too trivial to be considered news; yet only a fool could miss the answer that lies in front of anyone reading the actual news coverage, because in fact the simple and obvious explanation was that exposing the phony religion of spiritualism, and Harry Houdini’s perspective on and role in that issue, was indeed considered legitimate news of the first order.

The author is not only unqualified to make the harsh if naïve judgments he so cavalierly offers (he appears to suggest that owning a copy of an outdated psychiatric reference work qualifies him to make frequent psychiatric diagnoses in the course of the text); he is also self-righteous, managing to get his blue nose clearly out of joint over the possibility that Harry and Bess might never have been legally married (a point he labors mightily to prove but fails to do so), along with Bess’s later unmarried involvement with Edward Saint. In between his vituperative (and some might say mean-spirited) name-calling of Houdini, Bess, skeptics, the enemies of parapsychology, the enemies of religion, and just about everyone else mentioned excepting his hero, the con man Arthur Ford, he even assembles an entire chapter of similar rants from an assortment of magicians who – wonder of wonders – didn’t like Houdini. (If magicians would go on record, wouldn’t you love to see a chapter like this consisting of comments about David Copperfield from his contemporaries? Consider the implications.) Of course, not only does this kind of material not rate as serious research or substantive content, but none of this material can be trusted either, as a quick check of the Servais LeRoy excerpt will demonstrate. Interestingly, one of the high points for me of the recent Servais LeRoy biography, which I so highly recommended in my review in the June issue, was the excerpts in the back of the book from LeRoy’s journals consisting of his comments about other magicians of the time. Included in that segment is a superb commentary on LeRoy’s colleague – and friend! – Harry Houdini. In what comprises one of the fairest and yet most personal descriptions I have ever come across, LeRoy describes his friend, frankly acknowledging both Houdini’s foibles and his strengths. It is a fascinating and illuminating piece. In these pages, however, only the single most damning paragraph, taken out of several pages of context, is reproduced. Any claim of the author’s fairness and objectivity is thus demolished by the second chapter.

The fact is, almost everything within the pages of this book, when it is not mere rant and rail, is mere supposition and speculation. There are no answers, no solutions – indeed, little of merit or interest to all but those who must desperately collect all and sundry that is related to Houdini, and thus the publisher, wisely keeping the printing to 500 pieces, will doubtless sell out, if they have not already done so. Perhaps the most telling sentence is to be found in the promotional blurb on the rear panel of the dustjacket, in which the book is aptly compared to Houdini’s notorious text, The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin. That book’s contents are not taken seriously as responsible or accurate historical content by even Houdini’s most supportive fans, and in that fact only, the two books certainly warrant comparison. Of course, a century from now, history will remain fascinated by the myth and the man that was Harry Houdini, while this book at hand (and doubtless its author) will have long been mercifully forgotten. The great irony is that the author posits that there are people who should perhaps be deprogrammed from the cult of Houdini, when in fact, it is the author himself who seems unhealthily obsessed.

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