Bess Houdini

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Bess Houdini
Houdini in the early 1900s
Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner

(1876-01-23)January 23, 1876
DiedFebruary 11, 1943(1943-02-11) (aged 67)
Resting placeGate of Heaven Cemetery, Hawthorne, New York, U.S.
(m. 1894; died 1926)

Wilhelmina Beatrice "Bess" Houdini (née Rahner; January 23, 1876 – February 11, 1943) was an American stage assistant and wife of Harry Houdini.[1]


1895 poster for The Houdinis

Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner was born in Brooklyn, New York (before New York City was consolidated) in 1876 to German immigrants Gebhard Rahner (a cabinet maker) and Balbina Rahner (née Bugel).

Bess was working at Coney Island in a song and dance act called The Floral Sisters when she was first courted by Houdini's younger brother, Theo (a.k.a. Theodore Hardeen). But it was the older Houdini brother, Harry, that she fell in love with and married on June 22, 1894.[2] The pair worked as The Houdinis for several years before Houdini hit it big as The Handcuff King. But he and Bess continued to occasionally perform their signature trick, Metamorphosis, throughout his career. Bess also looked after their menagerie of pets, collected dolls, and made the costumes for Houdini's full evening roadshow.[3] The Houdinis remained childless throughout their marriage. Bess's niece, Marie Hinson Blood, said Bess suffered from a medical condition that prevented her from having children.[4]

After Houdini died on October 31, 1926, Bess opened a tea house in New York, and briefly performed a vaudeville act in which she froze a man in ice.[5]

She moved to Inwood, Manhattan, and would try to contact Harry during seances, with a code that only Harry and Bessie knew about, to be sure that the spirit medium was not a fraud.[6] The code was: "Rosabelle – answer – tell – pray, answer – look – tell – answer, answer – tell." Bess' wedding band bore the inscription "Rosabelle", the name of the song she sang in her act when they first met. The other words correspond to a secret spelling code used to pass information between a magician and his assistant during a mentalism act. Each word or word pair equals a letter. The word "answer" stood for the letter "B", for example. "Answer, answer" stood for the letter "V". Thus, the Houdinis' secret phrase spelled out the word "BELIEVE".[7]

In the 1930s she moved to Hollywood, California, and worked to promote Houdini's memory along with her manager and partner, Edward Saint. On Halloween 1936, Bess and Saint conducted a "Final Houdini Séance" on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood. At the conclusion of the failed séance, beside a photograph of Houdini, she put out the candle that was said to have burned for ten years. In 1943 she said "ten years [was] long enough to wait for any man."[8]

After the 1936 séance, Bess asked Walter B. Gibson—writer of the mystery series The Shadow and a friend, confidant, publicist and ghostwriter for Houdini—to carry on the yearly tribute. He held them for many years at New York's Magic Towne House with such magical notables as Houdini biographer Milbourne Christopher. Before he died, Gibson passed on the tradition[9] to Dorothy Dietrich.[10]

Bess Houdini died from a heart attack on February 11, 1943, while in Needles, California, aboard an eastbound train traveling from Los Angeles to New York City. She was 67 years old.[11][12][13] Her family would not allow her to be interred with her late husband at the Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York as she had been raised a Roman Catholic and he was a Jew. She is interred instead at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, New York.

Houdini in popular culture[edit]

In film[edit]

Bess Houdini appeared as herself in the 1938 film Religious Racketeers (a.k.a. Mystic Circle Murder) directed by Frank O'Conner and produced by Fanchon Royer. In the film, she expressed her belief that communication with those who have died is impossible. The film sparked controversy among spiritualists, but was praised by magicians. It was released on DVD in 2006 by Alpha Video.[14]

Bess has been portrayed in film by Janet Leigh (Houdini, 1953), Sally Struthers (The Great Houdini, 1976), Stacy Edwards (Houdini, 1998), and Kristen Connolly (Houdini, 2014). On stage, she has been played by Judith Bruce (Man of Magic, 1966), Viviane Thomas (Houdini – A Circus Opera, 1979), Kim Lores (The Great Houdini, 1999), and Evanna Lynch ("Houdini", 2013).[15][16][17]

In music[edit]

The Kate Bush song "Houdini" from her 1982 album The Dreaming is about the story of Bess Houdini and her attempts to communicate with her deceased husband Harry.[citation needed]

The My Chemical Romance song "This Is How I Disappear" was inspired by the séance performed by Houdini to contact her dead husband, Harry.[18]

Bálint Varga and Lia Barcellona Tamborra's 2020 album musical/audiobook d'Illusion: The Houdini Musical depicts Harry and Bess' relationship as part of the plot. She is portrayed by Quiana Holmes.[19][20][21][22][23]


  1. ^ Harry Houdini. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved March 24, 2014.
  2. ^ "This weekend we are Wild About Bess". Retrieved January 22, 2011.
  3. ^ "Dorothy Young remembers her days with Houdini". Retrieved April 2, 2011.
  4. ^ "Wild About Harry". Retrieved April 15, 2018.
  5. ^ "Bess and the frozen man". Retrieved January 23, 2011.
  6. ^ "Inwood Resident Discovers the Magic of Inwood Manhattan". Inwood Manhattan. Retrieved 24 February 2019.
  7. ^ "Harry Houdini Annual Séances - Will His Spirit Return? | Library". Retrieved 2020-03-27.
  8. ^ "Harry Houdini". Time. February 15, 1943. Archived from the original on December 14, 2008. Retrieved 2008-07-31. The late, great prestidigitator Harry Houdini, famed foe of phony mediums, and his wife Beatrice agreed before his death to try to get in touch with each other afterwards. Gravely ill last week in Hollywood, his widow announced that she had not only given up trying but had her doubts about the existence of a hereafter. She had held seances every year for ten years, unsuccessfully. "Ten years," observed patient Mrs. Houdini last week, "is long enough to wait for any man."
  9. ^ "Houdini Museum". Retrieved January 22, 2011.
  10. ^ Williams, Michael. "TNSJournal". Archived from the original on March 18, 2015. Retrieved October 29, 2014.
  11. ^ "AUDIO: Marie Hinson remembers the death of her sister Bess Houdini=September 2, 2013".
  12. ^ "Death of Bess Houdini". Time. February 22, 1943. Archived from the original on December 14, 2008. Retrieved 2008-07-31. Beatrice Rahner Houdini, 67, widow of Prestidigitator Harry Houdini, famed escape artist, exposer of phony mediums; of a heart ailment; in Needles, Calif., aboard an eastbound train from Los Angeles
  13. ^ "Mrs. Harry Houdini. For Ten Years Tried to Hear From Him From Spirit World". The New York Times. February 12, 1943. Retrieved 2008-07-31. Mrs. Harry Houdini, widow of the magician, died tonight aboard a train taking her to New York. Her age was 67.
  14. ^ "When Madame Houdini spoke". Retrieved April 12, 2011.
  15. ^ "The women who have played Bess". Retrieved January 23, 2011.
  16. ^ "UK Houdini play announces full cast". Retrieved June 26, 2013.
  17. ^ "Interview: Harry Potter star Evanna Lynch on becoming Harry Houdini's wife". Retrieved January 24, 2016.
  18. ^ Weingarten, Christopher R.; Aufrichtig, Aliza (2019-12-18). "Before & After 'The Black Parade'". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-05-04.
  19. ^ "d'Illusion: The Houdini Musical - The Aduio Theater Experience". Retrieved August 3, 2020.
  20. ^ "D'Illusion: The Houdini Musical Announces Launch of Audiobook". Broadway World.
  21. ^ "d'Illusion: The Houdini Musical Releases Theater Audio Experience". Broadway World.
  22. ^ "d'Illusion: The Houdini Musical - The Audio Theater Experience on Spotify". Retrieved August 23, 2020.
  23. ^ "d'Illusion: The Houdini Musical - The Audio Theater Experience on Apple Music". Retrieved August 23, 2020.

External links[edit]