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Matthew Alice:

Every year...at HALLOWEEN...media reports that the famed magician HOUDINI did not contact his wife AFTER he died. Not true!! This letter is on page 75 of Nothing So Strange -- the biography of ARTHUR FORD -- who conducted a seance in which the SECRET MESSAGE was received! IS IT TRUE OR FALSE? (P.S.: People ask, "Was Colonel Sanders real?" Hell, yes!)

-- Walt Kay, San Diego

Every year...at HALLOWEEN...Walt sends in this very question. In frustration, perhaps, this year he submitted it twice. One mailing included a copy of a congratulatory letter to Walt (apparently a crackerjack salesman) from his boss, fried-chicken pharaoh Colonel Harland Sanders. I'm a little hazy on the Sanders-Houdini connection. Voices from the grave maybe? On Harland's letter, Walt's penned a note saying, "People ask, 'Was he real?' Hell, yes!" So maybe it's just a bribe; he's revealed a chicken secret, now it's time for us to come across about Mrs. Houdini's seance.

Rumor has it that postal rates are going up, and so Walt won't have to take out a second mortgage to get my attention next year, here's the answer. The whole Houdini message-from-the-beyond stuff is extra-crispy baloney, of course.

Harry Houdini (Erik Weisz or Erich Weiss) -- escape artist, body builder, author, magazine publisher, film star, megalomaniac, and mama's boy -- had no love for spirit mediums, although he briefly toured as a "mind reader" before he perfected his lock-picking skills. Mediums were all the rage at the turn of the century, but Houdini resented their sleazy trickery when he and his magician colleagues were offering the public real, honest trickery. (Houdini sometimes performed his handcuff-and-chains escapes in the nude to prove he used no hidden devices. I guess you can't have anything up your sleeve if you don't have any sleeves.) He spent many years gleefully unmasking table-tilting frauds, even testifying at a U.S. Senate hearing during an attempt to outlaw seances and crystal-ball gazing. Some say Houdini was inspired in his campaign by a medium who channeled a message from his mother. Unfortunately, the late Mama Weiss's words were in English, a language she barely knew and one she never would have used with her dear little Erich. His family was from Hungary.

According to at least one Houdini researcher, British writer Frank Koval, Harry and his wife, Bess, agreed that whoever died first would attempt to contact the other with an agreed-upon code, perhaps as a sort of test of his hypothesis. (While Houdini believed that death probably shut our mouths for the moment, he was quite certain we would be reincarnated.) Harry made the final escape almost 20 years before Bess, succumbing to peritonitis from a ruptured appendix on Halloween in 1926. Mediums set about dialing up Houdini's spirit to hear the coded message, which Bess said was supposed to translate into, "Rosabelle, Believe." One who claimed success was spiritualist Arthur Ford. He offered up a string of code words, which just happened to be based on an old system Bess and Harry had used when they were plying their "mind-reading" trade. Bess said the whole thing was hogwash, since the code system had been published years before, and "Rosabelle, Believe" was a red herring she and Harry had devised to sort out the charlatans. None of this deterred Ford, who was still claiming into the 1970s that he spoke to Houdini. Bess died in 1943 without ever hearing from her husband.

So, Walt, that's the best I can do for you. Could Ford have had a self-serving motive in writing his autobiography? Could he have (gasp!) made up Bess's letter?

It would have been simpler to say that nobody's ever proved they've talked to any dead person, Arthur Ford included. But I suspect you wouldn't buy that. Hey, if the Colonel checks in, can you let us know what he thinks of this "KFC" business? The fact that he's been reduced to a tap-dancing cartoon character?

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