Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Until Death Do Us Part - The Love Story of Harry and Bess Houdini

Their love was so great, 
Houdini was determined that not even death could part them!

Weighing only 98 lbs with a size 1 shoe, Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner was a good Roman Catholic girl working as a singing and dancing act called THE FLORAL SISTERS in Coney Island in 1894. That was when she met Harry, a magician who performed with his brother Theo in an act called THE BROTHERS HOUDINI. 
Harry and Theo

Bess and Harry in 1894 

It was love at first sight and Bess married Harry 3 weeks later. They were both 18 years old. Not long after their marriage, Harry and Theo disbanded their struggling magic act and Harry went solo, focusing more on escape tricks with his beautiful new wife as his assistant in the act. Her tiny physique made him look bigger on stage and her presence on stage enhanced his popularity. 

For years and years Bess and Houdini worked hard to build up their act. They performed in circuses, museums, and anywhere else they could get exposure. With Bess at his side, Houdini advertised he had "escaped out of more handcuffs, manacles, and leg shackles than any other human being living." 

Marriage was not easy. Both were known for their strong, quick-to-anger, and stubborn personalities. It didn't help that Harry had controlling and perfectionist tendencies. During an argument, Harry would leave and take a walk to cool off. When he returned, he would throw his hat into the room before entering. If she threw it back out, he knew she was still angry.  

Despite their frequent spats, Harry was kind and romantic, often writing her love notes and letters. He even had her wedding ring engraved with the word ROSABELE, the first song he heard her sing. 

Rosabelle, sweet Rosabelle,
I love you more than I can tell.
Over me you cast a spell.
I love you my sweet Rosabelle.

Bess loved him deeply and she was loyal to him and her marriage. Over the years, he wrote hundreds of love letters to her, many of which were written in her presence. Whenever they were together, they lovingly addressed each other as Mr. Houdini or Mrs. Houdini. 

But Harry had another sweetheart - his mother. Their love and bond was profound. So it's a good thing Harry's Jewish mother approved of his petite Catholic wife. He loved both women deeply, but Harry always referred to his mother as “the guiding beacon of my life.”

As the popularity of their act grew, they departed for a grand tour of Europe. His fame grew and he was acclaimed as a brilliant "escapologist." 
Bess proved herself to be a wonderful manager, taking on the task of taking care of their menagerie of pets while collecting dolls and sewing the costumes for Houdini's shows. 
They loved children, but sadly, could have none of their own due to Bess who had a medical condition that prevented her from having children.
Years later, they celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary on board the S.S. Imperator of the Hamburg-America Line. Fellow passenger, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was so impressed with Harry's escapes, he invited them to meet his grandchildren.
After 39 years of happy marriage, on October 31, 1926, Harry died from peritonitis (inflammation of the lining of the abdominal cavity). 

They wanted to be buried together, so his headstone included Bess for when her time came. 

 Bess was distraught at his death and attended many séances hoping to speak with Harry and prove that he could escape the afterlife, but all attempts failed. 

The Last Seance Bess held for Harry

In 1936, on the anniversary of Harry's death, Bess attended a final seance. When it failed to conjure Harry, she blew out the candle next to a photograph of Houdini. 
Bess Houdini died from a heart attack on February 11, 1943 while aboard an eastbound train traveling from Los Angeles to New York City. She was 67 years old. Because she was Catholic, her family refused to bury her body next to Harry according to his grave. She was instead interred at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, New York.

The fascinating love story of this famous couple is brilliantly retold in the novel, Mrs. Houdini by Victoria Kelly by Simon and Schuster Canada. 

Before escape artist Harry Houdini died, h vowed he would find a way to speak to his beloved wife Bess from beyond the grave using a coded message known only to the two of them. When a widowed Bess begins seeing this code in seemingly impossible places, it becomes clear that Harry has an urgent message to convey. Unlocking the puzzle will set Bess on a course back through the pair’s extraordinary romance, which swept the illusionist and his bride from the beaches of Coney Island, to the palaces of Budapest, to the back lots of Hollywood. When the mystery finally leads Bess to the doorstep of a mysterious young photographer, she realizes that her husband’s magic may have been more than just illusion.

In surprising turns that weave through the uncertain days of the dawn of the twentieth century and continue into the dazzling 1920s, Mrs. Houdini is a thrilling tale that will take you deep into the heart of one of history’s greatest love stories—asking what drives people to believe in something bigger than themselves—even as it reveals the famous magician’s most remarkable feat of all.


Harry Houdini has fascinated numerous generations of magic lovers. His life and rise to fame, along with his great love for his wife, Bess, has intrigued many, but I liked that the focus of this story was on Bess instead of her famous husband. The novel covers her life from when she first met Harry until long after he died, and her tumultuous life thereafter. 

Told through several points of view, I found the novel inclusive of many factors in this couples lives - Harry's great love for his mother, Bess's wisdom when dealing with her husband's controlling personality, their fascination with spiritualism, to name a few. Bess's grief is explored as she desperately anticipates that he will reach out from beyond the grave to communicate his secret code as per their pact. There were numerous settings too from New York to Europe and ocean liners. 

Filled with compelling characters, exciting locations, and eloquent prose, this is a lovely way to learn more about the woman behind the great escape artist, Harry Houdini! 

1 comment:

John Hinson great nephew Bess and Harry Houdini said...

Harry was 2 years older than Bess.