By Brad Dison
Erik Weisz was born on March 24, 1874 in Budapest. When Erik was four years old, his family emigrated to the United States. The family settled in Appleton, Wisconsin and changed their last name to the German spelling Weiss. Erik adopted the German spelling Ehrich. To lessen confusion, this article will refer to him by his birth name, Erik.
Erik’s family moved often to find work. His father, Mayer Samuel Weisz, was a Rabbi who was often in search of employment. In 1882, they moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Five years later, they moved into a boarding house in New York City. To help earn money for the struggling family, young Erik held several jobs. At nine years old, Erik made his public debut as a trapeze artist under the name “Ehrich, the Prince of the Air”. Erik often performed in small tent acts, dime museums and circus sideshows, usually with another performer to double the draw and to share expenses. For the rest of his life, Erik’s world revolved around entertaining and amazing crowds of people.
In 1894, while performing with his brother, Theodore, Erik met another sideshow performer named Wilhelmina Beatrice “Bess” Rahner. Within a short time, Erik and Bess married. They performed together for the remainder of Erik’s career.
On October 21, 1936, Erik lectured before the male student body of McGill University in Montreal. Topics of his lecture included his ability to withstand immense pain without so much as a wince. Following his lecture, he answered questions from the students. One student asked if it was possible to painlessly pass needles through his cheek. Rather than verbalizing an answer, he took out a hat pin and ran it through his cheek. He showed no sign of pain. At the end of his lecture, Erik invited them back to his dressing room for further discussion if they were interested. To his surprise, many of the students took advantage of the invitation, including Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead.
During the discussion in Erik’s dressing room, Whitehead remarked, “You would hardly feel a blow in the stomach, would you?” “Certainly no,” Erik replied. Erik was unprepared for what came next. Before he could tighten the muscles in his stomach to lessen the blow, Whitehead gave Erik “two short-armed punches to the pit of his stomach.” Erik shuddered because, as he told the boys, he was not prepared for the punches.
While giving his final performance in Montreal on the following night, the crowd noticed that Erik doubled over in pain several times. Ever the showman, Erik fought through the pain and finished his performance before a cheering crowd. Erik complained of severe stomach pains, something that had never bothered him before.
A few days later, while performing alongside Bess in Detroit, Michigan, Erik collapsed. After he regained consciousness, to the surprise of everyone present, Erik continued with his act. After the show, Erik checked into a local hospital. On the following day, doctors operated on Erik for appendicitis. Following surgery, Erik showed symptoms of swelling of the tissue that lines the abdomen called peritonitis. Erik’s peritonitis was linked to his burst appendix. Erik underwent a second surgery to save his life from the effects of peritonitis. Despite their best efforts, they were unable to save Erik. He lived long enough to say his final goodbyes to his family and friends who surrounded his bedside.
Bess was saddened by her husband’s passing, but she held out hope that she would soon be in contact with Erik. “Long before he died,” Bess explained, “we agreed that whoever should go first would try to return to the other. We agreed upon a message, phased in code. It was known only to the two of us. The compact was to last 10 years and no longer. After that period, the one of us still alive was to abandon hope either in the possibility of the survival of the dead, or their ability to communicate with the living.” Bess said, “In his last hours, he said to me: ‘Beatrice, I’ll come to you somehow, even though I have to go through hell.”
On the first anniversary of Erik’s death at 8:30 p.m., the exact time of Erik’s death, Bess held a séance in an attempt to contact her beloved Erik. She anxiously awaited a communication from Erik which said “Rosabelle, Believe”, the code words she and Erik had decided upon. The words did not come. She repeated the séance on the second anniversary of Erik’s death, then the third and fourth. News of the séances spread throughout the world and other people began holding séances to try to contact Erik. In 1936, on the tenth anniversary of Erik’s death, Bess prepared for the final séance to contact Erik, as per their agreement. At 8:30 p.m., Bess and other believers in psychic phenomena, one of which was a Los Angeles superior court judge, gathered on the roof of a Hollywood hotel to try to make contact with Erik one final time. They were not the only ones trying to contact Erik. People held simultaneous séances in sixteen cities in the United States, England, Australia and Canada, but no lights flickered, no objects moved without explanation, and no one heard “Rosabelle, Believe.” All was quiet. Bess never received the message from Erik that she so longed to hear. On February 11, 1943, seventeen years after Erik’s death, Bess died from a heart attack. She never remarried.
People still hold séances each year on the anniversary of Erik’s death to try to make contact with him, but all attempts have failed. Erik was an illusionist, stunt performer, and is most remembered as an escape artist. He died on Halloween night in 1926. On this Halloween night, if your lights flicker or you hear a strange sound, it may just be Erik trying to make contact with the living world. You may not recognize the name Erik Weisz, but you certainly know him by his stage name…Harry Houdini. Happy Halloween!
- St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri), November 1, 1926, p.3.
- The News Tribune (Tacoma, Washington), October 31, 1936, p.2.
- Baker, Tom. “Rosabelle, Believe.” Vocal Media. Accessed October 20, 2021. vocal.media/horror/rosabelle-believe.
- Johns Hopkins Medicine. “Peritonitis.” Accessed October 20, 2021. hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/peritonitis.
- Scotto, Michael. “Upper East Side Séance Attempts to Contact Harry Houdini On the Anniversary of His Death.” Spectrum News. November 1, 2016. ny1.com/nyc/all-boroughs/news/2016/11/1/upper-east-side-s-ance-attempts-to-contact-harry-houdini-on-the-90th-anniversary-of-the-escape-artists–death.