Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Inside The LC: Part XXI

Inside The LC: The Strange but Mostly True Story of Laurel Canyon and the Birth of the Hippie Generation
Part XXI
March 19, 2012

“Why people even said Dr. Crandon committed illegal operations on little children and murdered them.”
Mina/Margery Crandon

On April 29, 1911, Houdini debuted his famed Chinese Water Torture Cell escape in Southampton, England, though he had perfected and copyrighted the act well over a year earlier.  The inherently dangerous stunt caused quite a sensation: “Just the sight of the apparatus was enough to give you shivers and make you believe, as one critic noted, that you were about to witness a ritual sacrifice.”

Around that same time, Houdini was, for reasons unknown, busily buying mothballed electric chairs at auctions across the country.

In 1913, Houdini’s beloved mother passed away, which apparently resulted in Harry learning some deep family secret. Following her death, Houdini sent the following cryptic note to one of his brothers: “Time heals all wounds, but a long time will have to pass before it will heal the terrible blow which Mother tried to save me from knowing.” The meaning of this rather provocative note remains a mystery. Houdini, by the way, was in Denmark when his mother died, and he requested a delay of her funeral to allow himself time to return to the States. Despite strict prohibitions in Jewish law, the entertainer’s request was, of course, granted.

In December 1914, just a few months after the staged provocation that allegedly triggered World War I, Houdini was summoned to the nation’s capitol for a private audience with then-President Woodrow Wilson. It is anyone’s guess what business the two men discussed, but it probably had little to do with stage tricks.

A year-and-a-half later, on that most notorious of dates, April 20, an estimated 100,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C. to watch Houdini perform a straightjacket escape. Other than for a presidential inauguration, it was said to be the largest crowd ever assembled in downtown Washington. One year later, in April 1917, the US declared war on Germany.

For the duration of the United States’ involvement in the war, Houdini spent a considerable amount of time aiding the war effort, both through fundraising and by frequently visiting the front lines, where he ostensibly went from camp to camp providing entertainment for the troops.

Houdini’s Hollywood career also began just as the US was entering the war. It has often been said that one of his first credits was as a special-effects consultant on the Mysteries of Myra cliffhanger serial, though others have claimed that Houdini had no involvement in the production. Curiously, the real consultant for the project is said to have been occultist/intelligence asset Aleister Crowley.

Houdini’s first feature-length film, The Grim Game, opened to rave reviews. Ensconced in Hollywood, Houdini quickly made friends with mega-stars Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, both of whom would soon be caught up in scandals – a career-ending one in Arbuckle’s case. The fledgling actor next began work on Terror Island, filmed largely on Catalina Island. Unlike his feature debut, Island opened to poor reviews, leading a discouraged Houdini to launch his own production company to create his own starring vehicles.

Just after completing Terror Island, in December 1919, Houdini was involved in yet another curious incident. Having injured his ankle performing the water torture escape, he paid a visit to a doctor who examined the performer and pronounced him in imminent “danger of death.” Houdini nevertheless lived on for several more years; the doctor, meanwhile, turned up dead within two weeks.

By the end of 1921, the Houdini Picture Corporation had two feature-length films in the can – The Man From Beyond and Haldane of the Secret Service. The first, co-written by Houdini himself and released on April 2, 1922, involved a bizarre plot revolving around a man found frozen in arctic ice and brought back to life, a case of mistaken identity, confinement in a mental institution, escape from that same institution, and an abduction. Haldane, released the following year, was Houdini’s first attempt at directing himself. It featured the magician as his real-life alter ego, but its performance at the box office signaled the end of Houdini’s film career.

For the rest of his years, Houdini devoted a considerable amount of time to investigating and debunking the spiritualist movement, which flourished in the post-World War I years as legions of fake ‘mediums’ preyed upon the grief of those who had lost loved one in the war, promising to reconnect them with those in the ‘spirit’ world. By design or otherwise, Houdini’s crusade served primarily to publicize the movement. Houdini’s interest in the movement was said to have been spawned by the death of his beloved mother.

Houdini had a number of friends in the spiritualist movement, most notably and prominently Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of fictional detective Sherlock Holmes and possible perpetrator of the infamous Piltdown Hoax of 1912. Both Doyle and Houdini were also had connections to Le Roi and Margery Crandon, and that is where this story takes a decidedly dark turn.

Margery, born Mina Stinson in Canada in 1888, had moved with her family to Boston, Massachusetts at a young age. As a teenager, she is said to have been a musical prodigy and to have played various musical instruments in local orchestras, and to later have worked as an actress, secretary and ambulance driver. In 1917, the then-married Mina was hospitalized and operated on by Dr. Le Roi Goddard Crandon, a man who occupied a prestigious position in Boston society.

Crandon was a direct descendent of one of the original twenty-three Mayflower passengers and a member of the Boston Yacht Club. He had graduated from Harvard Medical School and had also obtained a Master’s Degree in Philosophy from Harvard, where he also served as an instructor. Just before meeting Mina, he had served as a Naval officer and as head of the surgical staff at a US Naval hospital during WWI.

Shortly after meeting the doctor, Mina divorced her first husband and, in 1918, became the much older Le Roi Crandon’s third wife. The two seemed hopelessly mismatched, she being young, vivacious and, by all accounts, very attractive, while he was said to be rather arrogant, unpleasant and antisocial. Nevertheless, the pair quickly became the talk of Boston’s high society, particularly after the summer of 1923, when they began holding regular ‘séances’ in their home.

One regular member of the couple’s inner circle was a fellow by the name of Joseph DeWyckoff, a wealthy steel tycoon who had been born in Poland and educated in England and Czarist Russia before settling in America to practice law. He was ultimately jailed in Boston on embezzlement charges, then later fled to Chicago after embezzling yet more money. He soon turned up in, of all places, Havana, Cuba, where, according to Kalush and Sloman, “in 1898 he was recruited by John Wilkie, the Secret Service chief, as a co-optee and was involved in spying for the United States during the Spanish-American War.”

That would be, needless to say, the very same John Wilkie who had kick-started Harry Houdini’s career that very same year. As a reward for his service, DeWyckoff, who “had a history of violence,” “was given the contract to salvage the Battleship Maine in the Havana Harbor.” The Maine had been sunk in what appears to have been a false-flag operation carried out by US intelligence operatives to justify launching a bloody colonial war.

Although fragmentary, there is clear evidence that Le Roi and Mina Crandon, in conjunction with various others (including DeWyckoff), began to ‘adopt,’ sometime soon after getting married, an untold number of children who subsequently went missing. A number of letters that Dr. Crandon penned on the subject and dispatched to his buddy Doyle appear to have gone missing as well. As Kalush and Sloman note, “Strangely, many of the letters regarding the investigation into the boys have been expunged from Crandon’s files.” As faithful readers know, there is nothing strange about that at all; it is pretty much par for the course.

In one surviving letter, sent on August 4, 1925, Crandon notes that “about December first I had Mr. DeWyckoff bring over a boy from a London home for possible adoption … In April 1925, our Secret Service Department at Washington received a letter saying that I had first and last sixteen boys in my house for ostensible adoption, and that they had all disappeared.” Four years earlier, a Boston newspaper had reported that two boys had been rescued from a raft. One, eight-year-old John Crandon, was Margery/Mina’s son from her previous marriage. The other was a ten-year-old English ‘adoptee’ who was reportedly so unhappy at the Crandon home that he was frantically attempting an escape, with the younger boy in tow (not unlike the Steven Stayner story). “Two years later, when Margery began her mediumship, there was no trace of that boy in the household.”

Perhaps he was the ‘homeless’ boy whose dead body was reportedly found on the outskirts of Joseph DeWyckoff’s large estate in Ramsey, New Jersey during that time period.

By 1924, Dr. Crandon was openly asking his many friends in the British spiritualist movement to “be on the lookout for suitable boys to adopt.” Around that same time, as another associate noted in a letter, Crandon was “being sued for $40,000 for operating on a woman for cancer, when she was simply pregnant, and destroying the foetus … A highly incredible story which persists is that a boy who was in his family some weeks mysteriously disappeared. He claims that the boy is now in his home in England, but still official letters of inquiry and demand are received from that country. This is no mere rumor, for I was shown some of the original letters … The matter has been going on for more than a year. It is very mysterious.”

In response to questions raised about the disappearance of one particular boy, Margery/Mina complained that “people wrote asking his whereabouts, and the prime minister of England cabled to ask where he was and demanded a cable reply. Why people even said Dr. Crandon committed illegal operations on little children and murdered them.” According to Margery, “the poor little fellow had adenoids and had to be circumcised,” so Crandon opted to perform the surgery at home. It was widely rumored that the good doctor had performed another procedure at home as well – surgically altering his wife’s vaginal opening to allow her to ‘magically’ produce various items at séances.

On one occasion, Margery opened a closet in her home and showed an associate a collection of photos of well over a hundred children, “most of them really lovely.” Margery told the woman that, “Those are Dr. Crandon’s caesareans—aren’t they sweet? All caesareans.” Given that Crandon wasn’t known for delivering babies at all, the notion that he had delivered over a hundred of them via caesarean was an absurdity. Who then were all these children and what became of them?

Such is the fragmentary evidence trail indicating that an untold number of young boys fell into the nefarious hands of a cabal of wealthy individuals with connections to the intelligence community. Nearly a full century ago. Not to worry though – the disappearances were investigated by John Wilkie’s Secret Service and a British MP by the name of, uhmm, Harry Day. And I’m sure they got to the bottom of the sordid affair, just as Louis Freeh is undoubtedly now getting to the truth of the Sandusky case.
Not long before his death, Houdini, who had an extensive library of literature on the occult, began working with horror writer and racist occultist H.P. Lovecraft on various magazine articles. In 1926, he hired Lovecraft (who could, by the way, trace his lineage to the Massachusetts Bay Colony) and Clifford Eddy, Jr. (another occultist and horror writer and one of Houdini’s covert operatives), to co-write a book debunking superstition (despite the fact that wife Bess was known to harbor numerous superstitions, some of them apparently quite bizarre).

According to Kalush and Sloman, “Shortly after meeting with Eddy and Lovecraft, Bess was stricken with a nonspecific form of poisoning.” Indeed, there is evidence suggesting that both Harry and Bess Houdini suffered from some form of poisoning prior to Harry’s death. In addition, Houdini is said to have suffered from severe mood swings and to have had some “aggressive confrontations” in the weeks leading up to his death, both of which were out of character for the illusionist (though Bess is widely reported to have suffered from extreme mood swings throughout her life).

As the story goes, Houdini, who prided himself on being able to take a punch from pretty much anyone, was sucker-punched in his dressing room by a McGill University student, which caused his appendix to burst and ultimately led to his death on October 31, 1926. Houdini’s physicians dutifully swore out affidavits certifying the cause of death to be “traumatic appendicitis,” though the medical community now acknowledges that such a medical condition has never existed. No autopsy was performed.

As previously noted, the house in Laurel Canyon universally known as the ‘Houdini House’ burned to the ground exactly thirty-three years later, on October 31, 1959. Precisely fifty-two years (the magician’s age at the time of his death) after that, the Magic Castle in the Hollywood Hills exploded into flames on October 31, 2011. Built as a Victorian mansion in 1908, the converted structure opened in 1963 as the Magic Castle, a rather creepy members-only club featuring hidden rooms and secret passageways. According to reports, the only room in the building left unscathed by the fire was the Houdini Room.

The mid-1920s were not a good time for the Houdini/Weiss brothers. Brother Gottfried Weiss, born two years before Harry, died in 1925. Harry followed suit the next year. Brother Nathan Weiss, born four years before Harry, died soon after, in 1927. Shit happens, I guess.

On June 22, 1927, Houdini’s European booking agent, Harry Day, reported that his apartment had been ransacked. That day would have also been the Houdini’s wedding anniversary – assuming, that is, that Harry was actually legally married to Bess, which may not have been the case. Two months after the break-in at Day’s apartment, Theodore ‘Hardeen,’ who had inherited all of brother Harry’s props, effects and papers, reported that his home had also been broken into while he had been on the road.

Joscelyn Gordon Whitehead, the guy credited with gut-punching Houdini, was a rather curious gent. Though a college student at the time of the incident, he was already in his thirties. His father was a British diplomat serving in the Orient. After Houdini’s death, Whitehead is said to have become a recluse living something of a hermetic existence. He did have at least one close associate though – Lady Beatrice Isabel Marler, a wealthy heiress and the wife of Sir Herbert Meredith Marler, a prominent Canadian politician and diplomat who once served as Canada’s ambassador to the US.

After Houdini’s death, it was widely rumored that Bess – who in addition to suffering from wild mood swings was also an alcoholic and a drug addict who was occasionally suicidal – ran an illegal speakeasy/brothel in conjunction with a woman named Daisy White, who was said to have been Harry’s mistress. Nothing weird about that. White was not, by the way, the only woman who claimed or was rumored to have had an affair with the performer.

In mid-1945, Theodore “Hardeen,” one of Houdini’s two surviving brothers and the one who had inherited all of his effects, checked into Doctor’s Hospital for a scheduled operation. On June 12, 1945, Hardeen left the hospital in a box. It was reported at the time that Hardeen had been planning to pen a book on his brother and had begun work on the project before checking into the hospital.

Nearly two decades later, on October 6, 1962, Leopold Weiss – Harry’s last living sibling and the one who had been brutally attacked in his brother’s home – is said to have jumped off a ledge and fallen six stories to his death. The last of Houdini’s secrets went to the grave with him.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

It has often been noted that Houdini took far longer to perform many of his stage escapes than was actually necessary, and that he was frequently out of view of the audience during such times. This has generally been assumed to have been for dramatic effect. Authors Kalush and Sloman though offer a far more compelling possibility: “One explanation is that such challenges gave Houdini both the opportunity and an alibi to conduct a mission while he was performing.”

It was, in other words, the perfect cover, for how could a man be responsible for something that occurred elsewhere when he was performing on stage for a captive audience at the time? There are, it should be noted, clear parallels here to the story told by Chuck Barris, who has claimed that he was similarly slipping off to conduct covert missions while performing his duties as a chaperone for the Dating Game.

Of course, no one took Barris seriously because we all know that such things don’t really happen in the real world – or at least not in the world that the media present to us as the real world.

It should also be noted here that Houdini possessed, as do most magicians, seemingly superhuman abilities, such as the ability to dislocate his shoulders at will to slip out of straightjackets. He could also regulate his heart rate, respiration rate and other metabolic functions such that he could survive for extended periods of time with little available oxygen, thus facilitating his escapes.

Such abilities are rather commonplace in the world of magic. One magician was found to be able to identify what card a person was holding by virtue of the fact that he had such extraordinary visual acuity that he could see the reflection of the card in the subject’s pupils. Many magicians are able to pick up a stack of cards and know by feel exactly how many cards they are holding, and are able to distinguish individual cards by subtle thickness variations indistinguishable to people with normal abilities.

How do people gain such incredible physical abilities? Probably the best way of understanding such phenomena is as a function of trauma-based, early childhood training.

It appears then that, at the end of the day, the actors populating the Harry Houdini story are the usual cast of characters: intel operatives, Masons, pedophiles, mind-rapists, occultists, and, of course, entertainers. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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I, for one, am pleasantly surprised to see that the hack filmmaker who subjected the world to "Kony 2012" is now appearing in some of the most entertaining videos ever to hit the web.

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