Afterlife Death + Popular Culture

The Sisters Fox

Episode 27: The Sisters Fox
Nate DiMeo, The Memory Palace (March 12, 2010)

In his latest podcast at The Memory Palace, Nate DiMeo tells the story of the Fox Sisters in mid-nineteenth century America. These girls spooked their parents and neighbors with tales of communing with the dead. Naturally, this turned into a sell-out show in New York City, where the teenager sisters wowed the rich and famous with their necromantic talents.

While there were plenty of skeptics, believers abounded. Why? Says DiMeo:

They wanted to believe. This was the 1850s — people just died all the time from diseases, minor flu and infections. Things that don’t kill us now. Their family members, their friends, their kids would die in childbirth, in accidents at work and at home, why wouldn’t they want to believe they weren’t gone? That those they lost could be found.

Soon people were holding séances like we hold dinner parties. They were putting their faith in tarot readers and mystics. Some were just scam artists, others were just wrong. They were just seeing things that weren’t there. But all of them together were changing America, in the way its people thought about death and life. And this modern spiritualism… stayed at the center of American life for decades to come.

Listen to the podcast!


Houdini’s Final Disappearing Act

Houdini's grave.

A Halloween Tale: Houdini’s Lonely Grave (New York Times Video Library)

Harry Houdini was quite a character. Not only was he one of the most heralded magicians of his generation, but the mystique surrounding the man grew exponentially when he died on October 31, 1926. Some believed Houdini to be a practitioner of the “dark arts” or at least that he possessed supernatural abilities. How else to explain some of the seemingly impossible tricks he performed? In fact, Houdini’s death was due to peritonitis brought on by a ruptured appendix. Certainly, dying on All Hallows Eve only added to the man, the myth and the legend.

Born Ehrich Weiss (variant spellings include Erik Weisz) in Budapest, Hungary, the self-named Houdini was not only a magician, but an actor, escape artist, film producer and skeptic. He was particularly interested in debunking so-called spiritualists of the day who claimed the ability to communicate with the dead. Apparently, his wife Bess did not share the same beliefs as her husband. For ten years after Houdini’s death, Bess held seances every Halloween, attempting to summon him from the great beyond.

Today, you can visit the grave of Harry Houdini at the Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York. Although downtrodden and in disrepair, the cemetery still entices Houdini fans to visit and pay their respects. Interestingly, his wife Bess, who died in 1943, requested to buried next to him. But because she was not Jewish, was not allowed burial in Machpelah and was instead interred at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Westchester, New York.

For further exploration of the life of Houdini, you may enjoy:

The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero by William Kalush and Larry Sloma

Houdini: The Movie Star — Three Disc DVD Collection

Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss by Kenneth Silverman


“Dead Spiritualist Silent”

Radiolab: Proof
originally aired August 10, 2009.

It appears Radiolab had more great death meditations than they knew what to do with. Following up on their July 27 episode, “After Life,” all this week they will be releasing short podcasts with additional thoughts on death.

Monday’s segment features Mary Roach, author of Stiff and Spook, discussing spiritualist Thomas Lynn Bradford’s quest for proof of an afterlife in 1921. His scheme involved committing suicide then shouting back to a psychic, who would then relay to the world the good news that death does not exist, only Summerland — the Spiritualist post-life realm of lush rolling hills, beauty and peace. But, as the New York Times reported, “Dead Spiritualist silent.” Alas.

(We won’t be posting all of Radiolab’s death segments this week — we just wanted to get the word out. In case you’re wondering, yes, DeathRef has a crush on Radiolab.)