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When Black Cats Prowl and Pumpkins Gleam: How Orange & Black Became Halloween

When Black Cats Prowl and Pumpkins Gleam: How Orange & Black Became Halloween

It is a truth universally assumed that Halloween adopted its banner colors because autumn is nothing if not very, very orange.

And that assumption is not false.

There's just more to the story.

In agricultural societies, particularly those within the northern hemisphere, autumn is essentially The Dying Age.

Historically, as temperatures fell, nature decayed amidst the harvest, and livestock animals were slaughtered before winter. Even the hours themselves died off earlier and earlier each day.

COPYRIGHT © Soliloquism 2022

COPYRIGHT © Soliloquism 2022

This is recognized as the impetus for the ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain.

Samhain was a so-called “threshold” celebration, occurring as it did between an equinox and solstice. And the liminality of the Samhain festival is the heart of its eeriness.

This in-betweenness is what lifted the gauzy veil between reality and the Otherworld, where faeries played and the dearly departed wandered.

Samhain began at sunset on the last day of October, and concluded at sunset the next day on the first day of November; this is because, in Celtic societies, this is when a day began.

And so, in the advancing night, celebrants lit ritual bonfires atop the hills. They congregated, often throwing bones onto the flames--a practice which informs the word's etymology: a "bone fire."

These blazes were made with the friction of one piece of wood against another, the process of which was known as a 'force-fire'. Practicality aside, it likewise functioned as folk magic well into the 1800s.

It was believed that force-fires would counteract bewitchment, as well as the infectious diseases (known collectively as 'murrain') that too often befell cattle.

When the stock of any considerable farmer was seized with the murrain, he would send for one of the charm-doctors, to superintend the raising of a need-fire... By constant friction and pressure, the ends of the auger would take fire, from which a fire would be instantly kindled, and thus the needfire, would be accomplished... A fire kindled from this needfire... and the cattle [were] brought to feel the smoke of this new and sacred fire, which preserved them

The bonfires of Samhain are also believed to have served purposes of so-called sympathetic magic, wherein the fires imitated the protective elements of the sun.

And when the bonfires were sparked against the darkness, they burned, bright and oh-so-orange, in the black of night.

The black of night, in which the ghosts of the dead stepped through the permeable boundary to the living world.

COPYRIGHT © Soliloquism 2022

COPYRIGHT © Soliloquism 2022

In the light of a force-fire, all of its surroundings, too, would glow: the flickering ground, the bats tumbling down to hunt the insects drawn by the light; the celebrants themselves.

All cast in lively orange and shades of black.

COPYRIGHT © Soliloquism 2022

COPYRIGHT © Soliloquism 2022

The color orange dominates the autumn harvest season beyond the ancient fires of Samhain, of course. Just uttering the word 'October' invites mental images of fluttering orange foliage and grimacing orange gourds.

The latter, however, is a tradition grown up from American farmlands.

Pumpkins are a long-domesticated plant native to the American continents.

And while there are millions of pumpkins now grown in the United Kingdom every year, they did not exist when Irish and Scottish citizens began emigrating en masse to the United States during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

As generations of these immigrants introduced Gaelic Halloween traditions to their new country, the old-world custom of carving jack o' lanterns from turnips and potatoes was adapted to take advantage of more readily available produce: the plump and orange pumpkin.

These many natural orange elements--fire, leaves, and rotund gourds--no doubt inform the modern iteration of this peculiar gothic holiday.

But it was the savvy of one manufacturing company that popularized the color scheme that we recognize as Halloween.

The Dennison Manufacturing Company was established in 1844, when an eponymous father-and-son team pioneered a better jewelry box: one made of paper (as was standard at the time), but domestically produced, and more durable and attractive than the imported options then available.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the Dennison paper-product lines had expanded to include crepe paper.

And Dennison set out to make crepe paper the most indispensable novelty decoration of them all.

‘There is something new in the old and delightfully spooky Eve of All Saints. It is paper… this sounds simple enough, but in reality it is almost magic.’

From ‘Some New Hallowe’en Magic’ by A.W.R. and published in Harper’s Bazaar, October 1912

Halloween parties, once unusual, were becoming more popular by the year.

And in Halloween, a holiday less commonly celebrated than Christmas,  the Dennison Manufacturing Company saw a profitable opportunity to promote its crepe paper by making it the go-to product for Halloween merrymaking.

Halloween decorations certainly existed prior to Dennison’s revelation, but the decorations were not commercial. Historian Lesley Bannatyne has stated that parties of this period typically used festive decor that was derived from more natural resources.

"The natural colors they had to work with in late October were largely orange and yellow: pumpkins, chrysanthemums, marigolds, corn, hay bales... But Halloween party décor was also about creating an otherworldly atmosphere — eerie, spooky, ghostly — and for that, you needed a measure of darkness."

That 'measure of darkness' was more than necessary, "for unless a mysterious atmosphere is created in the rooms," published the Pictorial Review magazine in 1907, "the festivities would cease to be interesting even to children."

So for its brand new Halloween crepe, the Dennison Manufacturing Company paired orange with black.

In addition to solid colors, Dennison made crepe with printed patterns. Printing on bright crepe paper meant using black ink--perfect for grinning cat faces, wide-winged bats, and witch silhouettes.

This black ink necessitated a brightly colored background; so, most likely running with the long-established harvest colors, Dennison chose orange, red, and yellow.

HALLOWE’EN COLORS. Orange is a bright and glowing color, well suited to decorating for Halloween. Black and white give sharp contrast and gray has a softening influence.

To sell their new Halloween crepe, Dennison decided to print a book.

Dennison had produced a so-called instruction booklet before. It was called Art and Decoration in Crepe and Tissue Paper, and it had been circulated since 1894.

But unlike its previous effort—and unlike any holiday promotional material at that time—Dennison’s Bogie Book was all about Halloween.

The Bogie Book offered easy-to-do ideas for home-made Halloween decorations, costumes, and party games--all to be accomplished with the use of specific rolls of Dennison crepe paper, complete with individual product numbers and convenient ordering instructions.

Decorate the living room with vivid orange and black. The doorway, windows, chandelier and fireplace can all be effectively “dressed up.” The doorway shown will give any timid guest a thrill as she tries to enter the room without encountering the dangling spider. To copy it, fasten natural branches above the door frame and suspend orange, yellow and black crepe paper moss from them, allowing it to hang very irregularly… the chandelier sheds a weird glow over the whole room through the long orange crepe paper fringe that surrounds it.

The Bogie Book, however, was not an overnight success.

In fact, after its initial publication, Dennison did not issue a sequel until 3 years later, in 1912.

The cover art of the 1912 edition incorporated much of what is now recognized as Halloween iconography.

The soft cover featured the silhouettes of three hunched witches around a cauldron, a trio of screeching black cats around their feet. Above their pointed hats, the tree branches are perched by owls and hung with jack o' lanterns, all of them black with bright orange eyes. Beneath the illustration, in vibrant lettering, it reads only "Dennison's BOGIE BOOK".

The 1913 Bogie Book cover art likewise featured a shadowy gathering of  witches under a tree. They are outlined against a starry sky with orange light cast by the moon. The lead witch, bent over a walking stick, has a black cat on her shoulder and a wide-eyed owl overhead. In the background, bats fly past the moon, giving the impression of a distressed face.

Halloween, it would seem, was fast catching on.

After that, the Dennison Manufacturing Company began publishing a new Bogie Book every year.

Their popularity grew so much that, by the early 1920s, the price of the Bogie Book had doubled to ten cents a piece.

A preserved countertop store display from that same time period exclaims: "HALLOWEE'N is coming Oct. 31st" and "You'll need Dennison's Bogie Book, 10¢per copy."

The cardboard display is, of course, predominantly black and orange, with a harlequin border. Its illustrations include a flying witch on a crescent moon, a prowling black cat, and a jack o' lantern.

So year after year, Americans were encouraged to buy orange-and-black printed crepe paper aplenty, or otherwise purchase Dennison's pre-fabricated stock pieces, in order to have the most fabulous and ‘weird’ Halloween parties.

Every issue included step-by-step instructions to make things like hanging honeycomb pumpkins, haunting hallways and hidden fortune tellers that would foretell romance and frivolous woe.

There were even instructions on how to make wear-once, worry-free costumes.

They were, of course, made of crepe paper.

Generic by today's standards, these disposable costumes were usually archetypically spooky Halloween characters such as harlequin figures, fortune tellers, and witches. Sometimes, girls wore more 'pretty' thematic costumes, like 'Night' or 'The Moon.'

And these outfits were always illustrated in shades of orange, red, and black.

Weird designs and bright orange in contrast with black make it possible to create very striking costumes for the Hallowe’en party with very little work.

The ongoing success and novelty of Dennison's Bogie Books set forth the iconic color palette of modern Halloween.

As other companies, such as The Beistle Company, took their cues from Dennison, they also promoted the orange-and-black color scheme for their own seasonal products.

Other publications also followed suit, contributing their own decorating advice to Halloween hostesses.

Dennison’s Bogie Books were published annually from 1912 until 1935. Only two years halted its production--the Great World War in 1918, and the onset of the Depression in 1932.

They remain some of the most highly sought-after Halloween ephemera among collectors, even today.

And thanks to the Dennison Manufacturing Company, Halloween and its allure is anything but ephemeral.

Some [superstitions] have been added—some lost; but we today, in America, celebrate the night for its weird mystery and flavor of romance, and because its games foretell the future.

Even if it turns out that Hallowe'en is made of crepe paper.

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This is Halloween: The Headless Horseman

Watch Your Head: Dullahans & Death Coaches

Here, there be horsemen.

In English literature, he is Sir Gawain's immortal combatant, the Green Knight. In Scottish legends, he is Ewen-of-Little-Head. And in Irish folklore, he is the Dullahan.

As you may have guessed if you were a Lit major who remembers certain medieval poems, the Dullahan is the headless rider of a gigantic steed.

Unlike the Green Knight, however, the Dullahan's ink-black horse breathes sparks and flames from its gaping nostrils, and the Dullahan holds his head--which sometimes described as having the color and/or consistency of moldy cheese--aloft, which aids his supernatural sight.

His head, with its deep hollows for eyes and its rictus grin, is sometimes secured beneath his leg instead. He rides with a long whip... made of human vertebrae.

Celts are morbid.

He rides in pursuit of a single mortal soul: a particular person doomed to die at the Dullahan's gruesome whim. But the dullahan is also afflicted with limited speech, and is only able to utter one name--this one person's name--per journey.

And this one person cannot escape the Dullahan, because all locks, no matter the gate or door, will open to him.

If another unfortunate soul happens to see the dread Dullahan, he will blind one or both their eyes--striking it out with his grotesque whip--or throw a bucket of blood in their face.

Celts are really, really morbid.

This grim rider reportedly originated in the worship of Crom Dubh, a fertility god who demanded human sacrifice. This sacrifice, undertaken by a certain ancient Irish king, was best made by decapitation.

But when Catholicism galloped in to change the world, Crom Dubh still demanded headless sacrifice, and manifested in so-called corporeal form, as the Dullahan.

The Dullahan's counterpart in other regions of Ireland is the Coiste Bodhar, or Death Coach.

The Coiste Bodhar's headless coachman reigns four or a half-dozen pitch black horses, who pull a coach made of coffins and/or human bones.

The Death Coach moves at such unnatural speed that the brush lining the road it barrels down are often set to flame. The rickety rumbling of its wheels is often accompanied by a banshee's wail.

Scotland has its own death coach: a pale shade, ringing for and collecting the dead, that haunts the cobbled Royal Mile in Edinburgh. As in Ireland, to witness the Death Coach is an omen of your demise.

And of course, the Dullahan inspired author Washington Irving as he wrote his short story set in Sleepy Hollow, New York.

We know the tale by our modern Dullahan: the Headless Horseman. He is an agile rider bearing a carved pumpkin as his severed head. And after a harvest festival rife with ghost stories and punctuated by refused marriage proposals, the Headless Horseman pursues schoolmaster Ichabod Crane into the deep autumn night, toward the Old Dutch Burying Ground.

Ichabod Crane is never seen again.

All that is left of him is his hat, his horse's tramped saddle, and a pumpkin shattered on the ground. His ghost, old wives have said, wanders melancholy throughout the village of Sleepy Hollow, "spirited away" as he was "by supernatural means."

Despite your recollections of certain awesomely Gothic film from 1999, the original story did not speak so much to the Horseman being a real supernatural presence.

Instead, it implies that Brom Bones, costumed as the ghost of the Headless Horseman, chased down Ichabod Crane and either banished him or outright murdered him, all for Katrina Van Tassel's hand in marriage.

The Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow New York, 1907.


And in a fun historical twist, it turns out that Ichabod Crane was a real man--not an awkward schoolmaster, but a career soldier in the United States Army, who participated in the War of 1812, and with whom Washington Irving had become acquainted.

Major Crane is buried on Staten Island in one of the most awesomely eerie cemeteries I've ever beheld.

Happy Halloween, friends.

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This Is Halloween: Honoring the Dead

Our Dearly Departed: Samhain, Lemuralia, & the Evolution of Hallowmas

As has been pointed out countless times before this, agricultural societies tend to share a calendar when it comes to death celebrations. It's the natural progression of the seasons: autumn is The Dying Time.

I've never met anyone who doesn't have at least a passing familiarity with Samhain (but seriously, it's pronounced SAW-ehn, ok?)

It's, like, Protohalloween.

One of four time-passage (i.e., seasonal) festivals of the Celtic calendar, Samhain began on October 31 and marked the end of the harvest period and the onset of winter. This was also when livestock were selected for slaughter.

During this eerie transitional time, the veil between the natural world and the otherworld was lifted, and various rituals were performed in response, some varying by region.

Hilltop bonfires are a popular example. Sometimes a bonfire was used for protection via"sympathetic" magic, by imitating the sun and thereby enveloping the revelers in light as darkness dominated the year; many people would steal this protective flame and circle their home with torch in hand, to trace a protective circle. Other rituals used the fire for divination and games.

Fire was also a staple of cleansing rituals, such as inhaling smoke, or walking one by one between a pair of bonfires.

Some speculate that bonfires having drawn in bats led to the creatures' primitive association with Halloween. Because firelight attracts bugs, and bats wouldn't have been far behind, regularly sweeping in for dinner. So in an electricity-less age, a Samhain bonfire would have been one of the few opportunities to see this strange, shrieking creature dart in and out of the light.

Accounts of so many different Samhain rituals float around without ever citing a time period, coz frankly, we don't really know. What we do know is that the liminality was celebrated and feared. The Otherworld invited the visits of fairies and the dead into our human realm, as passage was free and easy on this in-between day.

Some, like your ancestors, you welcomed to your dinner table with an empty chair and reverent silence; some, you tried to ward away from your home with glowing, carved gourds, or trick by disguising yourself so they could not find you. It's said that this eventually became "guising,: or putting on a costume and going door to door to recite snippets of poems or plays in exchange for food.

But if you wandered out into the night, there was a chance you could find yourself lost in the Otherworld. To propitiate these sprites and ghosts, offerings of food, usually a portion of the crop, or drinks would be left outside for them.

Honoring the dead is, of course. a pan-cultural phenomenon.

There's Dia de Muertos, for instance, which originated with Aztec celebrations; as the rituals spread throughout Mexico, it was eventually moved to coincide with the Catholic triduum of Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day.

Rife with cempasuchiles and happy skulls, it honors and celebrates the departed.

And then there are the forgotten festivals.

Lemuria, an ancient Roman festival, had massive influence over the Catholic calendar. According to Ovid, it began when Romulus, the surviving twin founder of Rome, was haunted by the angry ghost of his murdered brother Remus (Remuria became Lemuria, you see).

Lemuria was celebrated on alternating days mid-May (Maius): May 9, 11, and 13.

The grimmest of all those days was the last. The ghosts of those poorly departed never given proper rites were called "lemures" would wander the mortal world, seeking to bond with the living, usually a household. But they could not necessarily be trusted, since they were not family.

For those ghosts who weren't your forebears, you left offerings of leftover food, coins, or water or milk--sometimes at a crossroad--to ease their journeys, but on broken platters, so they knew they were not welcome to stay. I've also heard of milk being poured on graves to quell these ghosts.

But during Lemuria, there were also the larvae--the restless, vengeful dead who would haunt the living.

Ancient Roman mosaic representing the Wheel of Fortune.


To dispel the larvae from a home, the family patriarch would rise in the night and wash his hands three times. Then--barefoot, or at least with no bounds or knots in his clothing or shoes--he throws beans over his shoulder, or according to some, spits them out. As he goes, he recites an incantation to "redeem him and his" from the evil larvae.

He would do this in every room, nine times each, and at the end, he or the family made a freaking racket with bronze pans or gongs (or whatever) while banishing the larvae with another incantation.

In 609 A.D., the Pope turned Lemuria into All Saints Day. And some historians speculate that All Saints Day as we know it, a.k.a. All Hallows Day, was moved to its current place in the calendar by the Church specifically to remove focus from the pagan ritual of Samhain.

This made October 31 All Hallows Evening--the night before All Hallows Day.

Then All Hallows Even.

Then Hallowe'en.

And in case you were wondering: yes, the lemurs of Madagascar were named after the lemures. Because of their wide eyes and ghostly faces.

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This Is Halloween: Jack O’Lantern

Ghost Lights: The Jack O'Lantern

Jack O'Lanterns are, of course, the icon of Halloween; creating them is a holiday tradition until itself.

"Carving a Jack O'Lantern" by Enoch Wood Perry, Jr. 1895.


They're also not a little eerie to look at, and many people might casually cite their association with Halloween as the reason why.

But the truth is, the jack o'lantern resembles something that we, as humans, are hardwired to be wary of.

The overly large and hollow eye sockets. The triangular hole where a nose should be. The very wide, stiff grin, which is not dissimilar to the rictus of a corpse...

Summarily, they look like skulls and dead faces.

Halloween was not the impetus for gourd carving.

It's been tradition for thousands of years, for varying uses, across cultures. But like so many Halloween-specific traditions, we owe the jack o'lanterns we know to the Irish and the Highland Scots.

But what we consider a jack o'lantern is actually version 2.0, or even 3.0. Because in the old world, there were no pumpkins.

The prototypical jack o'lanterns were actually turnips, or sometimes potatoes, that more or less looked like mummified Voldemort.

At first glance, they don't have a very fanciful origin story.

In Britain, as far back as the mid-1600s or so, any nightwatchman with a lantern was reportedly called Jack--"Jack" being the all-encompassing name that was given to a man whose name you didn't know.

You, dear reader, might notice that a great many trickster and wily sprites also have this name, such as Jack Frost and Jack and the Beanstalk, even Jack in the Box. They all invite mischief and surprise. But that's a tangent for another day.

Eventually, though, Jack the Nightwatchman, swinging his lantern in the distance, began to morph with a legend. Specifically, that of a particular motherf cker named Stingy Jack.

There are about a thousand variants, but the following two appear to be very popular.

Jack was a thief and a fiend. One day, while going about in all his nary-do-wellness, he came across the Devil himself. Instead of letting his soul be stolen, Jack tricked the Devil into climbing a tree.

And while the poor Devil was up there, Jack carved a cross into the trunk so he couldn't get down. When Jack finally took it easy on the Devil and let him out of the tree, he did so in exchange for the promise that the Devil would never, ever take his soul.

In the second version, Jack is still a thief and a fiend. By different means and in various settings, Jack tricks the Devil into morphing in a coin, and then he hops into Jack's wallet.

But to the Devil's disadvantage, there is also tiny blessed crucifix in the wallet, so the Devil is again unable to free himself.

Jack, again, extorts the Devil, promising his freedom only if he received the same promise from him.

The result of both stories is the same. Jack eventually dies, as one inevitably does.

But God isn't having any of his sinful thievery in Heaven, and the Devil swore that old oath never to take his soul.

But the Devil--being as kind as he is apparently gullible--takes up an ember from the fires of Hell, that will burn bright for all eternity. And he gifts it to Jack, so the poor fellow can see his way as he wanders the lightless countryside.

Forsaken by both Heaven and Hell, Jack hollows out a turnip to contain Hell's ember--a makeshift lantern, if you will. And so he, Jack o' the Lantern, was damned to wander the twilight realm of lost souls forevermore, with only a glowing turnip to light his way.

And faraway through the deep night, people could see the bobbing flicker of Jack's undying ember.

But were people actually witnessing a homeless ghost? Or were they seeing a march of the fairy folk?

Alternatively called ghost lights, hobby lanterns, or a will o' the wisp.

Painting by Hermann Hendrich, 1823.


Scotland's Will o' the Wisp functions on the same premise as Stingy Jack.

Will, however, was a wicked blacksmith who botched the second chance St. Peter granted him at Heaven's gate, and likewise is so condemned to wander the earth forever with only a coal from the Devil to light his path. Will's "wisp" is a bundle lit to make a torch, whose moving, winking flame would, at a distance, also appear to be an atmospheric ghost.

Will o' the Wisp, however, would seem to be a little meaner than Stingy Jack. Jack may have thwarted the Devil, Will lures night travelers to watery deaths, as his light often appears hovering just above lochs.

These ghost lights and will o-the-wisps also have a scientific name: Ignis Fatuus, which in medieval Latin means "fool's fire."

Both Ireland and Scotland have no dearth of marshy terrain. These wetlands have a signature natural phenomenon: fire, spit up from the surface of the water, which occurs when gasses--specifically, those generated by organic decay--oxidate.

The result is phosphorescence: a flickering belch of flame.

Other proposed explanations include the bioluminescence of fireflies and particular forms of fungi, or the light reflecting off of whiteish-colored animals like owls, which would account for the more erratic and reactionary movement of the "flames."

These flames were explained by people via superstitions within the context of their cultures; id est, with fairy stories and ghost legends.

So what people were witnessing in the night honestly may have been fire. Just not fire carried by a restless soul who duped the Devil.

When the Irish and the Scots hit American shores in droves, so did the many elements that would eventually coalesce into American Halloween.

The first reference to a jack o'lantern in American writing is found in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Twice-Told Tales" from 1837: "Why, it will gleam through the holes, and make thee look like a jack-o’ lantern!"

But the difference between the old world and the new was this: turnips were out, and pumpkins were SO in. Pumpkins are plentiful here, especially in the month of October--it's their harvest season after all. Plus, they were larger than turnips--about as big as a human head, really.

"No Hallowe'en with a Jack-O'-Lantern" by Ruth Edna Kelley, 1919.


And that meant they were just big enough to look like haunted, disembodied heads, especially when they were carved with gruesome faces.

With such limitless possibilities for frights, Jack o'lanterns were favored for Halloween pranks. They were often stuck on the end of a pike, so rascals could go around terrorizing their neighbors. Boys would randomly prop a jack o'lantern up in front of darkened windows.

Imagine all the screams of fright echoing down the streets while glowing orange jack o'lanterns swung in the air and darted around corners.

Halloween postcard published by Woodruff House in Ohio, 1901.


Yeah, Hell Night and all those destructive pranks associated with Halloween are also considered to have Scotch-Irish origins.

You're welcome, America.

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This is Halloween: Houdini

Rosabelle: Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini died on Halloween 1926, at the age of only 52. The self-proclaimed "escapologist" died from peritonitis.

Harry Houdini, courtesy of the Library of Congress.


His death was all because of some gut punches thrown by a McGill University student named J. Gordon Whitehead.

Houdini had been in a reclining position in his dressing room, recuperating from a recently broken ankle and reportedly reading mail when Whitehead and his friend ushered themselves in.

Because Houdini had been bragging that he could take any strikes to his abdomen if he was able to brace himself first, Whitehead took him up on the challenge.

Under the impression that Houdini had, in fact, braced himself, Whitehead landed four quick blows to Houdini's unguarded torso.

Poster of one of Harry Houdini's shows, courtesy of the Library of Congress.


Houdini performed that night in gruesome pain, and for two days thereafter.

When he finally went to the doctor, he had a 102 °F fever and was told to go to the hospital immediately to remove his appendix. Instead, he decided to put in his show as planned.

By the time he began, his fever had escalated to 104 °F, and by the third act, he had collapsed behind the curtain. Even then, he couldn't be convinced to go to the hospital until the next morning. And then it was too late.

Houdini's alleged last words were, "I'm tired of fighting."

After his death, his friends claimed a variety of supernatural events, like his inscription vanishing from a book, and a bust of Houdini shattering without cause. But his wife, Beatrice ("Bess"), was still devoted and waiting.

And thus began a new Halloween tradition: the Houdini Seance.

Every year, on the anniversary of his death, a seance was held at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood by Houdini's widow. For 10 years, she waited for a sign from beyond the veil.

Spiritualism--you know, the seances and knocking and such--was the belief that the living could communicate with the deceased via a proxy or "spirit medium." It was the bee's knees in the 20s, and Houdini was having exactly none of that BS.

Houdini had a vendetta against spirit mediums. It was an animosity that developed after the death of his beloved mother in 1913.

Houdini with his mother and his wife, Bess, courtesy of the Library of Congress.


In earnest, he had turned to spirit communication, where he learned they were exploitative charlatans.

So he made it his purpose to expose them.

In the course of his crusade, Houdini debunked countless psychics; most notable was the famed medium Margery, also known as the Blonde Witch of Lime Street. Because of this, Houdini drew the repudiation of no less than Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was also an ardent believer in fairies. (No, seriously, though.)

From "Spirit Tricks," in Popular Science, December, 1925.


Margery had been presented to a panel of skeptics convened by Scientific American; they offered a $2,500 reward for a medium who could outwit them all.

They actually considered validating Margery, until Houdini was informed.

Enraged, he dropped all his shows and rushed to Boston to witness Margery's seance. He went on to expose all of her trickery, but his condemnation of her was not to be taken lightly--she was a celebrity medium, after all.

Rumor has it that Margery's spirit guide, "named" Walter, assured an audience in 1926 that Houdini would be dead by Halloween of the same year.

From "How I Unmask the Spirit Fakers," Popular Science, November, 1925.


Walter was not wrong.

Having been dead-set on his vendetta, Houdini had devised an elaborate code with his wife, Bess, to disprove his own ghostly presence, if he died first.

If an afterlife existed, he'd come back, and the code would ensure Bess wasn't being swindled.

Despite how this story has so often been spun, this was, in this writer's opinion, not a romantic gesture: Houdini was a vehement anti-spiritualist and a famously vain man. He would prove there was no afterlife, even in death.

Houdini disproving spirit photography with the "ghost" of Abraham Lincoln, 1920s. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.


That isn't to say the Houdinis weren't close (though they had their difficulties. Trust me.) How they met is still up for debate because they kinda loved to mindf ck people, but all the stories are charming regardless. Harry's brother said they met because he was dating her first, while they were performing.

Bess said they met when Houdini spilled something on her dress during a magic act at her school. Houdini himself said he "eloped with [Bess] out of her schoolbooks." At one point, while drinking, Bess reportedly told a friend that she "sold her virginity to Houdini for an orange."

Houdini (seated) with his brother "Hardeen," circa 1901.


In 1929, a medium named Arthur Ford claimed to have successfully channeled Houdini's ghost, and arranged a seance with Bess for January 8. Ford apparently successfully used the code, and he even had Bess sign a witness statement on her own stationary (though "not in her own hand.")

She even gave an enthused interview to the New York Times.

Bess, however, was recuperating from a fall down a flight of stairs and was heavily medicated (and by some accounts, an alcoholic.)

As it was reported that Houdini had at last returned from the grave, the skeptics rushed in. They claimed that Bess sold the code to Ford ahead of time, or that she just wanted fame.

Eventually, a now-sober and much-pestered Bess recanted her belief in Ford's message.

The code had apparently been revealed to a reporter the year before OR written in a book OR reported to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Arthur Ford had (unlike his contemporaries) done his research.

Upon Ford's death in 1971, his executor found proof that the Houdini seance was faked, as well as his extensive files of research on his other clients.

The Ford debacle aside, every Halloween, for ten years, Bess held a seance to reach her husband in the afterlife.

The so-called Final Seance was held on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel in L.A., and was broadcast on the radio. For an hour, they tried to summon Houdini, complete with desperate outcries.

At the end of the hour, Bess announced, "Houdini did not come through. My last hope is gone. I do not believe that Houdini can come back to me, or to anyone. The Houdini Shrine has burned for ten years. I now, reverently turn out the light," she said, snuffing the candle she had kept lit for a decade. "It is finished. Good night, Harry!"

Bess retired from the Houdini Seance in 1936--she famously stated that "ten years is long enough to wait for any man"--but the tradition continues officially AND unofficially to this day.

Bess Houdini died in 1943. She was buried against her wishes in a separate cemetery than her husband, because they were of differing faiths. (He, Jewish; she, Catholic.)

So what was the code?

It had been used by the Houdinis regularly in their mind-reading acts, and was a phrase made like this: a series of words, each one representing a letter, which thus created a word.

When finished--if correct--the code was, "Rosabelle, b-e-l-i-e-v-e."

Rosabelle was the song that Bess and Harry sang in their first performance together... or the song she sang when he fell in love with her during her performance on Coney Island.

Poster advertising Harry and Bess Houdini by Liebler & Maass, circa 1895. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.


You know, depending on who was telling the story, and when.

Open post

This Is Halloween: Giles Corey

Peine Forte et Dure: Giles & Martha Corey

Giles Corey was born in England sometime in the summer of 1611, as parish records indicate that he was baptized on August 16, 1611. Data indicates that he may have moved to the colony as early as 1640 with his first wife, who bore him four daughters.

They originally settled in Salem Town, which was an "urban" and liberal seaport, before moving to Salem Village, which was backwoods and conservative, in order to farm.

His second wife bore him a son.

Giles's third wife, married in 1690, was Martha.

Martha had her scandals. She had given birth to an illegitimate son, Ben, in 1677, and he was of mixed race. She then married, and had a legitimate son named Thomas Rich.

Martha's past, however, did not trouble Giles, who was approaching 80 and had committed transgressions of his own. Specifically, he had been tried for the murder of his farmhand, Jacob Goodale (sometimes spelled Goodell or Goodall), in 1675. Giles allegedly beat the hell out of Jacob with a stick when he caught him stealing apples. Giles claimed Jacob had fallen from a horse or cart and broken his arm.

Giles eventually sent Jacob for medical treatment over a week later, but it was too little, too late. Since it was totes legal to use corporal punishment with indentured servants, Giles was accused of unreasonable force instead of outright murder and was found guilty.

So he paid a fine, and that was that.

Giles was also known for petty larceny and random acts of vandalism; the Proctors even suspected Giles for starting a fire to their property.

And I bet you thought Puritans were boring.

But back to the trials: Giles Corey was accused in the latter part of the debacle, after his own wife had been tried for witchcraft.

Illustration of Martha Corey's trial by John W. Ehninger. Originally published in "The Complete Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow," 1902.


Dear reader, you may sometimes see stories that Giles actually participated in Martha's condemnation of witchcraft due to the damning fact that she seemed to read a whole lot, but that particular detail is thanks to Arthur Miller's character in The Crucible.

In reality, Martha was a pious and devoted woman who was unabashed about her disbelief in the girls' accusations. She made it clear that she didn't believe witches existed, period.

Which, of course, solicited accusations of witchcraft against her.

During Martha's trial, in which she pleaded innocence with unnerving calmness, the girls performed their typical histrionics. A tall and ominous man was whispering in Martha's ear, they said. A yellow bird--i.e., her familiar, which was gifted to her by Satan as an emissary--was suckling from the flesh between her fingertips, they said.

Illustration of Martha Corey as she's accused of harnessing "a flock of yellow birds." By Howard W. Pyle for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1893.


Additionally, before Martha's arrest, one of the most vocal accusers, Ann Putnam, Jr., had claimed Martha's spectre was tormenting her.

So the magistrates asked her what clothes Martha was wearing, and then went to go see for themselves, to confirm that Martha's clothes matched the girl's description. But Ann found herself conveniently blinded by Martha's evil hand, and thus could neither confirm nor deny Martha's wardrobe choices.

Unsurprisingly, Martha was found guilty and sent to jail, although she was later temporarily transferred to Boston due to overcrowding.

Giles, good guy that he was, had actually testified against his wife on March 24, 1692.

He declared that he'd found his ox "hipped" (id est, lame) in the yard and he was unable to yoke him, and that their cat seemed dead and Martha told him to knock it in the head, but he didn't, and it was somehow "presently" well.

Plus, he had seen Martha kneeling at the hearth as if in prayer, but didn't actually hear her praying.

She was, clearly, a witch.

But once Giles was accused himself of being a wizard, he refused to enter any more evidence against Martha.

Moreover, he refused to enter a plea, and because of this, trial could not proceed.

Historians still differ in their opinions about why Giles "stood mute," as was the widely used legal term for Giles's strategy. Some insist that Giles would not enter a plea because he knew that, if he did please and was invariably found guilty, that his expansive property and his prosperous holdings would be forfeited to authorities. By his refusal to plead himself neither innocent nor guilty, Giles's property would be passed on according to his final will and testament.

Some further believe that he was primarily accused to facilitate this very seizure; this hypothesis is supported by the fact that Sheriff Corwin extorted money from Giles's children. His daughter filed for damages in 1710.

Others believe that the interpretation of the law preserved a convicted person's right to pass his estate to his selected heirs, and moreover, that Giles had previously deeded his land away in anticipation of this issue. So "standing mute," it's argued, was the ultimate protest to preserve his name.

Engraving of Giles Corey's trial by C.S. Reinhardt. Originally published in "A Popular History of the United States," Vol. II, 1878.


And so, Giles Corey was crushed to death.

Because Giles refused to enter his plea, Sheriff George Corwin, assigned by the Court of Oyer and Terminer, decided to enact Peine Forte Et Dure to "press" a confession out of the old man.

But pressing was more involved than just putting jagged rocks on top of someone.

On September 17, 1692, in accordance with Corwin's orders, Giles was stripped naked and dragged through a field beside the jail. There, they had dug a shallow pit and put a wooden board on top of it. They forced Giles down, put another plank on top of him, and then began piling weight on, rock by dreadful rock.

And he said not a word.

By all accounts, Giles did not even cry out. For two days, he endured this medieval torture without speaking, and without reprieve. Law mandated that he was only given three pieces of the "worst bread" and three servings of water, alternating by day until a confession was forthcoming.

And until then: rock. By. Rock.

Illustration of the pressing of Giles Corey. Originally published in "Witchcraft Illustrated," 1892.


By September 19, Giles's eyes were bulging from their sockets, and his tongue was stuck outside of his mouth. Accounts indicate that Sheriff Corwin, during one of his attempts to solicit confession, stuck Giles's tongue back in with the tip of his cane.

Corwin tried three times to eke a plea out of Giles, reportedly even standing on top of the pressing stones. But Giles only deigned to beg, "More rocks." (It's most often reported as "More weight." But that may have also been extrapolated from Miller's The Crucible.)

It's told that with his dying breath, Giles Corey cursed Sheriff Corwin and the whole of Salem.

By Howard W. Pyle for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1893.


Accounts of anyone being subjected to Peine Forte Et Dure are unusual, and singular to Giles Corey on the American continent.

Martha Corey was hanged at Proctor's Ledge three days later on September 22, 1692.

A memorial, which consists of inscribed benches for each of the executed, bears both their names.

Memorial to Giles Corey.


Giles Corey's gruesome execution, along with the noose-side recitation of the Lord's Prayer by Reverend George Burroughs, is rumored to have incited doubt in Salem's hysterical residents about the validity of the witch trials.

Giles's curse was said to plague all Salem sheriffs with heart and/or sanguine diseases until they moved the Sheriff Department out of town in the early 1990s.

The curse began with George Corwin himself, who suffered a fatal heart attack at only 30 years old in 1696. It was less than four years after Giles's execution.

And in 1978, Salem Sheriff Robert Cahill suffered his own sanguine conditions, including heart attack and stroke. He looked back through department records to find that each of his predecessors had, too.

Giles Corey's apparition was reportedly witnessed the night before the devastating Salem fire of 1914. Legend persists that to see his ghost is a harbinger of misfortune in Salem.

* Note: The Salem Witch Trials are relentlessly associated with Halloween, which I have not and do not agree with... Just because the word "witch" is used does not change the fact that it was a horrific travesty of justice. Salem itself, however, appears to have no such qualms. And because Halloween always draws attention to the trials, this is easily the best time to present a history lesson and memorial.

So there's the why of it.

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