Thursday, October 27, 2016

THE HOUDINI MANSION MYSTERY





Note:
Please read my previous post, which contains supplemental information about this story.
http://lonewolfconcerto.blogspot.com/2016/10/supplement-to-houdini-mansion-mystery.html 


Halloween night, 1920's.
In the rural, sparsely populated Hollywood Hills was a lavish three-story mansion. It was located on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, which at that time was nothing more than a seldom-traveled road. The mansion was a castle-like structure, complete with parapets and towers. It was situated on nearly four rambling acres, filled with gardens, grottoes, and a secret labyrinth of caves. A perfect setting for a Halloween party - - and for romance and danger.

The mansion was known as the Walker Estate. It was built in 1915 by department store magnate Ralf Marc Walker and he spared no expense. The home had 11 bedrooms, 9 bathrooms, a ballet room, a theater, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, and every luxury that money could buy.

An old-fashioned Halloween costume party

The Halloween costume party served a double purpose. It was also a birthday party for Walker's spoiled, self-indulgent adopted son George. On this night, to the consternation of his father, the son brought his gay lover to the party.

Legend has it that the two lovers went out on one of the balconies to see the moon. Somehow, during this romantic interlude, a heated argument ensued and eventually turned violent. In a rage, the heir to the Walker fortune pushed his lover over the balcony. The unfortunate man fell forty feet to his death.

Dapper and gay 

The family fortune served to protect Walker and son from scandal.  Every conceivable method was employed to exonerate his son. Newspaper stories were hushed. Cops, attorneys, and even the judge were paid off. The court case was dropped due to "insufficient evidence."

Ralf M. Walker died in 1935 and his widow sold the estate the following year. It fell into disrepair and eventually became a home for unemployed actors. In 1959 a great fire swept through Laurel Canyon, destroying the mansion and everything surrounding it. All that was left was the massive stone stairway to the mansion, the chauffeur's quarters, and part of the garage. That's where the real legend begins.


 This photo was taken on Laurel Canyon Boulevard
directly in front of the Walker mansion (located on the right) probably in the early 1920's. The building on the left (behind the tree) is supposedly the guest house where Houdini lived.


When I lived in Hollywood during my youth the Walker place was known as the Houdini Mansion. Everyone I talked to swore that magician Harry Houdini had owned the estate. Most intriguing of all (at least to me) was that the place was rumored to be haunted. The ghost of Houdini was said to roam the grounds late at night. Sometimes only his floating head was seen. There were other ghosts, too, including that of a woman and an executed bandit. Several Hollywood old-timers whom I spoke with recalled varying versions of the gay lover murder, and believed that the dead lover's ghost lingered there with the others.

The confusion about the ownership of the so-called Houdini Mansion persisted. It wasn't until later that I finally unearthed the true story.

Harry Houdini loved Hollywood but never owned a mansion there. He was a friend of Ralf Marc Walker and occasionally visited the Laurel Canyon estate. In 1919, Houdini came to Hollywood to make two motion pictures for the Lasky-Famous Players Studio, located on Vine Street (the movies were The Grim Game and Terror Island). During this time - a duration of about nine months - Houdini stayed at Walker's guest house. The guest house was a four-bedroom structure which was located across the street from the main mansion. A secret underground tunnel connected the mansion with the guest house.


Harry Houdini

A rare photo of Houdini by the outdoor swimming pool on the Walker estate


After Houdini's death on Halloween, 1926, his widow Bess occasionally stayed at the guest house of the Walker mansion. In 1934 she moved there and held seances in attempts to contact her deceased husband. In the summer of 1935, Bess held a party at the guest house for the Magician's Convention. 500 people attended. When the Walker estate was sold, Bess moved out of the guest house.

Sometime during the following years, Houdini's connection with the Walker mansion became legendary. Walker was completely forgotten and the crumbling estate became known solely as the Houdini Mansion.



One of the only existing public photos of the original Walker mansion, when it was obviously in a state of disrepair.


By the time I knew the place, confusion abounded - - especially because the address was changed. The original address of the estate was 2398 Laurel Canyon Boulevard. In more recent years, it was changed to 2400 Laurel Canyon. The address of the guest house across the street was 2435.

To add further confusion to the saga, a mansion located a block north of the old Walker Estate has also been mistakenly known as the Houdini Mansion. This house was owned by record producer Rick Rubin and had been used as a recording studio. The Red Hot Chili Peppers made an album there in 1991. To this day rumors of a Houdini mansion still persist, as well as tales of his presiding ghost.

The burned-out remains of the guest house were demolished in the 1960's. The remains of the main mansion were demolished in 1970. By the time I saw the place, there were only tattered remnants of what used to be, but it was still extremely intriguing.

The concrete stairway leading up to the ruins of the Walker Mansion, looking just as I remember it.


One Halloween night when I was in my early 20's - -  fortified with a generous amount of whiskey and Rainier Malt Liquor - - I went to the remains of the notorious mansion. The Houdini Mansion, or so I thought. It was extremely dark and moonless. I stumbled over the concrete remnants of steps and made my way through a maze of heavy weeds, empty gardens, and dilapidated places where grottoes had been. If ghosts exist, this was a perfect place for them to congregate.

There were stories that bandits had been hanged from trees here, long before the mansion was built. An unbalanced homeless man known as Robin Hood supposedly lived somewhere on the grounds. The spirit of a mysterious woman in white was said to wander among the trees. 

I didn't see any ghosts, but the general atmosphere was extremely creepy and reeked with potential danger. It was a place few would want to venture sober in the daylight, let alone and drunk on Halloween night.

Harry Houdini died on Halloween night.

The heir to the Walker fortune supposedly murdered his lover on Halloween night.

And I - a humble musician with an adventurous soul - wandered through the tumbling shadows and twisted paths on Halloween night in hopes of encountering  ghosts. No spirits of any form dared to materialize while I was there. But the entire place was filled with rumors of ghosts - - whispers of unfamiliar sounds, phantom shapes of suggested horrors...........
and haunting echoes of a long-ago Halloween party and the cold-blooded scent of murder.



Post Script:
The present owner of the property has completely restored the mansion and the grounds. It is now used for charity events, film productions, and various other rental purposes. Unfortunately it is still (erroneously) advertised as "The Houdini Estate" -  capitalizing on the famous magician's name.

For further reading:

 http://www.prairieghosts.com/hollywood6.html

 http://www.wildabouthoudini.com/2012/03/inside-houdini-estate.html

I'm too damn lazy to turn these into direct links - - just copy and paste. You'll eventually get there.




8 comments:

  1. Yes, I do indeed remember your post on this. Dapper and handsome indeed. And nice to read the mansion has been restored, even though just for event purposes. I lovely chilling tale before bed, thank you!

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  2. Hey Jon, I'm back online for the moment. Still trying to catch up! I can remember seeing the TV movie about Houdini (with Paul Michael Glaser). I actually liked it better than the Big Hollywood Production (with Tony Curtis). Anyway, it's always a thrill to read your blog.

    Dylan

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  3. You've had some interesting ghost hunting experiences in Hollywood. I would have happily tagged along to the remains of the old Walker mansion ... sounds like it would have been quite fascinating at the time. Enjoyable post, Jon. It's good learning new things ... thanks for that.

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  4. Excellent post. I just spent a couple of hours following your links, which led to many more links. I had no idea that there was so much information and speculation about Houdini. It looks like I could spend days reading all of it. I think I first became aware of him by seeing the movie Dylan mentioned starring Tony Curtis. It's too bad his brother destroyed all of Houdini's notes about his "tricks." Thanks for sharing.

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  5. I remember you writing about this in the past. Great story! It would have been cool to walk through the ruins... but not at night, thankyouverymuch.

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  6. Yes, I remember this delicious intrigue! Wealth sure doesn't ensure happiness, does it?
    I agree with Susan, wanting to explore the ruins ... in broad daylight!

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  7. I commend your fortitude, Jon, exploring those storied grounds at night. I'd be scared, but my experience with ghosts is we probably pass them all the time. They're not usually distinguishable from the living, except for clothing or a hairstyle somewhat out of date, and they're gone when one looks again. I don't think they mean any harm.

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  8. Very apropos for Halloween, my friend. I would love to explore than place at night!

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