The “Houdini Mansion” in Laurel Canyon is one of the most persistent urban legends in Hollywood, despite having two strikes against it. First of all, the “Houdini Mansion” is not actually a mansion. Second of all, it seems it was never owned by Harry Houdini, the famous magician that for some mysterious reason is linked to this property.
I grew up in Laurel Canyon in the 1970’s, and “The Houdini Mansion” was part of our accepted landscape. My circle of friends and I never questioned whether there was even a house atop that grand stone staircase beyond the overgrown brush, let alone whether Houdini actually ever lived there.
Now as an adult, I know the truth. Sure, there was a glorious four-story mansion built in 1915 (known as the Walker Estate) at this address at one time, but it burnt down in the great Laurel Canyon Fire of 1959 when it was a run-down boarding house for unemployed actors, and despite a local movement to preserve the property and rebuild, the remaining ruins were removed weeks later, leaving only the stairs at the entrance, the decorative brick walkways, and the rock-work surrounding the gardens.
Even then, in 1959, when local papers covered the fire, they made reference to it as the “Houdini Mansion,” and even then no one was sure why it was called that. Over the years, historians have struggled to prove Houdini even visited Laurel Canyon while he was in Los Angeles, let alone lived there. No photos exist. No documents exist. Yet, there are many tales and theories about his time in Laurel Canyon, because of his supposed close friendship with Ralf (or Ralph) M. Walker, the estate’s true owner. Considering how remote and isolated the canyon was then (1918), these stories about Houdini (even if possible) don’t seem likely.
In addition to the property’s magical moniker, according to legend, the ghost of Harry Houdini haunts this location. The sightings of a man, who is generally assumed to be Houdini, wandering the grounds are numerous. Plus, for as long as anyone can remember, ghost hunts and seances have been held on this site in hopes of communication with the magician who claimed he could escape any confinement (maybe even death). Bess Houdini, Harry’s wife, is even said to have held seances in the guest house across the street.
Given that there doesn’t seem to be a connection between Houdini, the man, and the “mansion,” his spirit haunting this site seems improbable. So, if Houdini’s spirit doesn’t visit the “Houdini Mansion,” what is really happening? Yes, If not Houdini, then who? Who is responsible for the mysterious mansion manifestations? One generally accepted theory involves a scandalous murder on the grounds early in the house’s history. Then again, before the mansion was built, it is rumored that bandits were hanged from a tree at this intersection. Could the man seen here be connected to one of those dark events?
I would like to propose an alternate explanation. As a former child resident of that neighborhood, and a student of nearby Wonderland Avenue School, I heard stories on the playground about a mentally unbalanced, homeless man, who illegally squatted on that section of hillside (1960s-1970’s) when the property appeared to be abandoned and unfenced. He apparently believed himself to be the reincarnation of (the fictional) “Robin Hood” and Laurel Canyon, in his head, was England’s Sherwood Forrest.
Kids who walked past that intersection to school, or back home, would describe their sightings of the agile vagabond who would scamper through the brush, speaking in old English. There were even (probably exaggerated) tales of the occasional stray arrow that would whiz past one’s head into a tree.
On school field trips, the students inside the school bus would press their faces against the window as we past the “Mansion,” in hopes of getting a glimpse of this colorful, dashing figure. That is, we would look for him when we were not looking above for the cave where Vasquez supposedly hid his gold, which we heard could only be seen for a fleeting moment in between the brush, while traveling Laurel Canyon Blvd.
Then, one day the sightings of “Robin Hood” just stopped. We presumed he died or moved on to his imaginary Nottingham. I must admit that in those early days, I personally never saw this “Robin Hood”, and every time I mention this local legend to a long-time resident of the canyon, no one knows what I’m talking about. Though, I have no reason to doubt the kids that did cross paths with him. Perhaps, what they actually saw was misinterpreted.
Since then, I have often wondered if the male phantom seen on the supposed Houdini property, hiding around corners or behind bushes, was actually the ghost of this generally unknown local character from the past. Then again, maybe the “man” seen back then was a ghost, himself. Whatever, the real story is, it’s clear these legends surrounding this Hollywood landmark just get bigger with time.