For Harry Houdini, Séances and Spiritualism Were Just an Illusion


houdini exposed false spiritualistic practices by having himself photographed with the “ghost” of abraham lincoln. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Harry Houdini was just 52 years old when he died on Halloween in 1926, succumbing to peritonitis caused by a ruptured appendix. Famous in life for his improbable escapes from physical limitations, the illusionist promised his wife, Bess, that, if possible, he, too, would throw off the shackles of death to send her a coded message from the afterlife. For the next ten years, Bess hosted annual séances to see if the so-called King of Wives would show up with an encore performance from the spirit world. But on Halloween 1936, she finally gave up and declared to the world: “Houdini didn’t show up. … I don’t think houdini can come back to me, or anyone else.”

Despite Bess’s lack of success, the Houdini séance ritual persists to this day. Although visitors are prohibited from visiting the wizard’s grave on Halloween, devotees continue to gather for the tradition elsewhere. Always the attention seeker in life, Houdini would be honored that fans are still celebrating the anniversary of his death after 95 years. however, he would probably be mortified to learn that these memories take the form of a séance.

In the last years of his life, Houdini, once openly curious about spiritualism (a religious movement based on the belief that the dead could interact with the living), publicly railed against fraudulent mediums who deceived the living. grieving clients. From his money a few months before his death, Houdini even testified before Congress in support of legislation that would have criminalized fortune-telling and “any person who purports… to unite the separated” in the district of Columbia.

Described by the Washington Post as “scandalous,” the 1926 congressional hearings marked the culmination of Houdini’s all-consuming mission to stamp out false mediums. At first, the magician stated his case clearly: “this thing called spiritualism, where a medium communicates with the dead, is a fraud from beginning to end.”

“[These hearings were] the pinnacle of Houdini’s anti-spiritual crusade,” says David Jaher, author of The Witch of Lime Street, a 2015 book about Houdini’s yearlong campaign to denounce a Boston medium like a fraud. “This [work] is what I wanted to be remembered for. I didn’t want to go down in history as a magician or escapist.”

For Houdini, a man who made his living suspending disbelief with clever and innovative illusions, spirit mediums transgressed both the ethics and the art of their craft. Houdini rejected claims by others that he himself possessed supernatural powers, preferring the label “mystery artist.” he mocked those who professed psychic gifts but performed their tricks in the dark, where, as a further insult to his profession, “the medium need not even be a skilled conjurer.”

Worse still was the breach of trust, as the concerned or grieving bystander never learned that the spiritual manifestations were pure magic. houdini had more respect for the highway robber, who at least had the courage to prey on victims in the open. However, in trying to expose the frauds, the magician was met with claims that he was infringing on religion, a response that illuminates the rising tensions in 1920s America, where people increasingly turned to science. and rationalist thought to explain the mysteries of life. Involving leading figures of the time, from Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle to inventor Thomas Edison, the ramifications of this clash between science and faith can still be felt today.

the roots of spiritualism lie in 1840s new york: specifically, in hydesville, the home of the fox sisters, who cleverly cracked their knuckles to fool their mother, then the neighbors and then to the world that these disembodied raps were messages from another world. over the next few decades, the movement gained steam, drawing followers from all seasons. During the 1860s, when many Americans turned to spiritualism amid the devastation of the Civil War, First Lady Mary Lincoln held séances at the White House to comfort herself after the death of her second-youngest son, Willie, because of typhoid fever. later first ladies also consulted fortune tellers. Marcia Champney, a clairvoyant based in D.C. whose livelihood was threatened by proposed 1926 legislation, boasted both edith wilson and florence harding as clients.

even leading scientists believed in spiritualism. English physicist sir oliver lodge, whose work was key to the development of radio, was one of the main promoters of spiritualism in the united states. Creator of the syntonic tuner, which allows radios to tune to specific frequencies, Lodge saw séances as a way to tune into messages from the spirit world. Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, similarly experimented with tools for spiritual transmissions, seeing them as the next natural evolution of communication technology. as jaher says, “the idea [was] that you could connect with people on the other side of the ocean, [so] why can’t you connect through the etheric field?”

in 1920, houdini befriended one of spiritualism’s most ardent supporters, conan doyle. Physician and creator of Holmes, literature’s most celebrated rationalist thinker, Conan Doyle was also nicknamed “The St. Pablo of spiritualism.” In the writer’s company, Houdini feigned more openness to spiritualism than he actually possessed, biting his tongue during a séance at which Conan Doyle’s wife, Jean, a medium who claimed to be an expert in automatic writing, scribbled a message from Five pages purportedly from Houdini’s late mother. (The magician once wrote that the crushing loss of his mother in 1913 led him to search determinedly for a genuine medium, but some Houdini experts argue otherwise.) After the séance, Houdini privately concluded that Jean was not a true medium. . her Jewish mother, the wife of a rabbi, would not have drawn a cross on each page of a message to her son.

The pair’s friendship was strained when Houdini’s private opinion of Conan Doyle’s spiritualist beliefs turned into a public disagreement. the men spent years waging a cold war on the press; during lecture tours; and even before the congress, where houdini’s opinion of conan doyle as “one of the biggest fools” is preserved in a transcript of the hearing.

While Houdini, by his own estimates, investigated hundreds of spiritualists over a span of 35 years, his involvement in an investigation dominated international headlines in the years leading up to his trip to Washington. In 1924, at the urging of Conan Doyle, Scientific American offered a $2,500 prize to any medium who could produce physical manifestations of spirit communications under strict test conditions. “Scientific American was a big deal in those days. they were kind of ’60 minutes’ of their time,” Jaher says. “They were investigative journalists. they revealed many deceptions”. The magazine assembled a jury of eminent scientific men, including psychologists, physicists, and mathematicians from Harvard, MIT, and other major institutions. The group also counted Houdini among its members “as an assurance to the public that none of his tricks of the trade have been practiced on committee.”

after ruling out several contestants, the committee turned its attention to margery crandon, the upper-class woman of boston medium margery crandon, the wife of a harvard-trained doctor. Her performance, while a hoax, suggested that a magician’s talents rivaled Houdini’s. While in a trance, his hands controlled by others, Crandon channeled a spirit that reportedly whispered into the ears of séance attendees, pinching them, prodding them, pulling their hair, floating roses under their noses. and even moved objects and furniture around the place. room.

the main organizer of the contest, whom houdini criticized for being too nice to crandon, refused to invite the magician to the first sessions, precisely because his rigorous scrutiny threatened to upset the symbiotic relationship between medium and jury. “She was very attractive and … she used her sexuality to flirt with men and disarm them,” says Joe Nickel, a former magician and Pinkerton Agency detective who has enjoyed a legendary career as a paranormal investigator. “Houdini was not fooled by his tricks. … [Yet], she gave Houdini a run for her money.” Afraid that Scientific American would award Crandon the prize for his insistence that she was a fraud, the magician preemptively issued a 40-page pamphlet titled Houdini Exposes Tricks Used by Boston Media “Margery.” Ultimately, he convinced the magazine to deny Crandon the award.

Houdini’s use of street intelligence to hold America’s leading scientific authorities accountable inspired many of his followers to similarly discredit spiritualism. Echoing Houdini’s statement that “the more educated a man is in certain ways, the easier it is to fool him,” Remigius Weiss, a former Philadelphia medium and witness who supported the illusionist at the congressional hearing, further explained the vulnerabilities of scientists’ thinking :

They have built a kind of theory and they treasure it like the gardener with his flowers. when they come to these mediumistic sessions, this theory is in their minds. …with a man like mr. Houdini, a practical man who has ordinary common sense and science at his disposal, cannot fool him. he is a scientist and a philosopher.

when he arrived in washington for the congressional hearings, houdini found a city teeming with spiritualism. At a May 1926 hearing, Rose Mackenberg, a woman Houdini had hired to investigate and document the practices of local mediums, detailed a covert visit to spiritualist leader Jane B. Coates, stating that the medium told him during a consultation that Houdini’s campaign was pointless. “why try to combat spiritualism when most senators are interested in the issue?” Coates asked. “…I know for a fact that seances have been held at the White House with President Coolidge and his family.”

In his testimony, Houdini exhibited the skills of a litigator and a showman, giving the house caucus room a master class in the tricks mediums employ. (“It takes a flim-flammer to catch a flim-flammer,” he told the Los Angeles Times, citing his early years in vaudeville, when he dabbled in false spiritual communication.) into the ear of a congressman and whispered into the tube to illustrate how mediums convinced séance guests that spirits had descended in darkness. Houdini also showed lawmakers how messages from the afterlife that mysteriously appeared on “spirit boards” could be made up in advance, hidden, and then revealed, all with a sleight of hand.

According to Jaher, the crowd listening to Houdini’s comment included “300 fortune tellers, spirit mediums, and astrologers who attended these hearings to defend themselves.” not all fit in the room. they were hanging from the windows, sitting on the ground, they were in the corridors”. As the Evening Star reported, “Today’s house caucus room was thrown into chaos for over an hour as ‘Psychic Researcher’ Harry Houdini and scores of spiritualists, mediums and clairvoyants engaged in verbal and near-physical battles over their determination to push through legislation in the district that prohibits fortune-telling in any form.”

Houdini’s monomaniacal search for spirit mediums did not sit well with many. On the opening day of the hearings, Kentucky representative Ralph Gilbert argued that “the gentleman is taking the whole thing too seriously.” others thought the wizard was soliciting congressional participation in a witch trial. Jaher explains, “[Houdini] was trying to rally the traditional mood against witchcraft, against these heretical superstitious practices in a predominantly Christian nation, to try to advance a bill that was just a flagrant form of usurpation of the prerogatives of the first amendment.” in fact, the implications of heresy forced the spiritualist coates to say: “my religion goes back to jesus christ. Houdini doesn’t know I’m a Christian.” Not to be deterred, Houdini replied, “Jesus was a Jew and he didn’t charge $2 a visit.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, anti-Semitism repeatedly reared its head as Houdini pressed his case. During the American Scientific Contest, Crandon’s husband wrote to Conan Doyle, a champion of the medium, to express his frustration with Houdini’s research and the fact that “this low-minded Jew has some right to the word American.” At the hearings, witnesses and members commented on Houdini’s Jewish faith and that of the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Sol Bloom of New York. a spiritualist testified, “judas betrayed christ. he was Jewish, and I mean this bill is being passed by two, well, you can use his opinion; I’m not making a statement.”

you need a flim-flammer to catch a flim-flammer.

in the end, the mediumship bill died in committee, its spirit never reaching the full house of congress on the other side. The die was cast early in the hearings, when members warned Houdini that the First Amendment protected Spiritualism, no matter how fraudulent its practitioners. When Houdini protested that “everyone who has practiced as a medium is a fraud,” Gilbert, a former judge, responded, “I concede all that. but what is the use of legislating about it? As for the magician’s desire for the law to protect the public from deception, the congressman resignedly noted the old adage “a fool and his money soon part.”

houdini died less than six months after the conclusion of the washington hearings. he had aroused such antipathy among spiritualists that some observers attributed his mysterious death to followers of the movement. Just before delivering a series of below-the-belt hammer blows, an enigmatic college student who had chatted with the magician before his latest show reportedly asked Houdini, “Do you believe the miracles in the Bible are true?”

The magician also received death threats from those involved in his investigation of fraudulent mediums. walter, a spirit channeled by crandon, once said in a fit of pique that houdini’s death would come soon. And Champney, writing under the alias of her psychic Madame Marcia, claimed in a magazine article written long after the illusionist’s death that she had told Houdini that she would be dead in November when she saw him at the May hearings.

Houdini failed to appreciate that Americans appreciate the freedom to be deceived. after all, his own contempt for mediums began with his declared hope that some might turn out to be genuine. the fact that none did, he said (perhaps insincerely), did not rule out the possibility that real mediums existed. Houdini also took pains to point out that he believed in God and the afterlife, both propositions that others might argue lack proof. As science advanced in Houdini’s time, many did not care that their spiritual beliefs were tested by scientific instruments; they did not believe that it was up to science to validate their beliefs. theologian gk chesterton, in his 1906 essay “skepticism and spiritualism”, said of the two disciplines, “they should have two different houses”. the empirical evidence required by science has no role in faith, he argued. “Modern people think the supernatural is so improbable that they want to see it. I think it’s just as likely that I leave him alone.”

perhaps a halloween shoot can still honor houdini’s legacy of skepticism. Nickll has been hosting Houdini séances for over 20 years, stopping just a few years ago. No one in attendance really expected Houdini to materialize. instead, the meetings acted as “an important way to remember Houdini,” he says. “You can’t miss the irony of this world-famous magician dying on Halloween and this trick of seeing if you can contact his spirit, which you know he knew you couldn’t do. it was all part of one thing to make a point. houdini’s absence he was always going to not show up.”

“unless,” adds nickl, “someone was messing with the evidence.”

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