Differences Between Houdini and Spiritualists

face of a prisoner

Harry Houdini’s intense grief over his mother’s death did not create his interest in spiritual communication with the dead. Houdini’s mother died on July 17, 1913. Houdini as an adult had an extraordinarily close relationship with his mother. He acutely felt the lose of her presence. Houdini’s interest in spiritualism, however, long predated his mother’s death. Houdini actively sought public attention for debunking spiritualists only long after his mother’s death. Personal grief had little relevance to Houdini’s engagement with spiritualists.

Houdini regarded spiritualist as illegitimate illusionist competitors. In a mass-market book Houdini authored in 1906, Houdini stated:

Spiritualism has many followers, and at one time I was almost a believer, but this was before I made a thorough investigation, which I have followed up even to the present day. I have never seen a materialization or a manifestation which I cannot fully explain. …

Spiritualism is really a beautiful belief for those that are honest and believe in it; but as I have visited the greatest spiritualistic meetings in the world, I am sorry to say that no one has ever produced anything for me that would smack of the spiritual. …

In the future, I contemplate writing a book on spiritualistic methods, and how they do their tricks. I do not mean genuine spiritualists who have no tricks, but those mediums who use their knowledge of magic to gain a living.^

Houdini began his career earning a meager living as an undistinguished magician doing card tricks and other illusions, including the sensational bullet catch. What differentiated Houdini from spiritualists?

Houdini extensively studied the possibility of communicating with the dead. In the introduction to his book, A Magician Among the Spirits (1924), Houdini noted:

It is this question as to the truth or falsity of intercommunication between the dead and the living, more than anything else, that has claimed my attention and to which I have devoted years of research and conscientious study. …

During my last trip abroad, in 1919, I attended over one hundred séances with the sole purpose of honest investigation; these séances were presided over by well-known mediums in France and England. …

During the last thirty years I have read every single piece of literature on the subject of Spiritualism that I could. I have accumulated one of the largest libraries in the world on psychic phenomena, Spiritualism, magic, witchcraft, demonology, evil spirits, etc….

In contrast to the natural human tendency, particularly among grief-stricken persons, to communicate with the dead, Houdini insisted that such communication must meet particular standards of proof, such as test conditions and expert, objective observers. It was not enough for communication with the dead to be possible only in personal, subjective experience. Houdini insisted that communication with the dead must be validated as public knowledge.

Houdini found no evidence of communication with the dead. He stated:

after twenty-five years of ardent research and endeavor I declare that nothing has been revealed to convince me that intercommunication has been established between the Spirits of the departed and those still in the flesh.

Houdini’s investigations indicated that claimed instances of communication with the dead were merely human effects:

everything I have investigated has been the result of deluded brains or those which were too actively and intensely willing to believe.^

Such human activity was not consistent with public knowledge in twentieth-century America. Houdini thus judged communication with the dead to be fraudulent.

Consider, for example, one attempt to communicate with the dead. Arthur Conan Doyle, aware of Houdini’s intense longing for his dead mother, arranged for his wife, who claimed to be a medium, to attempt to contact Houdini’s mother through “automatic writing.” Houdini’s father, a Jewish rabbi from Hungary, believed in life after death, and so did Houdini. Houdini concentrated intensely and sought success. Lady Doyle, rapping her hand repeatedly on the table to indicate contact, drew a Christian cross on the paper and began to rapidly scribble banalities in English. Houdini’s mother did not speak English. As a poor, Jewish immigrant, Houdini’s mother undoubtedly had a much different style of expression than Lady Doyle. Houdini concluded that this alleged communication was not just delusion and deception, but an even more troubling indication of “religious mania.”^

Houdini felt that spiritual activities ruined the life of John W. Edmonds, an eminent nineteenth-century prison reformer. Houdini noted Edmonds’ grief over his wife’s death. Houdini then described Edmonds’ fall:

One midnight he seemed to hear the voice of his {dead} wife speaking a sentence to him. It was his doom. He started as though shot and from that time on devoted all his time, money, and energy to Spiritualism.

Houdini explicitly related himself to Edmonds:

He {Edmonds} died April 5th, 1874 (the very date of my birth). I doubt if the history of Spiritualism can point out a man of greater brilliancy who ruined his life following up this “will-o-the-wisp” to relieve his grief.^

Although Houdini didn’t turn to spiritualist communication in his grief over his mother’s death, that wasn’t because he lacked personal capacity for fantasy. Houdini actually was born on March 24, 1874. In a letter to his brother after his mother’s death, Houdini explained the date on which he would celebrate his birthday:

always APRIL 6th. It hurts me to think I cant talk it over with Darling Mother and as SHE always wrote me on April 6th, that will be my adopted birthdate.^

Houdini shifted his birthday one day more in relating himself to Edmonds. The public record of Houdini’s birth remained secure, although it went unexamined until decades after his death. Like much personal communication, Houdini’s own declaration of his birthday had little public importance.

Houdini began publicly exposing spiritualists as frauds in 1922. In October, 1922, Houdini authored an article, “Ghosts that Talk — By Radio” in Popular Radio magazine. The article included a fabricated exposé of an unnamed medium’s use of a radio receiver hidden in a tea kettle to produce a talking tea kettle. The article outraged magicians, who complained that Houdini had improperly exposed a trick.^ Houdini also occasionally gave learned lectures on spiritualism, e.g. “Spiritualist Phenomena and the Psychology of Deception Among Fraudulent Mediums.” By this time the only magician whose professional success exceeded Houdini’s was Howard Thurston.^ At the Society of American Magician’s banquet in October, 1922, Thurston and Houdini gave opposing speeches on spiritualism.^

In early 1924, Houdini intensified his efforts to build a business as a debunker of spiritualists and media. Houdini was then about fifty years old. His recent attempts to develop a film business featuring himself had failed. Houdini pivoted to the intellectual business of battling spiritualists. In January, 1924, Houdini secured a spot on a committee, sponsored by prestigious magazine Scientific American, to investigate spiritualists. In February, 1924, he signed on with the Coit-Alber Chautauqua Company as a lecturer on spiritualism and fraudulent mediums. He then set off on a twenty-four town, twenty-four lecture tour ranging from Ohio to Florida. That spring Houdini also nominally authored a book exposing spiritualists, A Magician Among the Spirit. In addition, he nominally authored two short stories on fake spiritualists for a popular magazine. Houdini did another eight-week lecture tour on fraudulent mediums in October and November, 1924. Houdini’s lecturing, publishing, and scientific work provided rich opportunities for cross-promotion.^

While spiritualists exploited popular demand for personal communication with the dead, Houdini the magician provided mass-market entertainment. Houdini set up a network of undercover agents to investigate spiritualists. The summary reports of one who investigated about three hundred mediums probably provide a fair description of the business:

Her summaries paint a tired world of furnished rooms and back parlors, where for a dollar or two handed to some Reverend Odessa Champlain, the spirits of dead infants and faithless fathers relayed twenty minutes of clarification, advice, and solace: The baby died of throat trouble; Do not marry a Catholic; I am happy and with father.^

Spiritualists usually didn’t broadcast communication with the dead. They mainly provided communication between family and friends, ordinary communication except for one party being dead. The telephone industry, which began growing rapidly in the U.S. in 1895, provided a similar personal communication service between living persons. The first experience of a telephone call was probably more astonishing to many persons than was communication with the dead.

Houdini’s after-death communication spectacle illustrates that Houdini’s show business was much different from ordinary communication with family and friends. Before his death, Houdini arranged to attempt to deliver a coded message to his wife Bess after his death. In Hollywood on Halloween in 1936, the year of the tenth anniversary of Houdini’s death, a nationally broadcasted séance on the roof of a Hollywood hotel attempted to communicate with Houdini. Attending were “200 persons, including newspaper men, newsreel crews and the attendants for a temporary radio station.” Despite calls to him on a powerful public address system, Houdini did not deliver the message. Bess then declared that she did not believe that Houdini could come back to her or to anyone. She turned out the light burning in front of his picture, and declared, “It is finished. Good night, Harry.” Subsequently explaining that she did not believe in the possibility of communicating with the dead, Bess declared, “Ten years is long enough to wait for any man.” Passing on a specific message, particularly as part of an extraordinary public spectacle, is not ordinary communication with family and friends, even dead ones.

Houdini and other magicians used mastery of public knowledge to differentiate their activities from activities like spiritualists’ communicating with dead relatives. Spiritualist mediums were persons with special capabilities of unknown origin. The communication services that they provided could not be explained with authoritative, public knowledge. Houdini, in contrast, emphasized his mastery of public knowledge:

“My mind,” he {Houdini} is often quoted as having said, “is the key that sets me free.” The magician informed and developed that mind through intensive reading; as he did so, he built a formidable library. When, in the 1920s, Houdini strode into the public arena to confront fraudulent mediums, he proceeded from an inner fortress lined with books and manuscripts.^

Houdini described himself as living in a library. He measured the size of his library against that of leading theatrical libraries around the world. Houdini also authored books documenting and analyzing magic across a huge historical and topical scope. He ultimately donated his library to the Library of Congress. Houdini’s magic developed from well-established channels of public knowledge. It potentially was accessible to everyone.

Public status, rather than the individual mind, was the key to modern magic. Magic that could be satisfactorily explained with authoritative public knowledge, but wasn’t, counted as authentic (modern) magic. Magicians sought to prevent exposure of such magic. Spiritual activities that claimed to be based on mysterious powers separate from public knowledge counted as fraud. Houdini and others vigorously sought to expose such magic, particularly when it attracted significant public attention. The Society of American Magicians (SAM) set some relevant professional guidelines:

Basically it proposed that Spiritualist manifestations used by magicians should be considered magic tricks, and not exposed; Spiritualist manifestations produced in darkness that could not be produced in the light, might be exposed without penalty.^

The Superintendent of the United States Jail in Washington, D.C., attesting to Houdini’s amazing, unprecedented, and mysterious escape, showed awareness of this distinction. He noted, “Mr. Houdini impressed his audience as a gentleman and an artist who does not profess to do the impossible.”^

Public deliberation favored Houdini’s magic over spiritualist communication. Public deliberation abstracts from personal interests and favors communication that is publicly accessible. Houdini’s magic was publicly accessible entertainment. Spiritualist communication was mainly personal communication not meant to be meaningful to a broad audience. Houdini’s magic displayed the value of public knowledge and technical skill by challenging spectators to explain tricks through normal means. Houdini’s magic worked within the public knowledge that orders public deliberation. Spiritualists claimed to use special personal powers that authoritative public knowledge could not explain. Spiritualist communication began from outside the boundaries of public deliberation.