Near the end of Harry Houdini’s career in show business, a strange encounter with Spiritualism set him on a crusade against fraudulent psychics that may have killed him.
From the end of the Nineteenth Century to the Roaring Twenties, Harry Houdini’s career was a long exercise in testing the boundaries of the possible. He jumped off of bridges wearing handcuffs, broke out from prison transport vans, and escaped from underwater cages. For years, his daring exploits made him one of the wealthiest and most famous performers in vaudeville. Despite having a career built on smoke and mirrors, however, he hated real deception. And a lifetime of show business gave him a keen sense for it.
When Houdini began performing in the 1890s, Spiritualism was already on the decline in America. But in the 1920’s, it was coming back from the dead. After a strange encounter with the Spiritualist movement, Houdini began a long hunt for fraud in it. In the process, he uncovered dozens of fraudulent mediums, lost one of his best friends, and even got the government involved.
Magicians, Strongmen, and Frauds
Ehrich Weiss‘s career in magic began in the early 1890s during the last days of the first Spiritualist movement in America. At different times, he was a strongman, a circus performer, and an unremarkable magician. In a magic show on Coney Island, Weiss became one of the Brothers Houdini. At this time, Weiss was accompanied by his friend Jacob Hyman. Later, Weiss’ brother Theodore accompanied him. When Houdini married Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, a singer on Coney Island, she took Theodore’s place in the act. More than once during those early years, the Houdinis tried their hand at performing seances. Spiritualism still had a fairly strong presence in America, and raising the dead was an easy way for two young performers to make money.
After Houdini joined the Orpheum circuit as an escape artist in 1899, there was no more need for seances. Before long, he was one of the circuit’s most well-known performers. In 1900, he went on tour in Europe, where he became known as “the Handcuff King.” He would regularly challenge cops to arrest him, handcuff him, and lock him away—and he escaped every time. By 1920, he had become one of the highest-paid performers in the world.
Around the same time, Spiritualism was coming back to America in full force. Houdini had always claimed to be agnostic about the existence of ghosts. He was open to the idea, but he didn’t have any strong beliefs on the topic. However, he had used deception to entertain audiences onstage for years, and he knew an act when he saw one. It was one thing to entertain people who knew they were being tricked. Still, it was another to take advantage of people who really believed you could bring back their dead relatives, which is exactly what hundreds of mediums across the country were beginning to do.
The Doyle Incident
In 1920, Houdini befriended Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on a tour of England. The two men had bonded over a shared interest in the paranormal. Sir Doyle had always been interested in the supernatural; but like thousands of believers in the wake of the First World War, Sir Doyle had an emotional investment in the movement as well: his son Kingsley had died in the war. Meanwhile, Houdini had his own reasons to be interested in talking to ghosts: his beloved mother, Cecelia Weiss, had passed away in 1913. But while Houdini was cautiously curious, Sir Doyle was an ardent Spiritualist. While Houdini argued that many mediums were deliberate frauds, Sir Doyle insisted that he could show him a “real” medium.
They attended several seances together, but Houdini always managed to find something suspicious about the medium. Eventually, Sir Doyle insisted that he had found a medium that they knew they could trust: his own wife, Lady Jean Doyle. Lady Doyle shared her husband’s interest in the paranormal, and she claimed to be a medium. On June 17, 1922, Houdini met the Doyles in their Atlantic City apartment. Lady Doyle sat down with him, dimmed the lights, and began channeling the late Mrs. Weiss through a practice called automatic writing. The result was a long stream-of-consciousness letter, allegedly from Houdini’s mother, proclaiming how happy she was to be in the world beyond and how much she loved her son.
Of course, Houdini knew what his mother sounded like, and it wasn’t the letter that Lady Doyle had produced. For starters, his mother was a Hungarian immigrant who never learned English. Also, the letter had several references to Christianity, including crucifixes drawn onto the page and descriptions of a Christian Heaven—but Mrs. Weiss was a rabbi’s widow. Finally, she had called him Harry—even though Houdini’s mother had always called him by his real name, Ehrich. Houdini politely thanked the Doyles, and Sir Doyle apparently took this as a sign that he’d sold Houdini on the idea of Spiritualism. When Sir Doyle went to the press and announced that he’d converted Houdini, Houdini had to come out and say he hadn’t.
A Magician Among the Spirits
Not long after the Sir Doyle incident, Houdini put his career on hold and started hunting for phony psychics across the country. He began going to seances undercover to identify fraudulent psychics and expose the guilty party and their methods at his shows. Starting in 1924, he began assembling a group of spies who went across the country using similar tactics; the greatest of these spies, a New York PI named Rose Mackenberg whom Houdini had trained, later became famous as a ghostbuster in her own right. Mackenberg and the other spies would arrive in town before Houdini, attend a seance under disguise, and report back to Houdini. Then, Houdini would set up a show in that town and use the show to expose the medium in public. Eventually, the stories of the mediums he exposed made their way into the book “A Magician Among the Spirits.”
It takes a flimflammer to catch a flimflammer.Harry Houdini
Between 1924 and 1926, hundreds of mediums across the country were exposed in this way. During that time, though, Houdini managed to make some powerful enemies. In July 1924, the renowned Boston medium Mina Crandon while investigating her that summer. Over the course of several seances, Houdini more or less conclusively proved that Margery was a fraud. While he may have damaged her reputation, many devout Spiritualists refused to believe it. In fact, some devout Spiritualists began denouncing Houdini as a liar and a bigot – including Sir Doyle, who was a firm believer in Margery’s power.
Tensions between Houdini’s group and the Spiritualist movement came to a head in 1926. The House of Representatives was discussing a new bill, which would ban seances and fortune-telling in the District of Columbia. This may seem like a silly thing to worry about today, but spiritualists in Washington, D.C. might have had a disturbing amount of influence on the government in 1926. At least two different First Ladies had employed a psychic advisor, and it was rumored that the president’s own family held seances in the White House. Considering the sort of manipulative, predatory mediums Houdini was used to dealing with, the idea of a psychic fraud in proximity to the White House must have seemed like a massive danger to the President and possibly the country as a whole.
The hearings on the Copeland-Bloom bill, which began on February 26 and lasted the whole spring, quickly turned into a battleground between Houdini and the local Spiritualist community. Several successful local mediums had also arrived to defend themselves, and Houdini confronted them directly. He produced a sealed envelope with a telegram inside and challenged them to tell him what it said. If none of them could do it, he said, then they would have to admit that their supposed powers were a lie. Meanwhile, Mackenberg, whom Houdini had sent to D.C. ahead of him, reported on a conversation she’d had with the medium Marcia Champney. At least four different Congress members were taking advice from local mediums, and the rumors about seances being held in the White House appeared to be true.
Despite this, few members of the House took the bill seriously. Some were believers in Spiritualism themselves. Other, more skeptical members thought that Spiritualism was a silly idea and that Houdini and his people were taking the issue far too seriously. In the end, the Copeland-Bloom bill never got passed. However, the hearings and the publicity surrounding them had damaged Spiritualism’s reputation in front of the entire country. In the end, that was all Houdini had really expected—a chance to show the country the real and potential consequences of Spiritualism.
In 1926, Houdini expected to keep giving shows and exposing frauds across the country. While he still claimed to be agnostic on the idea of Spiritualism, or at least its core belief of ghosts’ existence, many Spiritualists now thought of him as the movement’s greatest enemy. Advocates of the movement dragged his name through the mud in the papers. He’d even lost a couple of friends in the process, including Conan Doyle, who was still an ardent Spiritualist. And one of his most powerful opponents, the Boston medium Margery, had come out with a disturbing prophecy: Houdini would be “gone” by Halloween.
Rosabelle, Answer, Tell
On October 22, 1926, Houdini was performing at the Princess Theatre in Montreal. During a break in the performance, two McGill University students entered his dressing room and challenged him to perform one of his regular feats: taking a punch to the stomach. Houdini had often challenged audience members to punch him in the stomach to demonstrate his strength. However, one of the students immediately went ahead and punched him several times, without allowing him to get up first. After two days of constant, confusing pain, Houdini went to see a doctor. A local doctor diagnosed him with appendicitis, but he insisted on continuing to perform.
Two days after the incident in Montreal, Houdini gave his last performance. At the Garrick Theater in Detroit, Michigan, Houdini allegedly fell unconscious during the performance and was rushed to the hospital. He died on Halloween, 1926, fulfilling the prediction of Mina Crandon. However, in a bizarre way, Houdini finally had his opportunity to answer a question that nobody had ever answered to his satisfaction: are ghosts real? He’d even foreseen this happening; a long time before his death, he and his wife arranged a secret code that he could use to contact her after his death. They agreed to use the pet name “Rosabelle,” the name of the song Beatrice had been singing when they met, and a code they had used in a mind-reading act.
Beatrice Houdini kept her end of the bargain. Every Halloween, she contacted a medium to channel the spirit of her dead husband. Plenty of mediums claimed they were channeling her husband, delivering standard declarations of affection and descriptions of Heaven, but Beatrice knew better than to believe them. She was waiting for the signal: “Rosabelle – answer – tell – pray, answer – look – tell – answer, answer – tell.” The answer never came, and after ten years, Beatrice gave up.
Houdini’s fans continued the practice after his death. As late as last year, magicians around the world have celebrated Halloween by trying to summon Houdini’s ghost. However, nobody has ever received an answer.