I have always been fascinated by Ehrich Weisz. Who you ask? The Great Harry Houdini that’s who! We all know the name and it instantly conjures visions of straight jackets, hand cuffs, or of the Milk Can Escape also known as the “Chinese Water Torture” trick. There are numerous articles, books and even movies that taut his magic acts and abilities, but what I think of when I hear the name Harry Houdini is Spiritualism.
The 1920’s in America is often thought of as “The Roaring 20’s” and of us think of jazz music, prohibition, speak easys, and gangsters, but what about the Spiritualist Movement? People from around the world were reeling from losing an estimated 15 million people in the World War One and 21 million more to the Spanish-flu pandemic and they were searching for ways to connect with the dead. It was in this era that so called “Spirit Guides” emerged to help the bereaved contact their loved ones who had passed. The media of the time wrote glowing reviews and highly dramatized accounts of communication with people’s departed loved ones, and the people believed! If it was written in news papers it had to be real! It seemed as though the more famous they were, the more they charged. (Sound Familiar?)
In 1913 Houdini’s mother Cecilia, passed on and Harry was so distraught that he hadn’t been there at the end, that he consulted spiritualists in an attempt to communicate with her spirit. Harry soon realized that these so-called spiritualists were con-artists. While traveling the country and the world for that matter, Houdini met scores of mediums and witnessed 100’s of seances only to come away upset at what he knew was fraud. Houdini at one point even proclaimed that these people were “Vultures Who Prey on the Bereaved!”
With Harry’s back ground in illusions, he set out to figure out how the Mediums and Psychics tricked the public, which he did. Houdini then aligned himself with O.D. Munn, editor of Scientific American. Scientific American offered $2,500 to anyone who could prove that they had psychic powers. In the summer of 1924, Houdini targeted Mina Crandon of Boston. Followers called her “Margery”, non believers knew her as the ” Blonde Witch of Lime Street”. She was renowned for conjuring the voice of her dead brother, Walter, whose spirit rapped out messages, tipped tables, and even sounded trumpets. Walter was unfriendly, answering questions and quoting scripture in a gruff disembodied voice. Margery, by contrast, was charming and attractive—at least when she wasn’t showing off her most convincing psychic talent: extruding a slithery, viscous substance called “ectoplasm” from her orifices. Photos show this otherworldly substance flowing from her nose and ears, but mostly it emerged from beneath a sheer kimono like a string of entrails—an “ectomorphic hand” that Walter used to carry out his commands.
A panel from Scientific America visited Margery and was all but convinced that she was the real deal . When Houdini learned the committee was prepared to endorse Margery, he was outraged. Having already exposed the tricks of other celebrity mediums, Houdini was sure the committee was about to be fooled, so he canceled his shows and headed for Boston.
Margery met with Houdini and the panel from Scientific American for a séance and she took her seat infront of a three-sided Chinese screen. Soon the lights dimmed and an eerie whistling filled the room. Then the spirit of Walter whispered his arrival, even touching Houdini on the inside of his right leg. After a break, Houdini ordered an electric bell enclosed in a wooden box brought to his feet. Then Walter levitated a megaphone and boomed: “Have Houdini tell me where to throw it”.“Toward me,” Houdini said, and the megaphone flew through the air and landed in front of him. That was just the beginning. Throughout the evening, Walter produced a sequence of spectacles, ringing the bell box on command and tipping over the wooden screen. Houdini had done his homework. He knew that Dr. Le Roi Crandon, Margery’s husband, always sat on her right. He was a Harvard-educated surgeon and her promoter. Houdini also guessed correctly that he would be seated on her left in the circle, with hands joined, feet and legs touching. In anticipation to the séance, Houdini wore a tight bandage under his right knee the entire day leading up to the show. It had been so tight and was so painful that it made his skin tender to even the slightest touch. The sensitivity paid off. He could feel Margery twist and flex in the dark as she moved her left ankle slightly to get to the bell box under the table. Later, he felt her shift again to tip the Chinese screen with her foot. The flying megaphone stumped Houdini for a few hours, but he eventually figured out that Margery had placed it on her head, dunce-cap-style, with a momentarily free hand. She then jerked her head in his direction to send it crashing to the floor.“I’ve got her,” he said when the evening was over. “All fraud. Every bit of it. One more sitting and I will be ready to expose everything.”
A second séance at a Boston hotel featured a levitating table. Houdini reached out in the dark and found Margery’s head lifting the table from beneath. He again felt her legs move as she reached to ring the bell box. “The slickest ruse I ever detected,” Houdini said later, in something close to admiration. But when he announced his findings to the committee, he was asked to hold off on a public denunciation. The committee was conflicted. When it refused to award the prize after several additional séances, the Spiritualists became enraged—as did the spirit. “Houdini, you goddamned son of a bitch,” Walter roared. “I put a curse on you now that will follow you every day for the rest of your short life.” No Matter what Houdini said 1/2 of the panel was still firmly under Margery’s seductive spell and continued to report that she had supernatural powers. In October, Scientific American published an article that described the committee as hopelessly divided.
The dithering angered Houdini. In November, he published a pamphlet called Houdini Exposes the Tricks Used by the Boston Medium “Margery,” complete with drawings of how she produced her manifestations. “She certainly was clever in her maneuvering to pull the wool over the eyes of the committeemen,” he said, admitting the ingenuity of her techniques as he debunked her show. Houdini’s pamphlet humiliated Margery, but he wasn’t done yet: The “scourge of Spiritualism” wanted to make the religion disappear. But the spiritualist caught on and eventually banned Houdini from their shows. Imagine that?