Jason Ginsburg

Writer and Digital Producer

Jan 15, 2021
Published on: DoubleViking
2 min read

Harry Houdini is known as a master of illusion, a brilliant escape artist, and one of the first worldwide entertainment celebrities. But despite his own feats of "magic," he eventually declared war on those who claimed actual magical powers—particularly the ability to speak to the dead. His crusade against these fakes helped slow down Spiritualism in the US and provided valuable scientific testing of fantastical claims that are still used to this day.

The 1920s were the height of the Spiritualism movement in the United States. 15 million people had just died in World War One, followed by 20 million more in the global Spanish flu epidemic. Virtually everyone had lost a friend or loved one, and the idea of contacting them in the afterlife was very attractive. Mediums and psychics claiming to speak to the dead grew famous—and rich.

All of this fascinated Houdini. He was devastated by the death of his mother in 1913 and longed for a way to communicate with her. He visited self-proclaimed mediums, but always could tell they were lying, setting up elaborate devices to make it appear that spirits were knocking, ringing bells, or moving around the room during the (usually completely dark) séance. In addition, many of his fans thought that Houdini himself possessed some kind of supernatural power to be able to escape from impossible traps and survive certain death.

Houdini had had enough. He called the charlatans "vultures who prey on the bereaved" and set out to debunk as many of them as possible. He would attend séances in disguise, then—once he had enough evidence—he would stand, reveal himself, and declare the psychic a fraud. Ever the showman, Houdini often brought along a reporter and a policeman for maximum effect and publicity.

Eventually, he was named to a committee formed by Scientific American magazine, which agreed to pay $2,500 (about $75,000 today) to any psychic who could demonstrate paranormal powers. Now in a more official capacity, Houdini could take on even bigger names in the world of spiritualism. Among his "victims":

  • George Valiantine, who claimed to summon spirits who would touch séance attendees in the dark. By wiring Valiantine's chair to a light, Houdini determined that Valiantine left his seat 18 times during one session, and was the one touching the attendees.

  • Joaquín Argamasilla, who claimed to be able to read handwriting locked in a box while blindfolded. Houdini discovered Argamsilla could not only peek through his blindfold but also left the edge of the box to read its contents.

  • Nino Pecoraro, who tied himself to a chair and placed musical instruments beside him, which then played "by themselves" during the séance. Houdini knew how someone could escape from a single length of rope (since he had done it himself), so he cut the rope into sections and tied Pecoraro's limbs separately. During the séance, no instruments were heard.

Houdini went even further, recreating the mediums' stunts in his act, playing them up for laughs. He demonstrated how simple the tricks were and how gullible people would have to be to believe them. For example, he showed how a medium could make a table rise even while holding hands with attendees on either side and keeping their legs still: In the dark, a medium could bend forward, get their head under the table, and lift it with their neck muscles. When Houdini did this, it looked comical. Thus, he wasn't just debunking the charlatans but humiliating them in front of huge crowds.

His biggest catch was Mina Crandon, known as Margery to her credulous fans. She claimed she was summoning her bother Walter, who had died in a railroad accident 20 years earlier. The Scientific American committee had attended several of her séances, couldn't determine any mundane explanation, and was prepared to give her the reward, until Houdini stepped in. Among her feats at that "performance" was the sound of a bell ringing, a voice calling out, and a megaphone crashing in front of Houdini—all in the dark, of course. Afterwards, he told his fellow committee members: "I've got her. All fraud."

The bell was known to the attendees and had usually been placed at Crandon's feet. She claimed that Walter's spirit would ring it. Houdini asked for the bell to be placed between his own feet—and yet it still rang. Houdini had worn a tight bandage around his leg, making it tender and sensitive, so he could feel Crandon reaching her leg around his and ringing the bell. He also determined that Crandon had put the megaphone on her head like a hat during a moment when her hand was free, and simply swung her head towards him to send it flying.

To prove all this, Houdini constructed a box (shown below) that constrained Crandon's arms and legs. When she held another séance while seated in the box, no supernatural events occurred. The committee, though still not completely convinced of fakery, never awarded her the prize money.

Houdini eventually wrote a book about his investigations, A Magician Among the Spirits. Though his posters and advertisements sometimes showed him dematerializing to make his escapes, Houdini never claimed to possess magical powers. He had worked as a magician, performing tricks with coins and cards, and he knew just how illusions worked. His crusade against fake psychics might have been an effort to stop competitors, or to provide more publicity for himself, or to protect the gullible from emotional and financial predators; perhaps all three. Either way, it provided a valuable service to an industry that's still unregulated and still harming victims today. And there are still prizes, offered by organizations all over the world, waiting to be claimed by anyone who can perform actual magic. None has ever been won.

Incidentally, Houdini died on Halloween, 1926. On that anniversary, for ten years, his wife Bess tried to contact him through séances, hoping to receive a code phrase that only the two of them knew about. Houdini had promised her and his friends that he would try to make contact after death. But he never did.

Jason Ginsburg studied film and theatre at USC. He works for Discovery Channel.