Graveyard Shift

A History Of Harry Houdini’s Lifelong Battle To Debunk Mediums 

Maggie Clancy
Updated January 15, 2020 3k views 12 items

Harry Houdini, the world's greatest escape artist, may have been known for his unbelievable escapes from cages and underwater tanks, but these aren't his only claim to fame. The illusionist, a skilled and perceptive individual, was hellbent on exposing the fraudulent mediums and psychics that gained popularity during the surge of spiritualism in the 1920s. Houdini did whatever it took to prove that people were being conned by these alleged mediums, going as far as to tarnish his friendship with acclaimed author and spiritualist enthusiast Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Houdini outed Margery Crandon, Nino Pecoraro, and hundreds of other self-proclaimed psychics who were simply great sleight-of-hand performers. 

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Houdini’s Fascination With Spiritualism Allegedly Stemmed From His Genuine Desire To Contact His Deceased Mother

Houdini was skeptical of the growing spiritualist movement, but tragedy allegedly made him take a second look at the validity of seances and mediums. On July 17, 1913, Houdini's mother, Cecilia Steiner Weiss, passed after suffering a stroke. Houdini was close to his mother and was even quoted as writing, "If God in his greatness ever sent an angel on earth in human form, it was my mother." Houdini struggled for months after his mother's passing, writing to his brother Theo:

I can write alright when I keep away from that heart rendering subject so will try and avoid it, if possible. But I have to write to my brother once in a while about HER whom we miss and for HER with whom I feel as if my heart of hearts went with HER.

Many believe his intense heartache is the reason he started dabbling in spiritualism (and eventually started to debunk it out of frustration), but Houdini historians often note the illusionist actually attended his first seance as a child, when he tried to contact his recently deceased half-brother, Herman. Even at an early age, Houdini suspected that seances and mediums were hogwash.

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Photo: Otis Historical Archives, Museum of Health and Medicine/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0
After The Great War And A 1918 Flu Pandemic, Cultural Obsession With The Afterlife Skyrocketed

From January 1918 to December 1920, the H1N1 virus, known then as the Spanish Flu, ravaged the world. Nearly a third of the world population - or 500 million people - contracted the virus, and 3-5% of the world's population perished. 

Combined with the casualties of conflict, many people were searching for answers as to what happened to their loved ones after they left the mortal coil. Spiritualism was everywhere, from a neighbor's living room to the cinema. The popularity of the movement clashed with empirical science, which was also experiencing a resurgence. 

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Academics Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Bolstered The Emerging Field Of 'Spiritualism' In The 1920s

Houdini was friends with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of Sherlock Holmes. Like Houdini, Conan Doyle also had an interest in spiritualism, but it wasn't one of contempt like the illusionist's. After Conan Doyle's son Kingsley perished from the flu pandemic, the author became a fervent supporter of the movement.

He had already fostered a growing interest in the subject before his son's demise, studying ghosts, fairies, and other supernatural entities for decades. Kingsley's passing acted as a catalyst, and Conan Doyle continued studying the occult with zeal, and even Conan Doyle's second wife, Jean, claimed to be an automatic writer and medium of sorts. They claimed to communicate with an entity named Phineas, who would regularly warn them of impending disaster.

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Houdini’s Training As A Magician Made Him Uniquely Suited To Recognize The Sleight-Of-Hand Tricks Used By Mediums

Houdini's ability to escape bound chains and make things as large as an elephant disappear won him fans, with some, like Conan Doyle, believing that the illusionist had innate psychic abilities - which Houdini always refuted. Houdini knew how to perform sleight of hand and create realistic illusions, which is how he easily debunked many mediums, who often cited shaking tables and wobbling chairs as empirical evidence of the afterlife.

Houdini told a reporter, "Whenever any of these alleged spiritual mediums tell you that they have supernatural aid, you may safely set them down as frauds."