There is a story about Harry Houdini, the world famous magician and escapologist, going to see a spiritualist medium following the death of his mother.
After the joining of hands, the medium fell into deep trance and was instantly ‘filled’ with the spirit of Houdini’s mum – and, for a few minutes, a stilted conversation ensued between son and ghost.
Afterwards, when the medium had exited his trance and lay breathless upon the table top - exhausted by the rigours of it all - he asked Houdini if he had enjoyed the séance.
Houdini replied that he had done, but thought that actually – upon reflection – it probably wasn’t his mother that he had spoken to.
Surprised, the medium asked him to explain his doubts.
“Well, two things,” Houdini responded flatly. “My mother generally didn’t call me by my stage name. And, of course, she couldn’t actually speak English...”
Whether he was genuinely outraged at the victimisation of the bereaved, or whether he simply saw an opportunity to capitalise on public interest, Houdini spent the final thirteen years of his life in a highly-publicised battle with spiritualists.
Using his knowledge of illusion, Houdini was able to duplicate the ghostly apparitions, noises and mysterious levitations produced by the working mediums and their ‘spirits’.
Meeting with spiritualist crusader, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in 1922, Houdini showed him that he could – using magical trickery, as opposed to psychic powers – cause spiritual writings to appear on chalk slates - a commonplace occurrence during séances.
However, the plan backfired somewhat. Though Houdini succeeded in getting the correct passage from the Bible to appear on the chalk slate for Doyle, as a paid-up member of the Magic Circle he was bound by the ‘magicians' code’ and was unable to explain to the writer how the trick was performed.
The result was that Conan Doyle went away from demonstration believing that Houdini was simply some kind self-hating psychic, unwilling to publicly admit his powers.
You can download a free digital version of Houdini’s anti-spiritualist book A Magician Among the Spirits here.
(The picture attached to this post shows Houdini and long-dead President Abraham Lincoln together – this was Houdini’s debunking of so-called ‘spirit photography’, in which unscrupulous mediums would take pictures of recently-bereaved sitters – and, through a process of double-exposing the film, would add ghostly images to them.)
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