This Hallowe’en marks the 87th anniversary of the death of the legendary escape artist, Harry Houdini. While on a major North American tour, Houdini was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery, after days of suffering high fevers and abdominal pain. Doctors removed his burst appendix, but knew that, his body already wracked with peritonitis, he was beyond saving. His wife, Bess, was told he would not live out the night; the all but indomitable Harry, an extraordinary physical specimen at age 52, somehow fought off the grim reaper for a week, finally telling his wife he could no longer keep up the fight, and succumbing on October 31st, 1926.
Eighty-seven years later, Houdini remains the most famous magician of all time — albeit that many experts and enthusiasts in the world of magic resent this status, since Houdini achieved his greatest performing success as an escape artist, even though he loved magic. His final tour consists of a show in three parts — escapes, magic, and a lecture/demonstration segment exposing the methods of fraudulent séance mediums — in effect, neatly highlighting the three chief elements of Houdini’s extensive career as a live performer.
Houdini’s careers in magic as well as escapology, aviator, filmmaker and movie star, author, book collector, and magic historian, are all fodder for fascinating stories in their own right. But we should particularly honor, this and every Hallowe’en, his career as a skeptic. While the link between magic and skepticism preceded Houdini by at least three centuries in the written record alone (marked with the publication of the classic Elizabethan text, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, by Reginald Scot, in 1584), and other magicians of the Edwardian era spoke out stridently against spiritualism both in the United States and Great Britain, nevertheless, Houdini crystallized the role of the magician in critical thinking, and the importance of having qualified magicians present when investigating self-proclaimed psychics.
Houdini was a virtual birthing room witness at the arrival of parapsychology as an alleged science, taking part in the first Committee on Psychical Research, organized by Scientific American magazine. The committee offered a cash prize for evidence of an unexplainable supernatural ability, a tradition continued personally by Houdini, and revived a half century or so after his death by James Randi. Scientific American offered $2500; today, the JREF offers a million dollars for such a feat.
Houdini demonstrated time and again the fact that scientists, academics, and other upstanding members of the community could readily be deceived by the tricks of the séance mediums; the same message that James Randi (with the help of Banachek (then Steve Shaw) and Michael Edwards) soundly dropped at the doorstep of the parapsychology community with his legendary Project Alpha. Scientists and academics receive no training in detecting deception; they are just as amazed by a professional magician as anyone else (you can trust me on this!). After all, nobody ever heard of a sneaky amoeba. It takes one to catch one — and otherwise smart people can readily be taken in when their intellectual arrogance overtakes the limits of their expertise. Many a skeptic has been embarrassed as a result — as indeed, at times, have skeptical magicians as well.
From its arrival in 1848, courtesy of the spirit “rappings” of the Fox Sisters in Hydesville, New York, Spiritualism became a popular religious fad that overtook the United States and Great Britain for the next 75 years. Houdini was greatly affected by the death of his mother in 1913 – he was overseas an unable to be at her bedside — and eventually became curious about spiritualistic claims. Thus this sincere and open-minded seeker was personally offended when faced with, what to him, was obvious and primitive magical trickery in the darkness of the séance chamber, used to manipulate the minds and wallets of the bereaved. Houdini’s moral outrage was thus fueled as he marched into war to battle the con-men-and-women of the Spiritualism. He continued to wage that battle until his death, and in truth, his final exposé, of the Boston medium Margery Crandon in 1925, virtually coincided with the death of séance mediumship, and the offering of physical phenomena as evidence for the supernatural. (The next significant claimant in that in that battle – an obscure Israeli magician named Uri Geller — would arrive on the scene about fifty years later, claiming to be endowed with supernatural abilities not courtesy of the dead, but rather gifted by aliens.)
Houdini had spent a lifetime as the man whom no jail could hold, who could break any earthly bonds. Before his death he established a secret code with his wife, Bess, the two promising each other that whoever was first to die would in turn attempt to come back across the veil of life and death, to attempt to prove the existence of an afterlife. For ten years following Houdini’s death, Bess held an annual séance on Hallowe’en night, attempting to contact her dead husband. Her final attempt was held in 1936 on the rooftop of the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood. At the conclusion of the séance, with no sign from her beloved, Bess spoke:
“Houdini did not come through. My last hope is gone. I do not believe that Houdini can come back to me, or to anyone. After faithfully following through the ten-year Houdini compact, using every type medium and séance, it is now my personal and positive belief, that spirit communication in any form is impossible. I do not believe that ghosts or spirits exist. The Houdini shrine has burned for ten years. I now, reverently, turn out the light. It is finished. Good night, Harry.”
And with that, she blew out the candle that she had kept burning in memory of Houdini.
But while Bess no longer sought to contact him, many others have continued the tradition – magicians and skeptics alike, in order to honor Houdini’s legend. Houdini collector and historian Sidney Radner has hosted many such gatherings; so has the Society of American Magicians, of which Houdini once served as President; JREF President, D.J. Grothe, took part in a number of such séances as the host of the Point of Inquiry podcast [one featured recordings of Houdini's final séance]; and this year, magician and escape artist Dorothy Dietrich, of the Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania, will also continue the tradition.
So this Hallowe’en, light a candle and raise a toast to the late great Harry Houdini. He’s not likely to drop in on your costume party, but that shouldn’t stop skeptics from honoring the critically important role he played in 20th century skepticism. Happy Hallowe’en, Harry.
[There is no end to available references about Harry Houdini’s life and career. Of the many biographies extant, I particularly recommend Houdini!!! The Career of Erich Weiss by Kenneth Silverman. Also, note this interesting exhibition currently under way at the Jewish Museum in New York City.]
Jamy Ian Swiss is Senior Fellow at the JREF. He blogs regularly at randi.org.