Harry Houdini is probably the world’s most famous magician. He was an incredible escape artist, getting out of tight squeezes and serious locks from around the world. Like many historical people associated with magic, there are a lot of modern folks who claim him as proof for their spiritualist practices. It’s ironic, because Houdini would have hated that.
That’s right. Harry Houdini, famous magician, absolutely detested those he called “vultures who prey on the bereaved.” More specifically, he hated mediums, psychics, and anyone who claimed that the magic they did was somehow “real.” The last several years of his career were dedicated to debunking fraudsters that he felt were stealing the money of the grieving.
Because of Houdini’s fame, there are plenty of people eager to show that he was wrong. To this day, people try to disprove his conclusions about debunked psychics. Some even claim that he never managed to prove their personal favorite to be fake.
Houdini was born in 1874, and started his magic career in 1891. From there, it was only upwards an onwards. He developed skills in acrobatics, card tricks, illusions, and escape acts. He was one of the most famous performers in Vaudeville by 1900. He toured Great Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Russia, while maintaining a regular presence in New York.
His skills were unparalleled. He could escape from anything and often did. Houdini kept illusions such as his disappearing elephant trick in his show, however. That understanding of the tricks behind stage magic is what he used to debunk the psychics that irritated him so much. But why was he so against psychics and mediums?
In 1913, Houdini’s mother died. It’s long been claimed that this pushed Houdini to go visit some psychics himself to go see his deceased mother. The trouble with that claim is that Houdini had been annoyed with psychics since his teen years. Furthermore, Houdini didn’t really begin his crusade against psychics until the 1920s. So, what was the trigger?
The trigger was Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes series.
Doyle might have written the most famous logician of all time, but Doyle himself was not immune to human logical fallacies. When his son died in World War I, Doyle turned to psychics for comfort. His deep grief led him to whole-heartedly embracing every kind of “spiritual” practice.
Whether it was a 16 year old girl faking pictures of fairies, or a medium “communicating” with the dead, Doyle believed it was the result of the supernatural. Today the tricks that fooled Doyle look seem completely unbelievable, but Doyle could not be convinced.
When Houdini tried to convince Doyle that he was being bamboozled, Doyle disagreed. Houdini even did tricks for Doyle and explained the process. Doyle just became convinced Houdini himself had supernatural powers.
Doyle tried to sway Houdini towards Spiritualism by holding a séance with Houdini present. Doyle’s wife supposedly made contact with Houdini’s mother, but spoke English and made the sign of the cross. Houdini’s mother was Jewish and could not speak English. All this did was set Houdini off. His mother was Houdini’s guiding light. Faking a connection to her was a guaranteed way to make him angry.
Starting in the early 1920s, Houdini went off on an all-out war against mediums, psychics, and other mystical fakery. His background in escape magic and circus experience made him a perfect candidate to disprove fakes.
He even ended up on the Scientific American’s cash prize committee. If someone could prove themselves to have a supernatural ability, they would receive $10,000, or nearly $150,000 in today’s money. No one ever claimed the prize.
Houdini debunked hundreds of “psychics.” From Joaquin Argamasilla, the “Spaniard with X-Ray Eyes,” to Mina Crandon, a famous medium, Houdini disproved their abilities. Houdini would do things like turn on the lights to reveal secret helpers. He lifted tablecloths to expose pedal contraptions for making “knocking” noises. The hucksters used darkness, curtains, and psychological tricks to convince people that they were the real deal. Houdini used logic and common sense to prove that they weren’t.
This earned him Doyle’s everlasting enmity. In fact, Doyle believed that Houdini was using his own psychic powers to block the powers of the people he debunked. The goal was supposedly to hide the existence of real magic from the world. Houdini mourned the loss of the friendship but kept on debunking mediums anyway.
In 1926, on Halloween, Houdini died during the height of his debunking frenzy. A student had punched him in the stomach without warning and ruptured his appendix. Prior to his death, Houdini and his wife Bess had set up a séance code. Whichever one died first would use the phrase “Rosabell believe” if anyone managed to summon them from beyond the grave.
Of course, many mediums were incensed at Houdini’s thorough rampage through their profession. Because of that, they tried very hard to break the code. Bess held yearly seances on Halloween to try to bring Houdini back into the world.
Supposedly, the séance “worked” on the decade anniversary of his death. Unfortunately for true believers, it turns out that the conman had only guessed it. Rosabell was Houdini’s favorite song, and “believe” is a pretty obvious word for a debunking code phrase, after all.
In the end, Bess agreed that it was complete hokum, and her beloved husband was not coming back to chat. That wasn’t the end of Houdini-centric seances, though. To this day, there are yearly Houdini seances by famous debunking stage magicians like Dorothy Dietrich. Most of these events are just for fun; the people in charge debunk “magic” themselves.