How Harry Houdini Called Fraud On Spiritualism

Harry Houdini's name is virtually synonymous with magic. He was one of the biggest entertainers of his time and his illusions and daring escapes enthralled audiences around the world. However, magic was just a part — an admittedly large part — of Houdini's diverse career. He starred in films, flew airplanes, and perhaps most famously of his non-magical pursuits, debunked spiritualists (via Biography). It may seem strange that a guy who became famous performing tricks that gave the impression that he had magical powers would go around blowing up other peoples' spots when they were doing more or less the same thing.

There was a major difference: Houdini and his fellow stage magicians were performing magic — illusions — that a paying audience knew wasn't real, whereas spiritualists held seances that preyed on distraught people entrenched in the grieving process who would give anything to communicate with their loved ones. Houdini found this deeply unethical and decided to do something about it (via Popular Science).

Spiritualism was very popular in the early 20th century

Houdini's career took place at the same time that there was massive interest in spiritualism and the occult around the world, but especially in the United States. According to Smithsonian, spiritualism was a religious movement that focused on the idea that there was a way for the living to interact with the dead. Dating back as far as the 1840s, there were examples of people exploiting this belief by claiming to possess powers that made them a gateway to the spirit world.

According to the BBC, in 1848, a pair of sisters from New York, Maggie and Kate Fox, claimed to receive messages from the dead, which came to the sisters in the form of knocking sounds. This set off a wave of excitement around the idea of communicating with spirits. Never mind that the girls' claims were completely debunked by 1851, as it was found they were making the knocking noises. Margaret confessed to the deception, but later retracted the retraction.

This form of spiritualism became popular for several reasons. One was that it was entertaining. It was a show of whether the people in attendance were believers or not. However, another reason was some people were desperate to talk to loved ones, and this method gave the appearance that it used science and not just raw belief. Electricity is a powerful form of energy that's often impossible to see and flies through the air, so then why wouldn't spiritual energy function in a similar way?

Spiritualists developed sophisticated ways of fooling their audiences

After the Fox sisters' knocking — sometimes referred to as spirit raps — were debunked, other spiritualists had to develop more complex methods of making noises from beyond. Many of the techniques were similar, if not exactly the same as the ones employed by magicians, like sleight of hand and specially-designed trick props. These were necessary because the spiritualists often went to significant lengths to give the appearance that there was no way for them to be fooling the audience.

During seances, the medium or spiritualist would typically have those in attendance hold hands. This was done under the auspices of channeling energy, but the reality is it was supposed to make it seem like there was no way for the medium to have made the noises because they were holding hands the entire time. Of course, the medium was a step ahead and was able to do things like using their feet to make noises or even use methods of switching their hands, which Houdini demonstrated in a photo spread that accompanied a piece he wrote for Popular Science in 1925. Some borrowed a trick from ventriloquists and would throw their voices to make it sound like spirits were speaking all around the room. According to the 1903 book "Mysteries of the Seance and Tricks and Traps of Bogus Mediums," some spiritualists even held their seances in a room specially wired to help them create sounds and other effects.

Why Houdini wasn't fond of spiritualists

In 1925, Houdini wrote an article that appeared in Popular Science magazine, called "How I Unmask The Spirit Fakers." Before explaining his methodology for exposing the tricks and frauds that were rampant in spiritualism, he talked about why he was interested in the subject in the first place. Houdini wrote that at that point he had been studying paranormal phenomena — spiritualism included — for 35 years and that he was frequently asked about the trendy religious movement as he traveled around the world performing. Although some of the techniques seen in seances were used by both stage magicians and spiritualists, Houdini saw a substantial ethical difference between the two.

"Thirty-five years among these vultures has convinced me that they are the most contemptible and the meanest criminals that walk the earth. The confidence man, the burglar, the pickpocket, the highwayman, and others who live by robbing their fellows, must take chances. They meet their victims on even ground and triumph through their wits, their strength, or their courage," Houdini wrote. "The fake medium, though, works with everything in his favor. His victims will believe in him."

Houdini's methods for exposing frauds

Houdini was well-versed in some of the spiritualists' methods because, in his words, they were "merely a crude adaptation of those by which professional magicians mystify audiences from the stage" (via Popular Science). Because Houdini was such a massive name, and his spiritualist debunking exploits were well-known, he was sometimes invited to seances by spiritualists who thought they could baffle the legendary magician. That didn't happen.

His immense fame was also a problem if he wanted to sit in on a seance without the spiritualist knowing, so Houdini would throw on various disguises to get in under the radar. He would then demonstrate these techniques in broad daylight for onlookers to see how they were done.

While Houdini's efforts curbed spiritualism a great deal, he also appealed to the United States government to pass a law outlawing the practice. According to Atlas Obscura, Houdini pushed for the passage of House Resolution 8989 which would've made "fortune telling" punishable by fines and even jail time. Houdini was of course a showman, and that's what he did. He held up an envelope and called for one of the spiritualists who had shown up to oppose the bill to read what was inside. Of course, no one did, but the bill was still voted down.

His wife, Bess, held seances after his death

One of the most surprising aspects of Houdini's relationship with spiritualism is that while he spent a large portion of his life debunking those who practiced it, he didn't consider himself to be a skeptic: "Now, despite any impression that may have been created by my activity in exposing fraudulent mediums, in regard to spiritualism I am not a skeptic. Although I have found no genuine physical phenomena medium, by which I mean one who does not produce his effects by purely natural means that any trained magician can duplicate, I have still an open mind. I am willing to be convinced — even to believe, if a medium can demonstrate to me that he actually possesses true psychic power," Houdini wrote in Popular Science.

Houdini even left instructions for his wife, Bess, to hold seances in an attempt to reach him after his death. According to The Guardian, before he died in 1926, the Houdinis agreed on a secret code that would leave no doubt in the other's mind that it was them trying to communicate through the seance. Bess held these seances for 10 years on the anniversary of her husband's death — which, fittingly, fell on Halloween — before passing the duty on to others. (NPR reports that she'd tell people, "Ten years was long enough to wait for any man.") The ritual has since been performed by different people over the years, though Houdini has never contacted any of them.