(Investigator 36, 1994 May)

In seeking to defeat the confines of death and communicate with the living world, the world's greatest escape trickster failed.

Harry Houdini (1874-1926) attracted audiences by appearing to risk death. He was handcuffed and buried alive. He was tied up and immersed under water in boxes. He hung in strait-jackets from cranes or skyscrapers. He threw himself, weighted with chains, into rivers. Houdini, however, was not reckless. He always successfully escaped — proof of careful scientific preparation.

When his mother died Houdini became obsessed with finding proof of life after death. In the process he dealt the credibility of Spiritualism serious blows by unmasking numerous fake mediums who claimed contact with the dead. This wrecked his friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — scientist, inventor of Sherlock Holmes, believer in fairies, and Spiritualist.

Modern Spiritualism began in 1848 when the Fox sisters began snapping their toes and pretending the sounds came from ghosts. (Investigator No.16) Spiritualism has since had a history of fraud! For example, the greatest, most famous, medium of all, Daniel Dunglas Home (1833-1886) used his discarnate spirits, in 1866, to persuade a rich London widow, Mrs Lyon, to adopt him and pay him 60,000 pounds! Despite being addicted to Spiritualism Mrs Lyon later recognized the fraud and sued Home in court to recover her money. The judge described her as "saturated with delusion" and ruled in her favour.

Houdini was not the first magician to expose charlatan spirit mediums. The pioneer in this field was the English magician John Nevil Maskelyne (1839-1917). Even earlier, however, the French government, in 1856, sent conjurer Robert Houdin (1805-1871) to Algiers to destroy the influence of the Dervishes by exposing their faked miracles.

A Typical Early 20th Century Report on Spiritualism from
The Weekly World News, 1910, October 15


American spiritualists are greatly interested just now because well-esteemed members of their fraternity declare that Professor William James has kept his promise to communicate with his friends "from the other side." Professor James, the brother of the novelist, Mr. Henry James, and professor of psychology at Harvard University, was one of the founders of the American Spiritualistic Research Society, which seeks to enroll true disciples of the spiritualistic faith, as distinguished from mere table-rappers and wirepullers.

One would judge that the air has been literally vibrating with messages from the dead professor, because several friends, living at far-distant points, presumably received identically the same assurances. Mr. Ayer, a Boston business man, and the head of the "Ayer's Tabernacle Bond of Spirits," says that he was present lately at his home when the distinguished scientist spoke most clearly to him. The medium employed for the sitting was one who served with the Ayer's Bond of Spirits, and one who could be relied on, it is said, to obtain the best possible results.

"The medium is a healthy, splendidly-trained, intellectual woman," said Mr. Ayer, "and has devoted much of her life to the art of attuning herself mentally and spiritually to the lives of the Tabernacle Bond of Spirits." Through this medium the professor is reported to have said:-

"I am at peace ... with myself and, all mankind. I have awakened to a life far beyond my highest conception while a denizen of the earth. Tell my brothers that I will transmit a message through this instrument that will prove my individuality when I can manifest myself more clearly than at this time. I did not realise how difficult it would be to manifest from this place of life to the mortal place. There is much for me to learn, and many conditions to overcome."

Mr. Ayer added:-

"This message is given by Professor James to us. It means that in a short time he will be able to accustom himself to his surroundings, to the extent that he will be able to give the world a much longer, clearer, and more satisfying message. Like all who pass out, Professor James was bewildered upon his awakening to the highest consciousness, and he has not yet regained the condition necessary to the execution of his clear purpose to enlighten the world in the matter of spiritualism. This will come."

Despite repeated exposes of Spiritualist frauds by magicians many Spiritualists appealed to the talent of magicians as proof of Spiritualist claims. For example, Doyle believed Houdini to be a medium with genuine magical powers — this although Houdini himself attributed his escapes to skill and careful preparation.

Similarly, J. Hewat McKenzie, founder of London's College of Psychic Studies, was perplexed at Houdini's ability to escape from a steel, water-filled, milk can. In his book Spirit Intercourse: Its Theory and Practice (1916) McKenzie seriously claimed that Houdini dematerialized inside the milk can, passed through the steel sides and rematerialized on stage.
Before his death Harry Houdini arranged with his wife a secret message he would transmit if he entered an afterlife which allowed communication with the material world.

For ten years after Houdini died in 1926 Beatrice Houdini attended seances by Spiritualists. She backed her search by offering a $10,000 reward for the secret code words. All mediums failed!

However, in Detroit on October 31, 1928, one medium, Reverend Arthur Ford claimed to receive a message from Houdini's mother. The message included the word "forgive" which was one of the key code words!

Mrs Houdini announced this to be the first message "which has any appearance of truth." Later she withdrew this qualified acknowledgement. The reason was that the key code words had been published in the book Houdini: His Life Story (1928) by Harold Kellock. Furthermore The Brooklyn Eagle of March 13 1927 had quoted Beatrice Houdini stating that a genuine message must include "forgive".

Mrs Houdini continued to offer the reward.

The final effort to contact her husband took place October 31, 1936 the tenth anniversary of Houdini's death.

On the roof of Hollywood's Knickerbocker Hotel the 300 guests included journalists, Spiritualists and magicians. On a stool in full view of the audience were a bell, pistol, slate, trumpet, chalk and handcuffs. Houdini's stage music was played. Then repeatedly Dr Saint, who presided, called on Houdini to give a sign by using any of the items supplied.

Nothing happened except an unexpected downpour which drenched the audience. Death was too great a barrier even for the world's greatest escape artist!