How Harry Houdini Debunked Fake Mediums And Got Cursed To Death In The Process

ENTERTAINMENT | November 12, 2019

Harry Houdini. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

The famous magician Harry Houdini is known for his escapes that defied logic, but he also happened to be one of the most strident skeptics of spiritual mediums.

Harry Houdini was born in 1874 in Hungary as Erik Weisz, and as a child immigrated to the United States. In the 1890s, he became famous as an escape artist under the stage name "Harry Houdini" and became known as the “handcuff king.” He particularly was known for his “Chinese Water Torture Cell” escape in which a shackled upside down Houdini is immersed into a locked tank of water, but also escaped from boxes thrown into rivers, chains, shackles, and even the corpse of a whale.

Harry Houdini about to jump off a bridge. Source: (Library of Congress)

For all of these death-defying escapes, Houdini openly admitted that everything he did was a trick either through optical illusion or specially engineered equipment. He viewed his stunts as entertainment only and anybody who contended that they had supernatural abilities was a fraud. That is why Houdini had a special loathing for spiritual mediums

Spiritualism, a quasi-religious movement was in vogue in the early 20th century. One of the key aspects of spiritualism was that so-called spiritual mediums had the ability to communicate with the dead. In pitch-black rooms mediums led seances where participants would hear bumps, see flashes of light, and other strange phenomena that convinced people that it was possible to talk to the dead.

Houdini demonstrates how photography may produce fake photographs of apparition and social interaction of the dead. Source: (Wikipedia)

Houdini viewed mediums as frauds who took advantage of people who had lost their loved ones. This was in part because of Houdini’s attempts to contact his dead mother through seances -- he immediately saw the deception of the mediums and was outraged.

Because of the growing popularity of spiritualism, Scientific American established two, $2,500 prizes to produce a photograph of a spirit under test conditions and to produce a visible spiritual manifestation under test conditions. Harry Houdini served on the judging committee and by 1924 had exposed several would-be prizewinners as frauds.

Mina Crandon in 1924. Source: (Wikipedia)

Houdini almost met his match in 1924 when he encountered, Mina Crandon of Boston, a medium called "Margery" by her devotees. Her detractors simply called her the "Blonde Witch of Lime Street." Very charismatic, Margery was able to exude "ectoplasm" from various orifices. She was particularly well-known for summoning "Walter," the spirit of her dead brother that could levitate objects, make sounds, and sound out messages.

Houdini demonstrating a spirit medium trick. Source: (Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the ever logical Sherlock Holmes, was a follower of Crandon and referred her to the Scientific American Prize. A six-person committee was so convinced by Crandon's powers they were about to recommend her for the award.

However, an outraged Harry Houdini then stepped in. He said to committee members, “If you give this award to a medium without the strictest examination every fraudulent medium in the world will take advantage of it…. Of course, if she is genuine there is nothing to expose, but if Scientific American by any accident should declare her genuine and she was eventually detected in fraud we would be the laughing stock of the world.…”  

Mina Crandon in Houdini's box. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Houdini flew to Boston to participate in seances with Crandon starting on July 23, 1924. As with other seances, the affair was held completely in the dark so one could not see Crandon’s movements. One hard to explain phenomena was that “Walter” would ring an electric bell. Houdini found that Crandon was able to do this through subtle footwork even though her legs were touching her neighbors. In another instance, a tumbled cabinet was found to have been rigged. Still, Houdini was professionally impressed and backhanded Crandon as having some of the slickest ruses he had ever seen. In order to verify the fraud, Houdini and the committee crafted a special box that would lock in the medium so that she could only wiggle her hands and feet. This Crandon tried to overcome by smuggling items into the cabinet that she could use later. When she was found out, “Walter” blamed this on Houdini, saying that it was an attempt to set his sister up. But further seances with restraints showed that Crandon could not produce the effects. Other evidence of mystical powers, such as ectoplasm, were found to be pieces of animal tissue.

Poster for a Houdini show debunking spiritualism. Source: (Library of Congress)

 In the last exchange "Walter" called Houdini a sonofabitch and that he put a curse on him. Houdini was unmoved and in the following months demonstrated Crandon's tricks at performances to the general laughter of audiences. He produced a 40-page pamphlet revealing all her tricks. This was the beginning of the end of the spiritualism movement.

Meanwhile, Crandon continued to hold seances with her admirers growing ever more supportive despite the public humiliation. In 1926, "Walter" made a prediction that Houdini would be gone by Halloween.  

Bess Houdini at her last seance. Source: (Getty Images)

Curiously, Houdini did, in fact, die on October 31, 1926, due to a ruptured appendix. There is some speculation that he was in fact assassinated by zealous spiritualists, but there is no historical proof for that.  Interestingly, Houdini's wife, Bess, carried on seances until 1936 in hopes of contacting her dead husband.  They had agreed that if the other died, they would have a secret signal at a seance that the other would no.  Harry Houdini never showed up.

 As for Crandon, she slipped into alcoholism although she maintained a following despite being further debunked by other skeptics. She died in 1941. 

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