When he wasn’t chained and hanging from skyscrapers, or entombed underwater, Harry Houdini spent much time debunking criminals and fraudulent spiritualists. By the 1920s, Spiritualism had taken on religious weight both in Europe and the United States, and as with such phenomena, unscrupulous types stepped in to gain profit or to exploit hopeful séance attendees for other purposes. True believers of this practice, the idea that the living could contact dead significant others through mediums, included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Oliver Lodge, and even Thomas Edison held some interest in the possibility of otherworldly communications. In fact, Charles Richet, a Nobel Prize laureate in the field of Physiology/Medicine for his work in immunology, invented the term “ectoplasm” to describe the spiritual substance mediums seemed to produce while communing with the dearly departed.
Houdini wrote three books in which he discusses his work to uncover mountebanks. In the first, The Right Way to Do Wrong: An Expose of Successful Criminals (1906), the magician hopes to protect the general public from criminal harm. He states in his introduction:
The object of this book is twofold: First, to safeguard the public against the practises of the criminal classes by exposing their various tricks and explaining the adroit methods by which they seek to defraud. “Knowledge is power” is an old saying. I might paraphrase it in this case by saying knowledge is safety. I wish to put the public on its guard, so that honest folks may be able to detect and protect themselves from the dishonest, who labor under the false impression that it is easier to live dishonestly than to thrive by honest means.
In the second place, I trust this book will afford entertaining, as well as instructive reading, and that the facts and experiences, the exposes and explanations here set forth may serve to interest you, as well as put you in a position where you will be less liable to fall a victim.
The material contained in this book has been collected by me personally during many years of my active professional life. It has been my good fortune to meet personally and converse with the chiefs of police and the most famous detectives in all the great cities of the world. To these gentlemen I am indebted for many amusing and instructive incidents hitherto unknown to the world.
The work of collecting and arranging this material and writing the different chapters has occupied many a leisure hour. My only wish is that “The Right Way to Do Wrong” may amuse and entertain my readers and place the unwary on their guard. If my humble efforts in collecting and writing these facts shall accomplish this purpose, I shall be amply repaid, and feel that my labor has not been in vain.
I hope it will warn you away from crime and all evildoing. It may tell the “Right Way to Do Wrong,” but, all I have to say is “Don’t.”
In his second book, Miracle Mongers and Their Methods (1920), Houdini expands on these themes while building on a quote by Samuel Johnson:
“All wonder,” said Samuel Johnson, “is the effect of novelty on ignorance.” Yet we are so created that without something to wonder at we should find life scarcely worth living. That fact does not make ignorance bliss, or make it “folly to be wise.” For the wisest man never gets beyond the reach of novelty, nor can ever make it his boast that there is nothing he is ignorant of; on the contrary, the wiser he becomes the more clearly he sees how much there is of which he remains in ignorance. The more he knows, the more he will find to wonder at. My professional life has been a constant record of disillusion, and many things that seem wonderful to most men are the everyday commonplaces of my business. But I have never been without some seeming marvel to pique my curiosity and challenge my investigation. In this book I have set down some of the stories of strange folk and unusual performers that I have gathered in many years of such research.
Finally, in A Magician among the Spirits (1924), Houdini focuses on revealing tricks phony spiritualists employ – for example, spirit photography, spirit slate writing, ectoplasm, and clairvoyance – all the results of his traveling throughout the nation, confronting various practitioners, offering cash rewards if any could produce an effect he couldn’t imitate with techniques related to stage magic. At the end of his introduction to this book he claims, “Up to the present time everything that I have investigated has been the result of deluded brains.”
When I picked up David Jaher’s The Witch of Lime Street, I’d expected light reading about Houdini’s encounter with Mina Crandon, or “Margery,” a famous Boston-based medium who conversed with her brother Walter Stinson who died in a railroad accident. Mrs. Crandon had quite a few followers and supporters, among them Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and a sizable number of psychologists and scientists from nearby Harvard University. Jaher, however, delivers much more to readers than a quick peek at a singular moment in Houdini’s life.
Although he never goes into depth about the books I mentioned above, Jaher spends considerable ink recounting Houdini’s life while outlining the history of Spiritualism, enlightening us about the Fox sisters, the Davenport brothers, Annie Eva Fay, Daniel Dunglas Home, and Eusapia Pallandino, all of whom were fakes. The author also reveals what perhaps motivated Houdini’s quest, the loss of his beloved mother. Houdini despised con artists who played upon an individual’s grief and hopes to reconnect with a loved one across death’s divide. Even Arthur Conan Doyle’s motivations stemmed from having lost his son. Houdini wouldn’t fall for it, and neither should anyone else.
Much scientific energy went into investigating Spiritualism; so much so that in 1924 Orson Munn and James Malcolm Bird, respectively the publisher and an editor with Scientific American, answered a challenge Doyle had put to their magazine to conduct investigations of psychic phenomena. The outcome became a search for proof of actual communication with the dead. The search began. Where was there a medium that beyond any shadow of doubt could pierce the veil? The purse was $5,000, split into two prizes of $2,500, one for an actual physical manifestation and the other for reliable spirit photography. The investigative team of Daniel Frost Comstock, Dr. Bereward Carrington, William McDougall, Walter Franklin Pierce, and, of course, Harry Houdini then went to work.
Jaher devotes the latter half of The Witch of Lime Street fleshing out the details of the search, the relationships between investigators, Houdini’s part in debunking comers, and finally the several encounters and séances Houdini sat through with Crandon. After many seeking the prize had failed, Crandon proved quite the labor for Houdini. Was Mina Crandon, or “Margery” as she was called, genuine? Did anyone win? I think you can guess the answers, but I’ll avoid spoilers. Know, however, that Jaher has produced an interesting blend of biography, history, social analysis, pop religious study, and critique of scientific methodology. All fans of Houdini must read this book.