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A Jewish Magician Among the Spirits

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Efram Sera-Shriar remembers Harry Houdini’s investigations into spirit and psychic phenomena at the turn of the twentieth century.

Although he was born in Hungary, Houdini was an American patriot and staunch supporter of U.S. involvement in World War I. He canceled his touring season to devote himself to entertaining soldiers and raising money for the war effort (photo: youtube).

In 1926, the famous American magician Harry Houdini (née Ehrich Weisz) participated in a series of congressional hearings to determine whether ‘fortune telling’ should be made a criminal offence in the District of Columbia. For many observers at the time, Houdini seemed a strong choice to champion the sceptic’s argument. Since the early part of his career, he had been investigating a myriad of mediums to determine whether or not their extraordinary feats were genuine examples of spirit and psychic phenomena or little more than clever tricks and illusions. The culmination of these efforts resulted in the publication of his book, A Magician Among the Spirits, in 1924. Time and time again, Houdini exposed these mediums as frauds, and yet despite encountering a countless number of trickers, he remained open to the possibility of one day finding someone who could produce authentic psychic effects.

Photographs revealing the fraud mediumship of Helen Duncan. Malcolm Gaskill revealed in his book Hellish Nell: Last of Britain’s Witches (Fourth Estate, 2001) that the photographs were taken by the photographer Harvey Metcalfe in 1928 during a séance at Duncan’s house.

The congressional hearing in 1926 became a canonical moment in Houdini’s career as a chief debunker of spiritualist fraud. During the proceedings, Houdini stole the spotlight with his distinctive charm and flair for performance. He enthralled those presiding over the hearing with vivid details of the many occasions where he uncovered how supposedly powerful mediums simulated their psychic powers. Equally, he amazed everyone by recreating some of the typical spiritualist manifestations sitters apparently witnessed at séances. For example, he imitated a form of spirit writing, where personal messages from the deceased residing beyond the veil suddenly appeared on supposedly blank slates. Overall, Houdini’s testimony and demonstrations were highly persuasive and its intent was clear: he wanted to put an end to the exploitative practices of fake mediums.

The spiritualist medium Eusapia Palladino with alleged ectoplasm hands circa 1023

Today, Houdini is often remembered as one of the great rationalists of his era, and a staunch disbeliever in the supernatural. However, this characterization is misleading. While Houdini was certainly highly critical of the fake mediumship that he witnessed, and actively sought to expose charlatans as hustlers and thieves, he maintained a strong belief in a higher power throughout his life. When he approached his study of spiritualism, he did so earnestly. As he wrote in the introduction to his book, he ‘never entered a séance room except with an open mind devoutly anxious to learn if intercommunication is within the range of possibilities and with a willingness to accept any demonstration which proves a revelation of truth’. Houdini’s willingness to seriously examine spiritualism was connected to his Jewishness.

Throughout his life, Houdini was devoutly Jewish. Born in Budapest, Hungary, his father Mayer Sámuel Weisz was an orthodox rabbi and moved his young family to Wisconsin in the late 1870s seeking a better life. Unfortunately, things did not work out as planned, and Houdini’s father struggled to maintain employment. As a result, the family fell into poverty, and Houdini was forced to take on various jobs during his youth to support the household. He eventually ran away from home to New York in his late teens to pursue a career in magic, but he always maintained a strong link to his Jewish upbringing. For example, while touring around the world as a professional conjurer, Houdini always carried with him his tefillin so that he could do his morning prayers, and wherever he lodged he nailed a mezuzah to the doorframe each evening to ward off evil spirits. He was not, therefore, the hard-lined materialist and secularist that he’s often portrayed as, but a deeply religious person, with a strong belief in an immaterial existence.

Scrawled on this photo of magician Harry Houdini with his mother Cecilia and wife Bess are the words, ‘My two sweethearts.’ (Photo: Library of Congress)

There is often a tendency when people explore the history of spiritualism to divide it into two camps – believers and sceptics. But this binary does not capture the more diverse range of perspectives people hold in relation to supernaturalism. Houdini helps us to complicate this picture, especially from the perspective of an ‘open-minded’ sceptic. His engagement with mediumship was not in pursuit of discrediting the spiritualist movement. Rather, it was an attempt to verify its potential legitimacy. Houdini desperately wanted spirit communication to be true. After the death of his mother Cecilia Steiner in 1913, with whom Houdini had a particularly close relationship, he was devastated. It was only then that he realized the damage fake mediums were causing, by giving false hope to those grieving people who sought comfort from these charlatans in a desperate attempt to reconnect with their lost loved ones. As Houdini wrote in his book, ‘I too would have parted gladly with a large share of my earthly possessions for the solace of one word from my loved departed’.

Houdini became a great debunker of fake mediumship because he saw it as massive exploitation of vulnerable people. However, his strong adherence to the Jewish faith meant that he never gave up hope that there was a life after death, and that genuine extraordinary phenomena could exist.

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Efram Sera-Shriar is a Copenhagen-based historian and writer. He received his PhD from the University of Leeds and has worked in higher education and the museum sector for nearly twenty years. Sera-Shriar has published extensively on the history of science and belief, and his forthcoming book, Psychic Investigators, explores British anthropology’s engagement with modern spiritualism during the late Victorian era. He is currently developing a new book project that will be a micro-historical study of Harry Price’s investigation of William Hope’s spirit photography in 1922.
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