As a magician, Harry Houdini was a trickster pretty much by definition—and, of course, a good one. He was quick to turn mere happenstance to his advantage (as when he commanded the rain to stop and begin again at a Fourth of July party)1 and to turn people’s assumptions against them. Sometimes, the results of such trickery were simple delight. Sometimes, as in his exposures of fraudulent psychics, his craftiness served the public good. On other occasions, Houdini’s performances had more tragic consequences. Such was his own assessment of mentalism performances he gave earlier in his career, in the guise of a medium:
At the time I appreciated the fact that I surprised my clients, but while aware of the fact that I was deceiving them I did not see or understand the seriousness of trifling with such sacred sentimentality and the baneful result which inevitably followed. To me it was a lark. I was a mystifier and as such my ambition was being gratified and my love for a mild sensation satisfied. After delving deep I realized the seriousness of it all. As I advanced to riper years of experience I was brought to a realization of the seriousness of trifling with the hallowed reverence which the average human being bestows on the departed, and when I personally became afflicted with similar grief I was chagrined that I should ever have been guilty of such frivolity and for the first time realized that it bordered on crime.2
Which brings us to another deception that was “a lark” and yet “bordered on crime”: the time that Houdini, according to his lifelong pal Joseph Rinn, conspired to issue a pseudonymous, implied, hoaxed threat against materializing mediums (the subset of psychic performers who purport to be able to summon ectoplasmic manifestations of the spirits of the dead). I must confess that I found this story quite funny on first read—and yet, schadenfreude aside, it also strikes me as a deeply unethical example of skeptical activism.
The story, as Rinn recalled it 50 years after the fact (relying in part upon a newspaper clipping that I have not yet been able to lay my hands on) went like this. In 1896, Houdini and Rinn were chatting in New York City about a recently publicized marriage that one medium had performed between a prominent medical doctor and the materialized spirit of his dead fiancé. Not altogether surprisingly, “Skeptics denounced the marriage as preposterous,” Rinn remembered. Houdini was no exception.
“It was a pure fake—nothing else,” he [Houdini] said hotly. “Mediums always say they that they require darkness to materialize a spirit, yet this stunt, it is stated, was performed in bright sunlight. Those crooked mediums are getting so bold that we should do something to throw a scare into them.”
I agreed, and Houdini and I drew up a letter that we sent to the New York Mercury. It read:
To the Editor of the New York Mercury:
As I frequently attend spiritualistic seances, where materialized spirits are said to come out of a cabinet, I wonder if I would be breaking any law if I fired a pistol shot at one of these figures and a dead body was found on the floor.
This bit of lighthearted terrorism was no joke for the practitioners of the psychic trade. According to Rinn,
This letter, when published, created consternation among spiritualists, especially mediums, and for fully six months no medium advertised that he was giving materializing seances, for fear some fanatic might be tempted to fire a shot at a cabinet spirit. During that period only flowers were materialized.4
At this stage of my research I’m forced to rely upon Rinn’s recollection regarding the impact of the hoax, but it is certainly plausible that he and Houdini would have created a stir. After all, “grabbers” and other interfering members of séance audiences were hazards of the trade for materializing mediums—and as mediums were frequently fleecing their clients, these disruptions carried the threat not only of financial loss but of violence. A few years before Rinn and Houdini’s hoax, another American medium had been stabbed during a séance, according to confessed medium Julia E. Garret:
She had been frequently exposed, but always came out all right, as Spiritualists are ready to excuse anything a medium does so long as she claims that it is spiritual. One night, however, while playing spook she came out to a young doctor, claiming to be his sister, or some other relative. He, wishing to prove whether she was mortal or spirit, thrust a surgeon’s knife into her leg. She nearly died from the effects of the wound, and, in fear, gave up the business.5
Audience interference was (and is) such a constant danger that institutionalized customs grew up to protect this type of psychic performer, as ex-medium M. Lamar Keene explained in the 1976:
Usually there is present at every materialization seance a “cabinet attendant,” who is actually the medium’s bodyguard. Spiritualists explain his or her role as that of protecting the medium from malicious intruders who might try to grab the ectoplasm and thereby cause the poor medium grave injury, even death. (Heartbreaking stories were told to the faithful about mediums who had suffered internal hemorrhages and writhed on the floor in agony after some heartless nave grabbed their ectoplasm. The official dogma was that rude touching of ectoplasm caused it to recoil into the medium’s body with savage force–like being hit in the gut by a giant rubber band.) Anyway, the cabinet attendant or keeper was there to discourage any tampering with the ectoplasm—and also, in many cases, to provide the ectoplasm.6
So what are we to make of Rinn and Houdini’s hoax? We may perhaps assure ourselves that the materializing subset of the fraternity of mediums were more-or-less uniformly fraudulent. But does that imply that anonymous death threats—even oblique ones—are an acceptable tactic? Even setting aside the fact that death threats are serious crimes in most countries, I viscerally recoil from that idea. Surely we all do? And yet, in less extreme cases, we may all see grey more often than we should. It’s so easy and so human to regard moral urgency as the gauge for the rightness of our actions. That tendency is responsible for much of the evil in the world (and I think, for the deepest and most grotesque).
A better test is to ask, would this same action or tactic or rhetoric seem acceptable to us if we were the target—my family, or my cause, or my community, or my religious demographic? Skeptics are not immune today to threats or violence; nor were they immune in Rinn and Houdini’s day. Rinn himself said, “After several attempts on my life, I was compelled to carry a pistol for protection.”7 In 1891, Rinn’s skeptical collaborator Winfield S. Davis (a key player in an early skeptical activism and investigation scene centered on New York City) received a threat described by the New York Times:
When Winfield S. Davis went to his printing office in Nassau Street yesterday morning he found awaiting him three anonymous letters and a box wrapped in brown paper. The letters threatened him with bodily injury unless he kept to himself for the future his skeptical ideas about modern Spiritualism. He opened the box and found what was intended to pass for an infernal machine.
It had a compartment filled with matches, which were perhaps to be lighted by a sandpaper-lined cover moved by a clock spring. A fire-cracker fuse, starting in the match box, extended into cups filled with grey and pink powder. Packed in a cylinder below the saucers was a mass that looked like a mixture of sand and coal dust.8
Davis tested the materials, and determined that the device was non-functional. It was—like Rinn and Houdini’s letter—a hoax intended to frighten.
- Houdini, Harry. A Magician Among the Spirits. (Amsterdam: Fredonia Books, 2002.) p. 245–246
- Ibid. p. xi
- Rinn, Joseph. Sixty Years of Psychical Research. (The Truth Seeker Company, 1950.) p. 122
- Garret, Julia E. Mediums Unmasked: An Exposé of Modern Spiritualism by an Ex-Medium. (Los Angeles, H. M. Less & Bro., 1892.) p. 55
- Keene, M. Lamar and Allen Spraggett. The Psychic Mafia. (New York: Dell, 1977.) p. 95
- Rinn. (1950.) p. 233
- “Money for Spirit Tests. Mr. Davis Challenges All Comers to Prove Themselves Mediums.” The New York Times. March 1, 1891