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That Time Houdini Threatened to Shoot All the Psychics

by Daniel Loxton, Mar 24 2013

Harry Houdini portraitAs 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.
D. G.3

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

Personal Reflection

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.

References:

  1. Houdini, Harry. A Magician Among the Spirits. (Amsterdam: Fredonia Books, 2002.) p. 245–246
  2. Ibid. p. xi
  3. Rinn, Joseph. Sixty Years of Psychical Research. (The Truth Seeker Company, 1950.) p. 122
  4. Ibid.
  5. Garret, Julia E. Mediums Unmasked: An Exposé of Modern Spiritualism by an Ex-Medium. (Los Angeles, H. M. Less & Bro., 1892.) p. 55
  6. Keene, M. Lamar and Allen Spraggett. The Psychic Mafia. (New York: Dell, 1977.) p. 95
  7. Rinn. (1950.) p. 233
  8. “Money for Spirit Tests. Mr. Davis Challenges All Comers to Prove Themselves Mediums.” The New York Times. March 1, 1891
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32 Responses to “That Time Houdini Threatened to Shoot All the Psychics”

  1. Leo says:

    Excellent post! One of the neat things about reading historical sources is that you quickly realize that people are devilishly complicated, and to put them on a pedestal or cast them down is to do them a disservice either way.

  2. tmac57 says:

    What strikes me about your piece,Daniel,is that the ‘psychics’ must have known that they were playing with fire,due to their need for constant vigilance against possible violence. Yet they continued their foul trade despite that threat. What does that say about them?

  3. Troythulu says:

    Good post, Daniel. It’s always good to know the human side of those we admire and learn from, even when what we know isn’t very admirable…as long as we avoid the temptation to likewise condemn them out of hand.

  4. Chuck Baggett says:

    “a newspaper clipping that I have not yet been unable to lay my hands on”

    That must be quite an interesting story.

  5. Craig says:

    I don’t read Houdini’s letter as an actual threat, but as a rather humorous illustration along the lines of Tim Minchin wondering if Storm would be willing to exit her apartment via the second-floor window.

    Maybe I’m missing something.

    • I’m not sure you’re missing anything; it’s really a judgement call, or perhaps more than one. Was the pseudonymous letter intended to be taken seriously—”something to throw a scare into” mediums? Rinn tells us it was, though his recollection seems to me to have a bit of a twinkle in its eye as well. Would many (or any) mediums have regarded this as a credible threat, as Rinn claims? Or, would that cynical bunch have viewed it for what it ultimately was—a joke? It’s hard to judge from this vantage point. Perhaps further sources will shed more light on the incident.

      • Archie Clebberdale says:

        It is a judgement call, and I think you’re being oversensitive.

      • Perhaps so; I’m certainly open to that possibility. Assuming that I am oversensitive, where do we draw the line? If Rinn and Houdini had sent in a prank bomb threat, or perhaps a harmless but scary-looking device like the one Davis received, would these actions be objectionable? What’s the difference?

      • oldebabe says:

        When one starts with the `ifs’, the potentials are infinite. This was one action, i.e. it was what it was, not what it could be, or might have been, etc. which is, or can be, an endless discussion.

      • Frankly says:

        Meh. Given the harm that these frauds cause, giving them a moments pause or a tiny discomfort is not even close to the line.

        What is sad is that they didn’t at least pretend to follow through. Maybe bring a handgun out & set it on the table before the fu^haker began the performance. I bet no spirits would have appeared that night!

  6. John Cox says:

    Well done article. Thank you.

    • Thank you. I’ve been enjoying writing the series of skeptical history articles I’ve been working on recently—here, in the pages of Junior Skeptic, and especially in my two-chapter essay, “Why Is There a Skeptical Movement” (PDF).

  7. Trimegistus says:

    I think Houdini was doing the thing he did best all his life: getting some publicity.

    And if he threw a scare into some of the human leeches of the psychic fraud game, so much the better.

    • I have to admit that that was also my interpretation of the incident, at first: an amusing prank playing off the media; fairly transparently a joke; and if it did ruffle the feathers of criminals, so much the better.

      With that in mind, I sketched out the title and dropped in the main quotes. Then, the Sandy Hook events happened. The piece felt poorly timed, so I set it aside for a while. When I came back to it, I found my reaction to the story had changed. To begin with, I found it echoed against the frequent anecdotes I hear from good-hearted skeptical colleagues about direct threats, ominous anonymous communications, and the like.

      Live with it a while. Perhaps it will drift or resonate in new ways over time.

  8. Wscott says:

    I agree it seems to have been meant as a joke. And yeah, I snickered too. But the point is that in the real world threatening violence against people you disagree with is just not okay. Even when it is kinda funny.

  9. peter whyte says:

    Orright. My mom always said she believed in a happy medium

  10. DHE says:

    For a number of years I lived in a rural town in Virginia in a house that seemed to house a harmless spirit. I have been a skeptic since a little boy but it was very hard to resist believing when doors would open, a light switch I was not near went off (in her room), a garbage can lid would rock and unexpected sounds would often come from the same room. I soon learned that those who had lived there before me also thought the place was haunted by a known relative who had expired there. I never believed, despite some pretty powerful evidence, and very quickly made a joke out of it and began a one way conversation with the spirit, probably in part to conquer the natural creepiness one feels when you come across something like this. Often this involved yelling at her to shut up or sneaking up to her door in the middle of the night and giving off a cackling, witchlike laugh. One day, as I approached the front door and it not unexpectantly (any longer)opened for me – I invited her to go to the gym with me. When I drove there I introduced her to the puzzled hostess and told her to wait on the couch. Maybe she liked the space and the action because I never experienced anything unusual at home again. I am not trying to convince anyone to believe. I still don’t. Ghosts don’t make sense to me. But, I don’t deny what I experienced either. It was pretty interesting.

    As to the point of the story – No! The hoax was not a funny joke even if we like skeptics and don’t like psychics. It was no different than the bomb received by Davis – using a threat to make someone stop saying something someone else found uncomfortable. Skeptics can certainly not afford to take this approach because there are many more of them than there are of us.

    Interesting article though.

  11. PTWalker says:

    I took a quick look around and the best I could find was February 1897 snippets of a wire reprint that state:

    A cruel skeptic on Spiritualism wants
    a law passed giving permission to any
    one in an audience to shoot bullets at
    alleged materialized spirits. He claims
    that thereafter no such manifestations
    would occur.

    It is in quite a few papers, and maybe is a reaction to this letter (proper time frame, many of the right points) but searching for the source has been a bust. If it is the Mercury than reading every issue from the last week of January to the middle of February might yield the result, but it doesn’t seem to be caught in anyone’s OCR keyword searchable databases.

  12. William Harwood says:

    Mr Loxton asks, “if we were the target”. But how could “we” be the target–unless we were crooks posing as ghosts for the purpose of fleecing the gullible? Houdini’s threat could only have frightened swindlers who manufactured false manifestations, not sincerely deluded ignoramuses who merely believed nonsense.

  13. Mike says:

    And these mediums are still pulling the same stunts even now. It’s one thing to present these shows as entertainment, but unfortunately a lot aren’t and certainly lots of gullables belief this nonsense.

    Isn’t it time to call these charletons to task legally and make this practice illegal unless covered by an “entertainment only- it’s not real” banner?

  14. tony sadar says:

    very impressed with the houdini story,never heard it before.
    regards
    tony sadar

  15. Hatta says:

    “A better test is to ask, would this same action or tactic or rhetoric seem acceptable to us if we were the target”

    I have to offer an unequivocal yes. Whether or not Houdini’s letter constitutes a death threat depends entirely on the honesty of mediums. As I am honest myself, I would never feel threatened by such a statement. And if anyone does feel threatened, he only has himself to blame.

    Do mediums deserve to be shot? No, but they deserve to be outed with brilliant rhetoric like Houdini’s.

  16. Xcott Craver says:

    It’s worth pointing out that stage magicians faced similar threats of violence from unruly audience members.

    The infamous bullet catch trick, which Houdini avoided due to the many risks, included the risk of some audience member obsessed with exposing the magician, and insisting on using his own rifle, or his own bullet.

  17. Bernie Mooney says:

    What gets overlooked with Houdini is despite the fact he made it almost his life’s work to expose fraudulent spiritualists, he wanted to believe. I think the secret message left with his wife is proof of that. That is why I find it it interesting that the modern day skeptics find him a hero in that regard. They don’t want to believe.

    But good story. I hadn’t heard of it before.

    • tmac57 says:

      Bernie,what makes you think that skeptics don’t “want to believe’ in (I assume you mean) an afterlife?
      My guess is that it a very common thing to ‘want to’ believe in,for both skeptics and believers. The difference is,that skeptics require evidence that something is true,and believers…well they just believe (by definition).
      Just ‘wanting’ something to be true,is a far cry from ‘whether’ it is true or not.
      By the way,most skeptics are well aware of Houdini’s complicated relationship with spiritualism.

  18. John says:

    Did Houdini actually say “we should do something to throw a scare into them?” I believe that Rinn’s recollection of the conversation which he and Houdini had may not be word perfect. Even assuming it is, the subsequent letter does not fall under terrorism as I see it.

    Terrorism is the use of violence and intimidation to achieve political goals. It requires the willing intent to follow through on explicit and implied threats. Otherwise terrorism is defined by fear alone and we spiral into a darkening abyss of inferred threats.

    The letter was worded strictly in the first person. It bears more resemblance to a philosophical thought experiment than a threat. Houdini proposes an event and questions the result. As he states, he frequently attended spiritualist seances. This afforded ample opportunity to carry out the experiment in the physical world. This thought experiment (though a poor example of one) is legitimate as they are often employed to explore experiments which are impractical or impossible in the physical world.

    The threat may be inferred by the letter but it is not directly implied. If this type of statement is seen as implying a threat then so too should such statements as, “I’ll defy you if it is the last thing I do.” The implication is I am willing to strive until I physically die in order to defy your endeavor. The inference might easily then include violence being done to you to defy your endeavor. Houdini and Rinn’s contrived letter doesn’t go even so far as directly addressing the spiritualists with a statement such as, “What if I put a bullet through your apparition?”

    Rinn’s statement that he agreed with Houdini about wanting “to throw a scare into” the spiritualist still doesn’t mean they intended to carry out such violence. Seemingly they did desire it to give the spiritualist something to think about.

    Finally, I do not see what they were doing as a “lark” nor a joke. While one may snicker or laugh 50 years after an event doesn’t show the original intention of the event was humor or lightheartedness. Perhaps one laughs 50 years later at the absurdity, audacity or temerity of those actions in the past. One may even laugh thusly in the moment of the event without intending the action itself to be joking.

  19. Bob Cash says:

    People who deceive the feeble-mended should be sent to prison, the money they made confiscated and the government should publish statements that EVERY person claiming to be pshcic can only be one of two things; a charlatan or metally unfit. How is it possible that ANYONE could begin to think such drivel could be true? Someone left a message claiming people have “a right to believe”. That’s shocking. People should be educated to understand the difference been possibility and impossibility. Idiots claiming to have such powers should be stopped! It astounds me people are so naive and even prepared to defend these charlatans. It just shows how stupid the general public is.

  20. lloyd smith says:

    Joseph Rinn now on wikipedia:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Rinn

  21. rb3 says:

    Viewed through a modern lens, this really seems to be a callous and even dangerous prank. Put it into it’s context and you have a pretty good jape. It took place before the world wars and ubiquitous terrorist attacks of the late 20th century and of course 9/11. It was a different time and our modern over reaction to anything that could even potentially lead to violence did not yet exist. I vote that it is funny and if the liars and cheats took it seriously maybe they at least lost a little sleep at night through concerns for their own safety, since they never missed a nap over unconscionably fleecing the gullible.