A century ago, the curious idea that spirits not only survive death but can be contacted on the “other side” was widespread. Psychic mediums led countless séances, claiming to connect the grieving with their lost relations through everything from frenzied trance writing to sticky expulsions of ectoplasm.
The craze caught Harry Houdini’s attention. Well-known by then as most renowned magician and escape artist, he began to investigate these spiritual phenomena. Are ghosts real? Can we communicate with them? Catch them in photographs? Or are all mediums “flim-flammers,” employing tricks and illusions like Houdini himself?
Peopled with odd and fascinating characters, Houdini’s gripping quest will excite readers’ universal wonderment with life, death, and the possibility of the Beyond.
*School Library Journal, starred review of Ten Days a Madwoman
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Introduction: Impossibility Commences
Who was Harry Houdini?
Almost everyone has a mental picture of this “mystifier of mystifiers,” the most popular magician and escape artist of all time. Whether crouched over handcuffed wrists, liberating himself from a locked jail cell, or making an elephant disappear, he was a blaze of action—a force of mind, muscle, and will. His audiences gaped in wonder as he swallowed needles (or seemed to), bobbed upside down in a water-torture cell, or dangled topsy-turvy in a straitjacket from a tall building.
Over the course of his career, Houdini went by many names. He made his public debut at Jack Hoefler’s Five-Cent Circus in 1883, a year after his family settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Billed as Ehrich, the Prince of the Air, the spry acrobat and contortionist was nine years old.
People who saw him later, performing in dime museums, sideshows, and jails, and on the big variety stages of vaudeville, knew him variously as King of Cards, Projea the Wild Man, Wizard of Shackles, or the World’s Handcuff King and Prison Breaker. As he was quick to advertise, he was an “eclipsing sensation” who left no challenge unanswered. He was known in “every country on the globe,” defying “duplication, explanation, imitation or contradiction.” And in a life dedicated to dreaming up dazzling tricks, stunts, and escapes, he was his own best invention.
The public knew him by many names but rarely the one he started life with. Born in Budapest, Hungary, in March 1874, Erik Weisz (later Ehrich Weiss) was the son of an impoverished rabbi and a doting mother. Neither parent learned to speak English after immigrating to America, but young Ehrich grew into the picture of New World energy and optimism. He was competitive and ambitious, physically powerful, and powerfully present, all traits that would help shape his career as the consummate showman.
What fewer people know about this most visible of performers is that for decades, Ehrich Weiss (who adopted the stage name Houdini early in his career and would one day autograph his books: “Houdini. That’s Enough”) was preoccupied with things the eye can’t see.
Like many people in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Houdini was intrigued (if not convinced) by the startling idea that spirits not only survive death but can also be contacted and can communicate with the living through a third party called a medium.
This book is the story of a rational and relentless showman whose debunking of deception put him in touch with odd and fascinating characters: mediums who said they could converse with the dead, criminal hucksters, deluded scientists, and committees and investigators with job titles like “Honorary Secretary of the Society for the Study of Supernormal Pictures.”
It’s also the story of a devoted son devastated by the death of his “Sainted Mother,” who swore to investigate spiritual phenomena with an open mind and to uncover and defend truth until the end.
In thirty years, Houdini concluded, in his 1924 book, A Magician Among the Spirits, “I have not found one incident that savoured of the genuine.”
But it was not for want of trying.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Impossibility Commences 1
1 Harry and Bess Houdini, Spirit Mediums 7
2 Dealings with the Dead 17
3 The Mother's Boy 29
4 The Torch Bearer 41
5 "In the Light": Photographic Phantoms 55
6 Manifestations!: Adventures with Ectoplasm and More 69
7 A Menace to Health and Sanity 85
8 Science and Sincerity: Houdini Explores the Limits of Rational Inquiry 101
9 It Takes a Flimflammer to Catch a Flimflammer: A War on Deception 111
10 The End (or is it?) 127
Picture Credits 148