The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 40 Finding Nothing in the Great Beyond: The Spirit Busting of Harry Houdini

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Finding Nothing in the Great Beyond: The Spirit Busting of Harry Houdini

Everybody has their own theory about why humanists love magic to such a peculiar degree. That we do there is no question. It’s just one of those traits in our collective genes, like complete knowledge of all Tom Lehrer’s songs or hard and fast opinions about whether a 2:1 sheep port is tactically better than a 3:1 general port in Settlers of Catan. As people who forego the pleasures of religious community and the hope of eternity in devotion to the quiet satisfactions of truth, magic shows represent for us a safe place where we can be credulous and awestruck, perhaps the only place we allow ourselves the sweet luxury of being tricked.

Others say we love magicians because they reinforce our preconceptions that at the base of the most miraculous happening is something wonderfully simple, logical, and natural. The more fantastic the trick, the more allegorical comfort we receive.

HarryHoudiniA bit of both, but perhaps neither. The mutual affinity of skeptics and magicians almost in spite of each other’s fundamental occupations is a puzzling thing, and nobody embodied all of its puzzlety quite like master magician Harry Houdini (1874-1926). He was an impulsive ball of courage and vanity given flesh, able to accomplish astonishing feats and topple idols precisely because he possessed no self-awareness, which might have raised doubts about what he was doing and why. He was a trickster who brutally dismantled other tricksters for their tricksterism. Their illusions were cons, but his were honest, and somehow that beautiful self-delusion was enough through thirty years of publicly unmasking rival magicians and, in his last days, of taking to ground the shameless revival of spiritualism growing in the long shadow of World War I.

Usually, for a personality as complex as Houdini’s, roots can be traced to childhood, but Houdini’s lifetime of masterful publicity-wrangling all but ensured that his real youth was lost in a swirl of hyperbole. We know he was the son of an immigrant rabbi, a Hungarian who, for undisclosed reasons, came to America only to astoundingly fail at everything he did. Not skilled enough as a spiritual leader to rise to prominence in the increasingly crowded pool of immigrant rabbis, he was yet too proud to take up any other career, leaving his children to beg for money to buy food.

In that atmosphere of total paternal failure, Houdini clung to his mother, whom he adored to an almost Oedipal degree his whole life. And yet, in spite of that love, he couldn’t quite bring himself to hunker down to the long grind of survivable normalcy any more than his father. Enraptured by magicians, he devoted himself to the art and, for the better part of two decades, starved his way through obscurity performing in traveling medicine shows, circuses, and dime houses, all the while dragging his wife Bess through potato-stealing penury, never doubting for a moment his path.

Americans, it turned out, didn’t care about his specialty: handcuff escape. It wasn’t until he went to England, Germany, and Russia, where he challenged the police to find ways of restraining him, that he took the stride from circus needle-trick nobody to megastar. Suddenly, a whole continent wanted nothing so much as to see a short immigrant escape from increasingly elaborate sets of handcuffs. He deepened his repertoire, adding straitjackets that he escaped from while hanging upside down from the top of a skyscraper, man-sized milk jugs that were filled with water then padlocked shut with Houdini inside, and the famous Chinese Torture Chamber in which an inverted Houdini had to free himself from leg and wrist restraints before drowning.

As obsessed as he was with appearing to defy death, the call to make his name as a scholar was profound. He sought out older magicians and assembled the world’s foremost collection of magical books and objects, creating for himself a paternity and pedigree to fill the void and ease the ache of the archetypal Immigrant’s Son. By the 1920s, between the illusions he invented and those he’d obtained the secret histories of, there wasn’t much you could do in front of Houdini without his knowing more or less instantly how you did it, and that made him a very dangerous man to cross if you were in the deception business.

And oh how that business barked and boomed for anybody in the 1920s with a gift for the dramatic and no moral compunctions about profiting from the grief of others. Spiritual mediums, who had been out of vogue since the 1860s, returned with purpose to service the grieving parents and widows of the Somme and Marne. To Houdini, whose world had been irreparably darkened by the loss of his mother, the mediums were an affront to his melancholy, an amateurish con that turned the magician’s arsenal of misdirection and bedazzlement to dark and malicious ends.

For the last half decade of his life, Houdini was an avid and ruthless exposer of spiritualist chicanery. He wrote a book, A Magician among the Spirits, detailing the methods of their trade, and snuck, disguised, into séances to unveil the perpetrators as frauds at the crucial moment. His stage performances included a lecture on spiritualist trickery, and in Congress he demonstrated the craft of cold reading, all while serving as the resident expert on illusionism for Scientific American‘s psychic phenomenon evaluation committee.

It was a hard battle against the spirit of the times. His friend, Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle, was a convinced spiritualist and subjected him, with the best of intentions, to what must have been an agonizing experience. Doyle’s wife believed herself to be gifted with the ability of automatic writing, that she could become a conduit whereby the dead might scribble messages to the living. One day, she thought Houdini’s mother was trying to contact him through her and made Houdini sit in a chair as she wrote sheet after sheet of generic drivel purporting to be the words of his beloved mother.  It was everything that disgusted Houdini most about the mediums, made perhaps more horrifying by being so honestly and earnestly meant.

His most famous debunking was of Margery Crandon, a medium who claimed to have contact with her deceased brother and to be able to produce pseudopodic psychic limbs from between her legs. Her act mixed exquisite execution with a touch of the risqué and a touch more of astute theatrics. While channeling her brother, Margery spoke in rough, profanity-laden dialect that heightened the realism of the experience. With both limbs held by séance attendees, she was somehow able to make remote bells ring, cabinets crash, and objects fly through the total darkness that all mediums demanded during their shows.

She was competing for the Scientific American prize to be the first to demonstrate valid psychic abilities, hoping to take advantage of Houdini’s absence on tour to slip in under his radar, and it very nearly worked. Those potentially disastrous consequences for the respectability of American science were avoided, however, when Houdini found out about her candidacy. He  prepared to attend one of her performances, filling in the role of the attendee whose job it is to sit next to the medium and hold her arms. He cut off circulation in his legs to make them more sensitive to motion, allowing him to pick up the subtle movements she employed to produce her famous effects. After that first performance, he used that knowledge to construct an apparatus that would restrain her from using any of her normal methods.

Placed reluctantly in the device, she failed to produce any psychic phenomena, and lost the award, while spiritualism lost its best chance at official validation. Scientific American, thanks to Houdini, did not endorse spiritualism, and the William James school of parapsychology lost further its grip on the rudder of American neurological research, existing in the shadows for fifty years until a new generation of lost souls sought solace from suburbia in the arms of hotline clairvoyants and New-Age mysticism.

Houdini drove himself relentlessly, performing feats of endurance at fifty-two that taxed the fittest of his young competitors. He performed through broken bones, exhaustion, and, in the end, through a ruptured appendix, produced when, to show off his strength, he let a fan punch him as hard as he could in the stomach. That injury ultimately ended his life. (It’s said Houdini admired America’s favorite agnostic, Robert Ingersoll, and that his name was the last thing Houdini said before dying).

He has yet to return.

Further Reading

The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini (1993) by Ruth Brandon is a compelling book that is almost shockingly straightforward in its assertion that Moses and other major religious figures got by primarily on cunning and magical illusion. The Jungian shaman-archetyping of Houdini gets wearisome but, as somebody who dislikes Jung perhaps more than any other figure in intellectual history, I might be ever so slightly biased. In any case, if you like your magic mixed with psychology, it’s probably precisely the book you want.