In 1926, Harry Houdini testified in front of congress in Washington to bring in a bill to regulate fortune-telling. Proceedings took place in February and May in front of an audience of local fortune tellers, astrologers, mediums, and spiritualists. The proposed bill would mean:
"Any person pretending to tell fortunes for reward or compensation where lost or stolen goods may be found; any person who, by game or device, sleight of hand, pretending, fortune telling, or by any trick or other means, by the use of cards or other implements or instruments, fraudulently obtains from another person money or property or reward, property of any description; any person pretending to remove spells, or to sell charms for protection, or to unite the separated, shall be considered a disorderly person. Any person violating the provisions of this law shall be punished by a fine not to exceed $250 or by imprisonment not to exceed six months, or by both such fine and imprisonment."
Explaining why he wanted to be involved, Houdini made it clear several times during the hearing that he was not attacking spiritualism as a religion but more the fraudulent behaviour of the mediums involved.
"This bill is no attack against spiritualism. This bill, as near as I can understand it, is to prevent anyone under any pretence whatsoever of robbing the public. there have been millions of dollars taken from unsuspecting persons by these people; for example, the Clara Barton case involving $70,000, which four weeks ago was decided against the medium. The lady told me she was not a medium.
I want to go on record as not attacking a religion, but as attacking a medium who is ordained and is a minister of spiritualism, whereas if they have a law like this a medium could not make any money under the guise of religion."
If you are not aware, Houdini had spent many of the later years of his career debunking and exposing the acts of spiritualist mediums. It wasn't that he didn't necessarily believe in the afterlife, he very much wanted to believe, it was more the people he did not believe in and was sadly met with fraud every time he investigated someone.
Houdini spent his time during the trial debating in front of an audience full of psychic mediums, astrologists, fortune tellers and spiritualists content with proving him wrong. Washington at the time was very much a town on the side of spiritualism. This was brought to light by Houdini's sidekick Rose Mackenberg who during the hearing stated she was told by spiritualist leader Jane B. Coates about ties between spiritualism and the White House! (Claims which were later denied).
"Why try to fight Spiritualism when most of the senators are interested in the subject? ... I know for a fact that there have been spiritual séances held at the White House with President Coolidge and his family.”
You can read more about Rose Mackenberg and her work in my article: Ladies of Paranormal Past: Rose Mackenberg
After reading through the many pages of the hearing (which there are a lot), there are a few things worthy of pointing out. A part I found interesting that is perhaps not discussed widely enough and not something I have really seen covered in the articles I have read about the hearing. While Houdini was giving specific examples of fraudulent activity, lists of names and even demonstrations, at one point, he seemingly exposed what would be described as sexual abuse towards females under the guise of mediumship.
"And I would like to tell you in front of every one that in many towns the men are degenerates. When they have the women in the room - I have it all under oath they get the women alone, and they put their hands all over their bodies. I have examined 300 mediums, and this town is the worst I have struck."
Houdini discussed the large amount of money he had spent paying mediums for lucky charms or for seances. Congress asked if it was Houdini or his team of men that went undercover. Houdini quickly corrected congress by emphatically stating that it was a network of ladies he had employed as investigators as he rarely uses men. It is not necessarily stated why, however at the time Women were likely seen as more vulnerable. Seances were often held in the dark and while the medium would be tied to the chair, in the darkness they would often move around the room or have their assistants do so and touch the participants stating that it was really spirits who were touching them - such a ghost hand on the shoulder or leg. Given these kinds of circumstances, it is not hard to believe that women were taken advantage of and not aware of what was happening. This was a time after the war so many widows would often seek comfort in the hands of mediums. By this point, Houdini was hated by the spiritualist community and known for going undercover so he couldn't risk being caught out.
You can read more about Houdini and his disguises in my article: Harry Houdini and the art of disguise
While Houdini was a vocal opponent of spiritualism, there were some high-profile figures who advocated for the practice. Probably one of the most vocal and famous figures was Sherlock Holmes writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Once best friends, they were torn apart by their opposing views of spiritualism. During the hearing, Doyle's name was brought up and Houdini did not pull any punches when it came to addressing what he thought of his once friend and his beliefs in spiritualism.
Mr, McLeod: I do not want to interfere with your statement but you have made quite an extensive investigation, as has this gentleman. Why would it not be possible, if that is such an outrageous fake and fraud, that it would be discovered by such men as Conan Doyle, who is an outstanding authority?
Mr. Houdini: Conan Doule is not an outstanding authority.
Mr McLeod: He is accepted as one of the best.
Mr. Houdini: No; he is not accepted as one of the best. He is one of the greatest dupes, outside of Sir Oliver Lodge. Conan Doyle stated that I possess mediumistic powers, which I deny.
Mr. McLeod: How can you prove it?
Mr Houdini: I admit that I do not possess mediumistic powers. They claim in a London psychic college I dematerialise my body, and that I ooze through and come out again and put myself together. That is Hewitt McKenzie.
Mr. McLeod: How do you do it?
Mr Houdini: I do it like anybody else would do it. There is nothing secret about it. We are all humans. Nobody is supernormal. We are all born alike.
You can read more about their friendship in my article: Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
What is quite fascinating in the above exchange was that Houdini was basically asked to prove that he didn't have psychic powers! Just who was on trial here?
Like everything he approached, during proceedings, Houdini put on show and the hearings were talked about in papers all over the World. There was shouting, yelling and calls for order in what would later be described as an 'uproarious hearing'.
The house caucus room today was thrown into turmoil for more than an hour while Harry Houdini, ‘psychic investigator,’ and scores of spiritualists, mediums, and clairvoyants had verbal and almost physical battles over his determination to push through legislation in the District prohibiting fortune-telling in any form.
The bill failed to pass as it was considered that spiritualism was protected by the first amendment. It seemed their minds were made up before they even began as from the opening moments of the hearing, the main argument was that people were free to spend their money as they choose and believe in what they choose. Houdini himself became a target with the argument that it was no different to him charging for entertainment. Houdini still felt however that people monetising from another's grief using fraud ought to be illegal. In response to Houdini's comment that mediums had been proven to be a fraud Kentucky Representative Ralph Gilbert a former judge stated
"I concede all that. But what is the use of us legislating about it? ...... A fool and his money are soon parted."
Houdini would pass away on October 31st later that year. While his official cause of death was officially a ruptured appendix, it was the circumstances before his death with a punch to the gut he was not prepared for that led to a conspiracy theory that the spiritualists were behind it. He wanted to be remembered as more than just a magician or escape artist making his final years exposing fraudulent behaviours a legacy still talked about today. Regardless of your belief systems and what you think of spiritualism and Houdini, he was fighting on the side of the people and fighting for truth.
You can read the full transcription of the hearing here
Hearings, Before the Subcommittee on judiciary of the committee on the district of Columbia House of Representatives, Sixty-Ninth Congress First Session on H.R 8989 February 26, May 18. 20 and 21, 1926
Evening star. [volume], February 21, 1926, Page 32, Image 32
Cover Photo: Public domain
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