An insightful interview was published with Harry Houdini who talks of his belief in the afterlife, and his belief in his failure to find evidence of it. After all of the deception he exposed, he was still hopeful that one day he would find true evidence of the afterlife, but was it right in front of him all along? I share my thoughts at the end of this article.
The following article was published: Sunday Times (Sydney, NSW : 1895 - 1930), Sunday 7 September 1924, page 13
Houdini, the Handcuff King, will be remembered by patrons of the Tivoli 14 years ago, when, under the management of the late Mr. Harry Rickards, he amazed Sydney with tricks which consisted mostly in freeing himself from all sorts of trappings. Handcuffs could not secure him, and, apparently with the greatest ease, he escaped from rope and leather bindings in a way that was uncanny. He was the first man in Sydney to go up in a flying 4 1 machine.
Is there ever any communication between the living and the dead? ' Harry Houdini, master magician-of our time, has spent 30 years investigating this age-old question. He has given the world the results of his search in the form of a book, A Magician Among the Spirits, wherein he asserts that he has never discovered a shred of evidence to support the claim of spirit communication. Nevertheless, in an interview at his New York home with Walter Vogdes, the famous 'ghost-breaker,' said: '
Houdini's book has raised a storm of controversy among spiritualists and sceptics. The professional mediums have attacked him because he has exposed many of them as charlatans. The ones who accept the belief as a religion resent what they call this attempt to undermine their faith. 'I do not wish to undermine their faith,' Houdini explained earnestly. 'I wish to find out whether it is based on truth. I am as sincere a seeker after knowledge as they. I firmly believe in a Supreme Being and a hereafter. I believe that the souls of my father and mother, whom I loved dearly, still exist in the life beyond this life. I would part gladly with a large share of my earthly possessions for the solace of one word from my departed loved ones. Because of that I have always attended seances with the greatest spirit of reverence. No, my disagreement with professional mediums has another basis altogether. My years of research have convinced me that in every case I investigated the medium was using the tricks of the magician falsely, to dupe believing people. Frequently the deception caused the victims huge losses in money, misery, and sometimes, weakening of the mind. All the methods by which mediums seek to establish connections with the 'other world' — ectoplasm, slate writing, table lifting, rappings, spirit photographs — are tricks any magician can do.'
Houdini's most famous controversy was with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, distinguished believer in spiritualism and author. The two were close friends, even up until the time of Sir Arthur's recent tour of America on behalf spiritualism. The other day Houdini sat in his library with the lore of the ages on witchcraft at his back. He is said to possess the largest private collection of books on the subject in the world. He is a powerful man physically fit, hair tinged with grey with a keen boyish face. Thousands of persons know him as the man who has fooled the world by his feats, of escape. Locks, ropes or packing cases have not been able to hold him. He has freed himself from prison cells under test conditions, and even from iron tanks filled with water. But these, as he smilingly asserts, were honest tricks done without pretence of any but natural power. 'I have made compacts,' he said, 'with fourteen people that whichever of us died first should communicate with the other if possible. The first of these compacts was made 25 years ago. Several of my friends have died since then, and I am certain if any of them could have reached me he would have done so. But there has been no sign. 'One compact was made with my private secretary, the late John W. Sargent. The day before he underwent an operation three years ago he said: 'Houdini, this may be the end. If it is I am coming back to you no' matter what happens on the other side, provided there is a way I can reach you.'
He died, and I have waited in vain for a sign. I believe that our minds were so close to each other that I would have received a signal from my friend if it were possible. X do not doubt that my friend's spirit lives in another world. I hope that his spirit may yet 'break through' to this world. But the simple fact is, so far nothing like that has happened.'
Houdini explained that he had one of his first experiences with a medium professing spiritualistic powers when he was only sixteen years old. and already a public performer in magic. He was converted for a short time. The man was Professor Gregorwitz, a Milwaukee medium, who professed to establish communication with spirits while he was securely roped within a cabinet. 'Later,' said Houdini. 'I discovered he was a fake. I met Ira Davenport, of the Davenport Bros., who was celebrated for similar cabinet tricks. Ira Davenport assured me that he and his brother never claimed that their demonstrations were anything but tricks. Yet to-day spiritualists claim the Davenports as real producers of spirit phenomena. My years of investigation have convinced me that the will to believe in the supernatural is so strong in many people that they will reject logic, no matter how strongly it Is presented to them.'
In support of this the magician related one incident that occurred while he and Sarah Bernhardt were riding in a motor car together during the great tragedienne's last visit to America. Sarah was, of course, familiar with Houdini's feats of magic and knew that he made no claim to supernatural power. Nevertheless, as they were riding toward the theatre, where the handcuff king was performing, she suddenly leaned toward him and put her hand on his arm. 'Houdini,' she said, gently and seriously, 'you do such marvellous things! Couldn't you — could you bring back my leg for me?' The magician related another instance of the will to believe that happened while he had on view in front of the theatres where he performed certain photographs made by triple exposure in imitation of 'spirit photographs.' These, he always explained, were made in a perfectly natural way and could be made by any clever amateur photographer. 'One day,' he said, 'an old man came to me with tears in his eyes. He explained that one of the dim faces in a 'spirit photograph' in front of the theatre. was of his mother. I told him gently that I thought he was mistaken, but he was certain I had really communicated with the spirit world and brought an impression of his mother's face to the photographic plate.
'On another occasion a young man in a Wisconsin town told me his sister had grieved over the death of another brother and that mediums were taking her money by convincing her they were obtaining messages from the dead buy on slates. He had seen me do the slate trick at a performance and he thought if I would demonstrate to his sister that it was only a trick the medium's hold on her would be broken and her money saved. I consented to go to his home. When the demonstration was held an elderly couple, neighbours, dropped in to see it. I did the trick and told how it was done. The words written on the slate were an old verse I have long known:
'My dear old friends No longer for yearn; I've gone to where the angels are, I was too tough to burn.
What was my amazement when- the old couple, who had been sitting quietly in the corner, jumped up and declared that they recognised the handwriting as that of their son who had died in the war! ''That's just like him,' they said. 'He was always making fun. In the face of their faith I didn't have the heart to undeceive them.'
Houdini explained that a number of things have happened to him that he cannot explain. But he does not attribute them to spiritual communication; 'Once,' he said, 'I was performing in Berlin. I was handcuffed securely, roped and locked in a cabinet. My job then was to escape, and it was very hard because the Germans had put wicked shackles on me.'
'My wife, who was my assistant in all my 'performances, heard me groaning within the cabinet. She realised I was in trouble. She began to pray to my dead father, who had told me before he died that if ever I were in difficulty he would return and aid me. Suddenly I solved the mystery of those handcuffs and got my hands out of them. If I were a spiritualist I, would cite that as an example of communication with the beyond. I'm not, so I think it was a coincidence.'
Perhaps the most famous instance of refusal to believe that Houdini accomplished his marvels in a natural way was that of J. Hewat McKenzie, President of the British College of Psychic Science, who declared that Houdini made his escape from a small iron tank filled with water by 'dematerialisation.' The escape was part of the magician's stage performance. To this Houdini replied, 'I do not 'dematerialise' anything; I simply control and manipulate material things.' Houdini cites another case of what he believes is the amazing will to believe, divorced from reason. This time Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Lady Doyie were the two additional figures. Lady Doyle believes herself possessed of mediumistic power, and one day, while she and her distinguished husband and Mr. and Mrs. Houdini were visiting together at Atlantic City, Sir Arthur, said: 'Houdini, if agreeable, Lady Doyle will give you a special seance, as she has a feeling that she might have a message come through.' Houdini went to the Doyle's hotel suite, where the shades were drawn down and Sir Arthur delivered a devout prayer. Presently Lady Doyle was seized by a 'spirit.' Houdini said: 'I excluded all earthly thoughts and gave my whole soul to the seance.' Then Lady Doyle began writing a letter, which she declared was coming from Houdini's dead mother. The letter began:'Oh,, 'Oh,, my darling, thank God, at last I'm through — ;I've tried, oh, so often— now I'm happy. ' Who of course I want to talk to my boy.' Houdini explained that while Conan Doyle believed implicitly in the message, he himself could not accept it. 'I hesitated all the core to accept the letter as genuine,' he said, 'because my mother' did riot know English. She had been educated on the Continent and was conversant with five languages, but in America she had lived for 50 years in seclusion, and had not learned our tongue: However, Sir Arthur has told me that a spirit becomes more educated the longer it is departed, and that my blessed mother has been able to master the English language in Heaven.' The magician's reverential attitude towards accepted religions was apparent throughout the interview. In the preface to his book he sums up his feeling in a paragraph by saying.
There are a few things that I find really intriguing and wanted to highlight from this article. The first is that Houdini declared his belief in the afterlife. While his crusade was that of exposing deception, deep down he really did believe in the afterlife, unfortunately, he felt he had genuinely never experienced real communication. That didn't mean that he didn't think it was possible.
The second thing I wanted to highlight was his compassion. A lot of sceptics can be quite cold and admittedly I have read writings from Houdini with terms that are not so endearing towards people who believed their communication was the real deal. A section in the article changed that for me with the simple story Houdini told of an elderly couple who genuinely thought that Houdini had conjured the image of their deceased son. Houdini himself who so desperately wanted to speak with his Mother one more time related to this and with all his ego and always having to be right still didn't have the heart to tell them otherwise. To me that speaks volumes and I relate with Houdini on a very different level now. How many times are you shown a photo or someone tells you of an experience that helps them deal with their grief or feel like they were not alone? Who are we to smash that dream and say that it isn't so, just because we don't think in that instance it is?
The final point is that maybe the signs were there all along and Houdini was so focused or determined that he couldn't see them. He recounts the story of almost dying during an escape when he wife Bess started praying to his dead Father to save him - something he had prompted her to do if he was in trouble. Sure enough he found what he needed to save himself. Was this divine intervention? Houdini wouldn't allow himself to believe that and wrote it off as a coincidence.
So in closing, in the same way that some people are so focused on something being paranormal, there are others who are so focused and determined that it not be paranormal. It is the middle ground so hard to tread that we must find if we are ever going to get any answers when it comes to the paranormal. In closing, maybe Houdini needs to remember his once-secret password he said he would communicate once he passed. ROSABELLE BELIEVE. Maybe we all just need to believe it is possible, and the rest just falls into place.
If you enjoy LLIFS, consider buying me a book (otherwise known as buy me a coffee but I don't drink coffee and I LOVE books). Your donation helps to fund the LLIFS website so everyone can continue to access great paranormal content and resources for FREE!Follow LLIFS on Facebook
Don't forget to follow the Facebook page for regular updates
Join the mailing list to receive weekly updates of NEW articles. Never miss an article again!
Buy the latest and past issues Haunted Magazine
Check out the books written by LLIFS