Do the spirits of the dead return to commune with those left behind? This all-important question is now splitting wide the ranks of eminent thinkers, philosophers, and scientists. In this article, Houdini, Master Magician, plunges into the controversy. For thirty-five years he has made a study of mediums and their "manifestations." No other writer, perhaps, is so well qualified to pass judgment on the thousands of mediums now doing business all over the country.
The room was large and dimly lighted by a single reddish globe. The faces of the six people seated about a rough, oblong table in the corner seemed unreal. The medium, a strongly built woman of about thirty, had the look of one deeply asleep. The others sat tense — waiting. If they spoke at all, it was in whispers. One powerful desire moved them: the will to communicate with the dead.
The week before a man of twenty-six, a fellow everybody liked, had been drowned. John Meeker was his name. The shock had unnerved the mother. She insisted on a seance with a medium who had been working marvels in the town. The father had refused to have anything to do with it himself, but won over by tears, he had arranged this seance at the medium's home. And he'd done it cleverly, too. First he had gone to a chemist who was known to have an open mind on psychic matters. Next he commandeered a business friend. His third was a lawyer. The fourth was, appropriately, the dead man's chum, Will Ross. The medium and the mother completed the "circle" of six "I count on you all," the father had said, "to see that my poor wife isn't deceived. She's upset — an easy mark. Keep your eyes open."
And now they were keeping that promise.
A "spirit cabinet" had been made by curtaining off one corner of the room with black hangings. Ross and the scientist had examined the wall behind the curtains for possible trap doors, but had found none.
On the medium's right sat Ross; on her left, the scientist. Each had a hand resting upon one of her hands and each a foot pressing down on one of her feet. The others sat with fingers touching, completing the usual circle. Ross said to himself, "This medium can't budge without our knowing it."
Slow minutes passed. The medium stirred, sighed, came out of her trance. She spoke in a thin, solemn, far-away voice: "We are gathered here to bring back the spirit of the splendid lad who has passed into the Beyond — into Summerland. Is there anyone here who has come in a spirit of antagonism?" Silence. "I thank you. Let us say a prayer."
The six, speaking in unison, recited the Lord's Prayer. Then the psychic went on:
"Before me is a gathering of cool, calm observers in deep sympathy with my efforts. The walls are crumbling between us and the clean young soul who is in Summerland.
"I feel my psychic power running high. From each and every one of you I beg for help. Let your minds vibrate with me. Exclude all earthly thoughts. Give your whole soul to the seance."
A pause. She lowered her voice, whispered: "Was John an outdoor boy? Did he love the open?"
The mother whispered, "Yes."
"Then forgive me if I break the circle for a moment."
With movements graceful as a cat's, quiet, swift, she rose, threw open the windows on either side of the room. The night air puffed in. She caught back the curtains, murmuring, "Nothing, no between us and God's Heaven."
Silence for a time; then the medium's voice: "The boy's soul is new and afraid. He went too suddenly to the Other World. This man-made light is a gate he cannot pass. It stops all psychic vibrations. But I am afraid to turn the lights off, for fear one of you might harm me. I am suffering from strain, and a flashlight in the darkness might kill me — or, worse, if you caught at the boy, should he come. But he must come. He is so near — so bewildered. Shall I lower the lights? Is there antagonism here?"
Low, tense murmurs of "No — oh, no."
A click, and the room was in utter darkness. The sky was overcast, no light entered from outside.
Ross started as a high, childish voice broke the stillness — a little girl's voice from the medium's lips.
"John — thweet John ith coming," it lisped. "Coming, coming, c-o-m-i-n-g."
"There's the control," someone whispered.
Ross had been told that a "control" was a spirit which took possession of the medium and piloted souls back from the Other World when they were summoned.
The control's voice pattered on: "John says it's so hard to come back; it's terrible hard."
Ross felt the fingers of the lawyer, on his right, tighten convulsively about his hand. Looking up, he saw a tiny, wavering point of light dancing in the darkness overhead. It persisted, darting and hovering, now high, now low.
"Sweet John says it's so hard to come back." It was the little girl's voice again. "He's trying — trying..."
As the words died, Ross heard a strange sound like the whirring of bird wings. Invisible pinions seemed to beat the air, first in one corner of the room, then in another. He started as the tip of a wingpapparently quite solid and material, brushed against his shoulder.
Then he heard the child's voice, "Oh, Mr. Ross, you're going up — up!"
Abruptly his chair was tipped backward, wrenching his fingers away from the hands of the lawyer and the medium. Then he felt the chair lifted, sensed himself rising, grabbed at empty air, and at the same instant felt his head brush the ceiling. From below — or did it come from below? — he heard the voice of the lawyer:
"Ross! Where are you?"
Next moment his chair hit the floor with a bump. He was trembling and in a cold perspiration.
"John says he's sorry, Mr. Ross." It was the control. "He didn't mean to scare you. He's just trying to come back.... Why, here he is now."
The mother cried out in nervous awe. Above the window ledge a luminous hand had appeared, dimly. It groped. A sob from the mother. Then a second glowing hand.
The medium began a tortured groaning, and kept it up. Ross saw a luminous foot. Two feet. Gradually a form was outlined, giving off light, but upside down. Slowly the apparition floated into the room. At times parts of its body vanished, then reappeared. It seemed to struggle to right itself, failed. Then, as Ross shrank down in his chair, he saw the Thing walk on the ceiling. As it put out an arm, Ross felt cool drops of water strike his hands, heard them patter upon the table. He felt sick. His chum had met death by drowning.... And now, sharpening the agony of suspense, came gasping, choking, drowning sounds, abruptly filling the room. It was almost more than Ross could bear.
The Thing traversed the ceiling, slowly, haltingly, drifted through the opposite window and out into the night.
A long drawn sigh from the medium, breaking a sudden stillness in which no one seemed even to breathe. She was waking up. A moment more and she clicked on the reddish light. All were convinced beyond an atom of doubt, that they had seen John's spirit and felt the drops it brought from its watery grave. The chemist, with the authority of a man of science, declared the medium genuine.
A week later, at a second seance, a trumpet, lampblacked so it would retain the impress of anything touching it, was placed in the center of the table. When the lights were turned on, human fingerprints, their every ridge and whorl distinct, were found upon it. The medium claimed they had been left by John, the drowned son.
But John's father was skeptical. Give him a week, he asked. Proof of fraud would be easy, for twice John had had fingerprints taken: once when he entered the Army, and once when he applied for the bonus.
Excitement in the town ran high when the father made a special trip to Washington to compare photographs of the lampblack finger prints with the government digital records. When he came back he was graver — seemed laboring under shock. He had found the two sets of fingerprints identical. Shaken by the discovery, he did not know what to believe. Ross felt no such hesitation. He became a thoroughgoing spiritualist.
Now let's see by what methods the flimflam was worked!
"Patter" is as necessary to a fake medium as it is to any charlatan. Hence the solemn prayer, the working on the mother's emotions with talk of the "clean young soul," the exhortations to the sitters. The voice of he "control" was, of course, mere play-acting by the medium. Now for the flickering "spirit glow."
Ross and the scientist had examined the walls behind the cabinet, but, like the average investigators, they hadn't looked closely enough. Behind those black curtains was a small door, sliding in noiseless grooves, its cracks cleverly concealed by the paneling. When the medium gave the cue, there emerged from that small opening one of her two confederates, both of whom were skilled acrobats. The one chosen to work the "spirit light" was dressed in black tights: sneakers made his steps noiseless. In his hand was a long, flexible rod, its end daubed with luminous phosphorus paint. With this contraption it was easy to make the spook go through its eerie wanderings.
To produce the sound of whirring bird wings, the black-clad confederate merely threw a black or blackened pigeon out into the room with a cord tied to its legs, let it flutter for a time and brush against the sitters. Then he pulled it back.
The levitation illusion — when Ross thought he was lifted until his head touched the ceiling — depends on suggestion and the victim's own imagination. It's an old trick. After the medium has put it into the sitter's head that he's going to take an aerial leap, a confederate tilts his chair back and then, using one hand and one foot, lifts the chair only a few inches. At the right moment the assistant runs his free hand over the sitter's head. Darkness and nervousness do the rest.
The startling sight of the spook walking the ceiling upside down called for both the medium's acrobatic assistants, for whom the woman, on a pretext, had obligingly opened both windows. One of the confederates was daubed over with luminous paint, while the other was black, every inch of him. The glowing one, after a show of spirit hands on the window ledge, stood upside down and was hoisted through the window. Upheld by his black helper, he did an upside down hand-stand balance across the room, biting down, every now and then, on a water-filled rubber ball which he held in his mouth — and so became "John," adrip from his watery grave, walking the ceiling! To cover any possible noise, the medium kept up her continual moaning, varying it with the horrible drowning sounds which screwed the sitters' nerves so tight. Then, upon a cue from the psychic, both acrobats vanished through the opposite window.
The reproduction, on a lamp-blacked trumpet, of the fingerprints of someone months or years dead is one of the most startling of spiritualistic swindles. This is how it's worked:
A medium, or medium's assistant, obtains a position in an undertaking establishment and eventually finds an opportunity to make plaster of Paris molds of the fingers of one or several of the dead there. These molds are filled with a rubberlike substance which hardens into exact replicas of the dead hands, even to the tiniest scrolls on the finger tips. Of course, mediums choose only those among the dead whose fingerprints are on file. In the darkness of the seance the rubber duplicate is pressed upon the lampblacked trumpet.
In discussing psychic humbug, I can speak as an insider; for many years ago in my investigations, I associated myself with psychics and even held seances myself, as an independent medium, to get at the truth of it all.
I was completely disillusioned, so far as any authentic "revelations" went. But I've grown familiar with mediumistic modus operandi, and will all due modesty, I may claim that, if I pretended to have psychic powers, I might now be known as an authentic medium. In fact, even though I have said a thousand times that my performances are produced by unoccult methods and followed natural laws, certain people still insist that I have spiritualistic gifts.
I remember one amusing instance of such a "manifestation." I was traveling with a western concert company managed by a "Dr." Thomas B. Hill. We were stranded in a certain small Kansas town.
"Doctor" Hill was desperate. At last he asked: "Houdini, can you give a kind of show on Sunday night that I could pull as a religious entertainment? You do spirit slate writing and cabinet work."
I agreed to put on such a performance.
The following Saturday the weekly paper carried a headline that Houdini, World-Famous Medium, had consented to give one of his celebrated seances: make pianos float in the air, tables tilt, and spirit hand write messages on slates.
Well, that night the "opera house" was packed. I gave what was, without doubt, the greatest seance that ever took place in that town. The things I told that audience made their eyes pop. I heard people whisper: "No fake about him. How could he know that — him a stranger — unless spirits told him?" And all over the house ran awed whispers.
I'll now explain why I was qualified to give that seance. That Sunday morning I had strolled out to the village cemetery with the aged sexton and the town's most venerable inhabitant, old Uncle Rufus — both of them "fixed" not to give me away. There I'd copied what was hewn on the gravestones. And what the stones didn't tell me. Uncle Rufus did.
I knew so much about the people in that town that the moment after my performance was over, two business men came into my dressing room. Each of them gave me twenty-five dollars not to give a seance the next night! They didn't want any more family skeletons rattled in public.
The method by which fake mediums do their tricks would fill a volume. "Margery" (Mrs. Le Roi G. Crandon), the celebrated Boston psychic, used some of the cleverest subterfuges I have ever encountered, because they were so simple. I was one of the committee chosen to investigate her when she was producing "manifestations" in an attempt to win the twenty-five-hundred-dollar prize offered by the Scientific American for authentic supernatural phenomena.
Her favorite method of making one end of the table rise, I am positive, was to maneuver until she could get her head under its edge and then push upward. Since my exposure of her, she's got a new bag of tricks. It's significant that she never accepted my offer of ten thousand dollars if she could give a "manifestation" I couldn't reproduce or explain as being accomplished by natural means.
Of course, so long as mediums insist on working in darkness or semi-obscurity, adequate investigations will be almost impossible. In the dimness it is easy for the spirit-invoker to lift a table by means of a piece of steel projecting from his sleeve, or with a steel hook hidden in his vest.
"Raps," the most usual of "spirit phenomena," are sometimes made by moistening the fingers and sliding them gently over the top of the table, or with blocks of wood fastened to the knees, under the skirts. The famous Fox sisters made their awesome raps by snapping the joints of their big toes!
The ringing of bells or rattling of castanets is sometimes accomplished by the psychic's being able to get one of his hands free, leaving the other spread out upon the table. The sitters on his right and left, unaware that he has released one hand, each keep a hold on part of the hand that remains upon the table and contentedly imagine that they are preventing any movement of his arms.
"Spirit lights" are sometimes made by nothing more occult than luminous-headed tacks in the medium's shoes. The psychic simply raises a foot and moves it about.
"Ectoplasm" is a vaporous substance supposed to emanate from a medium's body and assume spirit forms. I have sat at seances with those supposed to be able to produce it — notably with the French psychic, Mademoiselle Eva — but never saw anything but puerile juggling tricks. White veils pulled from the demonstrator's pockets seem to have helped "ectoplasmic, manifestations" along in some instances. Anything that can be held in the mouth and pushed out or blown up will do: rubber bladders, cotton rubbed with goose-grease, even strips of tripe. Nothing very spiritual about that!
Information about "clients" is the cornerstone of mediumship, and the ways in which psychics obtain it are startling. Some of them tabulate death notices in the newspapers, follow up the engagement and marriage reports, and keep an index of the births. Often they tap telephone wires. Certain of them have been known to pay men in newspaper pressrooms to read proof sheets for their benefit and thus enable the "foretelling" of events. Frequently they plant their assistants in restaurants and clubs, where they can overhear and pass on the confidences which wealthy patrons exchange freely, without a thought of spies.
There are now standing offers of twenty-seven thousand five hundred dollars in prizes to be won by any medium who can prove his or her authenticity.
Do we see any stampede of mediums eager to pocket these prizes?
On the contrary, the psychics are showing a coyness, an extreme sensitiveness about coming forward, quite at variance with their usual brazen nerve. Perhaps the tests are a bit too fraudproof for their liking!
Fifty per cent of the world wants to be fooled. But how have so-called psychics been able to mystify representative scientists such as Sir William Crookes, Sir Oliver Lodge, William James, and the French physiologist, Charles Richet — men of supposedly straight-thinking, analytical minds? To say nothing of such eminent writers as the sincere, though deluded, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes.
I believe the kernel of the matter is that scientists, philosophers, and psychologists live in circles where honesty is taken for granted. It is inconceivable to them that such gross deception could be practiced. They fail to realize that they're working hand in glove with members of one of the most unclean professions in the world.
Fake mediums prey upon the unfortunate and the bereaved, taking their money, duping them with lies, and often driving them to insanity. In an article in Truth, the Rev. P.J. Cormican estimates that in England alone, over thirty thousand people have been driven insane by the abnormal strain of spiritualism. This menace is not confined to England. American mental specialists tell a similar story.
It is a danger which calls for drastic legislation.
Publication Date: November 25, 1925