The CFI 10th Annual Houdini Seance – Halloween 2006

October 31, 2006

Harry Houdini, the world-famous magician and escape artist, earnestly explored the religion of spiritualism and communication with the dead after his beloved mother’s death in 1913. He eventually crusaded vigorously against those whom he believed were fraudulent mediums, debunking and exposing those whom he argued preyed on the mourning of the grieving. He was renowned for his ability to seem to escape from almost any bonds. As such, he made a pact with his wife Bess, that if anyone could escape the bonds of death, he would.

In this bonus episode of Point of Inquiry for Halloween night 2006, Joe Nickell, the world’s leading paranormal investigator and CSICOP’s senior research fellow, and D.J. Grothe (both of whom are former professional magicians) conduct CFI’s 10th Annual Houdini Seance. They also explore Houdini’s experiences as a “magician among the spirits,” recount the ways he challenged the mediums of his day, and discuss his lasting impact on skepticism and society’s beliefs about the afterlife.

Also in this bonus episode is an audio clip of the last Houdini Seance of which Bess Houdini was a part. The recording, from Halloween night, 1936, was made at the historic Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood.

This is point of inquiry for Tuesday, October thirty, first 2006, Halloween. Welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m DJ Grothe. This is a special episode of the show for Halloween 2006. I’m joined in the studio by the world’s leading paranormal investigator, Joe Nicole. And today, we’re going to talk about Whodini spiritualism and conduct a science. A science attempting to contact the deceased escape artist Whodini Whodini explored spiritualism after his mother’s death in 1913. And in 1922, Scientific American magazine offered the first awards, one for the person who could produce an authentic spirit photograph under test conditions and another for the first medium to produce proof of deceased loved ones contacting living people. Whodini, the foremost entertainer and magician of his day, was a member of the investigating committee. No one won those prizes. Today is the 10th anniversary of the Center for Inquiry’s annual Whodini Sants, which both Joe and I have conducted in the past. Joe, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

My pleasure. I’m I’m glad to be here. This is the 10th, the occasion to try to contact Whodini spirit. 

But this isn’t the first Whodini sounds. You’ve been a part of I or even the 10th. 

You first got involved in the 60s, 1969, I was conducting a seance for Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and we hired a spiritualist minister and he went into a trance in record time, claimed to be the voice of Houdini. It was not credible. 

This is about the time you were resident magician at the Whodini Magical Hall of Fame. 

Just after that, I became Rosett a magician before we conduct our science. 

Joe, we have an interesting clip of the last Whodini Sants, the official one conducted by his wife, Bess, at the Knickerbocker Hotel close to Hollywood and Vine Inn in Hollywood, California, very close to our West Coast branch. Incidentally, Whodini, this master escape artist, thought he could escape from any shackles. So it followed that if anyone could escape from the shackles of death, it would be Whodini. Shortly before his death, he made, as you know, this pact with his wife, Bess, that if he could, he would return and make contact with her from the other side. And they had a code so that if it was really him, she would know that it’s not some medium faking it. 

Exactly. And then at one time, a notorious medium named Arthur Ford came out with the message, Rosa Belle believe the problem was that Bess had actually talked to everybody about this secret. And it even published the code in a couple of places. So it really was was well known. And afterwards, of course, Houdini’s friends convinced her to reconsider and she did and said that she had not received an authentic message from Houdini and Arthur for many years after that was exposed for having done fake, say, ANSYS for others and having gathered private information on them, which he would reveal. So he was a charlatan and no one else ever contacted Houdini. But she was taken. And at first she was really surprised she was caught off guard because, you know, she was an old lady and and she was naive and and he did come out with the word believe. 

I think and and use their code, which was an old mentalists code. 

And he caught her off guard. But she as she pointed out later, she never said it was authentic. 

She just said, yes, he did give the message, left it up to the sitters, the people there to decide for themselves. 

Well, all that best did was to acknowledge that he had indeed come up with a message. But as on reflection, she realized that was not an authentic message from Whodini and she was very emphatic about it. In fact, Bess finally turned off the eternal light that she’d kept over his portrait and said that I do not believe Whodini will return. 

So now let’s hear that clip from the last Whodini sounds at the Knickerbocker Hotel that Bess Whodini was part of. This was recorded Halloween night, 1936. This is the voice of Dr Edward St who helped conduct the science. 

We are trying to high heaven to the powers that be. 

We are crying in one. The magnetic boys believing annually or not asked for my money. Tonight. We want the evidence, the trees in the name of humanity and love. 

If there is community, can greater York through with the evidence, then followed calm and silent meditation and again attends the dramatic soul creating in which members would gladly join Dr St.. But no sign from Mordini. 

At last stop the same in a voice that broke and filled with emotion had little to do make the zero hour as but that added up. 

Have you reached a decision yet mean did not come my mark. I do not believe that we can come back to me or to anyone. 

Faithfully following through the pain. The Apple TV, Comcast using every medium and feel it is now my personal and artistic belief that if communication in any form is a Tom Flynn, I do not can a ghost or spirit. Bodine’s shrine has burned for 10 years. I know reverently to ask for it. 

Good night, Harry. 

So, Joe, there you have it, the official last say Onse that best Whodini was part of. What do you think? 

Well, obviously, Whodini was a no show, and that’s, alas, been the case over all these years. A much more somber tone in that, say Enns, than is sometimes the case, depending on who’s conducting the science. 

The tone is not always quite so. 

So sepulcher and they made a decision not to use any of the tricks of the trade of the spiritualists, the physical mediums. They played it straight, right? This was a private affair. It was only made public because of the media attention. We’re going to conduct the science now right before us. There is an actual science table. You brought it from your office here at the Center for Inquiry is housed your large collection of paranormal and spiritualist artifacts. You have some things laid out on the table that might make Whodini comfortable, give them some ways of communicating with this if he’s willing or if he’s able. What do we need to do first? 

Well, let’s let’s light a candle. And it’s traditional to use a bell to signal the beginning of the science. The bell is also here. Bedini wants to ring in at any time to indicate that he’s here. 

What are some of the other things on the table that Whodini might be able to use to communicate? 

If he were to, he could open an antique lock that he would be familiar with. He could write. 

On a spirit slate and of course, Whodini was very familiar with Slate tricks and the use of these in sciences, he could write something spiritualist used slates to communicate with deceased loved ones. 

That’s right. To pretend to do that, at least. And I do have a authentic spirit trumpet from the period. And it might sound something like this. 

Oh, I am here. 

Should be said that Joe Nickell just spoke through this tin cone, it appears collapsible. These are the kinds of spirit trumpets that spiritualists used in that day to communicate with the dead. 

So I also have a pair of handcuffs. I have a rare key from Hoodie’s collection. So we will key from Houdinis collection. Yes. And portraits of him. A book he wrote. So we really have some things that if if Houdinis around, he ought to show up or laying out the table for him. So, Harry, if you’re out there and listening to us, give us a sign. We know you were hopeful that spiritualism was was true and that you could communicate, for example, with your dead mother. We also know you were very, very skeptical. You exposed fraud after fraud. You didn’t really believe it was possible, but your mind was open that if it were possible, you could do it. You could come back. So give us a sign. 

Tell us if we’ve been wrong these 80 years. 

Joe, you just appealed to Whodini to contact us. And in the process, he said something I want to explore. You said that he was open minded and maybe motivated to really see if there was such a thing as communicating with deceased loved ones. But you also called him a skeptic. Don’t those two things contradict? 

No, not at all. Houdini was an open minded skeptic. That is, he was not a closed minded debunker who said, absolutely, this can’t happen and we need not even try. What he believed in doing was saying, well, the evidence doesn’t seem to be there. Here are all these Trickster’s. Here’s all this wishful thinking. But maybe I’m wrong. If I’m wrong, then we need to find some proof. So I’m there. Let it not be said that I have turned a blind eye to to any opportunity because this is very, very important. If such things exist, we should know about it. On the other hand, if not, then we then we have to be very skeptical and and be prepared to to tell the truth. 

He started going to mediums earnestly to contact his beloved mother. He was heart stricken, devastated when she died. But in the process, he became indignant as a magician, seeing these methods of magicians that the mediums used. 

Absolutely. And and for him, it was very poignant because his mother meant so much to him. He was buried with his head cradled on a on a bundle of her letters. So he was he was very, very desirous to contact his mother at the same time, skeptical. And he really was not amused with some of the attempts that the spiritualist mediums made to contact his mother and pretend that they had communicated. For example, Arthur Conan Doyle is wife Lady Doyle, Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes James. 

That’s right. A man who sort of symbolizes a skeptical investigation in his writings, but then was a silly, gullible, credulous man. Otherwise by Lady Doyle fancied herself a medium and through automatic writing, gave Houdini a message from his mother. And privately, Houdini was not very amused by this because, of course, she spoke to him in flowing English, whereas Houdini’s mother actually spoke only Yiddish. So he was he was not only not convinced, he didn’t really appreciate such trifling with such what he called sacred emotions this trifling with sacred emotions as it offended him. 

It also radicalized him, motivated him to go out and expose these fraudulent mediums, media medium. So in that radicalism, in that activism, when he traveled the country exposing these charlatans, he also was the first to try to get legislation passed to outlaw fraudulent mediumship. He got Al Smith to enact the first law, making it illegal. I think that’s right. Joe, how did he conduct his crusade? Did he just rail against it in the media? What what did he actually do in investigating these mediums? 

Houdini set out to learn the tricks that the mediums used, and he, more than more than once became the benefactor of a of an elderly or washed up medium and gave him a little personal pension out of his own pocket. 

And by such acts of kindness, won them over to showing him how to do the tricks, how to do the hand release. So you people thought your hands were being securely held in the sands. But you actually had one hand free. 

This is the relationship he had with the Davenport brothers or other relationship, other other mediums. 

There were there were some some female mediums that he got tricks directly from. It taught him tricks. And in the case of the Davenports, he fixed up William Devonport’s grave when he was in Australia. And this so moved his brother IRA that IRA invited Houdini come and visit him. And he did confessed to Houdini that their whole spiritualist act of communicating with spirits and all of that was was a sham. 

And he taught Houdini how to how he got out of the rope tie and perform tricks and through such means. He knew the tricks, knew what to look for, and then he would go to say, ANSYS and booby trap them, actually maybe put a handful of soot in their spirit, trumpet or or reach and grab a hand, pull out a flashlight, that sort of thing. There’s a picture of Whodini in disguise because they knew who he was. So he he simply did a Makov urged and would show up as Ed assumed name. 

So he wasn’t just kind of scientifically investigating these claims. He was actually going out there to disprove those fraudulent mediums he knew were fraudulent. 

Actually, that’s true. And sort of in the tradition of you said a thief to catch a thief. He was a trickster and he knew most of the tricks. And then he learned the rest of them and he was prepared to to be their nemesis. 

I see the sands candle burning down. Before we conclude, I want to talk with you about Hoodie’s legacy. Whodini has served as a role model for so many of the world’s leading skeptics and paranormal investigators. You’ve held them up time and again as a role model for yourself. What do you think his legacy is on skepticism. If both camps, both the spiritualists and the believers and the skeptics and the pro science people both hold him up as a role model? 

Well, he certainly was a remarkable person. And he he was the biggest box office draw in vaudeville. He was the greatest escape artist ever. And a man of many personas made movies and flew the first airplane in Australia. A friend to Charlie Chaplin. Exactly. I mean, just just a.. A. an incredible man. And so when he set his sights on something, he was he was somebody to reckon with. And the spiritualists know it. And magicians know it. And we paranormal investigators know it. We we follow in his footsteps. He was by no means a perfect man, but he was certainly the great nemesis of fraudulent spiritualists. And everybody can learn from him today. The lesson that let’s not be closed minded about things, let’s but let’s certainly say that we live in a as far as we know, we live in a real and a natural world. And if that’s not true, then let let the evidence come forward. Let’s give it a hearing. We don’t have to have a witch hunt against claims, but then those claims have to actually stand up. And if there are tricksters involved, let us catch them and expose them. And if we need to let us wear disguises and go go catch them at their tricks. And finally then let us let us see the truth as best we can and be prepared to to revise anything that needs revising, because that’s the method of science. 

We’ve earnestly conducted the science. I haven’t seen the candle flicker. Haven’t seen any evidence of Hoodie’s presence. 

I think we can say that Whodini has not come. And I think we can follow the example of his widow and say that it does not look like cadenas come and we can now extinguish the light. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.