The 11th Annual CFI Houdini Seance

November 02, 2007

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, even as he later crusaded against those whom he believed were fraudulent mediums.

In this episode, recorded on Halloween, Joe Nickell, the world’s leading paranormal investigator and CSI’s senior research fellow, and D.J. Grothe (both of whom are former professional magicians) conduct CFI’s 11th Annual Houdini Seance. They also recount episodes in the history of Spiritualism, including details from the lives of the Fox Sisters and the Davenport Brothers, and Houdini’s involvement investigating the religion of Spiritualism and his relationship to the Davenports. They discuss Lilydale, the Spiritualist community in Western New York, and talk about some of the secret methods Houdini exposed when challenging the mediums of his day. They conclude by exploring what might be the best balance between skepticism and compassion when investigating paranormal and spiritualistic claims.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, November 2nd, 2007. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe fee point of inquiries, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. This week’s show we recorded a couple days ago on Wednesday, Halloween, October 31, in the midst of people dressed up as zombies at the Center for Inquiry for Halloween. I had a conversation with Joe Niccolò, senior research fellow for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, about Whodini and Spiritualism. Before we get to that conversation, here’s a word from this week. Sponsor Skeptical Inquirer magazine. 

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On this week’s point of inquiry, we’re repeating something we did last year on the show. And that’s a commemoration of the life and work of Harry Houdini as a skeptic and activist. The great magician and public figure that he was in some ways, Harry Houdini, the escape biologist, the magician with his fame, his public persona. He serves as a model for the skeptic activists today. We can also learn in our discussion with Joe Nickell about some of the ways maybe not to be a skeptical Inquirer when it comes to paranormal investigation. Welcome back to a point of inquiry. Joe Nickell. Always a pleasure, T.J., to start off, Joe. We’ve done a Whodini science here at the Center for Inquiry for, well, for many years. This is the 11th year in a row that we’ve celebrated Houdini’s life and influence on our line of work. You’ve brought some items into the studio with you today in this tradition. 

I have. I thought we would have a science while we talked. And I have a authentic key from Houdini’s collection. So he should feel comfortable as a picture of him and make him feel welcome that there’s something of his. I have a candle to light to begin the ritual, a bell to sound, of course, and some other objects slight that he could write on with a slight pencil for him to write with. 

That is, if the spirit of Whodini is successfully contacted and he comes back and communicates with us. 

I have an antique lock. Which is here, if he should choose to exert his power and open it. Also a pair of regulation handcuffs. So another thing that has been used in other salons is to give Whodini an opportunity to show himself so any manifestation would would be evidence that he was he was actually with us. 

And it should be said that while we’re not doing this in a somber and solemn act, as might happen at a spiritualist comune, we’re also not poking fun at the idea of Whodini. We’re we’re doing this in commemoration of his life and his work. 

Absolutely. I just I want Harry to know, though, that, you know, I’m getting a little desperate. And we need a sign. So to begin, I’m going to strike a match and light the candle. 

It’s traditional. And of course, we can bring a bill. 

To let the spirits know that we’re ready for them. 

By the way, Whodini used to do public demonstrations of science trickery and one of one of his tricks was to have items under a table and his hands would be controlled, his feet would be control, people pressing on the toes of issues. And nevertheless, underneath the table, a bell would routinely reveal that he could slip his foot out of the shoe and the toe was cut off his sock and he would use his toes to pick up the bell and ring it and practice doing that. So he would he would appreciate a phone science, I think, as well as anybody. 

Indeed. Now, before we get into the life of Whodini too much and his involvement with this world religion called spiritualism, let’s get into spiritualism more. It’s a world religion. It started right here in western New York. 

It did at a place called Hayesville. And it’s just a short really an hour’s drive or so from here. I’ve been to the actual site where the actual foundation stones are from the cottage where in 1848, the Fox sisters first began. On All Fools Day, maybe a clue there to communicate with a ghost of a murdered peddler. 

Now, the Fox sisters, two young girls, Maggie and Katie, upstairs in in a small house. 

Yes. What did they begin? Experience Audrey’s report. 

Well, what what started off apparently was were some noises, rapping sounds and other kinds of almost like we would say today, sort of poltergeist activity. There’s been a number of paranormal events, including the thing that eventually became the movie The Exorcist. That bunch of events that began with sort of these kind of what we would today call poltergeist phenomena and we recognize as mostly kids doing tricks. 

But this was the late 19th century where incredulity, mid 19th century, 1848. So just before the middle, just before the middle of the century, when credulity was at a, let’s say, higher rate than it is. Yes. 

And in the context of an area that we know as the burned over district, because many religions started or flourished right around here, Mormonism’s seventh day Adventism Christian science shakers were here. This writer called the general upstate New York, the Miller writes, and I’ve made it sort of a hobby to go to as many of those sites as possible and check them out. And one of them is I have been to the foundation stones of the of the Hinesville house. It later was moved to Lilydale. The world’s largest center for the religion of spiritualism, which still exists today. It does. But years later, the little the little cottage from cottage building moved over. Lilydale did burn. And so it’s it’s no more. 

Lilydale is one of my favorite places on the planet. Probably shouldn’t say that as something of a professional skeptic, but we were there for a weekend o- over the summer and they have kind of I wouldn’t call it a shrine, but they have a special place, which is the site of the burned house of the foxes. 

Yes. And in the museum they have the actual sign that was over the door, badly charred. I love going there. Not to poke is not even to investigate. It’s an interesting place. It’s a place I encourage skeptics. 

You know, I’ve seen skeptics who were so skeptical and so fussing over over the silliness of the paranormal and so forth that they they wouldn’t even buy a book on some some paranormal claim because they didn’t want to give the author a few pennies royalty or they wouldn’t have paid admission to Lilydale. Whereas my my philosophy was always, oh, hand him hand him the ten bucks, I’ll get 50 bucks or the skepticism out of this just in a few minutes. 

Yeah. When I go there, I just love seeing the many ways that people believe what they believe. You don’t go there to debunk. You don’t go there to kind of stick it to people. You know, when my spouse and I went there, we went there kind of in awe of the wonderful way that people believe now. Credulity has its downsides. We talk about that on the show a lot. Getting back to the history of spiritualism and the Fox sisters, Joe, they reported spirit communication and not only their ability to communicate with the dead, but also for the dead to kind of intervene in their lives through manifestations. 

Yes. The whole thing, really, what we call modern spiritualism started in that in that little cottage at Hyattsville. Spiritualism itself spin around a lot longer. You can go back to the Old Testament, the witch of Indore, or some now say the medium of indoor conjured up the the spirit of Samuel. The ghost of Samuel came up out of the ground, by the way, a little different cultural notion of where ghost came from and how they behave. But sure enough, a modern modern spiritualism and the foreshadowing then of a religion of spiritualism, a religion based on communication with the dead, not just some idea of hauntings, but actual spirit communication. So the Fox sister were producing these rapping sounds this once for yes, twice for no or some such signal system, and that it would happen that decades later the girls would confess there’s they were burying their toes. 

They recanted. They admitted it was all a hoax, it was all in fun and it ran away from them. And this religion cropped up around them. They could hardly fess up in the throes of it. 

And they they I think there was some consternation on their part as to what they had sown. This this had become, in the meantime, this runaway phenomenon that had spread all over the United States like wildfire, famous scientists believed in in a dead end, gone to England and the British embrace it. In fact, all over Europe. But the British the British embraced it and British scientists, particularly people like Sir William Crooks and others. Absolutely. Taken in by the manifestations of spiritualism when they recanted. 

It was widely disbelieved the recantation was right. 

People were skeptical of their recantation. So it’s it’s it’s a comment on the credulity. Actually, though, people should know that they not only recanted publicly, they demonstrated on stage. There was no doubt they could produce the phenomena that they said they could. 

But later, I had. Didn’t they take back the recanting even at a later date? 

Well, right. The recantation was later taken back. And, you know, by that time, there’s at least one of them had become an alcoholic. And it’s a really a sad, sad story. But the Fox sisters were producing these physical manifestations. And over time, they’re developed sort of two kinds of of spiritualism, the sort of what we would call the mental spiritualism and the physical spiritualism. The physical would involve such things as slate writing. Just a reminder that we do have a slate here of Harry wants to come and write on it and buy slates. 

These are the little chalkboards that school children in the 19th century. 

Harmon School sleights. Right. And there were mediums who specialized in slate writing phenomena. Of course, allegedly they weren’t doing it. The spirits were their hands were being controlled or was done under conditions that supposedly precluded trickery. But, of course, there were many ways to effect these slaked tricks, as you and I will know, other phenomena. Such things as spirit trumped spirit trumpets. I have a collection in my office of antique spirit trumpets. They would float in the air. Typically had luminescent bands around them so you could see that while the medium’s hands were controlled. I’ve done this in the dark. You could. You can do this. My hands tied to a chair. The spirit trumpet you could see that was floating up in the air and was not pointing to my mouth was quite well away from my mouth. And yet you could hear that trumpet sounded whisper through the trumpet of spirit voices. 

And these these physical manifestations of the spirit world happened should be set in dark rooms, say silences, where all the lights were out. Later, investigators said, well, since it’s in the dark, doesn’t that make it a little easier to engage in trickery? 

Absolutely it did. So the media might, for example, have her hands on the table and the protocol might call for the person on either side for their fingers just to touch the hand of the medium. And, of course, the medium would draw the hands closer and closer together during the science. And pretty soon, one hand is doing double duty. And that leaves a freehand. There were other ways to do tricks. And the materialization is involved. Low light, some sort of just enough light sometimes to see by sometimes a red light was used. They gave a really eerie effect. You couldn’t see very well, but you could make out a spirit form or something. Shadow or luminescent chiffon would would appear and look like some mature lai’s spirit photography as a whole subject of its own. Boston photographer named Mumbler started spirit photography and fooled Mary Todd Lincoln and others. 

So even despite the controversy and the founders of the religion of spiritualism, recanting spiritualism itself is considered a really important thing in the history of religion, history of feminism also because really, for the first time, women had a prominent voice in religion even as religious leaders. So when we’re looking at this through the historians lens, we don’t dismiss it just as superstition. It has an important role in the history of religion. 

Yes, if you go to Lily Dale, for example, you see that some of the the suffragettes met at Lily Dale and they were not spiritualists. They were not and not interested in spiritualism, per say, but nevertheless felt sort of kindred spirits in this sort of anti-establishment, free general Freethought notion. And the spiritualists were, by some accounts, almost sort of free thinkers. That is, they were they were certainly not Orthodox religionists. 

They were skeptic of traditional religion. Robert Green Ingersoll, the great agnostic, spoke at Lilydale, I think, and he did. 

He sat right on the porch of the Maplewood Hotel there on the veranda. And I have I have sat there with the late Gordon Stein and reminisced about about those days. 

Tell me about the Davenport brothers as we’re doing this quick survey by way of background of the spiritualist religion. Who are the Davenport boys? 

The Davenport boys were two youngsters from Buffalo who followed in the wake of the nearby Fox sisters. And pretty soon they were able to be tied up behind a curtain or in what later developed as a spirit cabinet. They were among the first, if not the first, to pioneer in that notion of a spirit cabinet that would be securely tied a committee and the audience would tie them up, make sure everything was fair and aboveboard, which wink wink meant things weren’t fair. 

So this cabinet is onstage, it’s screened off. One of the boys is tied up in it. It’s sealed and then physical manifestations of spirit visiting. 

Yes. One or I think both boys quite often end and musical instruments will be placed in the cabinet. And so pretty soon, even though they were tied up, even though they were tied up and you would hear the musical instruments playing, the tambourines banging and the violin strains wafting over the audience, there were, of course, exposed ways of this oneness, skeptical newspaper man and the great tradition of newspaper skeptic’s brought some printer’s ink and managed to be invited up as part of the committee. And he took the opportunity while the boys were being tied and so forth to smear some of the printer’s ink on the neck of the violin. Later, this was found smeared all over the face and neck of one of the boys. And there were repeated Esposito’s. They were run out of town here and there. 

So the Davenport boys, the Davenport brothers, they had a long career. They even kind of got on the vaudeville circuit performing. 

They traveled around the world. And eventually William died in Australia and was buried there. And IRA continued on, came back here. And I have I’m pleased to say I have been both their graves. When I was in Australia, I sought out William’s grave. And I know here and not too far from here, within an hour’s drive, a little beyond Lily Dale, I know where the the grave of IRA Davenport is. 

And Whodini had an interest in connection with the Davenport boys. Before we talk about Whodini and his investigation of spiritualism, his kind of debunking crusade. Tell me about how he connected with the Davenport. 

Well, he here here is Houdini, the magician, and and of course, eventually the spiritualist nemesis. And he was in Australia and he was the first person to fly an airplane in Austria. Exactly. Not not so well-known. And wherever Whodini went, he always went to the graves of magicians. And if they were in poor repair or whatever, he had them fixed up, cleaned up, fixed out of his own pocket to something he did. And he always took the opportunity to have a picture of the great Houdini standing at the grave. That is such a picture made. He did this in Australia and he came back, was surprised to find out that IRA was still alive. An old man living in in Mae Ville, New York, and Whodini corresponded then with IRA. IRA very generously invited Whodini. Whodini came in to the train depot. Not that’s not the one that’s there now. The old depot, now gone, came in by train and IRA met him and took him home. And there is a famous photograph, I feel sure Whodini hired a photographer and had him come specially to record what he Whodini would have considered a historic moment. The Great Houdini meets the Notorious or what have you. IRA Davenport and IRA was so touched by the fact that Whodini had had had his brothers gray the stonework repaired, had it cleaned up and fixed up in fresh flowers, put in everything that he would do that that he regarded him as. As a friend. And Whodini was prepared to regard IRA as a fellow magician. OK. So we both sort of stage magicians doing tricks. 

And this is at a time in Houdini’s life where he’s softened a bit. He’s not the crusader, not the righteously indignant debunker of frauds. 

Right. But he was still too. I guess I’m thinking that Houdini, pretty much to the day he died, was was pretty much a crusader against spiritualism. But certainly he was he was willing to meet IRA and treat him with respect. So IRA just confessed everything. He showed Houdini how he did the Davenport rope tie. How they got in and out of their bonds in order to do these tricks. And Houdini waited until. IRA was dead. And then he published a letter and some other material. Making it quite clear. And this started a controversy with Arthur Conan Doyle and these two men and a split. These two men had a fight over spiritualism and the Davenport boys were much at the center of. Whodini was saying, you know, my IRA was just a magician doing tricks, never claimed to be a spiritualist. Never had a plane. Whatever and so forth. And at the same time, Conan all was saying why? If Iris said he wasn’t a spiritualist and wasn’t pretending at least to be religious, he’s a liar and alive. I think both men were right and both men were wrong. I had a chance at Lily Dale a few years ago. There was an amazing discovery. They actually discovered in a storeroom at Lily Dale, they discovered this old scrapbook. And I got to examine it. It was it was there. People hardly knew what they had. I went to Lily Dale and spent a few days staying in that firetrap of a hotel and study Agnes. By day, you know, studying this scrapbook. And there was it was that absolutely authentic scrapbook of the damn import brothers. And you could turn the page. And there were these old clippings, 1850 is saying Davenport boys arrested, things like that. I was just taking notes and there was some spirit writing in the fly leaves. And there was there was a newspaper clipping about Iris, first wife dying to tell our listeners what spirit writing is. 

It’s so so Nambu lipstick, well asleep writing or something. It’s the spirit, supposedly. Guide your hands so it might you’re in a trance status, right. 

So it might look rather scrawled and sprawled and. And I’m pretty sure that’s what some of this was. And there was a clipping, for example, about the death of of IRA’s first wife and talking about his wonderful mediumship and how she’d inspired him to stop. So you you you the scrapbook. To me, I found it within that scrapbook, a treasure trove of information that showed both Houdini and Control were both right and they were both wrong. To wit, Houdini was right. They were Trickster’s. They absolutely were fakes. And that’s made clear in the scrapbook various times. They were caught and booby trapped and so forth. And as Whodini well knew, Conan Doyle was right, that they certainly weren’t just claiming to be, you know, sort of weren’t just neutral entertainers letting you reach your own conclusions. They were absolutely pretending to be spiritualist. Travel with the minister, wrapped it all up his condole said, wrapped it all up in religion and so forth. And that was right. And Hoodie’s was wrong. And that that was that’s a fact. The Deeney, just all he had was he just said what IRA told him and IRA was. I think the explanation is that IRA, late in life, you have to justify the things you’ve done. He was trying to put the best face on what he did. Right. And he was he was presenting it. Well, okay. Yes, I was a trickster, but, hey, it was all just, you know, kind of and so forth. Well, it was really quite, quite true. 

Joe, let’s talk now about Houdini’s career as a skeptic, activist. Some people, some magicians may take exception with our characterizing Whodini as a skeptic activist. But according to most any definition, he was at least that. 

Yeah, I’ve seen Whodini portrayed in various ways as a believer, as a disbeliever, as a knee-jerk debunker, as someone who’s eagerly seeking out messages from his mother and so forth. Well, here’s what I think. 

Many of those things could be true at the same time. 

Here’s my take on. Whodini was not an atheist. He was a an Orthodox practicing Jew. I mean, he was a son of a rabbi and as far as I know, believed in God and never, never spoke otherwise. Believed in the afterlife. Yes, but Whodini would have probably said that he suspected that your immortal spirit wasn’t the same thing as an earthbound, quasi physical sort of ghost that, you know, did did tricks on OnDemand. 

So, Joe, it’s not that Houdini was himself a skeptic of the afterlife or anything. He was, in some sense a religious believer. And he wasn’t just out to clean up the bad elements from the legitimate religion of spiritualism. On the other hand. 


I think Houdini became because of the death of his mother, which he lamented deeply. He would, of course, have loved to have been able to have spoken to her and sort of the same way that that that Carl Sagan has as lamented that and talked about the desire to communicate with one’s dead, dead parents. But I I. And in that sense, I think it made Whodini sympathetic to other sitters who were going to to say ansys his his bystander’s. 

You mean the the people trying to contact their deceased. Right. 

And I like to think that I’m in something of that same tradition that that when I’m. Aggressive and maybe sometimes a nasty guy. It’s all it’s to the trickster not. I never know. I never really ever takes to make fun of the person in the haunted house or the person who’s seen a UFO or whatever those people there. But for Fortune go, I will. And Whodini absolutely understood that. So that made him sympathetic to other people. And I think he perceived that. He even said at one point, this impressed me a lot about his character. He talked about how when he was young, Sarva, young and young magician, he used to do these sort of spiritualists type tricks. He would do do sort of mentalism kind of effects messages in the grave sort of thing. And he’d go in advance to a town and get some information, the local cemetery or something and and reveal stuff. And he later said, I admired him for this. He said he was ashamed that he did that, that he realized that what he was intending at the time was just do some entertainment. He didn’t think anything of it. But he came to realize this is part of that maturity and experiencing his mother’s death and some things that he realized that he was really into. And he used the word sacred, that there’s a sacred area that you just don’t cross into. You don’t make fun. And I’ve said this to to skeptics. I might be willing to pose as a fake tea leaf reader or something to make a point. But I really don’t like the idea of magicians posing as mediums, giving messages in people’s dead loved ones with tears running down their cheeks and then saying, ha ha, see how easily you’re fooled. 

While the message is lost because the approach is so cruel, that’s why the work of men like John Edward and James Van Prague, it seems so vile, so reprehensible to skeptics because they’re they’re keeping people from dealing with their grief and moving on because they’re bringing it. All right. Back to the present. 

Yes. And I don’t know of any instances where Whodini, you know, call people gullible fools or or talked like that. I, I, I’m sure if he did, it was an unguarded moment or something. And he was respectful of people, but he went he went after the phonies with a vengeance, whipping out a flashlight in the middle of a sands booby, trapping a spirit trumpet with a handful of soot in the middle of a dark sands. He had a young woman who he sent because he was easily recognized. He sometimes wore disguises and went into, say, ANSYS hit a young woman who he sent in. It was very effective, detective, and she went in and got the goods for him in a number of cases. So he had a whole operation going to get them and was pretty, pretty tough on the the bogus spiritualists. 

But he did that with a with a heart concerning whom we would maybe call the gullible believers. He wasn’t investigating the frauds in order to stick it to the the faith heads the numskulls who believed the stuff. 

Right. I think how we see Whodini in all of this is a little complicated. But some people think that Whodini, you know, is just annoyed with these these pretenders because he was looking for genuine mediums. I don’t really think so. I don’t think he thought he was going to find messages from beyond even after his great loss of his mother. He would have liked to. It’s sort of like when Carl Sagan said, you know, and he wished that for just an hour or something once a year, he could talk to his dead parents to tell him how the grandkids are doing. And he said this kind of lightheartedly, but he absolutely minute. Well, I have I share those emotions. Does that mean we actually think that could happen? No, Sagan didn’t. I suspect Houdini didn’t remember. There were posters that said, I mean, it is pretty clear to me. Do spirits return? 

Whodini says no. 

Every night and proves it. Or words to that effect. And he was giving these demonstrations. So I don’t think he thought that spirits did come back. Maybe. And happy if somebody can prove otherwise, if there’s some letter or something that that that I don’t know about. But I think he was simply saying, if this is possible, not to absolutely rule it out. Sort of the same way we might say, well, we go to a haunted house or we we check something out. We don’t really think it’s likely that it’s paranormal, but we would be prepared for it to be. We try to be open minded and fair. And I think maybe that’s what he was doing with much of his work. But he was very, very, very skeptical of of spirit phenomena. 

He would more than skeptic. He was. It is what you might characterize as a debunker. He was known to light a match in the middle of a darkroom salons to reach out and physically grab medium. Yes. 

I don’t consider that. I don’t consider that the work of a debunker. I have my own views on all of this. I think it’s what I call a debunker is someone who sits in his armchair, never goes anywhere, never does anything right, and who simply is smarter than everyone else and knows that such and such as and so and he doesn’t need to go prove anything cause he could just figure it out. And it’s silly. 

Something that you’ve spent a career talking to the script community about avoiding, you know, encouraging our skeptic community to avoid. 

Yes. We don’t know everything we can always learn. We need to learn more details about all of the paranormal and how people become believers and exactly what’s going on before we speak. We need to know wherever we speak. 

But certainly Whodini wasn’t the kind of skeptic that you yourself are. 

You know, I. I don’t know, because I consider myself in the Whodini tradition in that I have gone undercover and in disguise to Camp Chesterfield, for example. 

Do you ever light a match in a darkroom, Sants? I don’t see you as having gotcha moments with charlatans. 

Well, I had a gotcha moment, of course, with with John Edward with Dateline NBC. And he he actually calls it naming me and John Hockenberry and and Dateline in his book and calls it a gotcha moment. But but that was more. More we just caught him at a deception. But no, I’m not as apt to interfere with something and spoil it. But I am they are in the Whodini tradition, too, to look and seek and and catch and and at camp Chesterfield did find that by using a false name and disguise. And in fact, the false name they used was Jim Collins, which was the name of Whodini assistant. So there’s a little Omar’s going on there. So I think of that as in in the Whodini tradition. He didn’t he didn’t just disrupt seances, but he he would e he would whip out a match or something in order. If that was the only way to catch somebody to trick, he would do it otherwise. Many times, many, many times it’s clear that he kept what he had discovered to himself was very let them go right on and do what they did. He was not there to disrupt persay just for the sake of stopping them. You know, it’s some kind of sensor or something. 

He had a really palatable sense of righteous indignation, much like James Randi. 

Yes. They raised in Randy follows in in that tradition. And, you know, as a great escape artist and I you know, I’ve known Randy for all of my professional career as a magician going back, you know, nearly 40 years. And I remember Randy when he was doing a straight jacket escapes and and the whole the whole escape biology thing in that Whodini tradition, remember? Well, and he’s also I would say Randy is not a debunker so much as he’s a challenger. He’s someone who who says, if you have these powers, let’s see it. He’s in your face for sure is in your face. But he’s challenging and he’s absolutely prepared to test somebody and so forth. To me, that’s, again, not exactly the same thing as the debunker that I’m talking about. The thing that bothers me is debunking to disparage a certain kind of no at all in this and dismissive somebody who who just, you know, they don’t need to test anybody because they already know they don’t need to go to the haunted house. They already know. And I’m not saying that that that that person is wrong, that that there are maybe haunted houses. I don’t think that’s likely. But they’re not learning very much. They’re they’re saying, okay, you know, maybe the medium did something. Maybe we don’t know exactly how they did it, but who cares? Or that house wasn’t haunted. Why? It was probably those people were probably just drunk. Or are there. It’s a fraud. It’s a hoax. Well, that’s not fair to people. If that’s not what’s going on, if what’s going on a perfectly honest and sincere people who misperceiving some odd noise at night that would fool a scientist maybe. So what we need to do is, is go and actually investigate. Randy challenges the people who claim special powers. I’m on site investigating things like crop circles and so forth and a haunted house and haunted houses. Yes, I’ve been in more haunted houses than Casper. 

Joe, we’re commemorating the life of Whodini as a skeptic, as a magician. 

Today, that candle was flickering, but OK. 

Yeah, and it wasn’t just all our hot air, to be sure if we as skeptics are going to take something away from the life of Whodini. What are some of the lessons? One, I think on the face of it, is that a background in magic or an appreciation of magicians? Art somehow informs or a. 

Sarah, skepticism, most of the real skeptics have come out of magic. It’s amazing how many. It’s not the only place to come from. But even even some of the people you don’t think of as being magicians are talent or talented amateur Johnny Carson. 

Absolutely. Robert Baker. Amateur magicians love magic tricks. Did did a couple of tricks. Well, you know, sort of thing. 

In a sense, it seems like magic equips you more for skepticism than even deep training. And one of the sciences. 

Yes, because every magician, every magician knows he can be fooled. Magicians fool each other. No one knows all the trick. I can be fooled, you know, and I have a saying, the person who thinks he can’t be fooled is just fooled himself. That’s a sad state of affairs. So. So it’s it. It teaches you not just specific tricks like billett reading and mediumistic tricks, but also teaches you how the mind works and how to look for illusions in other ways, which I’ve talked about another show. So you know, things, things are not always as they seem. And magicians are good at spotting them. 

So for 11 years now, Joe, we’ve conducted a Houdini science in one form or another here at the Center for Inquiry I conducted Real Science is here in the past, not just a tongue in cheek, as have you. Well, as real as science is are. You know what I mean? Yes. And this year we’ve decided to do this one during the course of our conversation, since through the podcast, through point of inquiry, we can reach many more people than we can, even at a big event here at the center. 

So so here we are. 

It looks like I’m said to say again, I’m disappointed, but not surprised Harry has not come. I don’t think Harry would have been surprised. I don’t think he thought he could come back. People think that this code that he had with his wife and that this attempt to contact his mother. So I don’t think he thought it was likely. I think he was just like, well, if it’s possible, I’ll do it. And he hasn’t done it. 

Is it’s impossible for anyone to come back from the dead? The Great Escape artist, if Harry Houdini were anybody, could do it. 

He escaped from jails, from being sealed in coffins and put under water and so forth. If anybody could do it, it would be Whodini end. We’ve had a chance here for him to do something, and he has not. And so I’m going to snuff the candle. 

And in the Saints. 

Thanks again for being on the show, Joe Nicole. 

My pleasure. When my favorite topics. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer Paul Cook’s point of inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael. 

Contributors to today’s show included Debbie Goddard and Sarah Jordan. And I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

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.