The 12th Annual CFI Houdini Seance

October 31, 2008

Harry Houdini, the world-famous magician and skeptic, sincerely explored the religion of spiritualism and communication with the dead after his beloved mother’s death in 1913.

In this episode for Halloween 2008, Joe Nickell, the world’s leading paranormal investigator and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry’s senior research fellow, and D.J. Grothe (both of whom are former professional magicians) conduct the Center for Inquiry’s 12th Annual Houdini Seance, using artifacts of the magician’s art to entice Houdini’s spirit to appear. They recount the history of the original Houdini Seance, and explore Houdini’s views on the spirit world, and to what extent he was a “debunker,” as opposed to an investigator. They talk about his skeptical methods, such as going undercover, and how he used his background in magic to aid his investigations. And as commemoration, Joe Nickell reads from Houdini’s famous book on skeptical investigations, A Magician Among the Spirits.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, October thirty first, two thousand eight. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. 

I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. Before we get to this week’s annual Whodini, say with Joe Niccol, here’s a word from Skeptical Inquirer magazine. 

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On this week’s point of inquiry, we’re repeating something we did the past couple years on the show and that’s commemorating the life and work of Harry Whodini as an activist skeptic. 

Also the great magician and public figure that he was. He’s really the role model in many ways for the contemporary skeptic activist. And I’m going to talk about that with Joe Niccol today. We’ll also talk about Houdinis personal beliefs about the Spirit world with Joe Nickell, who will help me with the 12th annual Whodini Science. Joe Nickell, welcome back to A Point of Inquiry. 

And thanks for joining me. My pleasure, T.J.. Joe, this is our third annual broadcast of something of a Whodini science, the 12th one in a row that CFI has put on. Let’s start off by setting the mood for this possible communication with the spirit of the great Whodini with your reading of a piece from his book, Magician Among the Spirits. 

OK, here we have Whodini speaking from the other side. 

From my early career as a mystical entertainer, I have been interested in spiritualism as belonging to the category of mysticism and as a sideline to my own phase of mystery shows. I have associated myself with mediums joining the rank and file and held sciences as an independent medium to fathom the truth of it all. At the time, I appreciate the fact that I surprised my clients. But while aware of the fact that I was deceiving them, I did not see or understand the seriousness of trifling with such sacred sentimentality and the baneful result which inevitably followed. To me, it was a lark. I was a Mr. Fire. And as such, my ambition was being gratified in my love for a mild sensation. Satisfied. After delving deep, I realized the seriousness of it all. As I advanced to riper years of experience, I was brought to a realization of the seriousness of trifling with a hallowed reverence which the average human being bestows on the departed. And when I personally became afflicted with similar grief, I was chagrined that I should ever have been guilty of such frivolity and for the first time realized that it bordered on crime as a consequence of my own mental attitude became considerably more plastic. I too would have partied gladly with a large share of my earthly possessions for the solace of one word from my loved departed. Just one word that I was sure he’d been genuinely bestowed by them. And so I was brought to a full consciousness of the sacredness of the thought and became deeply interested to discover if there was a possible reality to the return. 

By spirit of one who had passed over the border. And ever since have devoted to this effort my heart and soul and what brainpower I possess in this frame of mind. I began a new line of psychical research in all seriousness. And from that time to the present, I have never entered a science room except with an open mind devoutly anxious to learn if intercommunication is within the range of possibilities and with a willingness to accept any demonstration which proves the revelation of truth. It is this question as to the truth or falsity of intercommunication between the dead and the living. More than anything else that is claim to my attention and to which I’ve devoted years of research and conscientious study. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle says in one of his lectures, quote, When one has a knock at the door, one does not pause but goes further to see what causes it and investigates. And sooner or later, one discovers that a message is being delivered, unquote. So I have gone to investigate the knocks that as a result of my efforts, I must confess that I am farther than ever from belief in the Genea meanness of spirit manifestations. And after 25 years of ardent research and endeavor, I declare that nothing has been revealed, convinced me that intercommunication has been established between the spirits of the departed and those still in the flesh. I have made compacts with 14 different persons that whichever of us died first would communicate with the other. If it were possible. But I have never received a word. 

So, Joe, the idea of having a Whodini stance comes really right out of his book. A Magician Among the Spirits. He was always willing to entertain the possibility of spirit communication. And since his death, magicians and skeptics and believers alike have all annually conducted these sciences. 

Yes, starting with his wife, of course, with whom he also had a pact. So these early sequences were with Bess. And then from then on, magicians and and friends have traditionally done this every Halloween. 

Mm hmm. I want to talk about some of the things that you just read Hoodie’s own words. But before that, why don’t you tell me what you have on the table, what is used in a science like this? 

And let me maybe just as I do this, start the science as I describe what we have and why we’re doing it. The very first thing that one does with a say on show usually is to ring a bell, signaling the science is beginning. 

And we light a candle. And of course, we have the studio lights. 

Dimmed and Whodini has a choice of several things that he could do to show his presence. One that’s been used in the past as a pair of handcuffs, which he could open. We also have a padlock and chain which he could again open. And, of course, there’s the bell. Again, he could ring the bell. And finally, I have a antique spirit slate with a slate pencil. And Whodini could write upon it like this. And so leave a message. There have been many phony messages from Whodini. I’ll be here to ensure that we only get real ones. 

Joe, while we’re waiting to hear from Whodini over the course of our conversation and the Whodini sentence here. Well, let’s just begin by explaining why should skeptics today in 2008 care about this famous magician from so long ago? I mean, aside from the fact that he’s one of the first superstars. He was a master publicist and entertainer even before the age of TV and mass media. Why should his life be something that we pay homage to on an annual basis? 

Well, he really was the superstar of skeptics, certainly of his day. And he he lived in an era in which spiritualism had become all the rage and he encountered it firsthand. And when Lady Conan Doyle came out with a message for Whodini from his mother, Whodini listened respectfully because he was a friend of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Sherlock Holmes creator. But he was just seething because he knew that this was a phony message. And however, she may have been a fantasy prone person or a trickster, it was hard to know, but she was giving a false message. And Whodini knew it because he knew that his mother would not have spoken to him. And in English, she barely knew any English. She would have spoken Yiddish, and she certainly wouldn’t have called him Harry, which was not his real name. His name was Eric or areas she called him. And so he was really incensed by this. And all around him, more so-called proofs of spiritualism, physical mediumship and the mental mediumship. And he set out to to inquire and I guess to sort of separate the the wheat from the chaff only to find it was all chaff. 

Now, you just mentioned he set out to inquire. In fact, he he was very, you know, enthusiastic, even angry in his indignation. He debunked these charlatans. It’s not like he set up a lab somewhere and just explored the question. He was angry and he set out to prove these frauds as frauds. 

He did, indeed. And and much of what we do today, I think, comes out of that spirit of actually going on site. I know for me personally, Whodini has been a big inspiration, a big role model. And he is willingness to actually go out there and see for himself. So he being a magician, of course, was well aware of all kinds of trickery. And to even learn more, he would befriend aging mediums. 

And some of them he he gave a little pension to and helped them in their declining years. 

And he saw them kind of his colleagues. You know, he took a kind heart to them. 

Yes. And they shared with him their their tricks. And so he was able to demonstrate many of these effects, like the floating spirit trumpet through which voices whispered. I have in my collection a number of antique spirit trumpets. And he also learned how to free his hands from when they were being secure during a science and and create effects. And so the irony of Houdini using some of the medium’s tricks, say, to get his hand free during a science in which they were holding hands around a table, giving the impression his hands were held when he had a free hand and he would whip out a flashlight or or a booby trap. A science effect. So that in one case, he put soot in a trumpet so that he had it all over her from from her trickery. And this was this was standard stuff. And I’ve, of course, followed in those footsteps. Whodini Wood, of course, because he was a really hugely known person in his day in the largest box office draw, I think, in the history of vaudeville. He was well recognized. So there are humorous pictures of Whodini in disguise. 

And he would he would show up under under assumed identities and out trick the trickster. 

And you’ve gone undercover like Houdini. Has it was it the spiritualist camp, Camp Chesterfield, I guess. Before you tell me about that. Tell me a bit about what we’ve been referring to as spiritualism, the religion of spiritualism in the late 1940s, 1848, about a. 

Fool’s Day, as a matter of fact. Two little girls, Maggie and Katie Fox, seem to be able to communicate with a ghost of a murdered peddler, and they did it by producing rapping sounds. One or two knocks to indicate yes or no. And they had a code system using knocking sounds and they fooled. First their parents and then others, and eventually were touring the country with this demonstration of spiritualism and soon realized that they could tune in to anyone from the other side. 

And so they could have clients and people could pay them money to contact their dead loved ones. 

But what’s interesting about this is that a whole religion developed up around these two women. It was a worldwide really religion. 

Absolutely it was. And and spread across cross the ocean and around the world and even to Australia and where the Davenport brothers who were later spiritualists performed. And Houdini was intrigued by all of this. And the fact that the Fox sisters 40 years later confessed that it was all a trick, they became really chagrined that what they had done as a prank had been taken so seriously and had become a new religion and that people were just taken up by this whole fantasy and fraud. And they went on stage in New York and revealed their trickery absolutely. Clearly and for sure, and had no effect. They could not get the genie back in the bottle. 

And you were talking about Whodini going undercover. 

You’ve also gone undercover different times. Yes, I. I did a makeover. And because I had just been on Dateline NBC and I had helped them catch the medium John Edward at his his tricks, he was pretending that he had just come up with something that we know he had piece of information he got earlier in the afternoon. And we’d been revealing that on a Dateline program, so as not long after that, and so I was concerned that I might be recognized. And I went to the notorious camp Chesterfield, which has had a history of Expo’s A’s and and uncovering some fraud and a book, the psychic mafia, written by one of its confessed mediums. And I went there in disguise and I took the name Jim Collins as a who’s, which is the name of Houdini’s assistant. And as a little, oh, Marge. And they were practicing deception up and down the streets and a different kind of spiritualism. 

Then you get, say, at Lily. This is physical mediumship. 

This is this was both physical and mental. But they were they were certainly doing a number of things like phony spirit, precipitations on silk. They were doing the old floating trumpets with whispered voices of of the deceased speaking through the trumpets, all of them sounding like imitative voices, curiously, like the mediums. You know, the medium trying to sound like a child medium trying to sound like a gruff old man. You get the idea. And just practicing deception. And in one case, doing Billett reading the Billett reading trick. 

Or they take a piece of each person writes on a piece of paper that’s folded. You write some names and and a question. So I wrote the names of presumably deceased loved ones and a question, Mother, will you be with me always. Whodini, I thought would have appreciated that question. And pretty soon the medium is holds up. A piece of paper folded to his forehead and he says, I have a message for the Collins family. And I identify myself from the back of the church and he proceeds to name some names. And I’m very moved. And then he he says, and your mother wants you to know she’ll always be there for you. And it was it was very moving until I remembered that at that time my mother was was still alive and wasn’t named Mrs. Collins. And I felt a lot better. Mm hmm. And I’d cut another another trickster and done it in the Whodini tradition. 

It was that kind of huckstering that kind of trickery that made Whodini so indignant. It’s also the kind of thing that that motivates you to actually go in the field and investigate this stuff rather than just sitting from afar and scoffing. 

Absolutely. We’ve talked about this before, and I’m very, very set on the idea that we should neither be when we approached the paranormal. It should neither be as credulous believers nor as a nay saying debunkers. We should, in fact, to sort of leave that at the door as we go into the haunted house or the science room or wherever we go. Because what we really want to do is investigate and explain what’s happening, simply to say, oh, this can’t happen. Therefore, it’s, you know, it’s a fraud or a delusion or something. So I wouldn’t even go to the haunted house. 

No, I want to go there and explain what is causing the sound of footsteps on the stairs or some other phenomenon so that by explaining it, we have a you know, the actual explanation. And that way we can be more credible. And course, there’s always the possibility that there might be something we would discover. So I just I just follow in that tradition of actually going out and trying to if there’s a fraud. Let’s let’s stop it and catch them. And if it’s a well-meaning person being fooled by some little deception, some trick of their camera or something. Let’s explain it to them and then let’s use that to explain. 

To those who will listen to us, what we found, Whodini had this great lithograph, this big poster to promotors shows, it reads, Do spirits return? Whodini says no and proves it. But, Joe, that doesn’t necessarily mean, does it? That he was a skeptic of the afterlife. Like many of us are today. I mean, the poster doesn’t ask. Are there spirits? But it asks, do they return? 

Exactly. Whodini was Jewish. How practicing he was is debatable. He certainly the dedication to his book suggests seats speaks of God in his infinite wisdom. So I think he was a DST of some sort. 

And he did not disbelieve in in God and did. And, you know, I think could have could have believed that there were spirits that survived as immortal entities. 

I think he would have admitted that. We can’t really know that. So that was beyond what he could roll up his shirt sleeves and and deal with. But he could certainly look at this claim that people were communicating with spirits, that spirits were actually speaking to people or doing physical manifestations. And if he ever thought that was maybe possible, pretty quickly learned that something like approximately one hundred and one percent of it was phony. 

So it was spirit communication. He was debunking, not the existence of spirits. 

That’s right. And but always said that he was willing to to be shown. And he was open to be shown. And I think in all fairness, he was out there where he could have been shown if there was something there. I mean, he really did put himself in positions where something could have, if there was anything at all, could have manifested itself to him and that he was not a mere closed minded dismiss her. And he even even said and I sort of echo these sentiments myself, wouldn’t it be nice? I would love to talk to my dead parents. 

Right. Moreover, he really wanted it. He was so heartbroken over the loss of his mother that he was sent into a tailspin. It kind of sought him seeking. He would love to have some communication with the other side. 

Absolutely. But he he made a choice. And I think this is this is worth pointing out for all of us that we can make this choice rather than decide what he would like to believe and then and then look for some evidence that seemed to confirm it. He decided quite the different approach. The more scientific approach, and that is to find what was actually happening. 

And then believe that, like it or not, I. 

That that’s a choice that we have and I’ve made that choice. I want to know what the truth is. And that’s that’s what I want to believe. And I think that’s the scientific method, that you don’t go to a crime scene and say, well, it’s let’s go across town to where there is this dead guy. And I guess it’s probably a suicide. We’ll we’ll just go over there and tidy up. 

Well, that’s not the scientific approach. We would go there with a completely open mind, no matter what indications we might have already had. We would free them up at the door and we would go in and find, oh, an unusual case of suicide. The guy shot three times in the back. Mm hmm. And we would take that evidence then and let the evidence lead us to an answer, not not the other way around. So it’s very important to me. 

It seems that Whodini kind of had two sets of methods, though, correct me where I’m wrong on this, but when he, you know, dressed up under a false identity and exposed frauds, he didn’t walk into that sands with a completely open mind and very gentle and, you know, hoping that there was spirit communication. He, based on his experience, knew that these people were up to skullduggery. 

Well, I would just say that because I’ve done quite a bit of this myself, not just at Camp Chesterfield, but with, you know, various mediums and at various other spiritualist camps leased to other spiritualist camps and a variety of sciences in old dimensions and so forth, that. You know, one is informed by one’s experience. I am less and less and less likely to believe. But as I say, you sort of put that at the door. And the fact that you go in with a disguise and all that is when if there’s trickery, it’s not to say that, you know, you’re going to catch someone at trickery, I think. But if you’ve had some indications and some people were suspicious or somebody thought they saw something and so forth, and there was kind of prima fascia evidence for trickery or possibility of trickery like it came Chesterfield, I had no idea whether the people there were, you know, certainly at the BILLETT reading, I had no idea where that person was going to be actually trying to answer questions or using magic tricks or using magic tricks, which in fact was was what I determined was being done. 

They made sure they were all folded the same way. And the one being held to the forehead was not the same one that was being read. That was SERP. Tisha Essley flipped open with the thumb of the left hand, kind of that want ahead Principal James Randi spoke about. 

And so the techniques you find out as you go, I use a disguise and deception simply to be in there so that if there were trickery, the person would not be alerted to it. Maybe it’s a fine line, but I think it’s still consistent with with being an open minded person and being fair just as police do undercover work. You know, I’d been a detective, a private detective and had done undercover work before. And I went undercover many times. I had no idea whether there was deception or theft or what have you. You just go in as a means of inquiring. But of course, you are. You are there to catch someone if if they’re doing it. 

And you get that in the piece that you read from his book on Magician Among the Spirits, he emphasized how open minded he was, how serious he is, and considering these questions, yet he is very prepared to debunk, should he suspect, a fraud. All right. The other hand, the whole other category of belief, you know, just the well-meaning person who believes in spirits. Whodini wasn’t out to skewer those people. He wasn’t he didn’t have some agenda to debunk religion or belief in the afterlife. 

Exactly as best I can tell, he he himself was a religious believer at some level and was not certainly not an atheist attacking religion. But I think even today, I think, you know, investigators, whether they be an atheist on the one hand or a religious believer on the other, could still pretty much follow the same Whodini. Practice, because as a practical matter, what you’re trying to deal with are those things that are investigated ble. And you can investigate whether someone’s talking to the dead or not. You can set up conditions and so forth. You maybe can’t prove or disprove angels too handily, but you can you can certainly investigate physical things. For example, I look at weeping statues and faith healing claims and all sorts of other things. And those are investigative, all the Shroud of Turin, as you know. Those are all imminently investigated, Bill. And so my energies are devoted to those those alleged manifestations of the miraculous. 

And that’s what Whodini concentrated on and that’s what he was doing. So we’ve spent some time here to talk about Whodini, the paranormal investigator, the person who is keenly interested in these questions, not a knee jerk debunker going out there and claiming all of its fraudulent. You know, he was very open minded and indeed wanted to believe in the afterlife. You know, there’s some evidence that he did believe in the afterlife, even if he didn’t believe in these spirit communications. We’ve given Whodini himself in spirit form an opportunity to communicate with us through these things. You’ve assembled here on the table and we haven’t heard anything just yet. Joe. What gives? 

Well, I think to say that Whodini is with us in spirit would be we could say that in a kind of poetic way or something, that we acknowledge the effect he’s had on us and that he’s in a sense, he’s still with us. 

But as far as believing that in any way, Whodini is an actual spirit who’s able to come and do something and think we’ve failed once again. 

So, Joe, in the spirit of failure that you just mentioned, let’s formally close this third annual Whodini science. 

I’m OK. 

And I will therefore snuff the candle without burning my fingers and I will ring the bell. Maybe next year. 

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Point of inquiries produced by Thomas Donnelly and reported from St. Louis, Missouri. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz pointed inquiries. Music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Quailing. Contributors to today’s show with Sarah Jordan Debbie Goddard production assistance was provided by Tom Flynn. 

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.