The 13th Annual CFI Houdini Seance

October 30, 2009

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

In this episode for Halloween 2009, skeptics and former professional magicians Joe Nickell and D.J. Grothe discuss how Houdini’s background in magic motivated his debunking of spiritualism. They discuss his religious beliefs. They explore the fraudulent methods of the mediums, including slate writing, the Sprit Trumpet, spirit photography and the use of “ectoplasm.” And they conclude their conversation by conducting the Center for Inquiry’s 13th Annual Houdini Seance.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, October 30, 2009. 

Welcome to a point of inquiry. I’m DJ Grothe the 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 and at the grassroots. The intro of the show said that this was Friday, October 30th. In fact, I’m recording it today on Saturday, October thirty, first Halloween. And as in years past, I’m joined by Joe Nickell to conduct our annual Whodini Sans. Joe Nickell is widely known as kind of investigator of myths and mysteries, frauds, forgeries, hoaxes. He’s been called the modern Sherlock Holmes and the original Ghostbuster. Some people have called him the Real-Life Scully after the character The X Files. He’s investigated scores of paranormal occurrences and haunted house cases, including the Amityville Horror. Dozens of other paranormal sites. He’s a veteran of hundreds of TV and radio appearances, the author of over 20 books. And as I mentioned, he’s joining me today to conduct our annual Whodini Science Show. Welcome back to the show. So we can pay armoires to Harry Houdini. 

Pleasure to be with you. 

Joe, this is CFI is 13th annual Whodini Science. And what the fourth time we’ve done it on point of inquiry? I didn’t know. 

I hadn’t counted that it was the 13th. I’m getting I’m getting a little afraid. Well, you know, everything will now go wrong. And I don’t know why we’re even doing. 

I thought before we’d get to invoking Whodini Spirit and we don’t do that in some cheeky kind of sarcastic way. It’s really to honor the memory and influence of Whodini. I figured before we’d get to that, let’s talk about Whodini as debunker. 

Yes. Whodini himself had been a rather dishonest figure at one time early in his career. And he he did sort of fake mediumistic and psychic kind of stuff for audiences. 

So he himself pretended to be a psychic medium or so. 

Yeah. And he says in his book, Magician Among the Spirits, he says in the introduction, you know, that this was all to him sort of just a lark. It was entertainment. You know, they would they would try to mystify the crowd. And he thought of himself as just a mister fire and. And what harm can it do? 

And so on and yada, yada. But he came to realize that he was covering what he regarded as rather sacred territory, that that you don’t mess around with people’s dead loved ones. You don’t pretend. Oh, hi. I just talked to your dead mother haha. 

He he got that somewhat later in life and he got that later in life after the death of his own mother and seeing how people played with, with his emotions. It really fired up a kind of righteous indignation in him. 

That’s right. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s wife, for example, fancy. She was a medium and produce these messages from from his mother. And he was outraged. You know, he he respected Sir Arthur and like Sir Arthur. But and he was kind of put in a bad position of trying to play nice. But he privately was just furious that at this, you know, trick of communicating with his his dead mother when in fact, his dead mother would not have spoken English and wouldn’t have called him every which was not his name. 

So he came to realize that it was not okay to do this and. 

He actually talks about the ethics of this. And I think Skeptic’s and others ought to read it. And he says he says in the course of this discussion, in the introduction to a magician among the spirits, he says, though, that he was as an Enquirer about spiritualism. He was, quote, not a scoffer. That he it wasn’t his position to be someone who went around laughing at people. 

And I read that also as him saying that he wasn’t scoffing at the belief itself. In other words, he was open minded about whether or not spirits existed. He just knew certainly that these people who said they were talking to him were frauds. 

That’s right. He absolutely talked about being open minded. This was one of the points that he made that he had always been open minded about the possibility of, you know, Houdini was not an atheist. Whodini says that he believed in a you know, in a divinity or a supreme being. I think the words he used. And he believed in the word he used was hereafter and. That he was open minded as to the possibility, but that what he encountered was anything but, that he was encountering tricks and scams and so forth. 

Joe, let’s make some distinctions. What Harry Houdini did as a magician debunk. That’s different than what you do as a paranormal investigator, even though you were a professional magician yourself. 

Yes, I was a professional magician. And actually the magician at the Houdini Hall of Fame. So I. I have this affinity with the TV. But I what I’m trying to do is, is investigate phenomena and. But I appreciate what Houdini did with his anti spiritualist crusade because. Whodini lived during the heyday of spiritualism or at least the latter heyday of spiritualism, and there was really I mean, people were being deceived big time and. He felt that it was necessary to really take these people on and expose them and and fortunately, if you compare that to what we’re trying to do today, just a couple of Sundays ago, I was able to be at a John Edwards event. 

The TV psychic who got an think medium. Yes. 

John Edwards, who was with the local skeptics in in Syracuse and watch him do his schtick. Well, in in Houdinis day, people were still doing the physical mediumship. 

And John Edward only uses words. He got his start at Lucedale. I hear. And that that is not a physical mediumship place. That’s where you basically just use psychology and words and your emotional connection with folks to deceive them. You don’t use magic tricks. 

That’s right. And so it’s very difficult to catch them, although I have. I help Dateline NBC catch Edward cheating. But the veteran Whodini stay mediums were actually doing magic tricks. Slate writing spirit trumpets floating in the air. Right. And voices speaking through them and the like. And Whodini had a number of ways of dealing with these these charlatans. One of my favorite stories. And and this is told in Masimo Paula Doros book Final Say on how Whodini put on a disguise and went with some law enforcement and other people in disguise to a stance of one George Reiner. And they brought up the name Whodini. And of course, Reiner told what an awful guy Whodini was and so forth. Not no. 

He was sitting in his elbow and Rittner was one of those who use spirit trumpets, and Whodini knew all the tricks. 

And so Whodini got his hands free during the science and put Lampblack on the trumpets. And during an appropriate point in the Sayan swept out a flashlight and there was Rahner with Lampblack all over his hands. 

Lampblack kind of a sort. Yes, sir. 

So that when he touched the trumpet, it was evidence that he in fact was cheating. He wasn’t. 

Absolutely. Yeah. And so Whodini Whodini caught him, you know, at his at his trip. 

Yeah. Not Red-Handed but suit handed. 

That’s right. And if not red. Black. Right. 

And it was it was a great moment. And there there are pictures of Whodini in disguise. Now he also used. 

A private investigator. A woman named Rose Mackin Berg, who was actually a private investigator and he would send Rose when Whodini would go into a city. He would often send Rose ahead of him and she would go around to the different mediums posing as, you know, bereaved widow, a young maiden in love or whatever persona. There are pictures of her actually in her his disguises. And she she was really quite adept. And she would she would create these false personas and get these messages in by. By so doing, she would learn the medium’s tricks, what they were up to and how they did this and that. Then she would report to Whodini. And when Whodini would do his his shows, he would even invite the mediums to come to the shows and he would invite them to come up onstage. Usually they were too smart to do that. And then Rose would come up and and expose them and sometimes the mediums would actually run fleeing from the theater. 

Now, this is pretty tough stuff, right? 

It’s pretty direct exposure. He was he was very confrontational. And that’s unlike what most paranormal investigators today would do. We might, you know, write an article in a magazine saying, here’s my view of that person who I think is deceiving in this way. But we don’t go around calling people frauds. We don’t show up. And kinda. You have got your moments, I guess, in the best possible circumstance in any event, right? 

Yeah, I actually am quite willing to catch someone that I think a trickster or someone who’s even if they were sincere. But getting a lot of attention and misleading people, I’m willing to to expose them. 

But your stock in trade is not the gotcha moment. 

That’s that’s not my primary method. But I certainly one of my methods. And when one medium who got a lot of attention was holding regular luncheons, soirees with with people to have readings, I showed up in one of my disguises and one of my personas, and he had no clue who I was. I mean, it was it was funny that he had no idea that here was this notorious skeptic who’d crossed swords with him. And he never he didn’t get the name Nicole. He didn’t he missed it all. So I he fancies that he’s a psychic sleuth. And I wrote a piece then called Psychic Sleuth Without a Clue. 

And. And I also, as you know, went to Camp Chesterfield. 

And for our listeners, Camp Chesterfield is really one of the only places in the United States now that we think actually use physical mediumship in their in their programs, right? 

Yes, they still still were. 

Last time I was there anyway, carrying on in the old fashioned man or doing billett reading and spirit precipitations and and trumpet trumpet readings and so forth, it just, you know, physical stuff. And I went there and they were practicing this stuff up and down the streets in this little village in Chesterfield, Indiana, a complete spiritualist village. And I called them at their tricks and I, I wrote to expose a skeptical Inquirer magazine. And I’m the information that I had was the two of them were ousted from the grounds as a consequence. I hope that was true. One point of irony in my Chesterville trip was that I used as part of my persona, I used the false name Jim Collins, and that was, of course, the name of Houdini’s assistant. 

So there was a kind of an in-joke there. Right. 

And of course, none of them got it. 

Know, but but I do issue as you suggest. It’s not my regular thing. 

Certainly, I try to I try to respect sincere believers in whatever. If people say they’ve had a ghostly encounter or people have seen a lake monster or UFO, if I have no reason to think it’s part of a hoax or a fraud, then I respect that, that that person is is telling the truth and and try to treat them with respect, telling the truth from their view. 

They may be mistaken. 

That’s right. And I have actually formed friendships even with with spiritualists. 

I had a dear friend, Joyce Lee Judas, at Lilydale, who is curator of the museum there, and we had a very good relationship till she died. And how was that museum privileges? I could go there and look at anything, take anything out of a display case, write about it, photograph it and whatever and the with with great fun to me, she told Ms. Whicker, who wrote the book Lilydale. She. She spoke of. She said, Joe and I are just alike. I can imagine you laughing at that and thinking how how untrue that is. But in her mind, we were alike in that we were both questing. 

Right. And and I think that’s that’s a good thing. 

You had access to that spiritualist community like no other professional skeptic ever has. For our listeners, I should say, is Lily Dale is a spiritualist. Com youna community in upstate New York, really headquarters for so much of what developed as the worldwide spiritualist movement or religion in the early part of the 20th century. 

Yes, it’s still the largest center for spiritualism anywhere different from Camp Chesterfield in that Lilydale, although in the 19th century, had its periods of trickery and so forth, cleaned up its act to the extent that the physical mediumship and so forth is really not allowed there. 

And certainly outright trickery is not allowed. But people there do readings and they may believe that they’re there talking to the dead. But it’s certainly a less sinister place than Chesterfield was during its day. 

Joe, let’s back up a bit. This say answers that Whodini went to. He didn’t, you know, go to spiritualist communities. He didn’t go to churches. He went to say ANSYS. And they were specifically these dark rooms say ANSYS. That seems to be a really important point. It all happened completely in a dark room. 

That’s right. And this the it seems obvious to us that they were doing it in a dark room so that they could do magic tricks. Right. Their view, one interesting saw, one interesting defense of that a a spiritualist said, well, don’t you know that photography is done in a dark room? 

And and so that’s where things can only develop in the dark. And that does that mean that photography is therefore all a trick? Shall we demand the photographers only produce their work in bright lights or we won’t believe them? Well, they can’t do anything right. 

And by analogy, of course, to photography, then spiritualism was, you know, the spirits were unable to come to the light. They would they would actually tell sitters that even the flicking on of a lighter or striking of a match or something like that could could actually be fatal to the medium because they’re you know, they’re so sensitive at this stage. And of course, it was all a as we know from the book, psychic mafia. If we didn’t know it anywhere else, we know that these these tricks were done to deceive people. 

Right. And and all under cover of darkness made it easier. It reminds me of a lecture I went to at a local university recently where the ghost hunters, the people you know, the two guys from the Ghost Hunters TV Grant and Jason. 

Yes, I had a buy it a beer summit with them at Lilydale. 

Wow. Yeah. You know, I, I met them at Lilydale, too. We’ll have to share those stories. Okay. 

But at this lecture, Joe, they claimed, hey, those of you in the audience who want to become ghost hunters or paranormal investigators, it’s best that you always do it in the dark because only in the dark are when these manifestations are most evident. Where where you know, where you’re most likely to sense this stuff going on. Now, from my vantage, seems like the dark would be exactly the place where it’s easiest for us to be deceived or to be self deceived. 

Yes. And of course, it creates a kind of mood. I mean, everybody knows that, you know, the whole idea of campfire ghost tales and everything is a dark night. You’re in a dark place in the dark. It’s all part of the mood. The haunted houses that charge money at Halloween to take you through and scare you were all done in the dark. 

So let’s get into some of the specific debunking some of the cases. You mentioned that one. But let’s talk about not just the spirit trumpets, but the spirit. Slate’s Whodini reveals methods. And I’m not talking magic tricks now or let’s put it another way. 

I’m not talking about things that magicians today would do. I’m talking about him revealing some actually exposing some of the ways these mediums used spirit slates. And those slates are what, like in the 19th century school kids, rather than writing on paper with pen, they had slates, you know, little miniature slates that they wrote on with chalk. And those were used by mediums supposedly to have deceased loved ones would write on the slates. Rather than the medium writing on the slate to give messages to those still living. 

Yes. And and there were double slates that opened like that were hinged open like a book. And the those were standard school flights. In fact, as we are discussing this. I’m looking at a pair of old ones that I have in my office among my collection of BRIC-A-BRAC. And these were used that you could to show them and then close them and placed them on the table. And sometimes you would hear sounds of the sleek pencil is usually not chalk, but a slight pencil, which was finer pointed than than than chalk because they were writing on these small slates. And they used something called a slate pencil. And I also have one that I’m looking at here. And you would hear this, the slate pencil writing on this on the slate board. 

And at the end of the science, of course, there was the message now. 

But all of this was happening when the medium’s hands are simply being held. Exactly. Held or tied up or something. 

So the sitters, the people getting the psychic readings are at the at the science. They knew that the medium wasn’t doing it. You’re saying there’s a gizmo that allows it to happen. Whodini also talks about how under cover of darkness there would just be a third party who would come in the room and switch out of the slates above the mediums, said, you know, he shows pictures of this. 

Indeed he does. And there were, you know, not to put too fine a point on it, but there were there were like most magicians effects. There were more than one way to do this later. Right. There were there were tricks, slates. There was sleight of hand methods in showing what looked like you were showing, let’s say, all four sides of of a pair of slates. But by clever handling, you weren’t showing one side. You already had a message written. There were, as I say, physical trick slates themselves. There were ways of substituting slates. And maybe we don’t have to tell all of the secrets. 

But the point was that Houdini debunked. He didn’t just say, I’m a magician and I feel gentle audience that these mediums are frauds because I can duplicate it. He debunked. He said, how dare they use magic tricks to deceive people? That’s wrong. Here’s how they’re deceiving people. 

That’s right. And he revealed he revealed these secrets for the purpose of doing good. And I did a magic trick slate effect once for the Conan Doyle Society. And in Toronto, I was invited to give a talk and I gave a talk about the Davenports in their scrapbook, which I had examined. And as I began my what was basically a slide show and therefore got to be done in a semi dark, I showed a pair of a pair of slates fair and square both sides and closed them up and put them together and and put them up on top of something so they could be in full view during my talk. And at the end of the talk, I walked over and there was sort of nervous laughter, which I did. 

And I separated the slates and they’re written on one was the word believe. 

And so I, I leave it whether that might have been an actual message from Whodini or would this be a good time to confess that I tricked. But Houdini would have appreciated the the whole massage, I guess. Right. 

He exposed he debunked so many other methods, including spirit photography, which was a craze in that day. Photography was kind of new as an artisan, as a science. And a lot of mediums would take pictures that, upon developing the films, showed ghostly apparitions in the film. Right. So he actually debunked that. 

Yes. I’m looking as we speak again. I’m I’m looking at a spirit picture. And one of the things that you can often notice about these old spirit photographs is the person is often posed very low in the picture. So there room for spirit faces above him or he’s posed to one side. So there you see a spirit standing beside him. Next time you look at a spirit photograph, look to see if there were no spirits in the picture with the SIDOR be posed correctly. 

Mm hmm. 

And invariably, no, he would pose. He’s posed to low or off center because the Spirit photographer not only knew the spirits were going to come, he knew exactly what they were going to show up because he was, of course, faking the picture. 

All right, Joe, tell me about how Houdini debunked this. You know, everyone was so excited about physical proof of spirits called ectoplasm. And he debunked that. 

Yes. There were all kinds of attempts to show ectoplasm during, say, on define that for me, that’s just like the leftovers of ghost. Well, ectoplasm, I guess, could be defined as a mediumistic substance that supposedly the spirits used to good purpose, for example, because spirits wouldn’t have a physical larynx or voicebox, they would use the ectoplasm, this mystical substance, to sation, one that would enable them to speak. And there were photographs. 

The ectoplasm would often be seen in spirit, photographs, husing from the medium’s nostrils or or elsewhere. And sometimes there were. Pictures of spirits shown on this substance coming out of their nose or mouth. And it was simply oftentimes something like muslin or cheesecloth. 

Or like gauze. Something like gauze. 

Yeah. And Whodini would take care of that in the same way. Took care of a lot of stuff by, you know, insisting that the media be searched beforehand or or he would, you know, use his his flashlight, her deceptive means to catch them. 

So if a medium is about to contact dead people and you search her beforehand or him beforehand and you find out that he or she has a bunch of gauze and in the pockets, well, that’s kind of a dead giveaway that there’s fraud going on. 

Dead. They’re being. Right. Yes. OK. That’s exactly right. 

Well, Joe, we’ve talked about in general terms some of the ways that Whodini debunked. He didn’t just go out and kind of in a in a more academic way do paranormal investigations. He he wasn’t actually investigating whether or not people survive death. He was debunking these people he thought were frauds for deceiving believers in their kind of time of need. And that brings me to the last question I want to ask you before we get to this kind of honoring the memory of Whodini with now the 13th annual science, and that is Whodini argued there was real harm in these mediums. It’s not just that, you know, to each his own, we can all believe what we want to believe. He was really riled up. The question is, do you think he was justified or was he kind of wrongheaded because he was out demolishing other people’s beliefs? 

Well, I think Houdini was was right. And I admire Houdini. And I like to think I’m following largely in the Houdini tradition, because Houdini was, in all fairness, not just a debunker, but he was someone who was it was showing up and saying, you know, show me. And if someone could have produced genuine ectoplasm or or some spirit phenomenon that was was authentic, Houdini was there, too, to have proclaimed it. So I think he gave he gave mediums every opportunity to to be honest. And he just couldn’t find a genuine one. And as he knew the tricks and as he found out that there were charlatans, he did expose them. And I think he did so because he knew that. People were being strung along. They were. They were not allowed to have normal closure with the death of a loved one, but were simply being strung along, given false messages, false hope. And, you know, fair enough that if people want to believe in something but you shouldn’t feed that belief with falsehoods. 

And you shouldn’t take advantage of that belief for your own personal gain. 

That’s right. And Whodini regarded that area as as he used the word sacred. And I agree with him. 

Mm hmm. Well, Joe, in the spirit of Houdini’s quest. And as we were mentioning, he was open minded about the spirit world, but kind of a righteously indignant at the these frauds of his day. Well, in in the spirit of all that, let’s conclude our conversation with conducting the annual Whodini sounds. 

All right. Let’s do that. And let’s realize that Whodini made Compact’s with no fewer, he said, than 14 other people that if whoever would die first would try to come back. And he even mentioned in Magician, one of the spirits, his private secretary, John Surgent, having made a compact with him and Serjeant having promised that he would try to come back. And he he died before Whodini and Whodini never got a message from him. And indeed, he said he never got messages, many of these people, and he made such a pact with his wife. Best we’ve talked about this in previous seasons is that if he could come back and if surely if anybody who could escape from all the shackles and confines that he did, if anybody could escape the confines of the coffin, surely Whodini could write. He would come back and he never did. There are claims that he did, but he never did. And finally, Bess switched off the eternal light that she’d kept over his picture. 

And she said Whodini never returned and would she knew he would not return. I have here. To make Cardini of comfortable, if he if he could come back to make him welcome, I have some some tokens. I have, for example, a rare token of Anna Evea Fe. One of the mediums who he knew and PBT befriended these elderly mediums and learned their tricks to help him exposure’s. I have an authentic Anna Iva Faye Tolkan that was sold as a good luck charm after her vaudeville shows. 

I have a key that belonged to Whodini was into his collection. I have, if you can hear this, an old lock. 

Let’s see if you can hear it. OK. Did you hear that? I could. Yes. OK. That’s that’s a lock I have here. And we can ask Cardini to come to think of of these things and to solicit him to come to our science and to start to see Önce. 

I’m going to ring the traditional science bill. 

Well, there you have it. I guess he’s a no show, but maybe we’ll hear from him next year. 

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Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved with an online conversation about today’s discussion and Whodini science. Join everybody at point of inquiry dot org. Views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org or by visiting our website point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri, Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for by Emmy Award winning Michael Quailing. Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. 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.