Halloween Extra: 18th Annual Houdini Séance with Joe Nickell

October 31, 2014

Harry Houdini, the most famous illusionist the world has ever known, spent the later part of his career fascinated with spiritualists and mediums. This led him to become a dedicated skeptic and investigator.

In this special Halloween episode for 2014, Point of Inquiry’s new producer Nora Hurley chats with Joe Nickell, the world’s leading paranormal investigator, and a former professional magician himself. Together, they conduct the Center for Inquiry’s 18th Annual Houdini Séance. Listen in as Nickell follows traditional séance protocol to call upon the spirit of Houdini to communicate with us beyond the grave.

While summoning the dead, Nickell explains how Houdini’s background as a magician allowed him to expose fraudulent mediums and spiritualists, who were using illusions and trickery to profit off the grief of innocent people. Joe Nickell continues to honor Harry Houdini, not just with annual séances, but more importantly by carrying on his investigative work.

This is point of inquiry for October thirty, first 2014. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m Nora Hurley, producer of Point of Inquiry, and today we have a special Halloween episode as we are celebrating the Committee for Skeptical Inquiries, 18th annual Whodini Science. Our guest tonight is Joe Niccolò, who, like Whodini, is a magician and a paranormal investigator. He’s investigated hundreds of paranormal occurrences, haunted house cases, along with dozens of other paranormal sightings. Jo, welcome back to the show and thanks for helping us attempt to contact the great Whodini. 

Thank you. It’s always a pleasure. I just hope my hair and makeup look OK. 

Oh, you look fantastic. So I think most of our listeners probably know who the great Harry Houdini was. But can you tell us a little bit about why he’s so important to CSI and why we’re having this chance to speak with him? 

Yes, Whodini is really a kind of father figure to those of us who investigate the paranormal. He not only was a great magician and escape artist, but he spent the latter part of his life in an attempt to see if spiritualists could really do what they claim to do. A lot of people think that Houdini was a believer and that he was trying to contact his dead mother. And in fact, Houdini was basically a skeptic and his posters show that he was kind of defying people to prove that there were were real spirits. And Houdini actually was so annoyed, to say the least, with people who claimed to be able to talk to the dead. But he would see that they were, in fact, tricksters, and this offended him deeply. And he set out then to try to catch some of the fakes and did a great job at it. Oh, interesting. And then Houdini died in an untimely death. He was only in his early 50s. He died on Halloween in twenty six. Yeah. 

That’s why we’re doing this on Halloween. Right. 

And so there’s a kind of irony because he was trying to contact spirits. Then of course, it seemed appropriate that someone tried to contact him and his wife did just that. And for years attempted to contact the Disney spirit. 

OK. So do you want to tell us a little bit about some of the stuff you have here for the fans? 

Yes. I mean, it’s hard to say what Houdini needs and what he might do, but we would hope to give him an opportunity to demonstrate that he’s really with us. I do have to admit that he’s been a no show for the past 17 of these events. But hope springs eternal. And who knows him? 

This might be the night, but we’ve put some things together. I think he could. For example, I have here a padlock in chains, something very familiar to Harry Houdini. 

And he could, for example, open the lock. 

And if he did that, I I’ll tell you, I will be very amazed. He might also UDD originally was known as the handcuff. 

And here a pair of handcuffs, regulation handcuffs that he would have been very familiar with. 

And he might he might open those. He might also he exposed a number of people who were doing fake writing on spirit slates. So we might hear the chalk moving on the slate. 

It’s traditional to start as, say, Anse by lighting a candle and ringing a bell. And this is to get the attention of the spirits and make them feel welcome. So I’ll do that now. 

And then we can have a discussion and we give Whodini the time to do this. And when we finish, we’ll see what happened and close the sequence. 

So I’ve lit the candle, which is struggling to burn. Ah, there we go. It’s it’s it’s flaming now. And let’s ring the bell. 

OK. So we’re ready to start. What are some of the examples of the things Whodini has done to expose these fraudulent fancies and mediums that you talking about? 

Well, he did a lot of things. One of the things he did was he would befriend some of the old mediums who were down on their luck, kind of old and poor. And who did? He would. Because he was quite wealthy from being a maybe the biggest box office draw in the history of Vidal. He would give them a little pension and help them out. In return, they were often quite generous in telling him the tricks they used and showing him a magician. He was a very receptive audience to seeing how it could ask questions, how he would see how some of these deceptions were done in the dark and how the illusions were created, how you would get your hands free to do some trick and then get your hands back. If you were holding hands in the science. So Houdini would often go to, say, ANSYS and sometimes in disguise. But he had he had a special agent. He had a woman named Rose Mack Enberg. And Rose was a Brooklyn private eye. And pictures show how really good she was. She would put on these disguises. And you can see four or five different pictures of Rose. And it looks like that many different people. So she might go one time as a kind of naive young lady contemplating marriage, another time as a prim schoolmarm. Maybe another time as an, you know, an elderly widow suitably attired. And she would get into these personas with some conviction and she would go to the mediums and set up for them to give her a reading and contact spirits around her and so forth. And then she would observe any trickery that she could see or at least just report faithfully to Whodini. Whodini would then come maybe also in disguise. And he would expose the medium as a as a trickster. A famous example occurred in the 1920s in Cleveland when Houdini showed up at his science in disguise and with a reporter and a prosecutor. And this particular medium was doing a trick with a spirit trumpet, which was supposed to magnify the whispered voices of the spirits and would float in the air and and do all these gyrations and so forth. While Houdini understood how the trick was done and in the dark took the opportunity to put a handful of lampblack that is just soot into the trumpet so that after the the science was over and the lights came on. I think actually Whodini whipped out a flashlight. And the medium was just covered, his face smeared in his hands, covered with with soot, showing that he had manipulated the trumpet, not the spirits. And he said, I Whodini expose you. 

Wow. OK, so I know you talked a little bit about how a lot of people thought that Houdini was a believer and that he’s he’s really a skeptic. But I think one of the things that people mistake about skepticism or that people accuse towards skeptics is that it’s just a different form of belief. It’s these people are just grumpy, cynical people who want to debunk everything that is mystical. Can you talk about where Whodini stood in regards to exploring the paranormal and his openness to finding supporting evidence? Because skepticism is really about, you know, these extraordinary claims, trying to find evidence for these extraordinary Claytons. And there’s always the open potential that it could be true. Can you talk a little bit about if he had anything seeking to find supporting evidence of there being an afterlife? 

Well, certainly he he was interested in finding out what was happening, not you raise a very good point, because even today we have some people who style themselves debunkers. Yeah. And it’s one thing to debunk to say, oh, that that lake monster, why that could be that could be an even number. Things could be a floating log. It could be a hoax. It might be a beaver. It might be this or that. It’s quite another to analyze the eyewitness reports and say, well, if they’re talking about this undulating, serpentine like creature, maybe they’re seeing three or four otters swimming in a line or is, as I did once, going to to an aquarium and show and studying a giant eel to show that a particular in a particular case, it was not an eel because it was not behaving at all like one. And Whodini was doing that with with these investigations of a paranormal spiritualist claims and trying to really find out what exactly is going on. And that’s the tradition I follow and recommend that others do, confident that if we actually investigate, I mean, really go there and really do the hard. Work, if we investigate and can explain what’s happened. The debunking just takes care of itself, of course. 

But I was actually wondering, too, didn’t he specifically have a sort of pact with his wife that that I think you may have mentioned earlier? 

Yes. One of the things that he did was to set up a a pact with his wife, Bess, that whoever would pass first would try to contact the other from the presumed other side. Whether Whodini believe this was really possible. I really think not very likely. He may have at the beginning, but as years went on and he was exposing these. I think he became very, very, very skeptical, but still not just dismissive in debunking, but actually wanting to see what was really going on. So he set up a pact with Bess and she maintained an internal light over is a portrait of him. And she had a number of seances and tried to contact the spirit of Whodini. And finally, after several years, she just announced that I do not think Whodini will come and turn off the light. 

OK. So now CSI is holding annual seances to contact Whodini, who actually died this very day 88 years ago. Tell me a little bit about how the last 18 seances have been going. Has there been any signs of success or interesting happenstances since you started doing these dances? 

Well, people might think these sciences are just a kind of gimmick, a bit of entertainment to focus on the life of Whodini and and to have a good time. And and they’re right. But I’m going to hope to convince you otherwise. But we’ve we’ve had fun and we’ve we’re trying to make the point that Houdini was trying to make. And that is let’s let’s look and see. Let’s give it a chance and not just rule it out. So we’ve had a number of these, say ANSYS sometimes as podcasts like this, sometimes as a sort of a show at a conference and sometimes just as a Halloween party here. But one time in particular, I remember we were sort of at a loss to what to do because you have to have something going on between the lighting and extinguishing of the candle. You have to have something going on. So my friend Ron Palmer, who does a wonderful Albert Einstein One-Man show, he really looks like Einstein. And Ron called and said, OK, you’re doing the Halloween science and that and the masquerade party and all that. Should I come as Einstein? And I said, Sure. He said, maybe we’ll think of something we can do. So he came and we worked out this little plan. We had a smoke machine. And this was good because the TV crew arrived this time. So we’re were filming and and we’re having the say and we’re saying, oh, Whodini, come we you know, we want you to appear before us and so forth. And the smoke is billowing out of an alcove. A figure stumbles through the smoke, coughing where people shocked. They were laughing, they were tittering. This was heavy handed stuff, but fun. So I said, wait a minute, wait a minute. You’re not Harry Houdini. You’re Albert Einstein. 

That’s where Aborn Albert said all you want to Deeney. 

Houdini couldn’t come. He was tied up. And that’s fair. Got a great laugh. I didn’t think it would. It did it here that we had a good time with that and then went on with say and once again, Whodini was a no show. 

Oh, man. Well, it’s great to see that people like yourself and James Randi, along with many others, are carrying on Houdini’s work as a professional paranormal investigator. Can you give us an example of how you typically go about doing some of the same things that Houdini did? 

Whodini didn’t do very many things of the modern nature that the average paranormal investigator today is called upon to do. Lake monsters and flying saucers and crop circles and Big Fay and Big Foot and what all he didn’t do any of that stuff. He didn’t even much do haunted houses. Most of his career was dealing with people who claim special powers like the Spaniard with x ray eyes. And even more than anything else, of course, spiritualists. But I have done, I think, many things in the Whodini tradition, one of which was I went undercover and in disguise to Camp Chesterfield in Indiana. It’s a rather notorious place, been exposed a few times for its trickery. And the book Psychic Mafia is an expose a of the tricks at Camp Chesterfield. But some years have gone by and nobody had done anything. And I decided to go there. So I did a makeover, adopted the name Jim Collins and with a cane, limped painfully into Camp Chesterfield, where I told everyone who had listened endlessly stories about how guilt ridden I was over the death of my mother and so on and yakked on and so forth. And one of the things that happened there was the science that was a type of science is called billett reading, where you gather someplace, in this case a little church and everybody is given a slip of paper and told to write the names of some people who have passed over and ask a question. And so I wrote the names of some Collins family members. By the way, Collins was the name of Judy’s assistant. So I was really playing Whodini. There they go. And to write some names, I wrote Collins names and I wrote a question, Mother, will you be with me? Always. And we were told to be sure to fold the papers only in half. A lady told me if you fold it any other way, it won’t be read. And I thought about this because as a magician, I know several ways to do the BILLETT trick. And I was beginning to figure out how this one was going to be done. In fact, I don’t reveal a secret here what this trickster was doing. He wanted all the billets to look alike so that when he picked one up and held it to his forehead, you couldn’t say, wait a minute. I folded mine into a triangle. That’s not mine. He didn’t want you to be able to do that. And what did you think? That when he was holding up to his forehead was, in fact, yours? And then he wanted to be able to just simply with his thumb, flip it open so he could secretly read it under cover of the lectern. And now you see how the trick is done. So he’s holding with one hand the bill it to the forehead. The other hand is secretly glimpsing what’s written on it. And he now gives the impression that he’s getting messages from the spirit world. 

Yes, the billet on his forehead isn’t actually the bullet that he’s read somebody else’s. Right. It’s actually it actually presumably says something completely different than what he’s about. 

Exactly. And so he’s he’s doing this and people are crying. Is it really it’s really moving to see this. And it’s also really, really made me really, really angry because this is playing on people’s emotions at a level that I think is just not it’s not entertainment. It’s it’s immoral. I think so. Whodini used the word sacred in talking about this level of belief and human emotion that you just don’t do this. You don’t violate this. In fact, he had told one side he was a shame that he used to do that as young magician. He would do some similar kinds of tricks, just put on a good show. And he realized as he got older, he said he was ashamed of having done that. And so, anyway, this is going on and all of a sudden the guy says, I have a message for the Collins family. And of course, the old guy in the back was suspenders. And Cane is waving and saying, meet me back here. And and the guy says, I have some names for you. And he reads off. So I had written on this slip. And then he says, and your mother wants you to know she’ll always be there for you. This is very moving. I was almost on the verge of tears until I remembered that at that time my mother was still alive and wasn’t named Mrs. Colin. And I felt so much better because I’d cut another trickster. Yeah. He knew what was on the paper, the false information on the paper. He did not know anything real. Wow. 

Well, I have to say, I think Whodini would have been very proud. In fact, I think if anything was going to get Houdini to come forward, it would probably have been that story. 

Yes. Well, it’s too bad. But I think we’ve given Whodini several minutes here. And I have to say, I haven’t heard anything happen. The slate is still blank. The lock is still locked. The cuffs are still firmly latched. And I think once again, Harry is. Been a no show. And I want to say to him, Harry, you know, we’re very disappointed, but maybe not surprised. Maybe this is what you would have expected. And let’s just remember the lessons that Whodini taught us and go forward. 

And so now let’s bring this to a close. 

Joe Nickell, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you. And thanks for taking the time to conduct the 18th annual Whodini Science will hopefully be able to see you again next year. 

Nora Hurley

Nora Hurley

Former editor of Point of Inquiry. Comedian and Media producer at Rewire News.