Ford, Arthur - How I Broke Houdini's Code 01
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
How I Broke Houdini's Code (originally titled "A Round with the Magicians".)
ONE OF the most passionate exposers of mediums was Houdini, the magician. In the early twenties he threw the entire weight of his reputation as a magician behind his declaration that all mediums were fakes, and that he could duplicate any trick a medium could do.
Although he later played a significant part in providing me with status as a medium, I never met Houdini. He died in 1926 and at that time I was much too inconspicuous to attract his attention. The influence of Houdini upon the whole Spiritualist Movement cannot be understood without some comprehension of the distinction which was Houdini's.
Houdini the Magician and Anti-Spiritualist
Here was a man who could break out of handcuffs of every invention and contrivance in any part of the world. He could beat the Fiji coin divers at their own game. He staged underwater stunts that astounded the medical profession by the length of time he could hold his breath. He broke out of packing cases built on-stage by local carpenters. Before astonished audiences he caused an elephant (not a rabbit) to disappear and he walked through a brick wall. He was exactly what he called himself, the master magician of his day.
In the early twenties Houdini turned his fabulous tenacity to exposing the whole Spiritualist Movement. There were probably then about a million people in the country who called themselves Spiritualists. In these days when university research in the field of parapsychology has made psychic interests respectable, when extrasensory perception is seriously considered in psychology courses, when the physical scientists are far less dogmatic about the non-physical world than was formerly the case, it is difficult to recover the violent reaction of the orthodox against Spiritualism in Houdini's day. In the orthodox mind all Spiritualists were equated with the lunatic fringe and all mediums were tools of the devil, even if there were no devil. Here Houdini took his stand with the orthodox and lined up his targets.
I have always felt that Houdini was initially honest, even if publicity-minded, in insisting that mediumship, particularly physical mediumship, could be faked. He himself had hoaxed audiences with fake mediumship, and in his mind to be able to trick an audience was to do so. In his early days he had simulated the kind of séance in which material objects are supposed to move by supernormal power, and added assumed authenticity to the act by having himself handcuffed, tied to a chair and placed in a cabinet in such fashion that the audience concurred in his assertion that he could not possibly be the one to set off the tambourine, bell and other paraphernalia on the table in front of the cabinet. Lights went out and the ensuing jingling and knocking were very convincing, as well they might be since Houdini was able to extricate himself from the handcuffs in a matter of seconds, set off his "effects," and relock himself before the lights went on.
Houdini the Exposer of Mediums
Years later, when he was much more widely known, he acknowledged his former fraudulence and developed an act in which he demonstrated the many devices and tricks which he said he had found mediums using. It was after his mother died, however, that he turned to exposing mediums in the big-time manner. It has always seemed to me that he was striking out at people who believed what he himself could not believe - that life goes on. He would leave no one with comfort he could not have. His sentiment for his mother ran deep, even though it often expressed itself melodramatically. There is no doubt but that Houdini informed himself in the field of psychic phenomena, but always from the point of view of looking for the catch. When he read a report based on the testimony of top scientists, he merely averred that they were not as clever as he in seeing through a ruse. He collected a pretentious library, and searched out physical mediums all over the country. Mediums who simply brought through verbal communication were branded liars before he started. He liked to uncover facts upon which to base a story of an exposé but he was not dependent upon facts. As the self-appointed exposer of fraudulent mediumship and ridiculer of Spiritualists, he built himself the biggest reputation in America, and probably in the world.
Nevertheless, that he was at times in touch with genuine communication seems to me certain from opinions I have had from persons who knew him well. I surmise that genuine trance mediums found his antagonistic attitude extremely hard to work with. It is my impression that his mother tried to reach him and could have identified herself if he had been receptive. For instance, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle reported that when he and his wife were traveling in America, Houdini and his wife Beatrice visited them for several days at their hotel in Atlantic City. By that time Lady Doyle herself had developed mediumship and did automatic writing in a semi-trance state. Doyle said that on this occasion Houdini received a general message from his mother which moved him greatly, although in spite of his emotion he would not authenticate the message. No doubt it lacked essential words he was waiting for her to say. Eventually Doyle broke with Houdini, accusing him of prejudice and duplicity.
The 'Margery' Investigation
The occasion which brought Houdini into final disrepute with most of the professional research men in the psychic field was an investigation of the famous physical medium Margery, wife of Dr. L. R. G. Crandon, for sixteen years professor of surgery at Harvard University Medical School, conducted by The Scientific American. The investigating committee was composed of impeccable scientists and psychologists, including Gardner Murphy, now director of research at Menninger Foundation. Houdini asked to be added to the committee. As the séances continued the committee became increasingly doubtful of Houdini's scrupulosity, not to say impartiality, and made public statement of the fact.
By that time Houdini's reputation was at stake. If distinguished men could prove him wrong in his accusations, the whole country would have a chuckle at his expense, and to be laughed at was one thing he could never accept. Moreover, his enemies the Spiritualists - or so he considered them - would also have a field day. Actually, many Spiritualists had defended Houdini, being more eager than anyone else to have their ranks cleared of frauds.
This was the state of ferment in 1926 when Houdini died, leaving a widely publicized message that if there were anything to the claim for survival he would get through to his wife, Bessie, with a code message which only she could decipher. That this curious last message would have anything to do with my future would have seemed a far fetched idea at the time.
Showdown with magician Howard Thurston
However, the Houdini virus was contagious and other magicians also broke out in eruptions against spiritualism and mediumship. Among the best known of the magicians was Howard Thurston. Thurston was a tall, suave and handsome man, whom I had always considered a thorough gentleman. Therefore I was surprised when in 1927, the old New York World ran a story to the effect that Thurston claimed he had exposed over three hundred mediums, that Spiritualism had broken up more homes than the old-time saloon, and that he had a gadget resembling a watchcase in which was concealed a rubber spook that could be blown up and operated in such fashion that it could duplicate all the phenomena of the séance room. I asked the World to let me answer this story, but they refused. There was nothing particularly newsworthy about me. But the United Press Association indicated that they would carry my reply if I made a good story.
Now how could I make a good story of fraudulent accusation of fraud? I thought over the fact that magicians such as Houdini and Thurston kept on issuing open challenges to mediums, offering ten thousand dollars for the production of any stunt they could not reproduce by trickery. I felt there had been about enough of this talk and that someone should make some kind of public refutation which would carry weight. Therefore when a friend of mine, with United Press, suggested that I turn the tables and offer ten thousand dollars to Thurston if he could prove his charges, I was held back only by ten thousand good reasons. Another friend, John Bowman, president of the Bowman Biltmore Hotel Corporation, overheard the suggestion and handed me a certified check. It was posted and I challenged Thurston.
Now the press had a story they could use with relish and they did a thorough coverage. Thurston began to explain to his friends that his press agent had overplayed his hand. But the press demanded a showdown. So a night was set when we were to meet in Carnegie Hall. In spite of the publicity I was surprised to find the Hall packed. Apparently all the magicians were there and the press was amply represented, not to overlook the public.
I spoke first and challenged Thurston, "I will not ask for the names of the three hundred mediums you have exposed, but ask only that you give me the name and address, time, and place of exposure of twenty-five, along with proof that you did expose them." Thurston named only three, none of them living. I could have done better than that. I then asked him to give me the names of only twenty-five families that had been broken up over Spiritualism. He had no names. I could have furnished them, knowing the movement better than he did, for there are always individuals who make a mania of their particular religious beliefs and ride their families to death.
He grew more nervous as we approached the matter of his rubber spook. I explained to the audience the method of testing physical mediumship. However, without these customary preliminaries, I was only going to ask that in good light before the audience Thurston produce this rubber spook and let it walk over to me and tell me the real name of my father. Certainly a kindergarten test for a medium. But Thurston had forgotten to bring the spook along. By that time I felt sorry for him.
The next day the newspapers carried a complete account of the encounter, one paper headlining the story: FORD AND THURSTON PUT ON SHOW AT CARNEGIE HALL ... IT FLOPPED IN THE SECOND ACT. Thurston explained to the press again that his press agent had got him into this fiasco, hoping to capitalize on the Houdini technique for getting publicity. Reasonably, Thurston's ire was high against me, which I regretted for I admired his magicianship. I supposed our encounter was over.......................