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Observations placeholder

Houdini - Houdini versus ‘Margery’ the medium 01



Type of Spiritual Experience


James Malcolm Bird (September 2, 1886 – October 30, 1964) was an American mathematician and parapsychologist.  He trained in mathematics and taught as a Professor at Columbia University, he later became an associate editor for the Scientific American, and upon quitting in 1925 he became the research officer of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) from 1925-1931.  A concerted campaign was launched against him in the 1930s by Houdini’s supporters, as he had publicly come out against Houdini in his book Margery the medium.  The description included a very logical argument as to why Houdini was so adamantly against ALL mediums.  Most people recognise that fraud is inevitable in all areas where money is at stake.  It is why we tend to favour observations where no monetary gain is involved, but there are a number of genuine mediums and Margery was probably one of them.

One of the people attempting to discredit Bird was Ruth Brandon, who wrote Houdini’s autobiography.  Another critic was Victor James Woolley,  a council member and the Honorary Research Officer of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in the UK.  He had not been at any of the séances concerned – he resigned from the SPR in 1932. 

Bird has some interesting things to say about the other witnesses to Margery, three of whom were members of the Scientific American committee, who right to the end, withheld any statement of genuineness. Walter Franklin Prince, had sat ten times, Comstock 56 times, and McDougall 22 times.

NONE of the three was willing to stamp her as a fraud or to say anything making it appear that he thought her probably a fraud. Thus Wikipedia's statent that Prince labelled her a fraud is untrue.  On the other hand no one had the courage to say she was genuine.  If one is being charitable one can say they were being cautious because they didn’t know, but from the evidence it seems that with a reputation and salary to consider, they sat on the fence until they saw which way the wind was blowing and Houdini provided the blast that eventually decided them which way to go. The committee took over the case on April 12, 1924. Comstock and McDougall were the subcommittee in charge; later Carrington was added.

As Bird, in absolute frustration, says “I have just cited the number of sittings enjoyed by Comstock and McDougall. I have remarked that an honest and competent and serious-minded investigator cannot sit indefinitely without arriving at an opinion; and I regard it as a monumental confession of inadequacy that neither of these judges, after all this experience, is ready to say anything more than that it is all very interesting, and that he hopes to see more of it.”
Carrington was wholly satisfied of genuineness, after his ten sittings in May. F. H. had documentary evidence to this effect; Carrington himself, had it not been that his connection with the committee would have made a personal statement by him out of order, would at that time have been willing to express in print his conviction of validity.

Bird said that “After my sixth sitting I was aware of the very heavy probability that I was witnessing genuine phenomena; after my tenth or twelfth—it is difficult to say exactly when one surmounts the last obstacle—I had discarded from my mind the slight reservations till then remaining”.

Thus we have the truly dreadful situation that Houdini in his actions had enough influence to mean that three cowardly politically minded so called researchers - Walter Franklin Prince, Daniel Frost Comstock the American physicist and engineer, and William McDougall - walked away from a genuine medium who may have provided untold useful evidence.

A description of the experience

"Margery" the medium / by J. Malcolm Bird.

From Chapter XLVIII – Houdini versus Margery

Houdini is past fifty years old; and he faces the necessity for building up something new to keep him among the headliners of his profession when, as must inevitably happen, he no longer has the physical resources for his fatiguing escape tricks.  In building up a new stage personality as exposer of mediums, he MUST behave towards all mediums as he has towards Margery.  He MUST assume in advance that the phenomena are fraudulent, MUST at all hazards make them so, MUST in every way put the idea across that he is the author of mediumistic exposures, infallible ‘bad medicine’ for mediums.

It was arranged that Houdini should sit with Margery on July 23rd and 24th.  His allegations of dishonesty and incompetence against his colleagues, his explicit assumption that the phenomena of Margery’s séances must necessarily involve fraud led me into conference with Dr Orson D Munn, proprieter of the Scientific American….. Munn, the potential payer of the $2,500, we thought probably one person whose good faith Houdini would feel obliged to grant.  Hence, though he had no connection with the committee and could attend séances only as their guest, we agree that he must sit when Houdini sat, in the effort to keep him on his good behaviour.  The necessity for such a step will be apparent when I say that Houdini had now openly abandoned all pretense at judicial consideration….

On July 23rd we sat in Lime street to let Houdini see these premises.  He was quick to realise and to admit there was nothing ‘wrong’ with them.  I…..  was charged with the duty of drawing up, at the end, a statement, which all the others were to sign before leaving the house.  As was to be expected and as was proper, modification of my first draft was necessary before all were ready to accept it.  As was not expected and as was highly improper, Houdini turned up next day with further requests for its modification.  With F H’s consent these were met.  This is the final record

July 23rd Dark séance.  Circle:  Margery, F H Conant, Munn, Houdini:  Bird in control of link, nobody else present.
During the first part of the sitting nothing observed except ‘Walter’s’ whistle and whisperings.  Next, Houdini was touched several times on inside of right leg.  He did not announce it, but Walter did so for him, specifying the place touched.  The first time Houdini himself wasn’t sure, thinking it might have been the table; the other times he confirmed what Walter said..
First intermission at Walter’s request to have Bird’s contact box removed from position in cabinet at Margery’s left, to new place in front of Houdini.  No action in period following this.
Second intermission when Walter asked to have illuminated plaque on contact board.  Bird left his post to get it but couldn’t find it.  In his absence, Walter called suddenly for control. 
Walter now announced that megaphone was in the air, and asked Houdini where he should throw it (in Bird’s judgement he didn’t talk through it).
Toward Houdini he was told, and he did this.
He then instructed Bird to take place in doorway; and almost before Bird could comply, cabinet was thrown violently on its back, with no preliminaries; Margery’s chair pushed forward, as usual when this happens.
Third intermission caused by reararrangement of cabinet, red light for the purpose.  Illuminated plaque got out here and put on contact board.  After it had been in this position for some little time, with long axis of contact device across in front of Houdini, Walter asked that it be turned so that the long axis would away from Houdini.  With the plaque first in the one position and then in the other, some of the sitters (occasionally all of them) observed motion by the plaque.  Some movements small and doubtful, some unmistakeable.
Houdini, in best place for observation, reported raising and lowering, oscillations, movements back and forth.  Ultimately it skewed round at an angle.  One movement stood out above all others, plaque rising slightly at one end and at least eight inches at other, and standing for an instant at an angle estimated by Bird at perhaps 60 degrees
Fourth intermission caused by Walter’s demand that table be removed from the central space.  Done in red light.  Movements of plaque continued, and finally contact board rang several short peals and one long one.

Control in general:  F H’s right hand in Conant’s left.  F H’s right foot contacted with Conant’s left, in style not specifically described.  F H’s left hand and Margery’s right joined by Bird’s hand – sometimes Bird’s right sometimes his left.  Sometimes had parallel fingers as usual, sometimes one wrist plus fingers from other hand.  FH’s left foot and Margery’s right foot by Bird’s left foot, shoe off, foot on floor, flat, with FH’s foot in contact on one side and Margery’s on other; from time to time Bird explored with this foot or with free hand, to verify that these feet were attached to their respective legs.  When controlling the hand-link with his right hand, Bird used left hand freely for control of Margery’s foot; part of the time grasping her ankle and part of the time resting hand on her knee.  At such times his foot retained control of FH’s foot, crossing over on top of instep and resting on floor on other side of FH’s.  Margery’s left hand by Houdini’s right.  Margery’s left foot resting ankle to ankle with Houdini’s right, his in front of hers, so that his was between hers and the place in front of Houdini where contact box ultimately rested.
During first intermission Houdini moved the box with one hand, retaining control of Margery’s hand by placing it on his knee.  Other control unchanged.
During second intermission, no attempt to bridge gap in control left by Bird’s absence, until Walter called for control.  To meet this demand, Conant took both FH’s hands to his left, and in some undefined fashion made foot contact with both FH’s feet.  Houdini took both Margery’s hands in his left, kept one foot as before, her right foot free (during this short period only).  In taking her two hands, he explored each arm to the shoulder to insure that it was her two hands.
No particular remarks about control during balance of siting.  Control was, of course, dropped momentarily during third and fourth intermissions, but except for these interruptions was as described under general head above.
Victrola slowed strongly twice and stopped entirely once.  When it stopped, Bird left his post to start it, leaving intermission in which nothing occurred, and in which control was incomplete.  F H Called once to telephone, Bird slipped into his place in circle without interruption in control.

(Signed) Houdini
(Signed) J Malcolm Bird
(Signed) O D Munn

…………….. The séance over and the record fixed up and signed, I loaded Houdini, Munn and Conant in my car and started for the hotel.  We parked on Beacon street whilst we held a post mortem.  Houdini opened the proceedings

‘Well gentlemen, I’ve got her.  All fraud – every bit of it.  One more sitting and I will be ready to expose everything.  But one thing puzzles me – I don’t see how she did that megaphone trick’…….

It couldn’t be in her lap, I remarked; this was too open for exploration.  It couldn’t be on her shoulder either, remarked Houdini; he had explored this on the present occasion.  Then an expression of relieved triumph spread over his face.  Though admitting that he had made no search there, he stated as fact that the megaphone had been on her head during the critical moments.  The reasoning he used was simple. 
The megaphone can’t be in the air; it must be somewhere; it is nowhere else; it must be on her head.  Ergo it is on her head QED. Why bother to look there for it?

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