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Observations placeholder

Houdini - Houdini versus ‘Margery’ the medium 03



Type of Spiritual Experience


The major event in this seance was the bursting open of the "absolutely fraud-proof cage" by 'Walter', who more than holds his own against the shenanigans of Houdini.  In fact, Walter appears to be a very astute spirit, as the "absolutely fraud-proof cage" was the one thing provided by Houdini and there was no reason for him to provide anything other than an "absolutely fraud-proof cage" .  Psychokinetic - poltergeist - activity is perfectly capable of opening boxes, after all the same energy can thrown quite big stones with some force.

A description of the experience

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

The second series of sittings with Houdini present, to which the preceding chapter looks forward, was scheduled for August 25, 26, and 27. …an attempt was to be made at getting a final verdict by the full committee. Prince was therefore to attend, as well as Comstock and Houdini; McDougall could not be located and the business proceeded without him. Carrington had pronounced the mediumship genuine and withdrawn from further sittings. Munn was once more to attend, to exert a little pressure from the outside upon the committee, in the direction of good behavior and adequate procedure.
It was desired to have mechanical or automatic control of some sort, which would function independently of any lapse on the part of any sitter. Houdini endorsed this idea; and when asked whether he could manufacture control apparatus which would leave Margery comfortable and which under his guarantee, would prevent fraud to the point where fraud "would not enter the discussion at all," he gave a prompt and categorical affirmative. He was authorized to proceed.
Recalling the a posteriori allegations which had followed the July sittings, F. H. worked out a form of agreement to be put to all present for signature. It bound them to the correct definition of control; and it pledged them to insert in the record every fact about the phenomena or the surrounding circumstances which they regarded as pertinent. There were to be no more post morterns.

… in friendly sittings the phenomena were now emerging into red light; so F. H. suggested that the critical seances be held under these conditions. It is a matter of universal experience that the greatest problem confronting the psychic investigator is to get the medium to sit in decent light. Here was a spontaneous offer to do so; one could only imagine that the committee would jump at it. Not so. Houdini absolutely refused to sit other than in total darkness. He gave no reason for this extraordinary stand—he could of course have none that he would dare give.

As usual, I was going to Boston in my car. Munn told me that Houdini's control apparatus was a huge cage in which Margery was to be enclosed; and he instructed that I offer to transport this. Knowing that I planned to go a day or two in advance, Houdini elected to regard this offer as a conspiracy whereby his fraud-proof cage was to be placed at Margery's disposal for her to practice with, learn the ways of, developing the technique of fraud in.

I decided that there was something peculiar about that "fraud-proof" cage. F. H. visualized mechanical control to mean handcuffs or ropes. To insure Margery's comfort, he stipulated that whatever apparatus were used on her should also be applied to Houdini. Houdini accepted this but brought only one cage to Boston. When F. H. saw it he decided he could waive the point. In one detail he was in error; the cage was inadequately ventilated. The committee as usual attempted no thermometric observations; but Margery was always hot in the cage, and always perspired excessively therein.

The cage is pictured, and I need say only that the boards of which it was built were about an inch thick. It was to be in the cabinet, Margery in it; phenomena were to be produced, if at all, outside the cage. Holes in the sides provided for Margery's hands to issue; or the circle could be omitted, these holes boarded up, and Margery confined wholly within the cage save for her head.

The use of such a cage would be legitimate enough, if too sweeping conclusions were not to be drawn in the event that phenomena fail to occur. One explanation for such failure would be that fraud had been prevented; but it might equally be that the cage had prevented genuine phenomena. Unless,with Houdini, we mean to deny offhand the possibility of psychic manifestations, the use of this cage involves the assumption that the psychic force either issues from the medium's head, or else is capable of penetrating an inch of wood. This is a very gratuitous assumption indeed; the possibility should always be kept in mind that it may contravert the facts. Margery's attitude was that she did not know whether the cage would stop the phenomena but that she was willing to try it.

With due regard for the probability that Houdini would look upon failure as proof of fraud, F. H. made the following statement part of the record:

"The psychic does not refuse to sit in the cage made by Houdini for the committee; but she makes the reservation that she knows no precedent in psychic research where a medium has been so enclosed; and she believes that such a closed cage gives little or no regard for the theory and experience of the psychic structure or mechanism."

Prince strongly entertained a similar reservation; the general content of his remarks was that the committee was supposed to be in pursuit of psychic phenomena, not of miracles. But he and his colleagues went right along with use of the cage.

Collins, Houdini's confidential assistant, arrived in Boston with the cage on the morning of the twenty-fifth, and got it set up in Comstock's apartment, where the sittings were to be held. Throughout the three days of its use it was the center of conflict. The other committeemen naturally assumed that they were to familiarize themselves with it, and F. H. naturally assumed that it was subject to examination on Margery's behalf. Houdini's program included no place for these items.  Munn, like myself, had had dealings with Houdini which convinced him that the cage possessed a "gimmick" of some sort; but, like me, he had no idea what the trick was, or even in what direction it pointed. But he continually urged Comstock to insist upon committee examination of the cage; and Comstock, in recognition of Houdini's formidable and unscrupulous ways of controversy, was always postponing the fatal moment of conflict. Hence the issue was joined only gradually; but the stage was finally reached where specific demands by his colleagues for the examination of the cage were met by Houdini's specific refusal to permit its examination.

If you ask why they didn't go right ahead and examine it, I can only answer that they were afraid of Houdini. As for him, in and out of the seance room, his whole conduct revealed eagerness to keep the cage out of view as much as possible. He even refused to leave it in Comstock's apartment overnight, requiring Collins to truck it down cellar and lock it up.

As a condition of mechanical control, F. H. specified that Margery should have a sitting, surrounded only by friends, and using the apparatus so provided. The idea was to get Walter's assurance that the controlling devices were satisfactory to him, and Margery's that they were comfortable to her. It was not his intent that this sitting should be held with committeemen about, but he was maneuvered into this procedure by Houdini, who remained in the room until Margery had got into the cage and the covers had been fastened down. Then he withdrew, and the friendly circle sat for perhaps half an hour, while the committee and all its assistants waited in another room. Walter came through, whistled and talked, and said that everything was 0. K.; they might leave the scene to the committee.

A running record was kept, but since nothing was produced of a possibly psychic character beyond the Walter voice, I find it advantageous to deal with the sequence of events in narrative fashion, using the record only as a source.

Shortly after the formal committee sitting started, a violent noise was heard; on turning on the light, the entire top of Margery's cage was found open, the diagonal doors having been thrown back. Houdini at once stated that anybody sitting in it could thus throw it open with the shoulders. No movement of Margery's hands or tension of her muscles was noted by Prince or claimed by Houdini; but aside from this, there was at once the sharpest questioning of Houdini.

Margery, F. H. and committeemen in one breath demanded the object in constructing an "absolutely fraud-proof cage" in which this perfectly elementary fraud was possible. No satisfactory explanation was ever forthcoming; none was in fact ever attempted—for none is possible

The discussion became so acrimonious that Walter demanded another session with his friends, to clear the atmosphere. This lasted some fifteen minutes, after which the committee was again called in.

The source of the experience


Concepts, symbols and science items




Science Items

Activities and commonsteps