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Observations placeholder

Houdini - Houdini versus ‘Margery’ the medium 04



Type of Spiritual Experience


Walter possessed Margery for the purposes of exposing Houdini's activities

A description of the experience

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

There had been much alternation between light and darkness, and all persons present had been in and out of the room. The bell-box was on the floor, at Margery's left, outside her cage. She had been uninterruptedly in the cage; whatever the case with others, she had had no opportunity to tamper with the bell-box. Some of her friends individually may have had such opportunity; collectively they had certainly had it, for they had been alone in the room during their preliminary sitting.

Prior to the sitting, the bell-box had been rung often, by everybody, and it was then in its usual order. With committee sitters now in place for their second attack, Houdini released a hand and again rang it, to verify that it was operative. This was in red light. Houdini had often rung the bell, and is chargeable with knowledge of the pressure normally required to do it. It rang when he pressed it and he reported nothing eccentric in its action. From this moment the box was inaccessible to any other person in the room; if it is now found to have been tampered with, Houdini is in the position of the last person who saw the murdered man alive.

Within less than two minutes Walter's voice was heard.

The conversation cannot be given word for word, because it was not so recorded. It can, however, be reproduced with very large accuracy, from the combined memories of those present:

Walter: Houdini, have you got the mark just right? You think you're smart, don't you? How much are they paying you for stopping phenomena here?
Houdini: I don't know what you're talking about; it's costing me $2,500 a week to be here.
Walter: Where did you turn down a $2,500 contract in August?
Houdini: In Buffalo.
Walter: You had no work for all this week. How much are you getting for stopping these phenomena?
Comstock: What do you mean by this, Walter? This isn't psychic research.
Walter: Comstock, you take that box out into white light, examine it, and report back. You'll see fast enough what I mean.

Comstock did as instructed. Tucked down into the angle between the contact boards he found a rubber eraser, off the end of a pencil. It did not make the bell wholly inoperative; but Comstock estimated that it required about four times the usual pressure to ring it.

Nobody was asked whether he had put the eraser there; nobody seemed to know just what to do next—except Houdini, who at once volunteered that he had not done it. No further evidence was ever got. That which I have cited shows obvious and clean-cut opportunity for Houdini to have placed the obstruction. The fact that the bell was not wholly out of action suggests that it was placed in a hurry, as by such a trick, and not carefully and at leisure. That, under the given conditions, Houdini could do what was done he would be the first to insist. No equal opportunity can be shown for anybody else. And in view of Houdini's failure to report difficulty in ringing the bell, we are entitled to some assumption that, when he made this "test," either the obstruction was not in place, or it was there and he knew it was there.

Following this seance, the committee for once insisted on a course of action, demanding that the top of the medium's cage be properly secured. Next morning Houdini and Collins added padlocks and staples to the cage doors, doing the work in the seance room, behind locked doors. Conant has been so long in Comstock's employ that he has access to his apartment at all times, and carries a key for this purpose. On the morning to which we have now come, he had business in the apartment, and as naturally as anything could be he let himself in with the key, without ringing. The telephone sounded as he entered, and he stepped across the hall to answer it, the act bringing him close to the door behind which Houdini and Collins were at work. The door burst open and Houdini catapulted out of the room, in violent language denouncing Conant as a spy whom he had caught eavesdropping in Margery's interest.

By reporting the incident to Comstock with a demand for Conant's dismissal he proved that the accusation was not merely a matter of nerves and hot blood—and also, he got himself roundly laughed at. The episode reinforces the strong presumption already existing that there was something radically wrong about that "fraud-proof" cage; and it throws strong light upon Houdini's penchant for promiscuous suspicions and charges.

I have indicated that I myself became a victim of this, but I have not indicated a tithe of the things Houdini says of me. In his pink pamphlet he gives me so much space that Mrs. Bird, on reading the document, wanted to know whether it was an "exposure" of Margery or of me. If I say that in most matters of detail and all of principle his allegations against me are fictitious, and have been denied by Munn and by committee members who are in a position to know the facts, I shall have met his silly charges as far as is necessary or appropriate in a volume that revolves neither about him nor about me.

The only point in mentioning them at all is to show how all-inclusive he is with his allegations. Carrington is another sufferer; Comstock and McDougall have had their abilities if not their integrity aspersed; and before Houdini left Boston, Munn's efforts to keep him in order and to get a square deal for Margery had led him to express doubt about the good faith of the potential payer of the $2,500! It is my experience that one who will trust nobody will himself do with very little trusting.

Prior to the sitting of the twenty-sixth, Margery was searched in some detail by Miss McManama, the stenographer.

The committee record carries no reservation against the com-etence of this examination, and it includes a pledge to record every pertinent fact; yet two of the judges have made a posteriori exceptions to Miss McManama's adequacy for the duty which they had assigned her. Margery and F. H. offered to permit a full anatomical examination by any physician to be designated by the committee; and such a step would automatically have put her clothing in the way of absolute search.

This offer Houdini rejected—apparently the last thing he wanted was evidence tending toward Margery's innocence. The medium went from Miss McManama's hands directly to the seance room, and under the eyes of the committee climbed into the cage. The record does not indicate whether the top was at once closed down and control of her hands through the portholes established; but since some of the committeemen were not satisfied that adequate search had been given, we must infer that this was done—else the charge of gross negligence lies.

The room at least had been thoroughly examined; and Comstock's explicit move to search the medium's cage had been checked by Houdini's positive refusal to have it searched.

After Margery was in her seat, her hands controlled through the portholes, the covers down, and all set to start the sitting, Houdini on some pretext put his arm in through a porthole and passed it about inside the cage. Before and after this, he cautioned Prince, several times, with what Prince resented as extreme superfluous emphasis, not to relinquish Margery's hand on any account whatever. Margery's suspicions aroused, she said: "What's the matter with you, Houdini, that you keep on saving that? If you're not sure that everything is all right, why don't you search me again, and search this cage?" There was more argument here, Margery insisting upon this further search, Houdini being emphatic against it. He prevailed, and the seance started.

Walter came along promptly. He immediately asserted that there was a ruler in the cage with the psychic, under the cushion on which her feet rested; by innuendo rather than explicitly he charged Houdini with having put it there; he swore fearfully at Houdini, called down curses on his head, and applied opprobrious epithets to him.

One term which Walter used here was that in connection with which the rejoinder was once current, "When you call me that, smile!"

The original significance of bastardy has been completely lost in the routine use of the term which this suggests. But Houdini buried his face in his hands, groaned, almost wept, and cried out: "Oh, this is terrible. My dear sainted mother was married to my father!"

Comstock again interfered at this point, reminding Walter that this wasn't psychic research; if there were a ruler in the cage it might have been accidentally left there. The tension relaxed somewhat. Collins was called in to testify that he had left no ruler in the cage; then the seance went on, the effort being to get phenomena rather than to check up on Walter's charge. But finally the cage was opened and Houdini looked for the ruler. He found, at the spot designated, a two-foot jointed rule, of the sort used by carpenters. Folding into four sections, with overlap at the joints, its minimum length is seven inches; when brought down to this length, it is of course fat enough to destroy any confidence that it could be so concealed in Margery's clothing as to elude even an amateur search. But up the sleeve of any man present, it could, of course, in the absence of search, easily have been.

Or equally, it could have been where it was found, from before the seance.

Houdini here adds another characteristic touch to the record: "I wish it recorded that I demanded Collins to take a sacred oath on the life of his mother that he did not put the ruler in the cage and knew positively nothing about it. I also pledged my sacred word of honor as a man that the first I knew of the ruler in the cage was when I was so informed by Walter." Nobody but Houdini could have dictated this; it is one hundred per cent characteristic of the way he thinks and talks.

The committee made no attempt to handle the ruler in such way as to preserve any finger prints which might have been on it. Hence no further evidence developed, after the close of the incident. For the better part, I leave the evidence again to the reader, reminding him only of Houdini's clean-cut and self-made opportunity to introduce it. On one point, however, I must come down hard.
Houdini claims, in his pink pamphlet, that the intent of the ruler was to produce ringing of the bell-box, during a second stage of the sitting where Margery's hands were to be inside the box, and free save as the box confined them. He shows how, using the neck-hole as orifice, and disregarding the awful clatter that would ensue, it might have been possible for her to do this. I find it suggestive to note in this connection that the ruler is exactly the right length to work as he indicates, with the bell-box where the committee placed it, in a different position from the one it occupied the night before.

Equally suggestive do I find it when I am told that, before the seance, Houdini several times measured the distance from the neck-hole to the bell-box, announcing the reading, each time, with great emphasis. How did he know that this measure wasto be of such importance? All this, I think, goes a long way toward meeting the claim, which Houdini has not advanced but which might be advanced in his behalf, that Margery introduced the ruler; not for her own use, but as a "plant" against Houdini.

A sitting was attempted for the twenty-seventh, but fell through completely. Margery sat in the cage and sweltered for an hour, while the committeemen, who had been together most of the day, wrangled about whether they wanted her hands in or out. At the end, Comstock finally took a stand about the cage. He laid down substantially this ultimatum to Houdini:

"All through these sittings you have tried to get us to refer to that cage in the records as the committee's, and insisting that it isn't yours. But you have refused to let us examine it, and you have behaved in others ways as though the cage were yours. Now you must choose. If it is the committee's cage, it stays here for the committee's future use."

Houdini needed no time to think that one over. He admitted that it was his cage, and took it back to New York with him.

He took it out of Comstock's apartment thatnight; and no member of the committee ever examined it, or, if Houdini was able to prevent, so much as saw inside it. Yethe tells his audiences that it was the committee's cage, examined and accepted by all members thereof.

On the twenty-seventh, a photograph of the cage was to be made. Margery didn't want to sit in it for this purpose, the picture being frankly for publication. She was persuaded, under suitable guarantees. While the subject of a substitute for her was under discussion, Houdini burst out:
"That cage is sacred to this woman. She has sat in it. Sooner than permit any other person to desecrate it, I would take it out and sink it in the deepest part of the sea!"

This is the cage—at least, he says it is—which he now drags about on his vaudeville act, using it on the stage to demonstrate his claims of how Margery does her tricks. One wonders whether sacred oaths and sacred words of honor carry with him the same weight as sacred cages; he uses the word too often to permit its carrying much conviction.

Several times during his stay in Boston, Houdini was called upon to renew the guarantee that the cage was fraudproof; he never hesitated to do so. Equally, several times, once in particular when boasting of his skill to Laura C, he was asked whether he could go inside the cage and produce phenomena outside it. He was always emphatic that he could easily do so. Prior to the sittings, at Comstock's demand, Houdini asserted that the box was so completely fraud-proof that the element of fraud need not be taken into consideration at all; that any phenomena obtained outside the box while Margery was inside were necessarily genuine. Throughout the sittings he contradicts this; and today he appears on the stage, sitting in this box and ringing tambourines on the floor outside it. Is it not obvious that he played fast and loose with his colleagues as with Margery?

Houdini brings charges against Margery. He has no evidence against her; she has excellent logic and evidence with her defense. Walter then steps to the bar, with charges against Houdini—charges that in and out of the seance room he attempted fraud against the medium. All the evidence is with these charges, none with Houdini; his defense is restricted to mere reiterated denial. And his record in the matter of the "fraud-proof" cage, which to a large extent is down in black and white over his own signature, must always stand, a grim specter to haunt his reply to any charges which may arise against him out of the Margery case. His conduct, from beginning to end, was that of one who was firmly committed to the proposition that psychic phenomena cannot and must not be; and who is determined to establish this thesis by any means whatsoever.

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