"I am Houdini! And you are a fraud!"
by Tom Ruffles
[ strangeness | bookreviews ]
Although there never seems to be a shortage of books on Harry Houdini, this slim but fascinating one is a little different. Arthur Moses has recreated the illustrated public lecture against fraudulent mediums (the subtitle is taken from his declamation when confronting them in the séance room) that Houdini gave as part of his stage show in the last years of his life. There is a useful biographical sketch to set the scene, but the major pleasure is in the photographs; in addition to the lecture slides, there are general pictures of Houdini and his activities, quite a few taken from the author's own extensive collection.
Moses discusses the four extant slide sets in private hands, one of which he owns, and the set at the Library of Congress, with a grid detailing which set has which slides remaining from an original total of 50 per set. He has tried to track their convoluted history, though the research could not be as complete as possible through no fault of Moses'. Ricky Jay, who owns one of the sets of slides, requested that its contents not be listed, though he did give advice. And an unnamed Canadian collector refused to cooperate entirely, though his slides are listed (information rather intriguingly obtained "using confidential sources"). It is a shame, though understandable, given the prices that Houdini-related material fetches, that they would want to be discreet about their treasures.
The 50 slides are reproduced, accompanied by Houdini's surviving dialogue plus a commentary from the author. In addition to the slides, Moses prints the rather rambling remarks Houdini made before his slide presentation at the Princess Theatre, Chicago, in his show there on 21 April 1926. The set begins with an illustration of the home of the Fox family, the birthplace of Spiritualism, and portraits of Fox family members. A number of slides are devoted to the Davenport Brothers. Houdini was a good friend of Ira Davenport, with whom he was photographed, and is shown at William's grave in Melbourne, which he had repaired. An image of DD Home has a catty comment from Houdini, who incorrectly calls him 'Douglas Daniel', which Moses says was actually 'Daniel Douglas'. In fact Home's correct middle name is on the slide itself, his full name being Daniel Dunglas Home. Moses points out that Houdini's lectures were drawn from the text of his book A Magician Among the Spirits (1924), where the chapter on Home also has the correct spelling. Many of the slide pictures were drawn from the book, though not the Home one, which is a different image, as is that of Henry Slade.
Moses notes that Houdini was a fast writer and disinclined to check facts, but he has followed Houdini's misspelling of Stuart Cumberland, of Cumberlandism muscle-reading fame, as Stewart. But he has corrected Houdini's delightfully erroneous caption for the photograph of Houdini with Sir Horatio Donkin, which Houdini gives as 'Sir Dunkin', presumably 'of Donut'. Included is a list of the slides that Houdini compiled, on hotel notepaper, and he probably did a lot of the work on tour without ready access to his papers. A good example is Houdini's visit to Alexander Heimburger which he said was at Minster, West Farland, whereas it was Münster, Westphalia, which is clear evidence of Houdini hurriedly searching his memory and not getting it quite right. (He also gets Heimburger's surname wrong both here and in his book).
The slides are generally a mixture of people, some relatively unknown today, and some totally obscure, whom Houdini met and with whom he was photographed: William Fay, Davenport, Cumberland, Donkin, Heimburger, Harry Kellar, Ernest Basch, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Will Goldston, three photographs featuring the mediums Stanislawa Tomczyk and Eva C (Marthe Béraud), with Eva's collaborator Juliette Bisson, and Theodore Roosevelt; and other people he considered significant: the Foxes, the Davenport Brothers together, Henry Anderson, the 'Wizard of the North', Home, Slade, William Eglinton, Eusapia Palladino, Harry Price (a head and shoulders studio portrait, not the famous William Hope spirit photograph of Price included in A Magician Among the Spirits). There is a section with recreations of the sorts of fraudulent activity that would enable bogus mediums to dupe their clients, and a double exposure of Houdini with Abraham Lincoln, to demonstrate how easy it was to manufacture convincing spirit pictures.
The illustrations are beautifully reproduced, but while compiling this book has obviously been a labour of love for Moses as a collector, the commentary, though informative in contextualising the photographs, often lacks subtlety. His views on Spiritualism - or "the treachery of Spiritualism" as he colourfully calls it - can be gauged by the tenor of James Randi's foreword. Randi claims that Houdini's goal was "tirelessly fighting to teach the public about what he saw as Spiritualism's menace. To him it was a belief that held deception as the truth, but it was in reality nothing but lies and trickery." Not according to Houdini himself it wasn't. In the Chicago speech given in April 1926 he says unequivocally: "So that there is no misunderstanding, I am not attacking a religion. I haven't a quarrel with any religion. I am not attacking the religion of Spiritualism. I am simply attacking and exposing fraud (sic) mediums, those who prey on the gullible."
Similarly, an appendix, or rather addendum as Moses calls it, perhaps tactfully given Houdini's cause of death, contains an exchange of letters between Houdini and the 'President General Assembly of Spiritualists' William H Burr that appeared in The New York Sun in 1922. The series included one from Houdini that the paper declined to publish, possibly because it was sent a month after Burr's and the editor felt the controversy had gone cold, or because it was rather long and poorly structured. Houdini's initial letter echoes his opening remarks at the Princess Theatre: 'It is necessary and most important, first, to understand that I am not a skeptic regarding Spiritualism. I am in no position to say that there is no such thing. My mind is open. I am perfectly willing to believe, but in the twenty-five years in my investigation and the hundreds of séances which I have attended, I have never seen or heard anything that could convince me that there is a possibility of communication with the loved ones who have gone beyond.' His beef was with fraudulent mediums, not Spiritualism as a philosophy, over which he was agnostic, at least in public. Randi either failed to read the entire book before contributing the foreword or simply decided to co-opt Houdini into support for his own anti-Spiritualist beliefs, and Moses has endorsed this conflation of Spiritualism and fraudulent mediumship.
There is a remarkable statement by Moses about Eusapia Palladino which alleges that "It was not uncommon for her to have dominant sexual relations with her male patrons, which unduly earned her many supporters attesting she was genuine." The sort of behaviour that might make grown men putty in her hands, so to speak, and much the allegation that Trevor Hall threw at Sir William Crookes over his investigation of Florence Cook, except there seems to be no evidence of Palladino having sex, dominant or in any other fashion, with those investigating her. She was known to be earthy and sensual, but that is not the same as seducing psychical researchers, and Moses should have given his sources for this assertion.
He certainly did not get the idea from Houdini. The closest Houdini comes to such an allegation is a footnote in A Magician (pp 64-5) which says "I am informed on good authority that Eusapia threw her legs into the laps of her male sitters! That she placed her head upon their shoulders, and did various other things calculated to confuse and muddle men, all of which was explained on the theory of 'hysteria'. In her younger days Eusapia was a buxom woman and it is not strange that a lot of old scientists were badly flabbergasted by such conduct.' No doubt, and although "various other things" covers a lot of ground, having sex doesn't appear to have been one of them, nor, if her elderly investigators were flabbergasted by the mere placing of her head on their shoulders, would it appear to have been necessary.
Moses is on firmer ground in accusing the Boston medium 'Margery' (Mina, not Margery Crandon) of sexual innuendo, as she habitually seemed to find herself minus her clothing in séances. But the extreme language of "While some mediums were truly deranged into believing themselves able to possess clairvoyant abilities, most were nothing more than con artists and scammers preying on the fragile emotions of their patrons" is unhelpful for several reasons: the proportion of scammers to the sincere is impossible to determine, clairvoyance is not the same as mediumistic communication, and to suggest that those who were sincere were automatically deranged is insulting to believers, even if one does feel that their grip on evidential standards is frequently shaky.
In terms of probity, there is an irony in the lecture handbill shown which includes a photograph of Houdini standing next to Theodore Roosevelt with the caption "A photo that is not a fake. Taken at the time of the 'séance' on the 'Imperator'." The two are photographed on the ship's deck, and the photograph looks innocent. But slide 50 of the set has the two of them in exactly the same pose, though with the background removed and with the caption "Taken on Board the Hamburg American Liner 'Imperator' in Mid Ocean June 23, 1914" included at the bottom. Moses tells us that the picture originally included five other men, but they were excised to make Houdini appear more significant in the ex-president's company. Moses oddly says: "While morally incorruptible, Houdini saw nothing wrong with opportunities like this, where 'tweaking' the facts were (sic) acceptable as long as it benefited his own self-promotion." Tweaking is one thing, but if Houdini felt such misrepresentation on his own behalf to be acceptable given his feelings about the misrepresentation of others, it displays double standards.
The book is nicely produced, and the lantern slides, which were often hand-coloured, look fabulous. In addition to the slides and reprinted articles there is an excellent selection of illustrations of other Houdini-related ephemera, including posters, handbills, publicity and news photographs, and the slide box, making this a pictorial delight. Full marks too to the cover designer (turn off the main light and look at the cover in dim illumination for maximum creepiness). The biographical details are informative, as are the glosses on the slides, and give a sense of Houdini's personality and achievements. Moses is aware of Houdini's flaws, but displays a warmth towards him that is infectious. Despite the caveats, this is definitely one for all Houdinists.