Over the past few weeks, I have been listening to a biography of Houdini as I drive to and from work. Among the many things that I have learned is that Houdini was acquainted with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. In his later years, Doyle became interested in Spiritualism, a religion of sorts that involved communication with the dead. Doyle attended seances and expressed an interest in other spiritualist phenomenon. Doyle was attracted to Houdini, whose powers seemed to have a mystical dimension. During the early years of their acquaintance, while they were still on good terms, Doyle often claimed that Houdini possessed special powers. Doyle’s gullibility is illustrated by his reaction to one of Houdini’s simple tricks. While riding in the car, Houdini pretended to remove the first joint of his thumb. You may have done this trick yourself, or seen someone perform it. It is very entertaining to small children, but Doyle wrote of the trick in a letter to Houdini, “Just a line to say how much we enjoyed our short visit yesterday. I think what interested me most was the little ‘trick’ which you showed us in the cab. You certainly have very wonderful powers, whether inborn or acquired.”
In 1922 Doyle published The Coming of the Fairies, which you can read here. The book was inspired by some photographs that Doyle had received from a friend, showing young girls apparently surrounded by or interacting with fairies. One of those photos appears to the left. For others, see here. To the modern eye, these photos are laughably unrealistic, but Doyle (and many others) believed that they were actual photos of fairies. Around this same time, Houdini published an article in the New York Sun denying spiritualist phenomena, and thus he embarked on his career as a spiritualist debunker.
In 1923 Houdini was asked by Scientific American to participate on a committee investigating spiritualist mediums. This led to the spectacular case of Margery the Medium, who remains a figure of curiosity today. During her seances, bells rang, tables rocked, and the dead spoke. Among the stranger manifestations — not unique to Margery — was the appearance of “ectoplasm,” shown in the photo to the right. Margery was a sensation, and Houdini wanted to expose her as a fraud. He wrote a pamphlet describing Margery’s methods (which included putting her head under a table and lifting it up to create movement!).
Reading about these events is entertaining and humorous, but I have the vague sense that there should be some serious lesson for us here. Today, in the place of Margery and Houdini, we have John Edward and James Randi. Few modern spiritualists work in the realm of physical manifestations, like fairies and ectoplasm. Instead, they purport to have spiritual gifts that cannot be seen. This is convenient, of course, because such gifts are difficult to falsify, but more troubling to me is the extent to which many modern psychics emulate our own religious leaders. Take Sylvia Browne, for example:
Sylvia is truly on a mission for God. Simply put, she is determined to show the world that the soul survives death. In addition she wants to emphasize that God, both Father and Mother God, are infinitely loving Beings, not full of wrath and hate as represented by many of today’s religions. Sylvia feels that all people can reach God by knowledge and reason, rather than relying upon faith alone. For any question your mind can raise, God will provide an answer; the trick is being able to understand that answer – which Sylvia does on a daily basis, and it gets stronger and stronger with each person she counsels.
While some people may accept the truth of Sylvia Browne’s claims and be led astray into false beliefs, the more troubling possibility to me is that people will confuse genuine spiritual experiences with spiritualist frauds. For many people, patriarchal blessings and psychic readings must be indistinguishable. Moreover, I suspect that this confusion prevents some of us from seeking spiritual experiences. We do not like to imagine ourselves receiving “revelations” like a psychic, so we avoid the attempt.