Can the living converse with the dead? By Harry Houdini
If you have been following my blog, you will know that one of my inspirations is Mr Harry Houdini. The famous magician had a fascination with the afterlife and the spiritualists that claimed to be able to connect with it. Using his knowledge of slight of hand and deception, he exposed many high profile spiritualists. It wasn't that he didn't believe, he very much wanted to as he wanted nothing more than to hear from his dearly departed mother. He more so felt that this form of deception on grieving families bordered on criminal activity. In his younger days he himself engaged in such deception working as a 'psychic' as a part of his act to earn money, something he was later deeply ashamed for. Perhaps in some way he felt this was a way to make amends for past mistakes.
On the 16th of November 1924, Houdini penned an article for the Canton Daily News entitled "Can the living converse with the dead?"
Here is the transcript.
Years have passed since my first meeting with the Hon. Everard Feilding! Many times during those years I have discussed Spiritualism with him and no one has ever been more invested than he in the results of my investigations and study of it and it was through his help that I was able to investigate personally the famous Eva Carriere, better known perhaps as Mlle, Eva.
One evening in the spring of 1920 during a quiet dinner at his home in London the conversation drifted toward Ectoplasm. I told Mr. and Mrs. Feilding about attending a Sunday meeting of the London Psychical College through the courtesy of Hewat McKenzie. (Mrs. Feilding is Mme. Tomchik, the Polish medium examined by Professor Ochoroquz, and is the best known medium who "levitates" things without physical contact.) . At this meeting Mme. Bisson while delivering an impromptu talk seized the opportunity to resent the attack of a French magician and to explain in unmistakable tones her antagonism toward prestidigitators,
Mr. Feilding assured me I was correct about her antipathy toward magicians and suggested that the only way I could ever hope to attend one of her seances was to convince the medium I was not one of the biased prestidigitator class, and proposed as a means to attain this end a theater part to see my performance and thus enable Mme. Bisson and Mlle. Eva to judge for themselves.
This was arrange and the night they came to the theater to see me I did the Torture Cell Mystery, in which I am completely submerged, head foremost, in a tank of water, and it is a physical impossibility to obtain air while locked in the device. They were so much mystified that they expressed a desire to attend another performance of mine sometime in the near future. I had just accepted a challenge to escape from a packing case which was to be built on the stage by experienced carpenters, and thinking that it would be an interesting performance for Mme. Bisson to witness. I extended her an invitation and received the following letter in reply:
May 19, 1920
Dear Mr Houdini:
We, Mlle. Eva and I shall be charmed to see you at the performance of which you have spoken to me, on the next Wednesday. Since you have had the great kindness to offer us several tickets, it gives me great pleasure to accept, and if you wish, you may send us four, as we expect to join in the applause with Mr. and Mrs. Feilding. I also wish to tell you something else! You know that we give seances here, showing the phenomena of materialisization. These are not spirit studies. They are scientific. It would interest Mr. Feilding and ourselves to have at our seances a master in the art of prestidigitation, but I have always refused to admit to my house an ordinary prestidigitator, or even one of better rank. Our work is serious and real, and the first of Mlle. Eva might disappear forever if some awkward individual insists on thinking there is fraud involved, instead of real interesting facts, which especially interest the scientific. For you this does not hold hold! You are above all this. You are a magnificent actor, who cannot call himself a prestidigitator, a title beneath a man of your talent. I shall therefore )rather we shall) be proud to see you attend our seances and hear you tell us all, after you have been thoroughly convinced yourself, that their merit is far beneath your own, for these manifestations depend merely upon allowing the forces of nature to act, and lie simply in truth of fact. Whereas with you, it is your personal valor that have enabled you to attain the place of kind in our art.
With kind and esteemed regards to Mme. Houdini and yourself
Signed Juliette Bisson (translated)
When I showed this letter to Mr. Feilding he was both surprised and please for it gave him an opportunity to invite me to become one of the committee which was to investigate Mme. Bisson and Mlle. Eva's seances to be held by the Society of Psychical Research and so at the combined invitations of the mediums and Mr Feilding I attended eight. Each of them lasted three hours and I firmly believed that a description of them and their results is important.
At the seances my word was pledged to give full and sacred thoughts and I tried to control my thoughts so that my whole attention could be given to the medium. There was no scoffing and there was the will to believe. I felt that if anything was manifested by the spirits my conscience would be clear. However I sat with my eyes open, taking in even the most minute details and keeping on my guard against any trickery. A number of times I occupied a "control" chair at the medium's left with her left limb between mine and both hands holding her left hand and wrist, while Eric Dingwall had the committee seat on her right. Eva was accompanied at all of the seances Mme. Bisson and the method of procedure was always the same. After Eva had been stripped and searched in an adjoining room by the lady members of the committee, she returned dressed in tights and Mme. Bisson would then put her into a mesmeric sleep. There is no doubt in my mind that the girl was really put to sleep. We were requested to all join in asking her in unison for about fifteen minutes at each crisis to "give donnez" then, after about three house, she would bring forth this alleged ectoplasm.
At one of the seances the Hon. Feilding did insist on Eva's eating crackers and drinking coffee, so that if she had anything concealed in her stomach, which she might by regurgitation expel, the coffee would discolor it.
The seance of June 22, 1920, was held at 20 Hanover Square London. Mme. Bisson and Eva retired to another room and Eric Dingwall sewed a black lace veil to the rights which Eva wore. This veil completely enshrouded her and looked like a sort of bag or net. The object of this was to prevent her placing anything in her mouth of get anything from her tights to the neck - in fact it was a double security against fraud. We sat and waited and finally she expelled from her mouth a great deal of foam.
Feilding and Bagley stated that it look as thought it has come from her nose. I saw distinctly that it was a heavy froth and was adhering to her veil on the inside. Dingwell who sat next to the medium, agreed with me it had emanated from her mouth, but when she leaned forward it looked as though it was coming from her nose. She produced a white plaster and eventually managed to juggle it over her eye. There was a face in it which looked to me like a colored cartoon and seem to have been unrolled.
The last thing she produced that evening was a substance which she said she felt in her mouth and asked permission to use her hands to show. This was granted and she took a load from her mouth behind the veil which was wet and look soaked. It appeared to be inflated rubber. No one saw a face painted on it. Presently it seemed to disappear. They all said it "vanished suddenly" but in my years of experience in presenting the Hindoo needle trick convinced me that she "sleight-of-handed" it into her mouth while pretending to have it between her fingers.
In the Hindoo needle trick I swallow (if one's eyes are to be trusted) anywhere from 50 to 150 needles and from 10 to 30 yards of thread; then after a few seconds i bring up the needles all threaded. The length of thread is governed by the size of my audience. For instance, at the Hippodrome in New York, I used 110 feet of thread and 200 needles; at the Berlin Winter Garden 100 feet of thread and 100 needles. In the regular large size theater I use about 80 feet of thread and 100 needles, but for ordinary purpose 35 feet of thread and 75 needles are sufficient.
So far this trick has never been properly explained, but that does not prove that I have abnormal powers.
This is where the article cuts off sadly, however it is a case which Houdini wrote about in his book a Magician Among the Spirits where parts of this article also appear. Houdini felt that the claims of ectoplasm were simply a result of regurgitation and sleight of hand and nothing more.
I regret that I do not believe Mme Bisson entitled to a clean bill of health. During the seances which I attended she kept up a quasi hypnotic work full of gestures and suggestions as to what could be seen, putting into the minds of those present "shadowy forms and faces". In my estimated she is a subtle and gifted assistant to Eva whom I do not believe to be honest. On the contrary, I have no hesitation in saying that I think the two simply took advantage of the credulity and good nature of the various men who they had to deal.
Harry Houdini A Magician among spirits
You can read my other articles about Harry Houdini here:
The above article has been transcribed by Sarah Living Life In Full Spectrum
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