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Masters of Mystery
The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini
By Christopher Sandford
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2011 S. E. Sandford
All rights reserved.
The lights were low, the music soft as the audience settled into their seats in the largest building in Garnett, Kansas, that cold Sunday night in November 1897. They were there to see a traveling variety show whose star attraction the local Evening Review had hailed as "the World Famous Medium" who, the paper noted, "has been prevailed upon by popular request of the public to give a Spiritualistic séance ... Pianos will float over the head of the audience, tables will be levitated by unseen hands, messages will appear," the report added, a prospect sufficient for 1,034 customers to pack the plush, vaguely Romanesque Opera House to the rafters—an impressive turnout in a farm town of only 6,000 inhabitants.
Harry Houdini did not disappoint them. Bounding on stage, the wiry, tousle-haired twenty-three-year-old, dressed in ill-fitting tails, was able both to produce the promised psychic phenomena, and to reveal certain disquieting personal details about members of the audience, including the news that one well-known businessman who was present was "cruelly neglecting to tend his own mother's grave" despite enjoying "many merry excursions with [his] lovely secretary," a charge that led the man to make a hurried departure from the hall amid some mirth from the crowd. Houdini went on to state that a young mother who was in the theater was undoubtedly thinking of her deceased baby Louise, "whom the Lord has been pleased to call at an early age." Shielding his eyes as though squinting into the heavens, he added that "Louise and many others are here with us tonight." The remark was greeted by "audible gasps," the paper reported. After more in this vein, Houdini announced that he would conclude the performance by unmasking the murderer of a local woman named Sadie Timmins. "We propose to contact our friends and ancestors on the other side," he went on. "You cannot hide a nefarious deed from the spirits, and Mademoiselle Beatrice, a trained psychometric clairvoyant, will assist me." At that Houdini was joined on stage by Mlle Beatrice, in reality his twenty-one-year-old wife Bess, a petite brunette from Brooklyn who was clad in a lace wedding dress. Bess sat down in a chair and Houdini tied a blindfold around her head, the better "to concentrate her energy and filter out extraneous vibrations."
As the orchestra struck up the mournful chords of "Nearer My God to Thee," Bess suddenly groaned and slumped forward in her chair. "She is in a trance state," Houdini explained, always conscientious about informing his audience of exactly what they were witnessing on stage. After appealing for silence, he then began to question his wife, who answered him in an unusually low, moaning voice.
"Was Sadie Timmins murdered in her own home?"
"Where did the deed occur?"
"In her kitchen."
"With what instrumentality?"
"She was hacked ... seventeen times ... with a butcher knife."
"Did she know her killer?"
By this time there was something approaching a small riot in the hall. The murder of Sadie Timmins had been an especially brutal one, even by the standards of turn- of-the-century Kansas, and local emotions ran high. Suspicion had fallen on several prominent Garnett citizens, including the town's hot-headed young lawman, Sheriff Keeney. Hysterical denunciations, screams, and sobbing drowned out Houdini's next few remarks, and a minute or more passed before he once again turned to his wife.
"What is the killer's name?" Houdini said it so softly that everybody fell quiet. "Answer. Now. What is his name?" he asked, ever more insistently.
But neither Bess, nor the spirits possessing her, would ever solve the terrible mystery of Garnett, Kansas. As Houdini repeated the question, now all but shouting in his wife's face, Bess dramatically swooned sideways in her chair, her chin lolling onto her chest. "She's fainted!" Houdini announced in a quavering voice, before stepping forward to the footlights with the time-honored inquiry: "Is there a doctor in the house?" The curtain fell. The next minute saw a steady crescendo in the sort of rowdy chanting and whistling normally associated in Garnett with burlesque shows, although the audience acclaim was now unmistakably tinged with the renewed sound of women crying. Some thirty years later, Houdini was still able to vividly remember the events of that night, and even willing to reveal some of his methods. His shaming of the local businessman had owed more to diligent research than to spiritual guidance. "That Sunday morning," Houdini recalled, "accompanied by the sexton and the oldest inhabitant of the town, we walked out to the village cemetery, and I had a notebook, and what was not [apparent] from the tombstones—any information that was lacking, the sexton would tell me the missing data, and the old Uncle Rufus would give me the scandals of everyone sleeping in God's acre. And you can imagine my going out there and retailing that terrible stuff." There had never been a serious prospect of Bess exposing the murderer of poor Sadie Timmins. It was "all humbug and a good presentation mixed together." The presentation came with a mythic penumbra, too, of the sort of fictional "whodunit" epitomized by the hugely popular cases of Sherlock Holmes. By 1900, Houdini was sometimes billed as "Sherlock Holmes Eclipsed," and the critics and public alike routinely compared him to the legendary detective.
* * *
By the time Houdini looked back on his youthful performance in Garnett, he had long since abandoned any pretense to mystical powers. In the first paragraph of his 1924 book A Magician among the Spirits, he wrote, "I associated myself with mediums, joining the rank and file and hold[ing] séances as an independent medium to fathom the truth of it all. At the time I appreciated the fact that I surprised my clients, but while aware of the fact that I was deceiving them I did not see or understand the seriousness of trifling with such sacred sentimentality and the baneful result which inevitably followed. To me it was a lark." A bit later in the text, Houdini added, "Spiritualism is nothing more or less than mental intoxication; Intoxication of any sort when it becomes a habit is injurious to the body, but intoxication of the mind is always fatal to the mind," before calling for a law that would "prevent these human leeches from sucking every bit of reason and common sense from their victims."
People pretending to enjoy occult powers, if not actual communion with the dead, is a theatrical trick as old as storytelling. But in Houdini's case there may have been more to his early Spiritualistic revues than merely a desire to separate the public from their money. In December 1885, his beloved half brother Herman had died of tuberculosis, at the age of twenty-two. Houdini, who was eleven, attended a series of séances, or at least what were described as "perfumed conclaves," in a failed attempt to communicate with Herman's spirit. Three years later, he went to the home of a medium in Beloit, Wisconsin, where a voice purporting to be that of Abraham Lincoln could be heard echoing from a trumpet that swung across the room. The astute fourteen-year-old soon realized that the voice was produced by a hidden gramophone player, and that the trumpet was flying around on an invisible wire.
Even then, Houdini was prepared to suspend his disbelief. Two nearly identical, walrus-mustached brothers from Buffalo, New York, Ira and William Davenport, had toured the world in the 1860s and 1870s with a show whose most famous effect saw them lashed together inside a packing crate—the so-called "spirit cabinet"—that also contained musical instruments such as a tambourine, a trumpet, and a violin. Once the box was locked, the instruments would sound. When it was unlocked, the deadpan-faced brothers were found to be still securely tied in place. When the lid went down, the music started again. Sometimes the whole pantomime lasted as long as an hour. There were those who believed that supernatural forces were at play, and when reading the news reports the young Houdini declared himself "enthralled" by this "truly wonderful business." Houdini's brother Theo remembered him as being "a great worshipper of the Davenports" for several years into his early adulthood. Their ability to inhabit even a large wooden box while under restraint was to be the starting point for a number of Harry's own illusions. In July 1910, Houdini made a 900-mile journey to visit Ira, by then the only surviving Davenport brother, who at this time finally felt able to reveal the secret of the "Davenport Rope-Tie" that had allowed the brothers to slip in and out of their bonds. Poignantly, the seventy-year-old Ira, although ravaged by throat cancer, wanted Houdini to join him on a new worldwide tour in which they would present the old trick, but with added twentieth-century props such as the latest police-issue steel handcuffs. Ira died before plans could be made, but, even then, Houdini was reluctant to "out" the Davenports, writing somewhat ambiguously only that "I can make the positive assertion that [they] never were exposed."
In October 1892, Houdini's father Rabbi Mayer Weiss died in New York at the age of sixty-three. His eighteen-year-old son sold his own watch in order to pay for a "professional psychic reunion" with the deceased, who had left behind various debts. The medium was apparently able to materialize Rabbi Weiss, who was reluctant to dwell on earthly or financial matters, but instead assured his son that he was "very happy." "It seemed strange to me that my father, knowing our pinched circumstances, would say any such thing," Houdini remarked. But even then he held to the view that there were legitimate "sensitives" who could bring word from the beyond. While Houdini's purely theatrical use of Spiritualism over the next few years gave way to what he called "a realisation of the seriousness of toying" with the occult, he never abandoned his attempts at paranormal communication. On a six-month tour of Europe in 1920, Houdini attended more than a hundred séances, and two years later was ready to sit in a darkened Atlantic City hotel room where he was rewarded by a fifteen-page letter, channeled through a medium, apparently dictated by his late mother.
* * *
Few in Houdini's audience that night in Garnett could have known how deeply his father and others had impressed him with their advocacy of what Rabbi Weiss called a "strict and strenuous"—and deeply traditional—Judaism. Though somewhat fitful as a breadwinner, the rabbi was widely respected as a man of letters, whom the Volksfreund, the weekly German-language paper in his adopted home of Appleton, Wisconsin, called "gebildeter"—"very cultured." After he had become a global celebrity, Houdini informed a reporter that his proudest achievement was to have on file "records for five generations that my direct forefathers were students and teachers of the Bible, and recognised as among the leading scholars of their times." Always a bibliophile, he frequently reminded audiences that his father "bequeathed me all of his texts," before adding, "and I have read every one." As a child, Houdini also came to appreciate that Rabbi Weiss, with his four-cornered miter and black, floor-length cassock, cut an exotic and, to some, sinister figure in rural Wisconsin, and he would encounter more virulent displays of anti-Semitism throughout his own career. When visiting Russia in 1903, for example, Houdini learned that "Hebrews" were allowed in "only with a licence, like a dog, and even then no Jews are allowed to sleep in Moscow or St Petersburg." Despite this and numerous other cases of harassment over the years, he kept a faith that was "profound and unquestioning," he once remarked, if not always based on complex theological arguments. As a middle-aged man, Houdini was to tell an interviewer that he had the "utmost reverence" for the biblical texts, which he followed like a "good, willing child." Asked by the reporter who his favorite author was, he replied, "My dad."
While in Appleton, Houdini would also have been aware of a popular philosophy that already had a long history, some of it quite reputable, by the time he came to trifle with it professionally. Spiritualism, the premise that man's physical shell disintegrates at death, but that his soul survives exactly as it was, only on another plane, could be traced back at least as far as the writings of the Swedish mystic-philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), who claimed to have had a vision one night while dining in a London tavern. According to Swedenborg, who was fifty-six at the time, "a darkness fell upon [my] eyes and the room changed character," at which point a luminous figure appeared in the gloom and announced, "Do not eat too much!" The same apparition then came to Swedenborg later that night in a dream and proclaimed that he was the "Lord Jesus Christ [who] had selected me to reveal the spiritual truth of the Bible." The result was Swedenborg's Arcana Coelestia ("Heavenly Secrets"), which appeared in eight volumes between 1749 and 1756, and whose closely argued central thesis defeated all but the most agile minds of the day. In 1766, Immanuel Kant published his own considered opinion that Swedenborg's accounts were "nothing but illusions," although even he allowed that there seemed to be "a strain of divine inspiration" to some of his writings.
Showmanship first came to pervade Spiritualism in 1848, when the Fox sisters, Margaret, aged fourteen, and Kate, aged twelve, apparently began to hear nocturnal "bumps and raps" in the bedroom of their small farmhouse in Hydesville, New York. The girls' mother became convinced that an unseen force she named "Mr. Splitfoot" was communicating with them, and that "distinct manifestations of an intelligent life" continued even when she and the children moved home. Within a year, the sisters and their mother had become a popular attraction in theaters up and down the American east coast. The author James Fenimore Cooper, the anti-slavery campaigner and journalist William Lloyd Garrison, and George Bancroft, recently retired as Secretary of the US Navy, were among the many eminently respectable figures to endorse the demonstrations as genuine. In 1850, Horace Greeley, a Whig politician, editor of the influential New York Tribune (and widely credited with having coined the phrase "Go west, young man"), took up the girls' cause in a series of front-page articles, though privately he came to express regret that even as teenagers Margaret and Kate had "taken a sip," the beginning of a serious drinking problem in their later days.
Perhaps inspired by the Foxes' example, a variety of late-nineteenth-century public figures and other citizens on both sides of the Atlantic, some of them already veterans of the vaudeville stage, began to speak of their religious or extrasensory encounters. "A mystical feeling about oneself comes easily to performers in the spotlight," the author Gary Wills has said, and significant numbers of the political, scientific, or artistic elite now came to express their own strong sense of communion with worlds unseen. Many of these contacts took place under the stressful conditions of the illness or death of a family member. In 1849, Charles Dickens began to attempt "mesmeric cures" of his young sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth, who was said to be suffering from "intestinal evil." The novelist reported that his performances of "animal magnetism," as hypnotism was then called, also afforded him clairvoyant power. Personalities as diverse as Queen Victoria, the poet W. B. Yeats, and the Norwegian Symbolist painter Edvard Munch all later engaged in Spiritualistic efforts to reach a departed loved one. There was a dramatic surge of interest in the paranormal in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War, with its 620,000 military casualties and undetermined number of civilian deaths. In the White House, Abraham Lincoln and his wife held a series of candlelit séances following the death of their eleven-year-old son William of typhoid fever in 1862, by no means the last time a US President was to engage in the occult. On the public stage, meanwhile, a long parade of mesmerists, table-tappers, furniture-levitators, speakers-in-tongues, yogic fliers, healers, and seers held paid demonstrations of their apparent ability to invoke the spirits. There was a particular vogue for the "automatic writing" pioneered by the American medium Henry Slade, who claimed to receive paranormal messages on a small slate blackboard he held in his hands. Some of these performers bore scientific scrutiny better than others, but there was no denying the influence of the movement as a whole. By the time the young Houdini arrived in the country in 1878, more than 11 million Americans admitted to being Spiritualists. According to Greeley's New York Tribune, there were 742 Spiritualistic churches established in the United States and "upwards of 30,000 Trained Ministers," meaning mediums or clairvoyants, dedicated to "furthering the New Revelation."
Excerpted from Masters of Mystery by Christopher Sandford. Copyright © 2011 S. E. Sandford. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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