In the last years of his life, Harry Houdini became, to borrow the title from one of his books, "A Magician among the Spirits." As the most famous illusionist in the world, Houdini was naturally drawn into the great debate over Spiritualism in the wake of World War I, eventually becoming one of its most vocal opponents.
At first Houdini was drawn to Spiritualism out of genuine curiosity, as well as out of his friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a fervent believer. Houdini suspected that the secret of their craft lay not in any mystical connection with the spirit world, but in clever trickery. And after sitting with more than a hundred mediums, he was sure of it. As he told an interviewer from the Los Angeles Times, "It takes a flimflammer to catch a flimflammer." With characteristic tenacity, he set out to expose as many mediums as he could.
Houdinis longest and most publicized confrontation with a spirit medium began in 1924, when he took on a formidable Boston woman named Mina Crandon, known publicly as "Margery." The thirty-six-year-old wife of a prominent Boston surgeon, Crandon was the most serious contender for a $2,500 prize offered by "Scientific American" magazine to the first medium who could produce "conclusive psychic manifestations" under test conditions. That such a contest was sponsored by a venerable publication is evidence that "psychical" research was considered a legitimate area of scientific inquiry at the time. Houdini, always eager to be seen as more than a mere entertainer, was delighted to join the investigative committee, which included some of the worlds most distinguished psychical researchers.
With the "Scientific American" committee taking months to issue a definitive statement on the case, Houdini published the following pamphlet at his own expense in November, fully expecting it to settle the matter once and for all. To his great disappointment, it did not. In January, 1925 Houdini staged a dramatic exposé at Bostons Symphony Hall, with the Crandons replying with their own presentation days later at Jordan Hall. Only in February, when the Crandons declined any further tests or encounters with Houdini, did the committee vote to deny her the prize.
Ironically, "Margerys" final unmasking did not come at the hands of the world-famous Houdini at all, but by a Harvard graduate student in pychology later that spring. Still, Houdini had come out on top: by the end of the year his career peaked with a one-man show on Broadway. The shows final act, "Do the Dead Come Back," featured "The Elusive American" at his medium-busting best.
Go to the "Margery" pamhplet...