As part of an ongoing series for The Washington Times newspaper in 1922, Harry Houdini took part in a Q & A with readers who would write with their questions. The series was called "Houdini's Answers on Psychic Phenomena"
Below was published on August. 26th 1922 in the Washington Times.
Q.Out of curiosity, about two years ago, I visited a spiritualist. I made no appointment with her and she didn't know I was coming until I walked in on her. We had neither seen nor heard of each other before. Notwithstanding this, she could tell me correctly name, the names of members of my family and of friends and various facts connected -with my life which were all true. I would appreciate it very much, indeed, if you would tell me how she could tell me these names and facts concerning my life, in view of the fact that she had never heard of me before. Recently I again made a surprise visit on another spiritualist who had never heard of me before. She also surprised me by telling me correctly similar facts, including correct names.
The above question is one I know I have even received from people before. There are two possible intentions behind this question. The first is that the person is genuinely curious about Houdini's thoughts on the matter as maybe deep down they felt it was too good to be true? The second was that they were so amazed and they are convinced the information is correct. The tone could then suggest they are writing in a way to prove a point to Houdini in saying, there is no way they could have known explain that! I have received several emails of a similar nature before when offering a rational explanation. Their experience is sent to me as a way of either disproving my theory or that I am wrong. While I obviously don't know the intention behind the email, they seem quite pleasant and I feel maybe they do genuinely want Houdini's thoughts on the matter. I mean getting any sort of response from Houdini would have me fangirling that is for sure! Here is what Houdini had to say!
A: I am wondering, R. C., if you ever heard of the "Spirit Blue Book? It is one of the most Important properties of the mediumistic profession in the world. International in scope, it lists hundreds of thousands of names, addresses and the most searching information. What is not in the book is in the form of data gathered through a co-operative plan.
Special attention is paid in the listings to persons interested in spiritualism, its advocates and its opponents. The means by which mediums know who is coming to see them are too numerous to mention. Once inside, however, the work is easy. I know that a favorite trick of the medium who is confronted by an absolute stranger is to say, "The
spirits are not with me. Come again tomorrow." As the person leaves, the medium signals to a confederate outside. This latter follows the stranger and obtains, in divers eways, all necessary information. It may be necessary in some cases to telegraph out of town for the desired data. I know for a fact that this is done. I have tricked some mediums in
this way, through my knowledge of their methods: Going to their rooms, I would be purposely on my guard for any question they might ask me that would give them a hint of my identity. Then the medium, perhaps a little worried, would go through a stock performance, telling me who, in the spirit world, was very happy; In other words, attempting to cover the fraud by generalities. When the seance was over. I would reveal myself and the medium would say, disgusted: "Why didn't you tell me you were Houdinl when you came in?"
While today people have access to social media and a huge amount of information that can obtain by the simple click of a button, back in these times, the mediums if deceptive would have to work harder to get the information. This doesn't mean it was impossible. A simple phone book may have been all they needed and as mentioned above, seems to be the tool of choice. I have read detailed accounts of modern-day deception which have been investigated where some mediums who have done platform readings get the name off the ticket listing and then use social media as a way to gather information about a person. It is important for me to point out that not everyone is disingenuous though and I am not implying that there are not genuine people out there because believe they are out there, however, during the spiritualist era, this was a huge problem.
As mentioned above, Houdini would often attend a seance in disguise to work out the ways of the spiritualist's deception, revealing himself at the end. His most famously favourite costume and character was a disguise he dubbed as Mr. F Raud. You can read more about here: Harry Houdini and the art of disguise
You can see more of Houdini's Spiritual Q & A and articles he penned for the newspapers below:
The Washington times. [volume] (Washington [D.C.]) 1902-1939, August 26, 1922, LATE FINANCIAL, Image 4
Image and text provided by Library of Congress, Washington, DC
Persistent link: https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026749/1922-08-26/ed-1/seq-4/
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