Harry Houdini and the art of disguise

13th June 2020. Famous Paranormal Cases, General, Harry Houdini. 331 page views. 0 comments.

Harry Houdini would often attend seances and psychic demonstrations in costume in an attempt to expose those who were frauds. His favourite disguise was that of a Mr F.Raud

Who was Harry Houdini?

Houdini started his magic career at the age of 17 where he and his brother would perform small magic shows. He soon joined a circus where he fast became an expert with handcuffs – one of his most famous tricks as an escape artist. He became known internationally for his escape techniques even able to be restrained underwater for long periods of time known as the ‘Chinese Water Torture. He traveled around the world performing his tricks in theaters with an international reputation as the world’s greatest escape artist.

Image Source:  thegreatharryhoudini.com

Before finding fame and making it as a magician, he worked with his brother trying to make ends meet with just their small magic shows. So he took a job with a traveling medicine show where he pretended to be a physical medium. He would act as if he was going into a trance like state and give messages from the dead. He would feel guilty about this and would attempt to make it right later in life by becoming involved with the paranormal field.

How did he become involved in the paranormal?

After the death of his mother in the 1920, he began to focus on debunking psychics and mediums. He initially tried to make contact with his mother through a medium, but quickly found that everyone who he consulted, seemed to be a fraud (which was rampart in this era when spiritualism was at peak popularity). He decided to start investigating their methods and what ‘magic’ they were using to deceive people. He became so passionate about it that his need to contact his Mother took a back seat to his crusade. He would attend séances in a disguise and dramatically reveal his identity at the end and outing the fraudulent mediums which in turn gained a lot of press. He was then able to demonstrate exactly how they had deceived people which ended up becoming his main focus in later years. It seemed to him there was no psychic trick that he wasn’t able to emulate. Many of Houdini's revelations on spiritualists happened very publicly at either his lectures or in public newspaper correspondences.  In 1922 he embarked on a speaking tour where he would project slides from his infamous collection recreating different phenomena and exposing various spiritualist.  

It is necessary and most important, first to understand that I am not a skeptic regarding Spiritualism.  I am in no position to say that there is no such thing.  My mind is open.  I am perfectly willing to believe, but in the twenty-five years in my investigation and the hundreds of séances which I have attended, I have never seen or heard anything that could convince me that there is a possibility of communication with the loved ones who have gone beyond.

I have been to seances where every one heard or saw, according to their own visualization, something which gave them relief, or facts pointing toward the authenticity of communication with the dead.

Harry Houdini

October 30 1922 The Sun Newspaper

It wasn't long before Houdini had gained a reputation and was not well liked by the spiritualist community.  It is not hard to understand why.  While many mediums struck up friendships with Houdini and willingly worked with him to try and prove their authenticity, others didn't want to go anywhere near him.  It was these people that Houdini was intrigued by, what did they have to hide?  Of course they would not ever let Houdini set foot into their séance room.  In order to gain access, Houdini added 'master of disguise' to his list of qualifications.  While he would often dress up and call himself Mr White or Mr Smith, his favourite character was said to be an old man with glasses and cane who went by the name of Mr F.Raud

Mr F.Raud

Houdini's favourite disguised character was an elderly man with glasses and cane who went by the name of Mr F Raud.  

Image Source: Wild about Harry

Houdini's right hand woman Rose Mackenberg who I have spoken about previously also used a variation of this name: Reverend Francis Raud.  You can read even more about Rose Mackenberg here: https://llifs.com.au/blog/ladies-of-paranormal-past-rose-mackenberg/

Vintage photos of Rose Mackenberg sold by a Houdini collector on Ebay

Let's not forget that Houdini was a showman.  I have no doubt he had a lot of ego, I think to be in his position he had to.  The act of exposing a spiritualist medium was not just about exposing deception.  It was about putting on a show.  He would attend a seance incognito and once he had worked out how a medium was using deception he would stand up, throw his wig and disguise off and dramatically shout

I am Houdini and you are a fraud!

Interestingly, Houdini was originally born as Erik Weisz which changed to Ehrich Weiss after his family immigrated from Hungary to America.  His nickname became Harry.  From the age of 4 he was fascinated with French magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin.  He took inspiration and created the name Harry Houdini and the rest is history.  In a weird full circle way, Houdini wrote a book in 1908 called "The unmasking of Robert Houdin" in which he claimed his idol and namesake was too a fraud.  Is there anyone that could have convinced Houdini?

Houdini died on the 31st of October 1926. He was asked by a visiting student if it was true that he could withstand a blow to the stomach. Houdini replied he could if he had a chance to brace himself. The student then punched him 4 times in the stomach with full force – he had not been prepared for. For the next 2 days Houdini remained in pain and when he eventually saw a dr, he was diagnosed with appendicitis. Instead of surgery, he decided to go ahead with his scheduled performance for the night. Audience members commented that he didn't seem to be with it and missed his cues. He was in a great deal of pain. By the third act, he asked his assistant to lower the curtain because he couldn’t go on. As the curtain was lowered, he collapsed on the floor. He still refused care until his wife insisted he goto the hospital the next morning. He agreed and was rushed into surgery. His appendix had already ruptured and it was too late, there was nothing the Dr’s could do. Surrounded by his wife and brothers, he passed away.  One of the conspiracy theories surrounding his death was that the incident with the student was organised by disgruntled spiritualists, however it is more likely his stubbornness in refusing to seek medical assistance which would have saved his life, instead led to his death.

Regardless of your thoughts of Houdini, he did play a pivotal role in the era of spiritualism.  To this day, people still try to contact Houdini on Halloween every year as his wife tried to for many years.  There have been no credible claims that prove he has come through but knowing Houdini, if he did come through, you would certainly know about it!

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