Houdini’s Halloween Legacy

November 1, 2017

Halloween, the time of would-be goblins, is also celebrated by magicians and magic lovers as National Magic Day (part of National Magic Week, the last seven days in October). First called “Houdini Day,” it was initiated by the Society of American Magicians following the death of the great conjurer, escape artist, and nemesis of fake mediums, Harry Houdini, who died at age 52 on Halloween, 1926.

In the latter part of his life, Houdini often sat in dark-room séances—not as a believer in spirits but as one crusading against mediumistic deception in an era of spiritualism. He sometimes sent an advance agent—his savvy “girl detective” Rose Mackenberg, a master of role-playing—to snoop out trickery. Then, sometimes disguised and armed with a flashlight, Houdini would expose the trickster.

He used that knowledge to give public demonstrations of mediums’ shenanigans, advertising the shows with a poster that read: “Do Spirits Return? HOUDINI Says NO and PROVES IT.”

It is in this, ah, spirit that I have often attended séances myself. And since 1995, when I began my full-time work as a paranormal investigator with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, I have conducted a Houdini séance each Halloween. Houdini has always been a no-show, of course, but the idea is to use the occasion to honor his memory.

Hence, the séance was often accompanied by a magic show, lecture, movie, or the like. Sometimes it was done as a podcast. This time, with so much going on, I held it quietly, converting it to this blog .

On an antique pedestal table of the type preferred for table-tipping (used to supposedly get yes/no answers from spirit entities), I assembled several items associated with Houdini and spiritualism. These included a spirit trumpet (from which, once, whispers could be heard), pictures of Houdini framed with a key from his collection, a vintage padlock and chain, a genuine fake-spirit photograph, Houdini books, and a candle (which I am lighting in the photo). Sadly, but not surprisingly, the great magician did not appear. Some things remain unchanged: the absence of spirits, the legacy of Houdini.