a recent Vanity Fair article by Teller (of Penn and…) about the late Harry Houdini. The piece made me sigh and wish that Harry Houdini had not died so young.
During his brief life – he died on Halloween, 1926, at the age of 52 – Houdini was many things: magician, historian, aviator and even (according to a recent biography by William Kalush and Larry Sloman), spy. Uncritical reports of hauntings, however, inevitably call to my mind the role that consumed most of his final decade: debunker of phony Spiritualist mediums.
An ostensibly Christian religious movement whose practitioners claimed the ability to communicate with the deceased and to act as living bridges between this world and The Other Side (usually for a price), Spiritualism included, by the 1920s, many of the rich and famous in its ranks. Séances, it was said, were even taking place in the Coolidge White House.
Against such formidable enemies, Houdini brought his legendary pugnacity, a fortune of his own, and an encyclopedic knowledge of all forms of illusion and deception. Try as they might, mediums generally discovered that when Houdini was in charge of the séance, the spirit voices, tapping tables, and ectoplasm were suddenly in short supply. Houdini relentlessly exposed their tricks on stage and, finally, in hearings before the US Congress.
Alas, it was a losing battle. The drain on his finances and health eventually became too much. Following assaults backstage at the Princess Theatre and again later in his hotel lobby by men who may or may not have been Spiritualist agents, Houdini suffered a ruptured appendix and died.
Today, Spiritualism is almost as dead as Houdini, but many its hustles and frauds have been picked up by mainstream culture. From the Psychic Friends Network to SciFi Channel’s Ghost Hunters to James Van Praagh and his fellow “ghost whisperers”, popular media seem chockablock with the same purveyors of the preternatural against whom Houdini fought so valiantly. The words may change, but the melody – or is that malady? – remains the same.
Really, you’d think we’d know better by now. It’s not like we don’t have contemporary hoax busters – the aforementioned Penn and Teller come immediately to mind, as does James Randi. Maybe the problem is that they’re just not as charismatic as Houdini was. Maybe we’re just not paying that much attention because having conversations with the loquacious deceased is no longer the idiocy of choice amongst the Rich and Infamous, its place having been taken by making pornographic videos or starting wars, as the case may be.
Or maybe our scientific illiteracy has reached the point where we can no longer tell fact from fiction or understand the difference between that which is strongly believed vs. that which can be empirically verified. If so, it does not bode well for our survival as a species. Many challenges await us, and we’ll need all the reason and real world knowledge we can summon to meet them.
Where’s Houdini when we really need him?
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