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When He Wasn't Performing Escape Acts, Harry Houdini Exposed Psychics As Scammers

Famed magician and stunt artist Harry Houdini spent decades trying to prove mediums and psychics were frauds amid the popular Spiritualist movement.

By Becca van Sambeck
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Harry Houdini became one of the most famous people in the world thanks to his gifts as an escape artist and a magician. But he also devoted his life to a different kind of mission as well: exposing mediums and psychics as scammers.

Many people believe wholeheartedly in medium, but several have become mired in fraud investigations, like the famous TV psychic Miss Cleo, whose rise and fall is chronicled in the HBO Max documentary "Call Me Miss Cleo." Houdini, however, was deeply skeptical, thanks to his familiarity with the world of illusions.

Houdini didn't start off a skeptic, though. In the late 19th century and the early 1900s, Spiritualism — a movement where people believed they could talk to the dead through practices like séances — was all the rage, and Houdini was initially intrigued by the idea of talking with his own mother, who had passed away in 1913, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

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Through his friendship with Sir Conan Doyle, the author behind the Sherlock Holmes character and an avowed believer in Spiritualism, he dabbled in the practice but soon became convinced it was all a hoax.

Harry Houdini in 1898.

In one instance, Doyle's wife, Jean, a medium who practiced "automatic writing," in which someone scribbles unconsciously to reveal messages from the afterlife, claimed she had received a message from Houdini's mother. Houdini, however, was convinced otherwise because his Jewish mother never would have drawn a cross in a message for him, according to the outlet.

Houdini soon commenced a tireless mission to expose psychic and medium scammers, a mission that lasted over 30 years. He would attend séances and call out their tricks, and even wrote articles and held lectures to reveal the many ways mind readers, psychics and other kinds of mediums used illusions and sleight of hands to fool audiences, reported The Washington Post. Much of it was the same way he conducted his magic tricks on stage, he explained.

Houdini even put forward a reward for any psychic who could truly prove themselves — $10,000, a sum no psychic ever successfully collected, according to History.com.

In 1924, he got in his most public battle with a medium: a Boston woman named Mina Crandon who was known as "Margery." She was a top contender for a prize being offered by Scientific American: $2,500 for the person who could truly demonstrate their psychic ability in a test. A public feud soon broke out between Crandon and Houdini, one of the members of Scientific American's investigative committee, PBS explained. Houdini wrote his own pamphlet to explain what Crandon was really, and even staged a public exposé in 1925 — which Crandon fought back against with her own public display of her skills. However, when Crandon refused to undergo further testing with Houdini, she was officially denied the prize from Scientific American.

Crandon was ultimately exposed as a fraud by a psychology student later that year, according to PBS.

In 1926, Houdini actually testified before Congress in support of a bill to outlaw the practice of “pretending to tell fortunes for reward or compensation," according to The Washington Post. He considered the practice predatory and wanted it done away for good.

“This thing they call Spiritualism, wherein a medium intercommunicates with the dead, is a fraud from start to finish," he said at the time, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

Houdini even told his wife if he ever passed he would absolutely send her a message from the afterlife. After he died on Halloween in 1926 from a ruptured appendix, his wife hosted annual séances to see if he would come back to her, according to the outlet. She gave up the attempts for good in 1936. However, the practice continues to this day, as people all over attempt to communicate with Houdini via séances on Halloween.

It's unlikely Houdini would've approved of this ritual.