One of the last words I’d use to describe myself would be “giddy.” But today, when I checked my mail, I did in fact feel giddy. I hopped up and down with gleeful jubilation. I even shrieked a little. No, it wasn’t because I got the current edition of Entertainment Weekly, which I did, but it was because my copy of A Magician Among the Spirits arrived today. In the 1920’s, after the death of his mother, Harry Houdini set out on a mission to debunk spiritualists, mediums, and other confidence artists who prey on the emotionally vulnerable and recently bereaved. In 1924, he published a book on his personal investigations into the world of Spiritualism.
Until the death of his mother, Houdini had occasionally worked as a medium and a psychic. He viewed the practice as nothing more than performance, as entertainment, and not as a way to seduce or rob the gullible or uneducated. In his introduction he says that after the death of his mother he saw the practice as “border[ing] on crime.” At the end of his introduction Houdini states:
I have spent a goodly part of my life in study and research. During the last thirty years I have read every single piece of literature on the subject of Spiritualism that I could. I have accumulated one of the largest libraries in the world on psychic phenomena, Spiritualism, magic, witchcraft, demonology, evil spirits, etc. some of the material going back as far as 1489, and I doubt if any one in the world has so complete a library on modern Spiritualism, but nothing I have ever read concerning the so-called Spiritualistic phenomena has impressed me as being genuine. It is true that some of the things I read seemed mystifying but I question if they would be were they to be reproduced under different circumstances, under test conditions, and before expert mystifiers and open minded committees. Mine has not been an investigation of a few days or weeks or months but one that has extended over thirty years and in that thirty years I have not found one incident that savoured of the genuine. If there had been any real unalloyed demonstration to work on, one that did not reek of fraud, one that could not be reproduced by earthly powers, then there would be something for a foundation, but up to the present time everything that I have investigated has been the result of deluded brains or those which were too actively and intensely willing to believe.
Obviously Houdini was a legendary magician, but as time goes on his role as a skeptic and a scientist begins to become more important than his role as an entertainer. He eschewed magical thinking, but he didn’t stifle the hope that the supernatural might exist. Houdini just wanted to make sure that in the search for the supernatural we didn’t forget scientific method, skepticism, and critical thinking.
We need more people like Harry Houdini.