The most famous magician in history, Harry Houdini captivated audiences with his daring escape acts. Images of Houdini shackled up or being buried alive (or both at once!) are recognized to this day. 

In his final years, though, he gained a new reputation: debunking fake psychics. Yes, he was an early 20th-century Penn and Teller (minus the d-bag stuff), and his final act mocked spiritualists years after his death.

Houdini’s passion for his craft gave him a unique perspective on those who claimed otherworldly abilities. He was a master of illusion, so he knew how to draw out and spot a fake when he had to. For example, in 1924, Mina Crandon, better known as Margery, had created a wildly convincing act that she was a psychic medium. At this time, Scientific American was offering a $2,500 cash prize for anyone who could provide proof of psychic powers, and Margery nearly had it won. She almost got away with it, too, but that meddling Houdini got her to tip her hand just enough to show that she wasn’t what she claimed.

The great escape artist’s war on mediums even reached the United States House of Representatives in 1926. Houdini spent four days testifying before Congress to pass House Resolution 8989. This bill would have made fortune-telling illegal in Washington D.C. At this time, there was a growing concern among skeptics like Houdini that top-level members of the U.S. government were consulting with fortune-tellers. This was not an unfounded fear either. Several members of Congress and Florence Harding, First Lady to President Warren G. Harding, had been known to meet with mediums. The idea that critical decisions could be influenced by “psychic powers” was reasonably terrifying to Houdini.

Despite the magician’s earnest effort to show that the psychics were frauds, the resolution failed to pass. While some of the spiritualists’ predictions could be unquestionably debunked, their act of predicting the future was seen as a religious practice. That darned First Amendment protected their right to do it, even if it meant having the potential to shape American policy. Still, Houdini had secured a victory of sorts by exposing those in the government with ties to psychics. This would be nothing compared to his grand finale, though.

Harry Houdini died on Halloween in 1926, the same year as the battle for House Resolution 8989. As one last act of debunking the spiritualists, Houdini wanted to prove that seances were fake, that mediums could not contact the dead. He told his wife, Bess, that if somehow he could communicate with her after he died, he would. Bess Houdini held seances for 10 years after his death. Each seance produced the same result: nothing.

Library of Congress

“I bought a pottery wheel like Demi Moore and everything.”

While Bess Houdini stopped the practice and later died in 1943, others have picked up the torch of attempting to contact the late escape artist. The annual Official Houdini Seance takes place appropriately on the anniversary of Houdini’s death, the spookiest day of the year. None of these seances have produced definitive proof of Houdini’s ghostly communication. Though, those involved do claim to have seen a few bizarre happenings.

Perhaps Houdini is just waiting for the right opportunity, one last remarkable escape. Or maybe, he really did debunk the act of the seance. Whatever the answer, the famed illusionist continues to solidify his legacy each Halloween as he continues one of the longest-running acts of trolling in history.

Top Image: University of Washington

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