October 31st is Halloween in the United States and many other countries around the world. It's a popular occasion among young people for light-hearted, costumed revelry and the house-to-house candy-collecting ritual known as trick or treat.
But Halloween derives from Hallow's Eve, the night before All Saint's Day, an ancient holiday with roots in both the occult and Christian lore. Halloween was long thought to be a day when the spiritual and physical worlds came closer together, making it easier
to communicate with the dead. A century ago, this notion of speaking with the departed had a wide following in the United States. Ironically, one of the sharpest critics of this belief was the great 20th century magician and escape artist, Harry Houdini, who himself passed into the afterlife 80 years ago this Halloween night.
Houdini spent much of his very public career attempting to expose spiritualism as a fraud. Spiritualism was a turn-of-the century American religious movement whose practitioners posed as mediums, or communicators with the dead. Following the magician's death in 1926, many spiritualists tried to enhance their credibility by claiming they could contact Houdini's spirit.
Houdini was deeply skeptical of commercial spiritualists, and he anticipated they'd try something like that when he died. Before his death, he arranged with his wife Bess to conduct her own séances, in which he would try to contact her by using a secret code that only the two of them knew. After ten years of these Halloween night séances, Bess never heard the secret words.
Dorothy Dietrich is a director of the privately-run Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the world's only museum devoted exclusively to Houdini memorabilia. The renovated Victorian-era home is filled with the magician's letters, props and other artifacts.
Dietrich says that the magician confounded spiritualists even after his death. She points out that Houdini said if it weren't possible for Houdini, then the world would know once and for all, that it's just not possible. Her partner Dick Brooks says that on Halloween night, he and Dietrich re-enact the kind of spooky séances conducted by turn of the century spiritualists. "We recreate an old-fashioned séance in the dark, the way they used to make things happen, and it's really cool and amazing. We actually have people screaming and saying, 'Please put the lights on. I can't take it!'"
Brooks says they turn on the lights and state flatly that what the audience saw -- however believable it was -- was phony. "It's to remind people that there are people out there who claim to talk to the dead, and the dead do not talk back - even if it's Houdini."
Museum visitors usually have no idea how influential Spiritualism once was in the decades after America's civil war, which lasted from 1861 to 1865, the bloodiest conflict in the nation's history. Dorothy Dietrich says Spiritualism captivated the public because many Americans wanted to reach loved ones they'd lost in the war. "About 90 percent of the population believed that it was genuine," she says, "and that all you had to do to talk to someone who had passed away was to go to a spiritualist, and you could have a conversation with someone who had passed on."
Brooks notes that famous people like journalist Horace Greeley and President Abraham Lincoln's wife went to spiritualists. Lincoln, too, went to spiritualists. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, went around the world, proselytizing spiritualism, telling people it was true and that it happened.
In his heyday, Houdini authored a 300-page book titled A Magician Among the Spirits, in which he revealed that the techniques used by spiritualists had nothing to do with supernatural powers -- just magician's sleight of hand and psychological manipulation.
Dick Brooks says that in the final 10 years of Houdini's career, the world's greatest magician and escape artist used his fame to debunk Spiritualism, even to the point of urging detectives in communities where he'd perform to investigate local, so-called spirit mediums. Brooks tells the story of one woman detective who thoroughly enjoyed helping in the debunking. "The lady's name was 'Francine Raud,'" he recounts. "She would sign in at the séance as 'F. Raud - Fraud.' Then when she would report to Houdini, he would in some cases go to the local newspaper before he opened his show, expose this person, get a headline story, help the town, help the community and at the same time, pack the theater where he was to perform."
Houdini, who was born Ehrich Weiss in Hungary in 1874, immigrated with his family to the United States at the age of four. He escaped his family's impoverished conditions by becoming a professional magician at 17, and started calling himself Houdini, after the French magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin.
Spiritualists started asking for Houdini's endorsement after he performed seemingly miraculous escapes. "People like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle thought he was a mystic and was able to de-materialize himself and then re-materialize himself during an escape," explains Dick Brooks of the Houdini Museum. "So the Spiritualists said, 'That's what Houdini's doing. He's just like us.' But, of course, he wasn't and he never claimed to have any supernatural powers at all. He said everything he did was by natural means."
On October 22nd, 1926, Houdini was assaulted by a university student shortly after performing an anti-spiritualism show on the campus of McGill University in Canada. Most accounts of the incident say a stranger entered Houdini's room backstage and started punching him, repeatedly, without warning or provocation. The magician was in severe pain for days afterward. Brooks says the pain masked a more serious underlying problem of appendicitis. "He thinks every time he feels pain now, it's the sore muscles from the punches so he stoically ignores it and dies 10 days later in a hospital from peritonitis, which is an infection of the lining of the abdomen. If not for the punches, he may have realized he had a problem and gotten help, which he did not."
Houdini died October 31st. Houdini museum directors Dick Brooks and Dorothy Dietrich say mysteries still swirl around the backstage assault: What was the attacker's motive? Why wasn't he prosecuted? Some say the man was a Spiritualist sympathizer whose family whisked him off to Europe to escape U-S authorities. One thing is clear: Houdini made it his life's mission to unmask much of the fraud he believed was behind the practice of Spiritualism.
And, in no small way thanks to Houdini, the observance of Halloween -- for all the ghoulish imagery of the walking, talking dead -- is today a generally benign event that's viewed as make-believe, and just for fun.