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THE NEW YORK TIMES May 7, 1922 Page 2, Column
MAGIC AND MEDIUMS
Houdini, Man of Many Tricks, Tells of Duplicating Feats of Spirit WorkersAll Revelations Easy to Explain
BY JAMES C. YOUNG
When the lights are out and the mind is waiting in shuddery silence for a signal from the beyond, the whispering of a familiar name is enough to capture the imagination of even the most hard-headed man and throw him off his psychological balance, according to Harry Houdini, who has mystified more people than any man of his generation. But he says that in thirty years of experience he never has heard of nor seen any so-called spirit manifestation which could not be explained on a purely material basis.
Most people who go to a séance want to believe, or they are fascinated with the possibility that unearthly things are about to be revealed, said Houdini. Even those who are frankly scoffers can be so impressed by demonstrations which they are unable to explain that the mind is left in a whirl. But all of the ruses employed by mediums are merely the products of clever hands. I am prepared to reproduce any signal or bit of legerdemain which they use, no matter how unearthly it may seem to the untrained observer. In three decades of entertaining the public I claim to have done more in the revelation of trickery than any scientist bent upon the same study. It is so easy to confuse and overwhelm the mind with apparent magic that I am not surprised such a large number of sensible people become convinced that they have had communication with the other world. It is simply a case of matching expert wits against the untrained.
Such a declaration as this by a man able to make an elephant disappear and to do a dozen equally puzzling tricks in as many minutes is enough to make anybody pause who may have been persuaded that there really was something genuine in spiritism. But Houdini does not take the position that it is impossible to penetrate the veil. He merely says that he never has been able to find any evidence that this was possible.
The average man who does not believe in spiritism is likely to laugh at the idea that he could be deceived, continued Houdini, but I have seen men of this kind so astonished that they were ready to believe almost anything. Soon after Roosevelt came back from South America I was going to Europe on the Imperator, and he chanced to be a passenger. I was asked to give an entertainment, and the subject of spirit writing came up. Victor Herbert and a number of other well-known men were present, all of them having intelligence of a high order. Certainly that was not a credulous audience. I offered to summon the spirits and have them answer any questions which might be asked. Roosevelt wanted to know if they could tell him where he spent his last Christmas Day. I had a slate with the usual covering, and in a few moments brought forth a map, done in a dozen colors of chalk, which indicated the spot where he had been on the famous River of Doubt. That map was an exact duplicate of one which was to appear in his book and which had not yet been published. I never had seen the map, and to make my case stronger, the name of W.T. Stead, the English writer lost on the Titanic, was signed below the map with a signature which one man present recognized as a copy of Steads writing. And I might add that I was unfamiliar with Steads signature.
Roosevelt Half Convinced.
Roosevelt was dumfounded, Is that really spirit writing? he asked. Yes, I replied, with a wink, and I am sorry I cannot tell your readers how it was done. But you can see that it is not difficult for one who understands mystification to accomplish things which seem past all explanation. With a demonstration such as I have just outlined it would be possible to convince a large percentage of people that I was possessed of mystic powers. But all my work could be done by anybody else if they understood how.
A few million Americans have seen Houdini escape from so many locks and chains that they might be justified in believing that he was underrating his own power.
How did you happen to become a wizard? was the next question.
My mother used to lock her pies up in a special cubboard [sic], said Houdini, and one day I picked the lock. Then she changed it, and I picked the second one. From that time on there was a succession of locks until she despaired of making her pies safe. Since then it has been a matter of practice and study. Sometimes when I am riding on a train and have read all the papers, played pinochle to exhaustion, and used up available entertainments, I look across the fields, with my brain still going on though it has nothing to think about, and the conception of a new trick will come to me. Then I start to find out how it can be done and before long the conception is a reality.
In his early days Houdini once tried the business of being a medium. It was out in Kansas and the show for which he was working had fallen upon hard times. He told the manager that he would undertake to appear as a medium and help matters along. The manager advertised that Houdini could float pianos in midair and do a few other things of the sort.
When the time arrived for Houdinis act he puzzled the crowd by telling particulars about the births and deaths in half the families of the town. Gradually he worked up to a climax, exclaiming: Now, what do I see! What is this coming before me? Why, it is a mana black man. Hes lameand his throat is cut from ear to ear. Who is this manwhy, I know him: he is EframEfram Alexander. At that point the negroes in the gallery broke for the doors because Houdini was describing a man killed recently. He had picked up a few facts which all of them knew, but his spirit talking was more than ordinary nerves could stand.
I had gone around to the cemeteries and read all of the inscriptions on tombstones, looked over a few birth and death records and acquired a lot of information from the gossips, said Houdini. I was ready to answer almost anything. But the crowd was so anxious my information began to run out. Then I was amazed to find that no matter what I said it applied to somebody in the audience, and before the show was over I had the making of a fine reputation as a medium.
That is the way professional mediums work. I have been to thousands of séances, because this question of spirit communication is one which has interested me all my life. And I have not gone with a skeptical mind, but in a mood to receive the truth if there was any one who could impart it to me. This knack of suggesting things is the strong point of a really skilled medium.
I remember one séance where a quavering voice began to sing an old German song, and the medium informed me that it was a favorite of my grandmother, with whom I was in communication. Afterward I told my wife about it, and it turned out that the song really had been a favorite with her grandmother, which was a pretty close guess.
When you consider that all human problems are very much the same, it is not hard to see how a medium works. Practically every one who goes to a séance longs to hear from some departed person whom they have loved. This love of the dead really is a the bottom of the present experiments. If the mediums caller does not want to reach any particular person in the beyond, the chances are that they have a sore heart over a human love, are seeking to avoid or retrieve some misfortune, or to achieve some ambition. Those are four vital life currents on which the medium has to play.
Mind Reading an Art.
The medium will throw out suggestions, endeavor to get a clue from the expression of a face, or may actually have the ability to catch the telepathic wave from anothers mind. Any skilled medium who has a half-dozen persons under the spell of waiting for something wonderful to happen can gather up enough threads to do a very fair bit of fortune telling. Undoubtedly there is such a thing as reading another persons mind, an art developed by close concentration and observation. What we call the psychic mind is able to exercise such an influence over other minds that it literally persuades thoughts from the subjected brain. All mediums study their subjects closely and are able to hazard a very good guess about almost anything that may concern them. This is a result of constant application, but that alone is not sufficient, because some minds are so much keener and some personalities are so persuasive and fascinating that they assert a dominance over other peo9ple.
In the days when Houdini was still a barnstorming entertainer a deputation came to him in a Missouri town and asked that he undertake to expose a local medium who had been playing hob with that community. Houdini agreed, but the medium came to him and told a story of hard luck, requesting that Houdini permit one more séance, when he promised to leave town. Houdinis sympathy was enlisted, and he made a compact with the medium to help him out. When the time for the séance came, three or four men held the medium, one with a hand over his mouth, and waited for the exposure. Instead, Houdini did all of the mediums tricks, with a few more besides.
The believers were just as anxious to uphold their medium as the other were to expose him, said Houdini. While I had the table walking some body threw a rock on it, and that was not part of my program. I am satisfied that some one brought the rock along so as to help the medium out if he really got into trouble. They were not taking any chances on his being unable to give a sign at the right moment.
A favorite practice with many mediums is the sounding of a trumpet as a kind of introduction for the spirits. Houdini says he met one man who had developed this piece of mystification to the point where he could blow a trumpet lying on a table several feet away by a sort of ventriloquism.
According to Houdini, mediums make capital 0out of suggestions, which sometimes come to people from no apparent source and for no apparent cause.
All psychologists are familiar with the trick of the subconscious mind, he said, but many persons will go to a medium and ask for an interpretation. This is simply another phase of fortune-telling, crystal and star reading, and such things. Suppose that you were a medium and a man told you that he had received a warning, either asleep or awake. You could guess how to proceed. He might not have paid much attention to it at first. Then the warning was repeated. After the third time most people begin to worry about the matter and mediums thrive because of their anxiety. The first warning merely was a though growing out of some other thought, usually a fear of the very thing which the warning concerned. The second and third suggestions, perhaps a dozen more, follow logically on the heels of the first. But the medium affects to see grave possibilities in all of this and makes another convert.
Warnings Mean Little.
Those who imagine that they have had these warnings do not stop to reflect that most of us go through life in fear of a great many things that never happen. Fear is one of the ruling motives of our actions, and when a person has once become afraid of something definite the medium can persuade him to believe practically whatever he likes. It is a strange outgrowth of the mediums work that persons who have been in fear of something will find relief in the reassurances of a medium. The medium usually is careful not wholly to settle their troubles, but to keep them in a state of some suspense, or to hold out prospects of further revelations which will make them happy. The medium really has an easy time once he gets the credulity of a follower. It is a comfortable habit to depend upon a medium for the solution of all troubles and everybody is certain to have enough of these so that the medium will be kept busy satisfying their doubts and longings.
Houdini was reminded that several men of the first rank have become convinced that they had received messages from the dead, and was asked if his experiments in psychic fields had thrown any light on this subject.
I have made compacts with seven persons that the one of us dying first would communicate with the other if it were possible, he said, but I have never received a word. The first compact was made twenty-five years ago, and I am certain that if any one of those persons could have reached me he would have done so. The last one was my secretary, a man of mature years, and we were very much attached to each other. The day before an operation he said to me, Houdini, this may be the end. If it is, I am coming back to you no matter what happens on the other side, providing there is any way that I can reach you. And if I can come, you will know it is me, because I am going to will it so strong that you cannot be mistaken. He died the next day. That was more than a year ago and there has been no sign. I have waited and watched, believing that if any man ever could have sent back word, he would have been the man. And I know that our minds were so close to each other that I must have received the signal if there had been one. But I never have had even a suggestion that my friend wanted to call me. No one could accuse me of being unwilling to receive such a sign, because it would have been the greatest enlightenment I could possibly have had in this world.
Self-hypnotism, according to Houdini, is a common form of deception practiced by those who believe that they have had messages from the dead without the help of mediums. And this willingness to believe, of course, is another prime stock in trade for mediums. Houdini said that even Harry Keller, now dead, and whom he regarded as the greatest of all magicians, confessed to him that he had been fooled by clever manipulators. Keller said this was because he did not know what to expect nor in which direction to guide his intelligence when the mystifier began to work.
The secret of all such performances is to catch the mind off guard, and the moment after it has been surprised to follow up with something else that carries the intelligence along with the performer, even against the will, said Houdini. When it is possible to do this with a highly developed mind, consider what can be done with persons who are anxious to believe. The distressed relatives catch at the least word which may remotely indicate that the spirit they seek is in communication with them. Even one little sign which appeals to their waiting imagination scatters all ordinary caution and they are converted. Then they begin to accept all kinds of natural events as results of spirit intervention. This state of mind is productive of many misfortunes, as proved by the number of suicides of people who think they are going to happiness with loved ones beyond the pale.
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