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Houdini vs. The Spiritualists

In the early Twentieth Century, Spiritualism was very popular. Mediums and fortune tellers claimed to be able to make contact with the dead and their claims were given legitimacy by such well-known supporters as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes series. However, there were also individuals who worked diligently to debunk the claims of these spiritists, among them the famous magician Harry Houdini.

Houdini was one of the most popular performers at the time and he would travel and give live performances across the United States. Part of his magic act involved recreating some of the illusions used by so-called mediums. He would reveal to how slight-of-hand and simple tricks could be effectively used to make people believe they were being contacted by their dead loved ones.

Houdini himself had previously investigated the legitimacy of these practices in part because of his own desire to reconnect with his deceased mother. After a failed attempt to contact her spiritually, he realized the vulnerable position of grieving people. Houdini became disgusted with the way spiritists took advantage of those in mourning.

A handful of individuals were employed by Houdini to go into cities prior to his performance there. Included in these “ghost-busters” was Rose Mackenberg. She would attend seances and meet psychics wearing various disguises and pretend to want to contact the dead. She would then report back to Houdini. On the night of the performance Houdini would call out specifically the local spiritists and disprove their supernatural claims.

Houdini’s actions were motivated by a desire to expose fraud. He knew that many people were comforted by their interactions with these mediums, but he also knew that those mediums were hucksters looking to take advantage of them. He believed it was more important to take away the comfort provided by the deception in order to reveal the truth.

Possible Preaching Angle:

1) Error; Truth - It is important to know the truth even when it hurts. Many unbelievers may be comfortable in their ignorance of the truth, but ultimately their worldview is a deception. As Christians we have the truth and it is our responsibility to share it with others even when it is uncomfortable. 2) Afterlife; Occult – This illustration could also be used when preaching a text that involves spiritism, such as the medium of Endor.


Gavin Edwards, “Overlooked No More: Rose Mackenberg, Houdini’s Secret ‘Ghost-Buster’,” The New York Times (12-6-19)

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