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‘Fortune Telling’ and Handcuff Secrets, by Harry Houdini

Publication Details: 
The Miracle Factory.
Publish date: 
April, 2012
Fortune Telling: Hearings before the Subcommittee on Judiciary of the Committee on the District of Columbia House of Representatives Sixty-Ninth Congress First Session on H.R. 8989, February 26, May 18, 20, and 21, 1926, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1926 (The “Houdini Hearings”).

On the face of it, the transcript of a subcommittee meeting stretched over several days in 1926 does not sound particularly interesting, but if Houdini is involved you can be sure it will be.  The purpose of the Washington, D.C., subcommittee was to consider a bill to amend the law “relating to offenses against public policy” in the District of Columbia.  This would outlaw the pretending of fortune telling for reward, the selling of charms, pretending to remove spells, obtaining property, and stating where lost or stolen good might be found.  Anybody engaging in such acts would be considered a “disorderly person“.  This would also include those who, in its quaint language, pretended to “unite the separated” (which might be construed to include mediumship).  Fines could be swingeing – up to $250, up to six months in prison, or both.

New York Congressman Sol Bloom, presenting the bill, naively claimed that its wording was clear, and that there could be no debate on the meaning, a statement belied by the subsequent wrangles.  Bloom, who had worked with Houdini to frame the bill, said that it was not aimed at Spiritualists; but fortune telling, the bill’s title, was broadly, and rather vaguely, linked in a New York precedent in the Criminal Code to “the ability to answer confidential questions from spiritual aid”, which meant that the hearings were effectively a trial of mediumship, and that is how the Spiritualists, and Houdini, construed them.

Houdini was present throughout the proceedings, having, as he reminded the gathering several times, come down from Chicago to support the bill at great financial cost.  Used to taking centre stage, he acted at times like a member of the committee, much to the chagrin of the bill‘s opponents.  Like Bloom, he stated that the bill was not an attack on Spiritualism as a religion – as long as it did not conflict with the law (in essence, as long as it was not a money-making scheme).  What he objected to was mediumship, which was fraudulent in his opinion: “There are only two kinds of mediums, those who are mental degenerates and who ought to be under observation, and those who are deliberate cheats and frauds.”  You were either mad or bad, with no middle ground.  Those who believed them were “neurotics.”  It was, he claimed, a fraud raking in millions of dollars a year, but ignored because it was considered a religion.  Asked about the relevance to the bill, which related to fortune telling, Houdini argued that mediums were just clairvoyants (fortune tellers) using the label of mediumship to circumvent the law, none of whom was genuine.

Given this sort of provocative language, it was no surprise that sessions became heated.  Much of the cross-examination revolved around forms of fortune telling, with Houdini attempting to hitch it to mediumship at every opportunity, while the Spiritualists countered by attempting to make the bill appear to be an attack on religion in general (the debate about the legitimacy of selling charms ended by discussing Roman Catholic medals, for example).  Houdini came under fire himself for charging for entertainment, which, it was argued, was no different to a fortune teller charging for the same thing, and he was asked why having one‘s fortune told for a bit of fun should be criminalised.  The National Spiritualists’ Association of America denied that there were any fortune tellers in its ranks anyway, and protested, with some justice, that the problem with the bill was that it did not distinguish clearly between fortune telling and mediumship.  Spiritualists giving evidence insisted that the provisions of the bill were adequately covered by existing legislation, so that a new bill was unnecessary.

The issue of fraudulent mediumship was a central topic.  The Spiritualists claimed to be as keen to root out fraud as Houdini was, but were unable to give a satisfactory answer to the question of how one could tell a genuine from a bogus medium, despite which they did concede that there were charlatans, as in any sphere of life.  Ranging beyond the committee’s terms of reference, Houdini seemed to be as keen to settle scores with individual mediums as he did to pilot the bill, and in return he and his associates, notably Rose Mackenberg, who went undercover to investigate mediums, were the targets of a great deal of Spiritualistic animus.  Mackenberg created an enormous stir when she alleged that she had been informed that a number of prominent Senators were interested in mediumship, as was President Coolidge, and that séances had been held at the White House itself (a charge denied by “friends of the Coolidges“).

Given a remarkable amount of latitude, Houdini, to show how frauds were conducted, demonstrated slate writing, the use of a trumpet, and a book test, and supplied a mediumistic message which the Spiritualists took as evidence that he was one of their number, despite his explanation of how he did it (he repeatedly had to deny that he possessed any mediumistic gifts).  The sessions, sometimes entertaining, sometimes tedious, often somewhat obscure, were a bruising encounter between the Houdini camp and the Spiritualists, who proved that they could be less than spiritual when their livelihoods were threatened.

The transcript gives hints that the sessions were more than lively, with numerous appeals for order, the numbers of people speaking at once preventing a proper record from being made.  At one point the chairman complains that he cannot see the witness because people are standing in the way.  But it does not really give a flavour of the chaos on the second day captured in a New York Times article (19 May 1926):

“Scores of mediums and clairvoyants were in attendance to combat Houdini’s contention that all such persons were “fakes,” that there was no sound basis for spiritualism, and that the so-called messages from the dead were spurious and designed as a money-making scheme to defraud the credulous.

“Today’s session was unusually disorderly and came near winding up in a free-for-all fist fight. Cries of “liar!” “Fake!” and “Traducer!” were exchanged by Houdini and his assailants, and the din reached such a point that members of the committee demanded that the police be called ....

“The committee tried to restore order, but failed, and an adjournment was taken. The shouting continued as the witnesses and audience filed into the corridors of the House office building.”

Considering the circumstances, it would seem that the stenographer did a decent job recording proceedings.  But given the suggestion that mediumship was carried out in high places in Washington, it is not surprising that the bill was unsuccessful, and Houdini‘s investment in time and money in vain.

It is a pity that the scanning is not quite as crisp as it could be, but this is an important historical document, and the Miracle Factory have done a valuable job in making it available.  While not exactly a rattling yarn, it should be read by anyone with a serious interest in Houdini or in the debates around Spiritualism during that period.  An introduction setting the context would have been useful, but in its absence, William Kalush and Larry Sloman devote part of a chapter to the hearings in their 2006 The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero(pp.481-88) which helps to fill in the background to this peculiar episode in Houdini‘s career.


Handcuff Secrets, by Harry Houdini

Also from the Miracle Factory, this slim 1910 volume by Harry Houdini does pretty much what it says on the cover.  It reveals the tricks used by, as Houdini derisively calls them, “Manacle Monarchs, Handcuff Kings, and Jail Breakers” (though not, he alleges, the “very deep intricacies” practised by himself).  Houdini’s opinion of the competition is not high, and as is his wont, he takes the opportunity to settle a few scores with rivals along the way while exposing their methods.

His survey covers various types of handcuff, beginning with the British, the limited range of which presents the fewest challenges to the expert: all you have to do is secrete a duplicate key, et voilà, with a bound you are free.  Anyone expecting subtlety might at this stage be feeling disappointed, but more elaborate tips on using prepared cuffs are given, and those typical of different countries displayed, including the startlingly-named “French Letter Cuff” (actually a combination lock using letters rather than numbers).  As there is clearly only a limited amount to be said about handcuff-escape techniques, at least while avoiding the “very deep intricacies” of the subject, he strays off into an account of safe crackers and straightjacket escapes in a rambling narrative.

If the book were solely devoted to showing how clever Houdini was, it would restrict the readership, so he indicates that it is of service as a manual in order to allow readers to put on their own handcuff performances without too much preparation.  The lengthy categorisation of types is of historical interest only, unless one is planning an escapology exhibition using antique ironmongery, but seeing him laying into the competition is always fun.  Houdini was a lively writer, if an idiosyncratic stylist, and Handcuff Secrets gives an insight into his painstaking attention to detail, even if you are never quite convinced he is giving you the whole story.

‘Fortune Telling’ and Handcuff Secrets, by Harry Houdini. Available as PDFs from The Miracle Factory, 2012.