Houdini and Spiritualism, by Michael Solomon

Reviewed by Sarah Chumacero

Professor Solomon (who describes himself as an amateur professor) is the author of How to Find Lost Objects (1995), Japan in a Nutshell (1997), How to Make the Most of a Flying Saucer Experience (1998), Coney Island (1999), The Book of King Solomon (2005), Visitors to the Inner Earth (2011) and the multi-volume Lives of the Conjurers. He is a magician with a degree in English from Harvard and is most known for being a ‘findologist’ with his methods of finding lost objects compared to that of Sherlock Holmes himself.

What first struck me when picking up this book was how similar the cover design was to Harry Houdini’s own book A Magician Among Spirits (1924). On the cover of Houdini’s book is a simple text above a boxed picture of Houdini with his once close friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Solomon’s cover also has simple text above a boxed picture of Houdini’s portrait. I find the similarities to be quite fitting and I am assuming quite intentional. Solomon's book begins by setting the scene of Houdini’s European spiritualism tour where Doyle and Houdini became fast friends over their common interest in spiritualism, albeit from opposing sides. In the following chapter, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the reader is given a brief introduction to Doyle’s life. I immediately wondered why Houdini was not given his own introduction, especially as the star of the book. Houdini was a man who demanded an introduction to the tune of Pomp and circumstance nonetheless, and a short chapter much like the one dedicated to Doyle’s life would have been appropriate. It seemed as if the book dived right into Houdini’s crusade against spiritualism, assuming that the reader already has a fair knowledge of his life prior to that point in time.

I discovered that Houdini’s life is covered in great detail with accompanying illustrations in one of Solomon’s earlier books Lives of the Conjurers Volume 3: Harry Houdini (2017) which is freely available on Solomon’s website. The reader is clearly meant to have read it before reading this volume.

The chapters, particularly at the beginning of the book, are quite short with some only being two pages long. The chapter length and style in which they were written took a little while for me to get used to, and I found myself having to reread the last page of a chapter to see where I was heading, as they do not necessarily flow naturally from one to another. However, as you get further into the book, the format works and I became immersed in the story which had slowly been building all along. Starting with a brief rundown of the friendship between Houdini and Doyle and their eventual falling out, it moves onto the main plot of the book, the Scientific American's search for a genuine medium. On offer was a prize of five thousand dollars in a quest to find scientific proof of the afterlife.

A panel of scientific and psychic experts was formed with Houdini acting as the sceptic at the helm with encouragement from his friend Doyle. The search begins with the exploits of Mr. Malcolm Bird, and continues with a new medium introduced in each chapter. Each came forward to claim the prize and ultimately came undone at the hands of Houdini himself. The longest chapter here is dedicated to the infamous Margery Crandon and rightly so, as she had quite the reputation and dealings with Houdini. In fact, her name almost always comes up when looking at Houdini’s connection to spiritualism. Her chapter is quite significantly longer than the three to four pages offered to other subjects, due to the amount of content in her dealings with Houdini.

I was a little surprised, given the historical context of the book, that few references are listed beyond newspaper articles from which the author has quoted.  Of course this is not an academic piece and it is written quite well in a storytelling format, but I would have liked to have seen a bibliography of sorts, as there is a wealth of information included and the book does seem to be incredibly well researched and quite detailed. That said, the general reader that this book is aimed at will likely not be bothered by this, as it is written well enough and sets the scene.

With the Scientific American prize claimants unsuccessful, the book then starts to delve into the psyche of Houdini and the root of his problem with spiritualism and why he spent the latter part of his career to exposing frauds. My favourite chapter, ‘I am Houdini’, details Houdini and his accomplice Rose Mackenberg’s exploits. They dressed up in costume to go incognito at séances. Later, Houdini would expose his identity and the fraudulent methods that had been used to deceive the sitters. I found this chapter to be quite entertaining and it was at this point I realised, I was now fully immersed in the story. What I also found to be a unique touch was that while the book covered a lot of historical information which will be known by many, it also covers areas you do not necessarily give much thought to such as where do the mediums buy their trick supplies from?

The story then begins to take a turn towards the attitude of spiritualists toward Houdini and how he himself predicted that he would meet his demise at their hands. As someone who has read quite a lot about Houdini, I know how this story ends. However, I did not know how this story was going to end. With Houdini and Doyle eventually passing away, a surprising chapter entitled The Adventures of the Empty Chair, followed written from the perspective of the fictional character Dr. John Watson. Acting as an obituary to his good friend Sherlock Holmes with Watson the sceptic and Holmes the believer, the story parallels the relationship between Doyle and Houdini. I cannot help but wonder what Houdini would have had to say after all was said and done. Maybe, that is exactly what this chapter intended. I would have liked to have seen more of Houdini and Doyle’s relationship explored but admittedly this topic really deserves its own book. Solomon who is compared to Holmes with his ‘findology’ methodology is clearly a fan of Doyle and Holmes and this admiration jumps off the page.  Even though Doyle’s relationship with Houdini was complicated, I can also see a lot of affection in the way Houdini’s story is approached. Much of the way in which it was written, is left open-ended, asking questions and carefully not telling the reader who was wrong and who was right. It left to the reader to decide who are the heroes and villains in this story.

The book closes with stories about the infamous Houdini Séances and how today his name and work are remembered. While Houdini and his wife Bess claim they never found any proof of the afterlife, Solomon goes on to explore the perspective of the afterlife from the Jewish faith.  It is a pertinent reminder, as Solomon touched on in this very book, that spiritualism can be considered its own form of religion and the concept of belief is the contributing factor.

Overall, Solomon’s book is an in-depth and well-researched crash course in Houdini’s fight against fraudulent spiritualists while exploring the friendships and foes he met along the way. It highlights some of the frustrations Houdini felt at the time which many psychical researchers and investigators will resonate with today. While methods and platforms may have changed in our modern-day society, what drives us as humans to want to explore the answers to the afterlife remains the same. Perhaps much like in Houdini’s secret password, maybe all we need to do is, ‘Believe’?