I’m looking forward to seeing the movie Death Defying Acts, starring Guy Pearce as the legendary Harry Houdini and Catherine Zeta-Jones as a fraudulent psychic. Despite the film not getting overly enthusiastic previews, I’m really interested to see how they treat Houdini’s interaction with the spiritualist scene, and how much historical information is included. The movie outline reads…
It is 1926, and Harry Houdini is the most famous performer in the world. Audiences flock to watch him perform his amazing stunts. But the man behind the legend is a tortured soul, having been unable to hear his mother’s dying words. He offers a $10,000 reward to anyone who can contact his mother from beyond the grave. When a beautiful but deceptive psychic, Mary McGregor, and her sidekick daughter, Benji, take the challenge, Harry is initially skeptical, but is soon captivated by her charms. The more time he spends with the mysterious woman, the more attracted he is, and what began as a con soon evolves into a passionate and complicated love affair, as Houdini attempts the most dangerous stunt of his career.
That description might be enough to get James ‘The Amazing’ Randi foaming at the mouth, considering how he holds Houdini as somewhat of a hero-figure – a magician who turned his talents to exposing bogus spiritualist mediums. But perhaps the outline is a little misleading, and Pearce’s Houdini will in fact be the harsh skeptic that Houdini was in life. It will also be interesting to see how this romance between Houdini and the psychic is managed, considering that in real life Houdini was married for 33 years to his wife Beatrice (Bess), right up until his death.
During the 1920s, Houdini became perhaps the most well-known debunker of psychic claims (despite this, he had a rather peculiar friendship with Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, an avowed believer in Spiritualism). One of the more notable cases he investigated was the physical mediumship of ‘Margery’ (real name: Mina Crandon), as part of a Scientific American investigating team which offered $2500 for proof of psychic abilities – and this story itself is worthy of a movie.During one of the tests, Margery’s alleged control – her dead brother Walter – suddenly accused Houdini of planting an object in a cabinet so as to frame Margery. Houdini returned fire by accusing Margery of a setup, to in fact frame him, and get him off the case. With the seance coming to an abrupt end, the cabinet was opened to reveal a collapsible carpenter’s ruler – an obvious tool for a fraudulent medium to use in manipulating objects in the dark room. Who was framing who though?
Decades later, in 1959, William Lindsay Gresham published a book which included an alleged confession from Houdini’s assistant Jim Collins: “I chucked it in the box meself. The boss told me to do it. He wanted to fix her good.” But coming so long after the event, can even this confession be accepted at face value?
Interestingly, this blow-up between Houdini and Margery’s control ended with ‘Walter’ predicting that Houdini would be dead within a year. Houdini managed to live slightly longer than a year, though only barely, dying on Halloween Day 1926. Due to this friction between Houdini and Spiritualists, and Walter’s prediction (or threat) that Houdini’s death was imminent, some have supposed that Houdini actually died from poisoning at the hands of a “Spiritualist Mafia”.
Last year this came to a head with the call for Houdini’s body to be exhumed, although the Washington Post thought the controversy was more about exhuming a dead book: The Secret Life of Harry Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero by William Kulash and Larry Sloman (Amazon US and UK). Fore more information, you can watch Keith Olbermann interview one of the authors on YouTube.
Furthermore, Houdini left this mortal coil offering a challenge for psychics to prove they had spoken to his spirit post-mortem (perhaps betraying some slight belief in an afterlife from the master escapologist). Spiritualist believers point out that medium Arthur Ford claimed to have relayed the correct code, even receiving written confirmation from Houdini’s wife Bess. However, skeptics say that there was plenty of information available for Ford to be able to crack the code using non-paranormal means.
Houdini’s life was filled with fascinating stories like these concerning his interactions with Spiritualism. Sometimes, as the saying goes, life can be stranger than fiction…