Harry Houdini Goes to Washington

Never before had a congressional hearing been described as “UPROARIOUS,” until master magician and escape artist Harry Houdini provided expert testimony in which he delivered a lively and compelling case against the supernatural.

For years, Houdini had worked tirelessly to debunk spirit mediums who claimed to communicate with the dead. He viewed them as “ghost racketeers,” charlatans conning grieving and vulnerable people out of money.

The “mysterious entertainer” and his network of undercover investigators visited mediums and attended seances in disguise to expose the parlor tricks and deception they witnessed. During the early 1920s, Houdini lectured about spiritualism across the U.S., recreating the tricks that mediums used to dupe the public. He claimed to have collected one of the largest libraries in the world on psychic phenomena and even published his own book on the subject, A Magician Among the Spirits (1924).

It was this extensive background that led Houdini to testify in February and May of 1926 as a central witness at congressional hearings for a bill to regulate fortune telling in Washington before the Subcommittee on the Judiciary of the Committee on the District of Columbia. As a dedicated psychic investigator intent on exposing all mediums as frauds, Houdini testified before his toughest audience yet as the room was packed with local fortune tellers, astrologers, mediums, and spiritualists.

Ever the consummate performer, Houdini testified with skill and dramatic flair. He demonstrated the slate trick and produced a message from Benjamin Franklin from beyond the grave. He presented a “sucker list” of those who lost their fortunes to mediums, and called devoted spiritualist and famed creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “one of the greatest dupes.”

At one point, Representative Robert G. Houston of Delaware asked Houdini  about testing the abilities of mediums. In response, Houdini threw down a crumpled piece of paper onto the committee table, turned to the audience and demanded, “Read that, you clairvoyant mediums and show me up. Tell the contents of that telegram.” There came no response.

He also antagonistically called out members of the audience and directly accused them of fraud. He specifically went after Madam Marcia, fortune teller and clairvoyant to the capital’s rich and powerful, whose clients included Supreme Court justices, congressmen, and First Lady Florence Harding.

Throughout the hearing, committee members and fortune tellers attacked Houdini’s character. In response, the magician humorously called his wife and “greatest friend,” Beatrice “Bess” Houdini, to testify as a character witness:

Mr. Houdini: Have I shown traces of being crazy, unless it is about you? [Laughter.]
Mrs. Houdini: No.
Mr. Houdini: Am I a good boy?
Mrs. Houdini: Yes.
Mr. Houdini: Thank you, Mrs. Houdini [Applause.]

Houdini’s antics enthralled some of the members of the committee, while others seemed confused or irritated. Despite his best efforts, however, the bill did not pass.

Houdini died unexpectedly later that year, but beforehand, he had made a pact with his wife that whomever died first would try to reach the other from beyond the grave using a prearranged message in code that they both memorized. For ten years, Bess Houdini had kept a light burning above a picture of her late husband and held yearly seances in an attempt to communicate with him.

On November 1, 1936, on the roof of the Hollywood Hotel in Los Angeles, CA, she held a final seance attended by 200 people. After there was no sign of communication, Mrs. Houdini stated, “He has not come. I turn out the light,” Chicago Daily Tribune (Chicago, IL), November 2, 1936, p. 16.

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