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Harry Houdini, Ghostbuster: Exploring an Illusionist’s Exposés through Primary Sources

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Houdini and the ghost of Abraham Lincoln

Harry Houdini, who died on Halloween in 1926, is probably best known as a magician and escape artist, but he also devoted considerable energy to investigating and debunking the claims of spiritualists. Who better to peel back that veil than a master illusionist?

One popular way of representing communication from the spirit world during Houdini’s lifetime was the “spirit photograph.” As part of his pursuit of demonstrating the techniques behind various manifestations purported to be from the spirit world, Houdini created this photograph of himself with the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. The notes accompanying this picture explain that Houdini was fascinated by a report about “how a photographer could produce fraudulent ‘spirit photographs’ that purportedly documented the apparition and social interaction of figures from beyond.”

This photo of Houdini and the ghost of Abraham Lincoln offers a springboard into learning more about this little-known aspect of Houdini’s life and work while bolstering research skills such as developing questions, researching in a newspaper archive, and summarizing and synthesizing information. When students analyze primary sources, they make close observations of a document or artifact and ask questions about what they’re observing. Students exploring Houdini’s work as a paranormal sleuth might be interested to note any similar methods the famed magician used in his investigations.

Introduce students to Houdini with this video about Houdini’s scrapbooks. After they view the video, spend a moment generating questions. Invite them to learn more about his career as a magician by reading select articles gathered in the Chronicling America Topics guide and then applying the Suggested Search Strategies to find additional articles. Support them as they read and learn in recording information and developing questions that will inspire and guide further research.

To learn more about Houdini’s work debunking spiritualists and mediums, students might begin with these articles on Houdini and mediums and Houdini’s newspaper column, Answers on Psychic Phenomena. As needed, support students in summarizing their findings. Encourage them to pause and consider both what they learn that might inform answers to their earlier questions and what additional questions they develop from reading these articles and then to continue researching to form answers.

Provide opportunities for students to share their discoveries. Some might create their own spirit photographs. Some might work alone or with a partner to create a column like “Answers on Psychic Phenomena.” Some might take on roles of Houdini and a medium and engage in a debate about spirit manifestations. Some might produce a short video report on some aspect of Houdini’s work.

Please leave us a comment and let us know what your students discover!


Comments (3)

  1. You have no idea how timely this is. Our 6th graders here in Prince George’s County, MD are learning about Houdini right now as part of their “Research Simulation Task.” I plan to share this with all of them today. Thanks so much!

    • Curry Rose, Please do let us know how they respond!

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