Sunday, August 10, 2014

The ghost Houdini couldn't explain

To mark my panel appearance today at ScareLA (at 3:30), here is a Los Angeles Houdini ghost story.

Left: The photo Houdini couldn't explain. Right: Houdini ponders the spot.

On April 11, 1923, Houdini visited the First Spiritualist Temple in Los Angeles to investigate a recent ghostly phenomena that had drawn headlines. A year before, Mrs. Mary Fairfield McVickers had stated that when she die a photo should be taken of her casket at 5 o'clock on the day of her funeral and that she would appear. When McVickers did die, a photograph was taken precisely as requested during her funeral at the First Spiritualist Temple on March 23, 1923. Sure enough, on the photo appeared several smudges of light that resembled faces hovering above Mrs. Vickers' earthly remains.

Houdini was well aware of how "spirit photographs" were created using double exposure, and he believed this is what conjured the funeral ghosts. To prove his point, his visited the church with his own photographer, Nathan B. Moss of the Keystone Press Illustration Service, and 14 freshly purchased photographic plates from local Kodak representatives, Howland & Dewey. Under test conditions, Houdini had ten photos taken of a black curtain hung where the "astral projections" had appeared. (He also had photos taken of himself contemplating the spot.)

Nine photos contained nothing. But one photo contained a mysterious streak of light that some thought resembled the shroud of a small woman. Even Houdini was forced to admit: "I cannot say that this is a spirit photograph of Mrs. McVickers, nor can I deny it. Photographers who examined the plate declare that the negative was flawless and that nothing was on it to cause this white figure. I am having the plates sent to Rochester for a final examination."

Houdini also sent the photo to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for his opinion. Surprisingly, the man who was taken in entirely by the Cottingley Fairies photos expressed skepticism. "I am by no means convinced that it is a psychic effect," Doyle wrote back to Houdini. "The plate may have been scratched in some way–indeed the way the the line broadens out at the end suggests a scratch."

The great Houdini historian Patrick Culliton suspects that Houdini faked the photo himself to draw attention to a lecture he would be giving that same week at the Hillstreet Theater (it would be his first on the topic of fraudulent mediums). It's possible. The publicity for the lecture noted that Houdini would show and discuss the McVikers photos, and how Houdini did everything using a press photographer (he allowed him to pick the plates) feels suspiciously like a magic performance. But would Houdini really want to launch his career as a serious psychic investigator by perpetuating his own fraud?

Houdini never discovered (or admitted) what caused the mysterious light streak, and it remains the one spiritualistic phenomena that he couldn't explain.

The First Spiritualist Temple still stands today at 906m E. 23rd St. It is now a Christian church. The inside has been renovated so location of where the photo was taken in no longer identifiable. However, the outside remains almost exactly as it appeared when Houdini visited in 1923 and might have had his one true encounter with a ghost.

Visit Patrick Culliton's website Houdini's Ghost to read newspaper accounts and Houdini's own written testimonials about exactly what happened that day at The First Spiritualist Temple of Los Angeles.



  1. A great post John! Are you going to describe your experience at ScareLA?

    I noticed two wall laps behind Houdini. Is it possible the church still has two wall lamp fixtures about 5 feet apart? If those two lamps behind him were electrically wired, there's a good chance the wiring wasn't radically changed.

    1. When I visited, there was a service going on, so I couldn't really do a good forensic search of the area. But the alter area is very different.

      I may write up a little something on the ScareLA panel. Had a great time.

    2. You mean the altar area was altered? ;-)


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