Sunday, February 22, 2015

Guest blog: Mr. Houdini Goes to Washington, Part II

Today we continue Neil McNally's fascinating examination of Houdini's testimony before Congress in 1926. In this installment, an important Houdini operative takes the stand...

Act Two: Spiritualist Charlatans

It’s easy to see why on that February day almost ninety years ago, things were getting so heated. The Representatives were there to objectively investigate the bill from all angles. Houdini wanted things to go his way because, well, he was Houdini. As for the spiritualists, they certainly weren’t going to let their main source of income-honest or not- ride off into the political sunset.

No one would argue that, throughout his career, Houdini was a decisive man of action. In this case, his statements, while powerful and convincing, needed a little more evidence to back them up.

Houdini: (to the Representatives) I am telling you what these mediums will do, and I want to introduce this witness to show what they will do.
William Hammer (North Carolina): Why do you not go into court?
Houdini: The law does not cover it. I want to show you what you can do under the law. You license these people to steal. They are criminals.
Hammer: We do not license them to steal.
Houdini: Yes, you do. I beg your pardon, but they do steal.
Judge McCleod: What statement do you want her to make?
Houdini: I want her to tell you her experiences with Mrs. Jane Coates…
Judge McLeod: You may proceed with this witness.

Enter Houdini’s main spiritualist investigator, Ms. Rose Mackenberg. For those unaware, Ms. Mackenberg was one of Houdini’s most important and little known allies in his crusade and exposure of spiritualists and assorted con artists. A detective by profession, she was hired by Houdini to assist him full time in undercover “field” work because, while he was many things, he couldn’t be everywhere at once.

Similar to Houdini in her covert approach, Mackenberg can frequently be seen in photographs of the time wearing many elaborate and comical costumes. However outlandish they may have appeared, they allowed her access to the dishonest world of phony séance parlors and the mediums who ran them. In the following except, Houdini questions Mackenberg on her dealings with the medium Mrs. Jane Coates, who was in attendance during the questioning.

Houdini: Just go ahead and state what you did yesterday.
Rose Mackenberg: I phoned Mrs. Coates at 9:30 and…made an appointment for 4:00…When she came in she took me to another room and asked me whether I understood the principles of spiritualism and went into details about that. She said she saw a blue vapor about me and got the impression of a man who was strangling and she recognized the condition of that as my husband. This man was also with a couple of children. Did I recognize who they were? She said the children appeared as though they were with my husband and were my children…She then said “You are going on a trip through the East...” I said “How do you get that impression?” She said “The spirits gave it to me very strongly…”

It’s a testament to how much Houdini seemed to respect Mackenberg that he lets her do the majority of the talking and only interjects when asking how much she was charged for these services. As she continues, Mackenberg tells of a similar “supernatural” experience with another medium present in the room, Madame Marcia. What ultimately comes to light from Mackenberg’s lengthy testimony is that Coates feared the long- reaching implications Houdini’s bill would have over her “profession,” and wanted it stamped out at all costs. Things were reaching their boiling point.

Houdini: Were you dressed differently from what you are today?
Mackenberg: Yes, sir.
Houdini: Entirely different?
Mackenberg: Entirely different…
Mrs. Coates (yelling and interrupting): I demand the right to defend myself!
Hammer: Mr. Chairman, I ask that we proceed in an orderly way. There are six to eight people talking at one time, and it is impossible for us to have any record of these proceedings.
Mrs. Coates: It will not take three minutes for me to tell you what I told her, and it will clear the whole situation.
Hammer: You may do that later.

As the already tense mood of the room continued, Houdini’s questioning of Mackenberg touched on the topic of “so called” spiritualist ministers or, more to the point, how easy it was at the time to obtain a license to become one. Houdini’s charisma is evident throughout this humorous exchange at the witness stand.

Houdini: Were you ordained a minister in spiritualism?
Mackenberg: Yes sir.
Houdini: How many times were you ordained?
Mackenberg: Six times
Houdini: Here are the ordinations if you want to see them. She was six times ordained.
Sol Bloom (New York): What did you pay for it?
Mackenberg: I paid from $5-$25.
Bloom: To be a minister?
Mackenberg: Yes sir.
Bloom: What right went with that?
Houdini: These ordinations tell the whole story. 

However, it doesn’t take long for the specter (no pun intended) of Jane Coates to once again rear her foreboding head. 

Jane Coates: May I speak a word in my defense?
Hammer: Mr. Chairman I object. Mr. Houdini is now on the stand, and you cannot take him off until this committee votes for it….
Judge McLeod: (to Houdini) Will you permit Mrs. Coates to ask these question(s) on your own time?
Houdini: Yes sir…
Coates (to Mackenberg): Will you please state if I told you there was somebody standing (at the) back of my chair, and you asked me if it was your husband, and I said I would not tell you?
Mackenberg: No…
Houdini: Did you lead her on in any way?
Mackenberg: No, in no way at all.
Houdini: She said she saw the spirits of your dead husband and children?
Mackenberg: Yes (Of which it was earlier revealed Mackenberg had none).
Coates: I deny that most positively…
Mackenberg: You said you had been to Houdini’s performance and had quite a lengthy discussion or talk with Houdini after the show, and you thought he was very nice and, in fact, you thought he was misdirected.
Coates: I said I thought he was mentally deranged.
Mackenberg: You said he was very nice, and you felt like putting your arms around him.
Coates: Oh no.
Mackenberg: And try to cure him of his misdirection or misdirected ideas.
Coates: Oh no.
Hammer: I move the witness and the two ladies be required to sit down.

The expression “too many cooks in the kitchen” more than applies to these proceedings. However, it’s interesting to note that throughout all the disorganization and heated emotions, Houdini’s apparent steely calm and collected exterior persists. In our next and final installment, many more wonders, flimflam, and questionable business practices will be revealed, but not before a certain woman named Bess will briefly come to our hero’s defense.


A very big thank you to Neil McNally. Visit his website at Photo: Corbis Images.


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