Friday, April 6, 2018

Houdini on the Bible, spirits, Freud, and spells


In September 1925 The Pittsburgh Press ran a series of articles in which Houdini answered readers questions. As you can see from the photo above (which I've never seen before), Houdini came into the newspaper office to do so. The questions were primarily related to spiritualism as Houdini was engaged in exposing fraudulent mediums at this time. But some veered into other areas and prove quite revealing, yet I've never seen them quoted in any book.

So to celebrate Houdini's other birthday today, I've excerpted some choice exchanges below. Enjoy.

Wilhelmina Braun–Why do you keep hounding the spiritualists when you known they are consoling the bereaved? Why don't you leave them their faith?
Answer–You might as well give the dope fiend dope, as a cure. It is far better to tell the bereaved immediately what is what, than let them chase a rainbow.
Anna Jackson–Mediums explain to me that the reason you do not get any evidence from the spirit world is that you are too antagonistic and that you are not acceptable to the spirits. You stop the progress when you are in a seance room.
Answer–You might just as well say that a man not feeling in the proper frame of mind goes to the photographer. The photographer would say, "You are antagonistic and the emulsion on the negative will not work." Ten thousand magicians investigating the process of the radio could not stop it.
James Atkinson–Do you know there are a great many allusions in the Bible regarding spirit return; Do you wish us to believe that these statements in the Bible are wrong? Have you ever read the Bible?
Answer–Yes, I not only read the Bible but I study it frequently. I try to keep away from Biblical arguments, as there are so many interpretations of the same thing. But I do know it states in Leviticus: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." And you will find frequent statements against having "familiar wizards," but I have no desire to enter into controversies regarding Biblical statements in THE PRESS, if you consult your Bible you will find facts, but please bear in mind I am willing to meet anyone in person and talk over any paragraph in same.
John Stone–You claim you do not believe in spiritualism, but you evidently are superstitious. As I was walking past THE PRESS office the other day, you were with a short gentleman, he walked under the ladder and you did not. Why are you superstitious?
Answer–We are all superstitious more or less, and I was afraid that the man on top who had a pot of paint, might let it accidentally fall, so to make assurance doubly sure, I walked around the ladder. If you wish to test me, meet me with a flock of ladders and I will walk under them for you. I will admit I have been superstitious, but that was before I looked into the thing and I cannot believe that just because I am seated at a table with 13 that is going to cause someone to die–the only thing that bothers me is that there are people at the table who worry about it.
M. O. Mack, Blairsville–Can you tell me how to locate hidden things? I know about where there is a pot of gold and silver money, but not the exact spot. If you can tell me, you will be well paid.
Answer–Your letter caused me the first good laugh I have had in a long time. Finding hidden treasure, pots of gold, etc., is something beyond the ken of men. These things are found by accident or clues. I remember the story of a man who had a dream that in his farm there was a pot of gold hidden and he had to plow it up in order to find it. He plowed it up and then thought he might seed it and he had a rich crop. He then saw the dream he had of the pot of gold came true, as the result of his hard work.
Dora Baron–I lost my first born three years ago and since then have been blessed with another child. As often as I embrace my baby I imagine it is still the first born, to whom I was attached. A medium told me that the soul of the first baby is in the body of the one I now possess. Can this be true?
Answer–The theory of one soul occupying the body of another leans more toward the reincarnation belief, and the white soul that you lost certainly would not usurp the body of another little soul. So your first born is with the other babies who die in babyhood and the little stranger you are now loving was given to you as an entirely different human and will grow up as such. Mothers who lose their first born rarely get over it; there is something so sweet and divine in the first born of a real honest mother that, no matter how much times passes, they still yearn for the little soul whose baby hands entwined themselves around the mother's heart. I am certain that no medium would be in a position to tell you one way or the other.
Henry Frey–Enclosed is a clipping from THE PRESS, which you have read before this, telling about a man driving a car blindfolded through the streets. Explain it. Can you do it without help?
Answer–Regarding the clipping mailed, that party does not claim that the spirits help him in his work. I never expose an entertainer, or one who admits that he resorts to the natural science and laws. [Note: The Blindfold Drive was a specialty of Houdini's friend and fellow debunker Dunninger.]
Thoman Wilsens–At a friend's home some months ago we all laid hands on a heavy table. We were all friends, and the answered questions by wrapping and eventually moved clear across the room and out the door. There was no chance for trickery. How can you explain that?
Answer–The theory that tables can be made to move with spirit agency was exploded by Prof. Tyndell long ago, also by Prof. Carpenter. Anyone can make a table move by laying on of the hands. It is simply synchronization of movement, and that is why soldiers break formation when they get to a bridge. If you wish to test a table, do not place your hands on same and see if it will move.
Edgar Johnson–How can a medium read a message that I have written on a visiting card and, though I marked the envelope, nevertheless she read my message.
Answer–This is accomplished by the medium having a sponge saturated with alcohol and by smearing the envelope with the alcohol causes the paper to become transparent, enabling her to read the message. Try this yourself and you will see that in a few moments the alcohol dries. When I was a boy I paid a medium $100 for this secret.
James Willis–Is there any truth in the statement, of which you are accused, and which came up at your lecture demonstration in Boston, that the Catholic Church is paying you to attack religion, and what is your birth and religion?
Answer–No. I am the son of one of the prominent rabbi's of America, taught in the junior classes of his college in Milwaukee. I was born in Appleton, Wis., 50 years ago, and if I were to be born again, and the Almighty in his infinite wisdom would grant me the privilege of selecting parents. I would ask for no greater boon than to once again have the same Godfearing mother and studious father.
William Chester Jones, Lancaster–Is there anything true in the ouija board, as I have a had a number of wonderful things told to me by that board? I was alone and no one in the room still it wrote me a message and included a secret of the family of which the purport is known only to the "Clare" who guided my hand in writing or spelling the message
Answer–The ouija board is the first step towards insanity. A great many people believe that there is something in this writer of supposed-to-be supernormal actions. Even Epes Sargent, the well known author and one time editor of the Boston Transcript believed implicitly in the tracing of the ouija board, but if you will securely tie the operator's eyes and change the letters on the board no one can write messages.
Penley Smith–Do you believe in the Freud theory?
Answer–I haven't gone into it 100 per cent, as yet, but from what I have discovered it appears to be a license to openly speak about sex matters in mixed circles. Freud's statement that the sex problem is so strong in infants is open to discussion. I do not agree with the doctrine of psycho-analysis, but know that some people have to be analyzed as they cannot do their own thinking. They are like sheep; when one makes a move, the rest follow.
Fred Voalked–I know that you are in league with the devil. If not, please explain to me how you made the elephant vanish six years ago at the New York Hippodrome. I saw what I saw, and you can't kid me. Manager Dillingham also complained that he could not keep you supplied with elephants.
Answer–I am sorry to note your version of my act, but you are all wrong. Everything I do can be explained by natural means and as to my being in league with the devil, no, that belongs to the dark ages before people were enlightened as they are in the present day.
Mrs. Anna Weber–Will my daughter return and when?
Answer–I thank you. You will note at the top of the column I am not a fortune teller but I am publishing this in case your daughter reads it and she will know you are worried.
Louis Gensen–Many people believe in the life after death and incarnation. Kindly explain your opinion.
Answer–I do believe in the hereafter and many believe in reincarnation. I do not.
Mrs. Mary A. Yuran–I am 24 years old and married three years and weigh only 93 pounds. Do you think I have a spell put on me, as I am getting awful poor. And I've been going to different doctors and they can't cure me. I can't sleep right. Sometimes I go to sleep and something seems to get hold of me so that I can't move myself. I call for help and try to move myself, but I can't. What could that be?
Answer–No one can put a spell upon you. Even in Pittsburgh there are men and women pretending that there are spells on humans and for a certain sum they will cause the spell to leave. Under no circumstances believe that you have a spell. The fact that thought is in your mind is enough to make you worry, and worry will kill a cat. Forget all about it. Take plenty of exercise and plain food, consult a doctor and you will regain your health and cheerful frame of mind. If there was such a thing as casting spells and killing anyone the mediums would have killed me long ago. But the Almighty in His infinite wisdom does not allow such a thing.

That last question is alarming, no? One wonders what ever happened to poor Mrs. Mary A. Yuran. And considering Houdini's low opinion of psychoanalysis, I can't help but wonder what he would have thought of Bernard C. Meyer's Houdini: A Mind in Chains, A Psychoanalytic Portrait. His rejection of reincarnation is also interesting in light of his earlier stated belief.

Accepting open questions was one of the features of Houdini's 3 Shows in One. In fact, a question box was placed outside the theater for this. It's said that a transcription was taken at each of these performances for legal reasons. One wonders what ever became of those transcriptions? I'm sure they contained more gems like: "If there was such a thing as casting spells and killing anyone the mediums would have killed me long ago."

UPDATE: Our great friend Janet Davis has found out what happened to Mrs. Mary A. Yuran. The good news is she lived to the ripe old age of 86. Her husband served in WWII, and they had several children. [More here.] So maybe Houdini's advice helped!

Thank you, Janet.

Related:

19 comments:

  1. Wow! Double wow! This is the first photo I have ever seen of HH working at a typewriter. He's wearing a modern shirt and tie that you can still purchase at the department store. And his answers are well though out and intelligent. Not bad for an early school dropout.

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    1. There is another shot of him at a typewriter in the McCord collection. But this pic is terrific, isn't it? Very candid. And these Q&As are fantastic. Another discovery while doing my chronology.

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  2. "...you were with a short gentleman..."

    Always buttering up the celebrity....

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  3. As notable as his rejection of reincarnation is this:
    I do believe in the hereafter....
    Helps to put to rest the idea that he was a rigorous naturalist.

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  4. We need Houdini today, to do battle with climate change deniers and anti-vaxers.

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  5. The candor and gentle erudition in Houdini's responses is impressive and disarming, especially considering they were written nearly a century ago. But they also open the window wider into how he must've spoken to his audiences during his live performances. Great work, John!

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    1. Thanks. I excerpted Q&As I thought were best (and shortest, some go on for a while). If you want to read them all via newspapers.com, the dates I found entries are: Sept. 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, 18, 20.

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  6. I've just swapped out the interpretation of dreams question (which wasn't so strong) with a great one I overlooked about the ouija board. Hysterical opening line from HH, which I believe I have seen quoted before.

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    1. That is hilarious! And I like his recommendation for verifying the board is phony. It also served to entice more people into coming to see his shows for proof positive.

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    2. Ouija boards are still available on Amazon and Wal-Mart. People still keep playing with them. Houdini's newspaper question and answer sessions certainly was good promotion for his 3 in 1.

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    3. Wow, I didn't know they were still sold. There's actually a scary little scene with a Ouija board in "The Exorcist".

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  7. Oh, this is just the best! It's like the next best thing to talking to him. Thanks, John.

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  8. My pleasure, gang. For those who want to read them all, shoot me an email and I will send all the columns that I found to you.

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  9. I love this picture of Houdini, though I wish we had a clean version to make it out better. He looks a little worn out. But what a great series of Q&A. Wow. Love it. Great article!

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    1. He must have been doing these newsroom visits in the morning and then headed to the Alvin Theater to prep the 3 in 1 show. It would account for his worn out appearance. But then, HH looks old, worn out and tired in quite a number of 1925, and 26 photos.

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    2. In some of his answers he specifies that he's at the newsroom at 10 AM each day.

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  10. UPDATED with the fate of Mrs. Mary A. Yuran!

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  11. It wasn't a magic spell that caught up with Mary Yuran--it was time. Time is like a predator stalking us all.

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