Tuesday, October 29, 2019

The ghost Houdini couldn't explain

Continuing my special Halloween week of resurrected GHOST POSTS, here's an updated post from August 10, 2014 about a manifestation that even Houdini couldn't explain. If we believe him.

On April 11, 1923, Houdini visited the First Spiritualist Temple in Los Angeles to investigate a ghostly phenomena that had drawn recent headlines. A well-known spiritualist, Mrs. Mary Fairfield McVickers, stated that when she died a photo should be taken of her casket at 5 o'clock on the day of her funeral and that she would appear. A year later she died, and 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 near her coffin.

Houdini was well aware of how "spirit photographs" were created using double exposure, and he believed this is what conjured the funeral ghosts. But he would give the spirits another chance. He travelled to the church with with photographer Nathan B. Moss of the Keystone Press Illustration Service. He brought along a sealed package of 14 photographic plates purchased from the local Kodak representatives, Howland & Dewey. To ensure no tricky, he asked a stranger who was standing next to him at the counter, a Mr. Mat Korn, to select the package from the store's stock.

Under the exact same conditions as the McVickers photo, Houdini had Moss take ten photos of the alter (and a few of himself examining the church). Houdini and Moss then traveled to the Chamber of Commerce Building to develop the images using their dark room.

Nine photos contained nothing. But one photo contained a mysterious streak of light across the same black curtain where the McVickers "astral projections" had appeared. 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."

Houdini historian Patrick Culliton suggests Houdini may have faked the photo to draw attention to a lecture he would be giving that same week at the Hillstreet Theater (this was one of his first on the topic of fraudulent mediums). Publicity for Houdini's lecture did play up that he would discuss the mystery photo, and having the bystander pick out the plates does feel suspiciously like a magic trick. 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 admittedly couldn't explain.

The First Spiritualist Temple still stands today at 906m E. 23rd St. 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 spirit.

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.

Come back tomorrow at 1:26 PM for another GHOST POST.



  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? ;-)

  2. One of our great many interests in magic is, of course, Houdini.

    The more one looks into him is that he never goes into a challenge without being sure of its outcome, including some being outright setups.

    That is our feeling here. We believe Houdini found a way along the way to put the scratch on the film. With his great ability at misdirection and the confusion at such an event, it would have been no problem. Why would he do this? There are several reasons, the following being just two.

    He put it there so at a later date he could confess to the act to show and prove how easy it would be to fool all involved.

    After it was done, being a master of mystery, he came to the conclusion, it would be better, rather than totally crushing the movement to keep some small window alive, which would garner more wonderful publicity and sell more seats. He may have felt this from the start or after he saw the excitement the scratched plate brought, and let it be.

    Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz
    The Houdini Museum, Scranton, PA
    The Only Building in the World Dedicated to Houdini

    Please join us Halloween at The Houdini Museum at Noon and 6 PM for our Original Houdini Seance and Friday November 1, 7 PM for the exciting signing and reading of the fabulous new book, “The Life And Afterlife of Harry Houdini” by Joe Posnanski. BOTH FREE!