Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Houdini, the Magician's Code, and the Talking Tea Kettle scandal revisited

Recently, magician Murray Sawchuck has been posting magic exposure videos on his social media. Scott Wells posted an
interview with Murray in which he defends his actions. Scott also posted an interview with David Sandy, Bill Smith, and Mark Holstein explaining why magicians should protect magic secrets. I thought this was a good time to update this post from 2012 about when Houdini found himself embroiled in his own magic exposure scandal.

The Magician's Code is no joke. Houdini once said that exposing tricks is "taking bread and butter from honest hard working ambitious magicians." But even Houdini once found himself in the hot-seat for exposing secrets. In fact, the scandal is partially why there is a formal Magician's Code today.

The problem erupted when Houdini published an article in the October 1922 issue of Popular Radio exposing The Talking Tea Kettle. This is an effect in which one can ask a question and hear the answer via a ghostly voice inside a tea kettle. Houdini claimed it was a tool used by dishonest mediums "for getting money from their credulous followers," and he exposed it as he did with other spiritualistic trickery "as a public duty."

The trouble was The Talking Tea Kettle was the invention of magician and author David P. Abbott. Abbott created the illusion in 1907 as a "spooky" stage effect, not one for use in the séance room. To many, there was a difference between a spiritualist stage act, like The Davenport Brothers (respected even by Houdini), and one-on-one séance room bunko artists like Margery. With his article, Houdini had clearly exposed a stage effect. What made it worse is Houdini purchased his tea kettle from a magic dealer and not from the estate of a deceased medium as the article claimed.

Abbott suspected this was payback for his support a year earlier of Eugene Dennis, the Omaha "Wonder Girl," who assisted police officers in solving crimes using her alleged psychic abilities. Houdini believed she had informants who fed her the details of crimes. Abbott dismissed the idea, saying, "I don't think [Houdini] ever investigated a medium in his life."

Now he lambasted Houdini's explanation of the Tea Kettle. "Houdini is a publicity seeker," Abbott told the Omaha Daily. "He's talking about something that he knows nothing whatever of, just to get his name in the paper. He borrowed the teakettle that I made for Keller, had his picture taken with it, and drew those wire coils in from his own imagination. I wouldn't mind his guessing the secret if he guessed it right."

Abbott's local S.A.M. assembly in Omaha took up the matter and, according to The Houdini-Price Correspondence by Gabriel Citron, "voted for Houdini's resignation as President of the S.A.M. over the affair." A letter published in The Sphinx pointed out that Houdini had once forced a member to resign for exposing his Milk Can effect. It's incredible to think that even Harry Houdini could be run out of a magic fraternity for violating the Magician's Code.

Houdini argued that he did not expose the method of the kettle in his original article. The magazine added the explanation to his text and the photographs without his consent. In MUM, Houdini reproduced correspondence between himself and the magazine editor, Kendall Banning, that proved this was the case. Nevertheless, even the title of Houdini's article, "Ghosts that Talk by Radio," could be considered an exposure.

Houdini remained president of the S.A.M. and went out of his way to personally patch things up with Abbott. However, the controversy only died down when the S.A.M. formed a committee to decide on a formal code of conduct that would govern the exposure of secrets. They determined what was allowed and what was not (devoting a special section to spiritualist trickery) and also laid out punishment for those who broke the rules. A version of those rules stands to this day.

David Abbott revealed the secret of the Talking Tea Kettle in his book, David P. Abbott's Book of Mysteries. The book showed that Houdini had indeed gotten the method wrong. Abbott's Tea Kettle was far more subtle and clever.

I'd tell you what the real method was, but...

Want more? I've uploaded the original "Ghosts that Talk by Radio" article from Popular Radio for Scholar members of my Patreon below.

Thanks to Joseph Pecore for providing me with the pages in MUM that show the Houdini-Banning correspondence.


  1. While David P. Abbott may not have intended the teakettle for, "use in the seance room", his apparatus to create voices from objects including teakettles were used by different mediums, psychics, & mentalists for more than just, "a spooky effect."
    Thayer and Nelson sold spirit trumpets, buddhas and (Aladdin-like) lamps and other props that spoke.

    Robert Nelson told how he was visited by a customer from South America, who had a spirit church, who had been using the teakettle, so members of his congregation could hear from deceased loved-ones.

    But the visitor now asked if Nelson could take the same apparatus and also put it in a bust of Christ, that he would gladly pay for.(!)
    Nelson wrote later it gave him the creeps, and explained to the minister, his Christian upbringing wouldn't allow it.
    The visitor understood and thanked Nelson, shook his hand and left. He never heard from him again.
    (What is supposedly, "for entertainment purposes", can turn up in surprising places sometimes.)

    1. Very interesting. I wonder if it's fair to say that by 1922 the Kettle was used more by medium than magicians?

  2. Mediums working for true believers vs mentalist/magicians presenting "spooky entertainment"? If a teakettle, probably for entertainment, but the other products that would talk, trumpets, vases, buddha figures, etc...who knows?

  3. Popular Radio exposed the method for the talking teakettle--not Harry. And it was a wrong explanation anyway. He didn't do anything wrong. The magazine published a method without his consent.

  4. I had a friend, Richard Davies (now deceased) who gifted me a realistic plastic skull which he had made up and used in his Bizarre Magic act.

  5. As a magician I agree that exposing secrets of magic to non magicians is bad. However, also being in law enforcement, I agree with Houdini that exposure when used in a criminal act is needed, especially if it goes to court and the case investigator has to show the workings of the fraud to the jurors.

    1. Good point, Glenn. Thank you for your insight.

  6. Ole Harry was out of line for even exposing Abbott’s Tea Kettle in the Title of the article or for even offering it as an article. During that period the Tea Kettle was a huge magic secret and very few even got to see it performed unless they were invited to Abbott’s house.