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The Art and The Crime of Illusion

Published: April 2, 2011

The last of Harry Houdini’s stage assistants died two weeks ago without revealing any of his secrets. Dorothy Young appeared in Harry Houdini’s  1925 Broadway act as the young lady who magically appeared inside a giant radio cabinet, and, later in the show, emerged as a butterfly from a burlap bag. Over the 85 years following her work with Houdini, she stubbornly refused to give any details about his illusions.

Houdini would have expected anyone in his troupe to observe the profession’s code of secrecy in the name of entertainment. But he ruthlessly exposed the tricks of mediums and spiritualists who profited from people’s grief and fear. By 1925, Houdini was spending the equivalent of half a million dollars a year to reveal the tricks of unscrupulous mediums pretending to contact the dead for a price.

As part of his crusade, Houdini hired Rose Mackenberg to work undercover and expose the charlatans who prospered in the post-World-War-I years. She was still on the job after the next world war, as she observed in her 1951 Post article, “I’ve Unmasked a Thousand Frauds”:

To these charlatans, who take a cruel advantage of human grief and anxiety, war brings boom times. The anguish of friends and relatives of dead, wounded or missing servicemen offers a fertile field for heartless deception.

Fathers, mothers, wives, sweethearts and others close to those in the armed service flock to the séances of these counterfeit dealers in the occult.

They receive “messages from the beyond,” plenty of them, provided the usual “offering” is donated.

I do not impugn spiritualism as a sect or as a sincere religious belief. There are many intellectually honest persons, some mediums included, who get solace from a belief in contacts with the afterworld. My work and this article concern only those mediums who deceive trusting persons.

Is there any medium who can actually call up the spirits of the dead and put them into verbal communication with the living? I don’t know. There may be. All I can testify to is that I have never met any.

Of the well over 1000 mediums I have investigated who claimed to have this power, I have never found one who was not a fraud.

I have also never found one… who hesitated to give a message, purportedly from “beyond the veil”… even when the one presumably talking from “spirit land” was a mythical friend or relative of the sitter, or a real person who was alive and well on earth. I have many times received “spirit” communications from some person I had taken along to the séance with me and who was sitting right beside me while her “spirit” on the other side of the grave was telling me not to worry, because she was happy and well in her new home.

Mackenberg describes how spiritualists produced some of their illusions. In the bright light of disclosure, these gimmicks seem barely convincing. Yet they proved highly effective in the darkness of a séance room, in the hands of skilled practitioner. It also helped that the subjects were willing to suspend their disbelief in the hope of contacting a lost loved one.

Houdini’s crusade was inspired by his hatred, and fear, of this crippling hope in the impossible. He wanted to spare others the grief he’d known after trying to contact his mother after her death.

In 1925, he and Mackenberg testified before Congress on behalf of a bill that would outlaw professional spiritualists, séances-for-money, and crooked mediums. The bill failed to get enough support—possibly because Mackenberg exposed several Senators who were regularly visiting spiritualists for advice.

Rose Mackenberg - 3/3/51 fake hands appear

Rose Mackenberg shows how the fake medium makes ghostly hands appear during a séance. She wears long black gloves to hide her arm movements in the dark room.

Rose Mackenberg table trick

Rose Mackenberg demonstrating how levitation of a table was performed. Note the stick in Rose Mackenberg's right hand glove.

rose Mackenberg with the floating trumpet

The trumpet hangs miraculously in space - with an assist from the medium's accomplice - and spirit voices fill the air. Miss Mackenberg's altered voice through her cupped hand completes this illusion.

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  • Ima Ryma

    If one could return from the dead,
    Husband Harry Houdini could.
    If “Rosabelle believe” were said,
    Then I would know Harry made good
    Fulfilling a pact we had made.
    But in seances year by year
    Those code words were never conveyed.
    I knew he would not reappear.
    I waited patiently. I died.
    But my Catholic family
    Kept me away from Harry’s side
    In a Jewish cemetery.

    But “Rosabelle believes” to be.
    I am again with my Harry.

  • Bud

    Refreshing to hear of the efforts of ‘One Man’ who tried to spare those
    consumed with grief and anguish, from those heartless charlatans who
    preyed upon them in their weakest moments, only for money!
    (again, Congress did their part, as usual)
    I surely hope Houdini is among those in Heaven He deserves to be.