Showing posts with label #WashingtonHoudini. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #WashingtonHoudini. Show all posts

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Houdini Testifies Before Congress Day 1

In 1926, Harry Houdini stepped way beyond his role of magician, escape artist, showman, and actor. He does something which was rare for an entertainer. He testified before Congress. This was the ultimate act of attacking the fake spiritualists. Oddly, the bill before Congress was an anti-fortune telling bill.

Fortune Telling? I thought Houdini was after fake spirit mediums?! The spiritualists were not happy to be lumped in with so-called 'gypsy fortune tellers', even though many of them ran in the same circles. Here is an interesting thing I found from an issue of Stanyon's Magic. In the early 20th Century, the spirit mediums began to refer to themselves by a new name, 'psychist'. This word means someone who believes in psychic phenomenon. Of course, in the later part of the 20th century, we would refer to these folks as psychics and even psychic mediums. They could apparently read your mind and tell you the future.

The bill before Congress was House Resolution8989 and it was sponsored by Sol Bloom of NY. It
Congressman Sol Bloom
would prohibit all forms of fortune telling within the D.C. limits. Several other states and localities had similar laws that they were using successfully, so here was an attempt by Congress to implement the same thing. Sol Bloom has an interesting history. He had a background in entertainment. Not only that, he was the man responsible for creating the Midway at the Chicago's World Fair! And among the many entertainers at this event... Yes, Houdini. An article that appeared in the Oct 16th, 1942 edition of The Washington Post mentions that Sol Bloom had an interest in magic. In fact, the title of the article is Master Magician of Capital Hill.

So, if you're going to propose a bill about stopping spiritualists in D.C., and you know you can't do that because the spiritualists claim it's a religion, and they have protection under the Constitution. Then you take a slightly less direct route and go after Fortune Telling and write the bill in such a way that you can snag the fake spirit mediums along the way. And if you're going to do that, who better to call for advice and knowledge, than the number one Spirit Debunker in the country, Harry Houdini! And, it seems clear that the two must have known each other. On the rare chance they didn't meet at the Chicago World's Fair, then they surely met while Bloom was representing Gentleman Jim Corbett. Houdini was in the line-up with Corbett during the 1917 Benefit Shows to raise money for the war effort.

The first day of the meetings was Feb 26th, 1926. The proceedings started at 10:30am . According to the Congressional Record, when the proceedings begun, the bill was read before the committee.

Here is how the bill reads:
"Any person pretending to tell fortunes for reward or compensation where lost or stolen goods may be found; any person who, by game or device, sleight of hand, pretending, fortune telling, or by any trick or other means, by the use of cards or other implements or instruments, fraudulently obtains from another person money or property or reward, property of any description; any person pretending to remove spells, or to sell charms for protection, or to unite the separated, shall be considered a disorderly person. Any person violating the provisions of this law shall be punished by a fine not to exceed $250 or by imprisonment not to exceed six months, or by both such fine and imprisonment."

Then Congressman Bloom addresses the committee. He is asked numerous questions, and there seems to be much debate on the proper placement of commas and such. Then they begin to grill him on content. There is a humorous exchange between Congressman Reid and Congressman Bloom.
Reid: What is telling a fortune?
Bloom: Well, telling a fortune is to make people believe what the future is, to give you a picture that you are going to marry a blond.
Reid: How do you know you won't?
Bloom: I want to tell you something, I am serious about this thing, and I don't want any kidding or joking from you.
Reid: That is the sad part of it.

After much bantering and bickering, Houdini, who may have arrived late, is welcomed before the committee. He answers a few questions in regards to his qualifications. Then he makes his opening statement. He begins with, "This is positively no attack upon religion. Please understand that, emphatically. I am not attacking a religion. I respect every genuine believer in spiritualism or any other religion, as long as it does not conflict with the laws of the country or laws of humanity. 
  But this thing they call "spiritualism" wherein a medium intercommunicated with the dead, is a fraud from start to finish. There are only two kinds of mediums, those who are mental degenerates and who out to be under observation, and those who are deliberate cheats and frauds. I would not believe a medium under oath; perjury means nothing to them."

And so it began. Houdini was not holding anything back. After his opening statement, the committee asks him questions. Congressman Rathbone asks Houdini if he has read the bill. Houdini replies he has read it eight or nine times. Then it is pointed out to Houdini that the bill never mentions spiritualism. They even direct a question to Houdini, "Is there anything in this bill that deals with spiritualism?". Houdini says, "Yes."

Clearly the committee is confused, and asks Houdini, "will you be good enough to point it out to me where the bill deals with spiritualism?"  Houdini follows with saying that under the guise of being a medium, they will tell fortunes. He makes the claim that 'mediums are clairvoyants'. And in D.C. the govt. gives licenses to clairvoyants for $25. He further goes on to say that there should be no distinction between fortune tellers and mediums as, in his mind, they are one in the same.

Then Houdini continues with describing some of the ways mediums operate, including wrapping themselves under the cloak of religion. They quote from the Bible, claiming it says various things about spiritualism. Houdini points out that he can refute any interpretation they make in regards to Biblical matters. Then Mr. Rathbone asks Houdini, if he is actually attacking spiritualism, because let's face it, it sure sounds like it.

Reading the actual transcripts of the events of Feb 26th, 1926 is fascinating. On one hand Houdini is claiming the bill says a great deal of things, that others claim it does not. For example, not once does it mention mediums or spiritualism. Yet to Houdini's mind, the very fact the bill says, "any person who, by game or device, sleight of hand, pretending, fortune telling, or by any trick or other means....shall be considered a disorderly person" and thus breaking the law and therefor covers mediums. He even declares as much. But when questioned about the difference between fraudulent vs. genuine spiritualist ministers, Congressman Bloom, the bills sponsor,  says the bill is only to weed out those who are bogus.

More than once it is suggested that the bill be redrafted to include some of the language that Houdini and Bloom are claiming is there, but isn't. Others on the committee are frustrated that this bill makes them all look ridiculous. Congressman Bloom points out that a similar bill was held constitutional by the State of New York. And Congressman Gilbert follows with, "Constitutional, but ridiculous."

As the session is nearing the end, Congressman Hammer speaks up and says to Houdini, "I didn't understand what your occupation is."  And I don't think he was alone in that. Some members had no clue who Houdini, one of the biggest names in show business was. Houdini follows with a classic line, "I am a syndicate writer; I am an author, and I am a mystifier, which means I am an illusionist.......I call it mystification, But I do tricks that nobody can explain." There is some conjecture about Houdini claiming real powers, which he flatly denies. He points out that others say he has these powers, but he has never made such claims.

Then Congressman Hammer makes a really astute observation, "These people claim they have divine power. Don't you think it is very difficult to do anything along the line of stopping them? I am talking to you. You have a religion; and I ask you whether, under our form of government, if we ought not to go very slow before we enact legislation along this line? I want some sort of bill; this bill or the New York law or something. I am in favor of amending and making stronger the law to prevent these things you have exposed, in doing which you have performed a great service, although you are rather severe in your strictures of those who disagree with you." This is all addressed at Houdini. Several of the members did think the idea of the bill worthwhile, but they knew that they were dangerously close to prohibiting religious liberties, and any such bill would be tossed quickly on those grounds.

The final person who was brought up to testify was a Mrs. Jane B. Coates, she was head of the American Order of the White Cross Society, and an ordained Spiritualist Minister. She had a clever angle. She pointed out that the bill made no reference to mediums who give spiritual advice, and that the bill should include language protecting the rights of spiritualists to give interviews to members of their congregations or to those who come to them in trouble and sorrow and needing advice. Then she further said their method of pay should be protected as well. Basically, she was wanting them to flip this bill on it's head and do the exact opposite that Houdini and Bloom wanted.

Rev. Jane Coates

Mrs. Coates got into a discussion with Congressman Bloom on fake mediums vs. real and she said she could trust no one that wasn't a mystic to be able to identify those who are fake. Congressman McLeod asks, "Is Mr. Houdini a mystic?". Mrs. Coates replies, "I think Mr. Houdini is one of the greatest mystics the world possesses today." And Congressman Bloom says, "But he says he is not." And Mrs. Coates follows with, "Mr. Houdini denies everyone's statement that is not on his side of the case."

Despite Houdini trying to butt-in and get his two cents back in the game, the session was closed due to the time. Houdini would have a couple months to reevaluate and prepare for his next meeting, which would take place on May 18th, 1926.

There was additional banter between Houdini and the Congressmen and Mrs. Coates. The newspapers of the day covered a few things that must have been struck from the Congressional Record. I have not included them here, but may post on one particular incident from the Feb 26th proceedings, on another date.

If you thought this session was wild, wait till you hear what happened in May!!!! Part 2 to follow shortly....

Originally published May 18, 2018

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Magic Detective Podcast Ep 7-Houdini & Congress 1926

Seeing as we are on the eve of a big congressional election, I thought I'd share a podcast about the time Houdini testified before Congress on behalf of an Anti-Fortune Telling Bill. It was quite a wild affair, with Houdini bringing in some of his top notch investigators like Remegius Weiss and Rose Mackenburg. It's clear from the transcripts that some of the congressmen were not taking this seriously. Still others were dead serious about the testimony.

My guess is that Houdini must have had a hand in crafting the bill, which was another reason he was brought in. There are a number of surprises that come up over the several days of testimony. Much of this episode comes directly from the Congressional Record. And it also comes from several articles that appeared right here, in TheMagicDetective blog!

A side note, earlier this year (2018) I actually was involved in a video documentary about Houdini's time before Congress. The video was made for a French Language TV Show, so despite my excitement, it will all get dubbed over. I don't think it's aired yet, but when it does, I'll let you know. I'm curious how some of the magic turned out as the humidity that day was wreaking havoc on some of my sleights and flourishes, including a coin roll (the coin kept sticking to my fingers)

This episode runs almost 40 minutes and will be the last FULL Houdini Episode for a while. At least, that is the plan at the moment. Because it's my podcast, I could easily go back on that, lol. But I'm hoping to make the next podcast about Harry Kellar. For now, please enjoy Episode 7!

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Houdini Testifies Before Congress Continued

(Library of Congress Photo)
Before I can get to the next day(s) of testimony, I should mention that Houdini was doing double duty in Congress. He first met with the House Committee, which I covered in my previous article. Then later in the day he met with the Senate Committee.  The unfortunate thing is that though there is a complete record of the House Hearings, but so far I've not been able to track down the Senate hearings so all I have is newspaper accounts. So you know, I'm leaving out some of the more popular stories of these proceedings that have been told before, like Houdini putting Bess on the stand and verifying that he is 'a good boy.'

During the first day of Senate Hearings on the Anti-Fortune Telling Bill, the big revelation was the members of Congress and their wives often visited and consulted with the mediums and fortune tellers. It was brought up that even the White House was known to consult these folks. Here was information I'm sure the D.C. class didn't want to get out, but it did. I wonder if that's why the second day of hearings wasn't until the end of May, because they were hoping people would forget.

On May 18th, 1926 the Congressional Hearings for HR8989 the Anti-Fortune Bill resumed. The hearings began by hearing testimony from Remegius Weiss of Philadelphia. Weiss, no relation to Houdini's family, was an investigator into mediums and spirit phenomenon. He was another of the many investigators working for/or with Houdini. Weiss shared how he had exposed the famed Henry Slade, and even got Slade to sign a confession. The name of Conan Doyle also came up during the testimony and the Congressman were under the belief that Conan Doyle was a great authority on Spiritualism.

Moments later, Houdini addresses the Congressman in regards to Doyle. Mr. McLeod again reiterates that Conan Doyle was an authority on Spiritualism. Houdini jumps in and says, "Conan Doyle is not an outstanding authority." McLeod responds, "He is accepted as one of the best." And Houdini follows, "No, he is not accepted as one of the best. He is one of the greatest dupes, outside of Sir Oliver Lodge. Conan Doyle stated I posses mediumistic powers, which I deny."

McLeod says, "How can you prove it?" Houdini replied, "I admit that I do not have mediumistic powers. They claim in a London psychic college I dematerialize my body, and that I ooze through and come out again and put myself together." Mr. McLeod follows with, "How do you do it?" Houdini says something which is quite remarkable, "I do it like anybody else would do it. There is nothing secret about it. We are all humans. Nobody is supernormal. We are all born alike."

Then Congressman Bloom, one of the resolutions authors, says, "Have you ever heard of another city in the United States that has a similar law to the one in the District of Columbia in regards to fortune telling?" Houdini then explains that no city gives such a cheap license to fortune tellers and in fact, most cities actually have laws prohibiting it. Of those cities that do offer a license, they have fees like, $1500 per year, $1000 per year, $5 per day, $500 per quarter and $150 per month. Whereas the District of Columbia charges a mere $25 per year.

Next to testify would be Rose Mackenberg. She would again open up that source of embarrassment for quite a few Congressmen which was first revealed in February. Rose had visited two of the key mediums in the audience, Madam Marcia and Rev Jane Coates, prior to the days proceedings. She visited them separately, but a key bit of information was shared by both mediums. That devastating bit of information was that Congressman often visit mediums in town. Not only that, they included the White House among their group of spiritualism devotees. And then, she mentions that Senator Fletcher's wife is a medium herself.

This revelation also includes the clue to a question I have had for a while. That question is, "how did all these mediums and fortune tellers know about the hearings in order to show up?" Well, along with the fact that many Congressmen attend seances or get readings, Rev Jane Coates also mentions that she has been lobbying Congressman and had interviewed 22 of them and 16 were 'entirely favorable towards spiritualism'. Obviously, with members of Congress being so friendly with the spiritualist community, it's easy to see who told the mediums about the hearings, the Congressmen!

Reading Rose Mackenberg's testimony is certainly fascinating, but I'd like to share with you now, testimony from 'the other side'. No, not from the spirits, lol, but rather from one of the spiritualists. On May 20th, 1926, Reverend H.P. Strack, secretary of the Nationals Spiritualists Association of America, gives his testimony. What he tries to do is shred the statements made by previous speakers.
He began with Remegius Weiss's testimony about Dr. Henry Slade. Reverand Strack says, "In the testimony given by the man from Philadelphia (Weiss), he refers to a seance conducted by the medium named Slade. If the committee will remember, in this man's testimony he stated the medium would take his foot and kick a book, and the book would remain floating in the air. That is concrete evidence of mediumship, the law of levitation forcing a book to remain in the air that has been kicked by a medium." Now, let's look at what Weiss really said. "A book extended over the edge of the table, Dr. Slade slyly gave the book a kick with his left foot from under the table. The book turned over like a flap door. There is nothing remarkable in this trick. Still up to this time, spiritists say 'Dr. Slade floated a book in the air.'"  So, Weiss actually showed that Slade's attempt to 'float a book' was actually done by secretly kicking the book. And that it merely flipped over. It did not float in the air. And despite this, the spiritists claim the book floated, NOT Weiss, who again, exposed it. So Reverend Strack was misleading in this part of his testimony.

Strack also mentions a curious exchange that took place during the Senate Hearings. The speaker had
mentioned that Houdini claimed that all of these mediums were fakes and frauds and asked if he would include the Davenport Brothers in that statement. Houdini apparently replied, "The reason I have not included the Davenport brothers was because they are personal friends of mine, and I am a student of Dana Davenport."  I haven't been able to check this against the actual record, but it's fairly obvious that Houdini simply didn't want to include his friends in all this nonsense. The Davenports never claimed to be real mediums, but they also never claimed that they weren't. Houdini said the Davenports shared their secret rope tie with him. At this point though, they were no longer performing.

I'm not sure who Dana Davenport is though, as it wasn't the name of either of the brothers. Perhaps it's a misspelling or the stenographer didn't take down the name properly. The brothers were William Henry and Ira Erastus. The photo to the right is of Houdini and Ira Erastus Davenport. The other brother had died back in 1877 when Houdini was just a child.

A curious moment happens when President Abraham Lincoln's name is brought up. Lincoln seems to be a favorite 'spirit' among mediums as he has a habit of showing up in many so-called seances. The spiritualists communities often point to Lincoln himself being a devote spiritualist. Houdini at one point decided to squelch this statement by bringing for into evidence a letter, written by Lincoln's son, denying that his father was ever a believer in spiritualism. Mary Todd Lincoln was the one so desperate as to seek out these folks, but not Abraham Lincoln.

Some of the additional highlights from the proceedings include Houdini giving a demonstration of spirit voices speaking through a trumpet, which was well received by the congressman. A bit later, one congressman mentions a stunt that Houdini did where he was blindfolded and drove around town, and he would stop the vehicle and retrieve a missing object. At first this seemed to me like a blindfold drive, but now I think it's probably more akin to a mere blindfold stunt or at the most some sort of hellstromism (muscle reading).

At a later point in the proceedings Houdini gives a demonstration of Slate Writing, which he prefaces that 'anyone can do'. In other words, it's not supernatural. He shows two school slates, and the numbers 1-2-3-4 are written on the respective sides of the slates to show that they contain no other writing. Then the numbers are cleaned off and the two slates tied together with a handkerchief and placed a piece of chalk between them. Next, Houdini produces a dictionary that was purchased that morning and asks a member of Congress to drop a card within the pages of the book, so marking a page. He comically asks the Spirits to tell him the number of the page, the first word in the book and some sentence that he would not know. Sure enough, when he unties the slates, writing is seen, the page number is correct, the words are correct, and there is a sentence which is actually a message for someone in the room.

The mediums all say that Houdini simply demonstrated what they knew, that he himself was actually a spirit medium. Houdini denied the accusation. He said he was bound by his art not to reveal magic tricks, but he had no problem exposing spirit tricks. And then shared how he knew in advance the various words and numbers and how he eavesdropped on an earlier conversation and used that as his secret sentence on the slates. At the finale, he exposed the full secret of the slates. (By the way, the photo above has a blemish on it. Houdini is not holding a cigar in his mouth, despite the way it looks.)

Oh, but there was one more thing. Madame Marcia, whom Houdini called Madame Marchia, and it was recorded that way in several publications. Madame Marcia made a prediction that Houdini would soon die. She wasn't the only medium to predict that, or wish that. And in this instance, that prediction would ultimately come true.

In the end, despite 4 days of testimony from Houdini, his investigators, Madame Marcia, Reverend Coates and others, there would be no Anti-fortune telling bill. The bill rode too closely to the line of infringing upon religious liberties.  Reading through the transcripts from the House Hearings, I think Houdini missed his calling as a lawyer!

The Government Printing Office published a booklet entitled, FORTUNE TELLING Hearings Before the Subcommittee On Judiciary On The Committee Of The District of Columbia House of Representatives 69th Congress First Session H.R. 8989. The last word that appears in the official transcript from the House of Representatives published by the Government Printing Office........the final word.........HOUDINI.

In case you missed it, please go back and read part 1 of this story

Sunday, May 7, 2017

HOUDINI Takes DC 2017

The ObscuraDay Event called Houdini Takes DC was a huge hit yesterday! They sold out, and I think they might have even over sold, which was fine by me! The event took place at the Tivoli Magic Shop in Washington DC. It's a a beautiful shop, though not really a magic shop. Check out the link if you'd like to learn more about them. They had a nice room for us and to start was Magic Historian and Collector Ken Trombly. Let me say, Ken has an INCREDIBLE collection. The fact he is willing to bring these priceless posters to events is beyond generous. Ken had 4 major posters and some smaller broadsides, as well as a folder filled with postcards and photographs.

Ken gave an overview of Houdini's life by showing the various items he had that
Ken Trombly
related to those periods. The audience sat riveted during his talk. He really delivered a great deal of information, and being able to see the actual posters and other memorabilia was the icing on the cake. I stood in the back trying to keep my big mouth shut and not interrupt. He spoke for a little over 30 minutes and showed some items that would have stunned a seasoned magic collector let alone a room full of history enthusiasts and lay people.

There was a break, for cherry pie ( a favorite of Bess Houdini and they served it at the previous Houdini event here as well).

Then they introduced me. I was supposed to do a show but ended up spending my time doing a mixture of magic and telling stories, some related to Houdini, some related to escapes, some related to associates of Houdini's. For example, I shared the story of Harry Cooke, a mentor of Houdini's and an individual who was present during the Lincoln assassination. I shared a story of a woman who found herself caught up in a haunted house and a seance. And I shared a ton of stories about Houdini. I tried to stay within the area that Ken had set during his talk but elaborated on various stories. I have found when talking about Houdini, I can go on forever, but I had to stay within the 30+ minute format....(I might have gone a little over).

Carnegie about to escape from Handcuffs.
The first piece of magic I presented was a newly discovered Houdini card trick. I say, newly discovered because I was unaware of it, lol. I found it in one of the Walter Gibson books and the trick comes from Houdini's notes. It's a strange sort of transposition trick with a card and it played really well. I followed this with my version of Cards Across, just to fill out the 'Houdini King of Cards' portion of my talk.

Next I moved into his early escapes, handcuff escapes specifically. And I went on to present two escapes, one from a pair of police issue regulation Smith and Wesson cuffs. The other from a pair of ungimmicked Hamburg 8 cuffs.

I wanted to give people a feeling for Houdini beyond just the regular stories, so I threw in the story of Harry Cooke, and how they were associated. I always thought their connection was because they were both escape artists. But I know believe that their connection was, #1 because of Cooke's Anti-spiritualist crusade years before Houdini was born, and #2, Cooke's connection to Abe Lincoln, who was Houdini's boyhood idol.

I shared the story about Cooke being summoned to Washington to demonstrate his ability to free himself from ropes. And here, I took the opportunity to present a rope escape.  I chose to use a technique found in Houdini's book, Magical Rope Ties & Escapes. The technique allows for an almost instantaneous escape from the bonds. In truth, Cooke had been tied up with 100 ft of rope and still escapes in seconds. I had 100 ft of rope on hand, but was saving it for later but ran out of time.

The closing routine was a Spirit Slate routine with a story. A true story? Sort of. Aspects of the story are true, but I do take liberties, it is a show after-all. The story is an emotional one, and I use it to help people understand the deep connection that people have when they see mediums....and also WHY Houdini was so angered by the whole thing because he knew the mediums were fake and playing off the emotions of the grieving.

At the end, I answered a few questions, spoke with numerous people after the program and packed up. All in all, I'd say the day was a HUGE success. I'd like to thank Julie Siegel for her great work AGAIN, and all her fellow Obscura staff. Thank you for inviting me to be part of your event! Also, I'd like to thank Tivoli Magic Shop and 826DC for letting us use their incredible space.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Unique Houdini Event in Washington D.C.

On April 16th, Atlas Obscura is sponsoring an event called Houdini Escapes DC. It's a historical look at Houdini's time in Washington, complete with artifacts from the collection of Ken Trombly, a walking tour of some of the sites Houdini himself had visited and then a show/demonstration of some of Houdini's magic by Dean Carnegie (me).

I have written a lot about Houdini's visits to Washington. And I've visited all but one of the sites where some historical event took place. The one that I have not gone to is the 10th Precinct Police Station, which you can read about here. The only reason I've not gone by is it's still a working Police Station and I don't want to just barge in an disturb them. I'll eventually try and make an appointment to see the station and hopefully the cell that Houdini escaped from.

Many of the buildings connected to Houdini are long gone. Keith's Vaudeville Theatre, Chase's
Theatre, The Gayety Theatre, The Rialto have all been torn down and replaced. However, you can still go to the actual locations. The best spot, in my view, is Keith's Vaudeville Theatre which was directly across from the Treasury Building. This is now the location of Old Ebbit's Grill. Back on January 12th 1922, Houdini hung upside down in front of Keith's performing one of his classic straitjacket escapes.  The location of the theatre is very close to the White House. And there is a story of President Woodrow Wilson sneaking into the theatre to catch Houdini's show in the 1920s.

There are many great stories of Houdini's DC visits, many of which will be covered during the walking tour I'm sure. As for my part of the event, the recreation of some of Houdini's magic. I currently am planning on doing some rope escapes, a challenge handcuff escape, an escape from a pair of thumb screws and other escapes. In addition I'm going to 'teach' a member of the audience how to escape from a rope using mind over matter. I'll be doing a little bit of card magic because Houdini began his career as The King of Cards. I'm also planning on finishing the show with an interactive routine involving all the participants. Though the final thing is not something Houdini did, I feel it's a great way to give the attendees a hands-on magical experience and a perfect way to end the day. I've got a few additional surprises that I'm working on as well, but those I'll keep secret until the event.

It's sure to be a fun day. Space is LIMITED, so if you're interested in attending, go to the Atlas Obscura site to get your tickets. Oh, by the way, if you visit their site, you'll notice a photo of ME in the header. Behind me in the photo is a bridge. I don't know if the folks who chose this photo were aware, but that is a bridge that leads into Budapest, the birthplace of Houdini.