The Hidden Houdini

William Kalush and Larry Sloman. The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero. Atria Books, 2006.

While it is the claim that Houdini was some sort of secret agent which has created the most attention for this book in the mainstream media, the aspect which is most likely to interest Magonia readers is the account of Houdini's battles with the Spiritualists. These show that interwar spiritualism was a much darker and more convoluted affair than has previous been thought. For example, Lady Doyle the wife of the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was a channeller very much in the J. Z. Knight tradition. Her prototype-Ramatha, Phineas, didn't just go in for the usual spiritualist consolations, but declaimed prophecies of the end of the world, the cataclysmic overthrow of the world order, and the destruction of the enemies of spiritualism. It is not clear whether Lady Doyle named this alter-ego after the character in Greek mythology, or Phineas, a character in the Old Testament who went around killing idolaters.

The fulminations against Houdini and his friends, who had set up what amounted to a private secret service to oppose the mediums, suggest that the latter is not entirely implausible. Doyle was well in with Le Roi and Mina 'Margery' Crandon who were at the centre of the American spiritualist and psychical research communities. 'Margery' was a notorious and very physical medium whose performances made the notorious Eusapio Palladino look like a prude in comparison. She seems to have seduced or tried to seduce just about every well-known figure in psychical research on either side of the Atlantic. This may partly because there is evidence to suggest that her husband's interests were more in the direction of teen and pre-teen boys, several of whom the Crandon's tried to 'adopt' only for them to mysteriously disappear. This couple were obviously a very strange and sinister pair indeed. All of this suggests that the world of interwar spiritualism and psychical research is desperately in need of detailed historical study.

The authors more than suggest that Houdini may have been murdered by the Spiritualists, whether to protect the criminal activities of fake mediums, or because they had fallen for the worst superstition of them all, that the end justifies the means. That doesn't mean that all the fault was on one side, for Houdini too was caught up in an increasingly fanatical crusade, and what we have here is the birth of a war in microcosm, with both sides increasingly demonising the other and resorting to ever more violent language and actions.

If the Spiritualists did kill Houdini, I can't help, after reading this book, wondering whether they might committed a far greater crime than they can possibly imagined. Is it possible that if Houdini had lived, there would have been one last great crusade for him to embark on, the supreme escape act for the master escapologist, using his fame, contacts and resources to organise that escape of who knows how many of his fellow East European Jews from the clutches of Adolf Hitler? -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson from Magonia 95, May 2007.

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