In the late 19th and early 20th century, spiritualism was all the rage. People turned to mediums and séances for spiritual guidance. The religious movement had such a pull that even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a believer….
- THE FOX SISTERS… In late March of 1848, Margaret Fox, a farmer’s wife living in Hydesville, New York, with her daughters, began to hear noises. People became convinced they were mediums, with the ability to communicate with the other side. Soon their older sister, Leah Fox Fish, got involved. Hearing of the girls’ otherworldly “powers,” the eldest sister saw dollar signs and promptly booked sessions for people looking to communicate with the dead. The façade went on for decades, until 1888 when Maggie finally spoke up. After her husband had died, she was left penniless and alone, and had turned to drinking. She wrote a letter to the New York World confessing her and her sister’s trickery.
- THE DAVENPORT BROTHERS… The Fox sisters didn’t stop a slew of copy-cats and spin-off performers. In 1855, 16-year-old Ira and 14-year-old William Davenport got on stage for the first time. With the help of their spirit guide, a ghost named Johnny King, they performed a number of elaborate tricks that went past simple rappings; often bells, cabinets, ropes, and floating instruments. Members of the audience would swear they saw instruments fly over their heads, or feel ghostly hands on their shoulders. The brothers were heralded as true mediums and enjoyed fame for the rest of their careers. He was not heard from again until magician Harry Houdini sought him out years later. The two became friends and Ira let him in on a few of his tricks!
- EVA CARRIÈRE… Now armed with the secrets of the Davenport Brothers, as well as his own experiences as a medium in his younger days, Houdini set out to expose fraudulent mediums throughout the 1920s. One such so called fraudster was Eva Carrière. As detailed in Houdini’s book, A Magician Among the Spirits, Carrière was a medium known for her ability to produce a mysterious substance called ectoplasm from a number of orifices. After some time, she would conjure up ectoplasm from her mouth. Although Houdini called Carrière a fraud she still seemed to hold many in her trance. A researcher named Albert von Schrenck-Notzing spent several years from 1909 to 1913 working with her, and by the end, he was completely convinced. He published his findings and photographs in his book Phenomena of Materialisation.
- ANN O’DELIA DISS DEBAR… Ann O’Delia Diss Debar had gone through many monikers and identities in her lifetime, but according to Houdini she started life as Editha Salomen. She was extremely successful in her con artistry and managed to cheat Baltimore’s wealthiest out of a quarter million dollar.
- MINA CRANDON… In the 1920s, Mina Crandon (also known as Margery, or the Blonde Witch of Lime Street) was one of the most well-known and controversial mediums of her time. Margery would conjure the ghost of her brother Walter. The medium his spirit, who would then rap out messages, tip over tables, and yell at the participants. Often ectoplasm would ooze from her ears, nose, mouth, and dress. In 1923, Harry Houdini joined a panel of scientists formed by The Scientific American to find a true medium. The prize for convincing them was $5000. The panel was quite convinced with Margery and was gearing up to give her the money for her legitimacy. The panel was quite convinced with Margery and was gearing up to give her the money for her legitimacy. Houdini wanted to take a look at the medium for himself, and in 1924, headed to Boston. When the séance began, Houdini sat next to Margery with their hands joined and feet and legs touching. Earlier that day, the skeptic had worn a bandage around his knee all day, making it extremely sensitive to the touch. The heightened sensitivity helped him feel Margery move as she used her feet to grab various props during the act. After figuring out the scheme, Houdini was convinced of the fraud and wanted to go public. Houdini decided she was a fake and humiliated her by not giving out the prize money.
Margery made a prediction in 1926. “Houdini will be gone by Halloween,” Walter declared. Coincidentally, Houdini did die that October 31st from peritonitis.