Harry Houdini – Spiritualism or Swindle?

Magician David Fox explores…

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‘What the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes’

Harry Houdini, 1874 – 1926

It was a dark and dreary mid-winter evening several years ago in Derbyshire. I had been invited to entertain guests at a corporate function in the distinguished setting of Breadsall Priory. The evening was going very well, and my repertoire of card magic, illusion, and sleight-of-hand was clearly having a positive impact on the proceedings. An opportunity soon presented itself for me to conduct some mind-reading and psychological routines (known as ‘Mentalism’ in magical parlance).

In one such effect I invite an audience member to think of someone they know well. It could be a family member, friend or work colleague. In this instance the lady in question happened to think of someone who had recently passed on. Needless to say, when I later revealed the person’s identity, the participant thought something supernatural had taken place.

As magicians we are well aware of the possibility of creating powerful effects which will leave a profound and lasting impression upon an audience. Indeed, magic and the supernatural have long been inextricably intertwined. The priests of ancient Egypt often used the art to mesmerise and frighten their subjects. In more recent times the case of the great French magician Robert Houdin (from whom Harry Houdini took his name) is well documented. Houdin managed to scare a group of tribal insurgents in Africa by using a simple magical effect in order to quell colonial insurrection. It is for this reason that the contemporary prestidigitator must be responsible and respectful when entertaining any audience.

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On hearing the word ‘magic’ we automatically think of Harry Houdini. This sensational individual needs little introduction and, almost a century since his death, he continues to amaze and inspire both magicians and lay persons the world over. Houdini helped to raise the profile of magic considerably throughout the early twentieth century with his wonderful stage performances and death defying stunts. His boundless charisma, formidable work ethic, and strength of personality, all combined to create one of the world’s first international superstars. However, most people are unaware of Houdini’s close association with spiritualism during the latter stages of his life.

On losing his beloved mother, Houdini began to ponder the possibility of an after life throughout the 1920s. Like many vulnerable souls who find themselves in such a time of emotional turmoil, he sought solace in mediums who had become more prevalent around the industrialised American towns since the ‘Occult Renaissance’ of the late nineteenth century.

Sadly, Houdini was bitterly disappointed by the séances he attended, and quickly developed the point-of-view that spiritualists, and those that claimed to be in league with the dearly departed, were merely charlatans. Thus, he set out on a moral crusade to disclose, or ‘debunk’, the fraudulent activities of such persons. Houdini’s revelations are masterfully presented in his 1924 work entitled ‘A Magician Among The Spirits’. The great magician demonstrates much of the chicanery utilised by purported spiritualists in order to extract hard-earned cash from the unwary.

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Spiritualism grew in popularity from the mid nineteenth century onwards.

But what of Spiritualism? Can we fully accept Houdini’s warnings, or is there really some kernel of truth in the possibility of communicating with the deceased? Adherents of the multitude of contemporary Spiritualist churches which exist throughout the world would refute his accusations. Indeed, one commentator has calculated that there are currently over thirteen million followers of this faith throughout Europe and North America alone. Perhaps like many belief systems Spiritualism has attracted its share of charlatans over the years, but are there mediums amongst its ranks who possess a genuine ability to contact the dead?

The eminent philosopher Carl Jung appreciated that human beings possess a subconscious desire to believe in some form of higher force, or divine purpose, to life. The prospect of living a meaningless existence with no prospect of an afterlife is, to say the least, frightful. Many magicians often scoff at those who readily accept the existence of spirits, but in my humble opinion this is a rather arrogant stand-point to assume. Granted, given a sympathetic enough context, we can create effects which may appear to defy reality.

A variety of elements combined that wintry evening all those years ago in Derbyshire such as the gloomy weather, dim lighting, and the fact that we were on the site of a medieval abbey which is rumoured to be haunted, to create an effect of almost supernatural proportions. However,  there are indeed many things which contemporary science in all its wisdom still cannot fully explain such as: premonitions, photographs and recordings of unusual phenomenon, and telepathy.

As for Houdini, he promised to send a coded message to friends and family after he shed this mortal coil. To date, we are still waiting to hear from the master…

David Fox is a professional award winning magician who performs his unique brand of magic throughout the world.

Visit David’s new Corporate website at: www.davidfoxcorporatemagic.com

Telephone number: 07946 686 258

Rasputin: The Holy Devil

David Fox examines this fascinating figure…

Title: ‘Rasputin and The Fall of the Romanovs’  Author: Colin Wilson  Year of Publication: 1964

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‘Grigory Rasputin had one curious characteristic that distinguished him from the other village boys; he possessed a degree of the second sight.’

Since his appearance in pre-revoulutionary St Petersburg, Grigory Rasputin has remained an object of intrigue, speculation and rumour throughout the world. The incredible story of the peasant from the obscure village of Pokrovskoe, Siberia, who would meteorically rise to become (albeit briefly) one of the most powerful figures on the world stage, continues to captivate and amaze modern historians. It is said that this mysterious monk held seemingly Biblical powers such as the ability to heal the sick, foresee future events, and demonstrate startling feats of telepathy. Wherever Rasputin wandered, his influence and reputation grew, some venerated him as a true holy man of God, whilst others dismissed him as a confidence trickster and charlatan. This was chiefly due to Rasputin’s well documented affection for the temporal aspects of existence, which is of course at odds with mainstream Christian ideology. How did this shadowy figure of eccentricity and dubious character manage to win over the trust and affection of the Tsar and Tsarina prior to the abrupt and brutal culmination of the Romanov dynasty? In essence it could be readily argued that prior to his assassination in 1916, Rasputin was effectively operating as the last Tsar of Russia. Colin Wilson provides a fascinating analysis and insight into the life story of one of modern history’s exceptional characters.

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‘Rasputin preached that all religions are of equal worth and constitute different means of reaching God.’

Wilson’s analysis of Rasputin’s early development and wanderings does reveal a genuinely spiritual character who was clearly motivated by an inner impulse for higher truth, understanding and communion with God. The monk’s charisma, magnetism and uncanny ability to predict future events and demonstrate acts of thaumaturgy, quickly earned him acclaim throughout his home village and beyond. Indeed, on his arrival in St Petersburg in 1905 an Okhrana spy reported that ‘crowds assemble at Rasputin’s, and people wait two or three days before being able to approach the monk.’ Naturally such adoration will be met with jealousy and suspicion, particularly from those with vested interests such as Rasputin’s local priest and the political establishment of the time. This pattern would continue to develop throughout the monk’s eventful life and his enemies did not have to look far for ammunition to slander.

‘From childhood on, Rasputin took his freedom, and the benevolence of the universe for granted.’

 The monk’s nocturnal indulgences became well known around St Petersbourg, and Rasputin rapidly gained an unsavoury reputation as an arch-seducer. Indeed, his indiscretions merely provided his political opponents with an angle to promote him as a negative influence upon the royal household. However, Wilson notes that Rasputin exhibited a perennial naivety and there is evidence to suggest that he was influenced by the mysterious Khltsy sect which do not subscribe to orthodox church doctrine. His spirituality was more akin to that of Zarathustra as opposed to St Francis of Assisi. Rasputin refused to deny the temporal and appeared not to differentiate between the spiritual and the material. Wilson appreciates that the ancient notion of finding enlightenment, and ultimately God, through the celebration of life itself, in all its forms, continues to resonate among sects such as the Khltsy which do not conform to the established dualistic views of the church. Nonetheless, such an ambivalent nature would have been considered abhorrent by the majority of his contemporaries. For a high-ranking man of the cloth to have been so openly promiscuous and debauched was an affront to church and state.

‘the speed with which he acquired followers and disciples was amazing… They clung to him like flies to a honey pot.’

Many have speculated about how Rasputin quickly gained such a powerful influence over the Tsar and Tsarina. Wilson does offer considerable detail regarding his thaumaturgical prowess, and cites various accounts from several sources concerning his almost God-like ability. Tsarevich Alexei suffered from the unfortunate condition of haemophilia. Seemingly the only person who could ever stop the bleeding whenever young Alexei had an accident was Rasputin. This was clearly the major factor in maintaining his bizarre influence over the royal household. Political opponents viewed the monk as a menace who had evidently bewitched the Tsarina and was surely conspiring against the national interest. A wave of vitriol directed towards the monk, compounded by the ever-increasing hardships of the first world war upon the Russian people, culminated in the assassination of the Tsarina’s favourite in the early hours of 30th November 1916.

‘Whatever else may be said against Rasputin, he certainly possessed this intuitive optimism and trust, an awareness of the power of the spirit.’

Colin Wilson provides an excellent portrayal of one of the most complex and intriguing figures of the twentieth century. He neither sensationalises nor apologises. Wilson merely provides the reader with a highly engaging, informative and objective view-point of the life and times of Grigory Rasputin. This is masterfully presented along with a concise and enlightening historical context, which the author presents very well to the reader. Indeed, students with little or no knowledge of Russian history could appreciate this text as much as experts, and this highlights the genius of Colin Wilson. Clearly the popularised image of Rasputin needs to be revised and Wilson has gone some way to doing this. The victors will always write history to serve their own agenda, and it was in the Bolshevik interest to demonise, defile and distort the final chapter of Tsarist Russia.

To find out more about David Fox, visit his website: David Fox Magic

Spirits on Film?

Is it really possible to photograph those who have passed on?

Magician David Fox explores…

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Sir Victor Goddard’s RAF squadron circa 1919

This year we commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War One and the above photograph of an RAF squadron was taken in 1919 after the cessation of hostilities. The men and women in this image all served in the same unit during the conflict alongside Sir Victor Goddard (who took the shot). Uncannily a mysterious spectral face can be seen to the rear of the fourth gentleman from the left on the back row.

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The image of Freddy Jackson, who had died two days before, appears behind the back row.

Members of the squadron quickly identified the man to be Freddy Jackson; a mechanic, who had been tragically killed in an accident two days before the photograph was taken. Indeed, Jackson’s funeral took place on the day of this group shot and his subsequent appearance in the image raises some profound questions. Is it possible to capture evidence of an afterlife using photographic equipment? Or is this merely an example of an elaborate hoax conducted by individuals of superior technological wisdom?

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Newby Church altar 1963. The photograph was taken by Reverend Lord and experts cannot explain the mysterious shrouded figure.

Ghost hunters, psychic investigators and spiritualists have long argued that it is indeed possible to record evidence of the departed by using even the most basic of recording equipment. In recent years it is not only photographs of supposed spirit forms which have entered the public domain, but a whole variety of film clips boasting both visual and audio ‘evidence’ of a seemingly otherworldly nature. Exponents of this viewpoint argue that experts can visit notorious venues of preternatural phenomena and use their sensitivity and awareness to successfully ‘record’ the activities of the deceased. So-called ‘ghost-hunts’ at apparently haunted venues have become commonplace throughout the UK and have provided a much welcome source of revenue to hoteliers.

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The gardens to the rear of Thrumpton Hall in Nottinghamshire. Note the curious misty ‘figure’ to the centre left.

My vocation takes me to many spectacular locations throughout the British Isles and it is incredible how many venues I perform at which are said to be ‘haunted’. It always strikes me as nothing short of extraordinary how even the most level-headed and austere of hotel managers can suddenly divulge his or her own spine-chilling account of nocturnal queerness on the premises. Such people seem to be fully convinced in the existence of an afterlife and the occurrence of supernatural activity around their venues. Indeed, prior to most performances I always take a few photographs around the hotels, halls and stately homes I am fortunate enough to perform magic at. On a closer inspection, it is rather peculiar that I do often find unusual shapes, orbs and irregularities among the images. For example, the most recent being the misty ‘figure’ in the trees to the rear of Thrumpton Hall in Nottinghamshire (see photograph above). I since discovered that this venue is also said to be haunted by the ghost of a servant girl who took her own life.

For more information about the author, why not visit David’s website: David Fox Illusionist Extraordinaire