Bibliophilia: Debunking & Bunking With Spirits

Houdini demonstrates how a photographer could produce fraudulent "spirit photographs"
Houdini demonstrates how a photographer could produce fraudulent “spirit photographs”

Author’s Note: This is the first post of The Jet Fuel Review’s new weekly topic Bibliophilia! Each Wednesday I, Lucas Sifuentes, will take you on a tour through the pages of some of the strangest and most interesting books this side of the written word. I will be discussing the history around the book, the author who wrote it, and when pertinent the physical book itself. So please join in, read along, comment, and catch your own case of Bibliophilia!

You may know Houdini as magician, or even as a movie star, but did you know that Houdini was also an author? As an author he wrote a few titles you might expect from a magician like “Houdini’s Big Little Book of Magic” and “On Deception.” Yet Houdini’s most fascinating book had little to do with his own magic; instead it was a work that explored deception and trickery prevalent in spiritualist community. Houdini’s book “A Magician Among the Spirits” was a work of skepticism meant to expose spiritualists as the most awful frauds.

If we take a look at Houdini’s personal life around the time he published “A Magician Among the Spirits” it may be easier to understand why he felt so passionate about this issue. One of Houdini’s closest friends was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes books. Now what you may not know about Sir Arthur was that he was himself a spiritualist. Sir Arthur even believed in mythical creatures such as Fairies and famously touted the Cottingley Fairies photographs as “visible evidence of psychic phenomena.” On a less humorous note Sir Arthur was also a firm believer in séances, through which he believed he was speaking with deceased son.

Although Houdini tried to convince his friend that the people who held séances were mere charlatans preying on his misfortune, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would refuse to listen. The publication of “A Magician Among the Spirits” was the final schism in their friendship.  In the book Houdini would go on to expose famous practitioners of “mystic powers” including slate writers, séance holders, and even reserved an entire chapter on the subject of ectoplasm. The book is an interesting exercise in skepticism although the cons Houdini spends time debunking are always more interesting than their explanation. “Like most perplexing things when made clear, it is astonishing how easily it is done. The rappings are simply the result of a perfect control of the muscles of the leg below the knee, which govern the tendons of the foot and allow action of the toe and ankle bones that is not commonly known”

Houdini continued to debunk spiritualism until his death and even afterwards. Every year for ten years after his death his wife, Rosabelle, held a séance for him as was dictated in his will. Houdini promised that if he could communicate from the afterlife he would through the message “Rosabelle believe.” The séances held for Houdini always proved fruitless; but if you were to ask Ida C. Craddock what that proved she would tell you “nothing” because she made claims not only to have made contact with the spirit world but to have gone all the way with it.

Ida C. Craddock is an awesome and strange historical figure who first came to the public’s attention as an advocate for free speech and woman’s rights. Ida accomplished many things in her life. She was the first woman to pass the entrance exam to the University of Pennsylvania but will always be remembered for her involvement with Little Egypt and her public battle with Anthony Comstock. Little Egypt was a belly dancing exhibit at the 1893 World’s Fair that came under fire from conservative Anthony Comstock who called it “the mouth of hell.” Ida quickly stepped up to defend Little Egypt and what happened from there lead to the writing of a series of tracts including “Heavenly Bridegroom” and “Psychic Wedlock.”

You see, Ida championed that Little Egypt was a show that was both psychicly and sexually stimulating in a positive way. When Ida was then confronted as to how she could know about such things having never been married, or as Comstock put is “a spinster,” Ida assured them that she was married but just not to a living man. She was married to a spirit. Ida then went on to elaborate that she and her husband shared a very sexual relationship, even going into detail as to how they had sex. From here Ida went on to become a sex advice writer, publishing books for people with both physical and spiritual partners.  Her works on spiritual sexuality are interesting to read on premise alone, while her other writing tends to lack the same insight and is staunchly conservative by today’s standards. Ida Craddock was eventually arrested for “distributing lewd materials through the U.S. Post Office” and sentenced three months hard labor. Though rather than serve the sentence Ida decided to take her own life instead as “The rigors of prison life would be equivalent to my death warrant.”

Both Craddock’s and Houdini’s writing are unique and interesting windows into their own personal beliefs on spiritualism. Houdini found it to be a world where charlatans tricked vulnerable fools and Craddock found spiritualism to be a loving and sexually liberating culture. Ida’s collected writings are available to read online while unfortunately Houdini’s book is a little harder to track down.

Do you have an opinion on this? Have you read anything written by Houdini or Craddock before? Have you ever experienced something supernatural or are you more of a skeptic? Be sure to leave some comments below so that we can continue our discussion on con men, trick photography, and distributing lewd materials through the mail.

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