Harry Houdini was a well-known escape artist, a film star, and a tireless warrior against spiritualism. He placed advertisements in local newspapers, including this one in the December 1, 1922 Richmond Times Dispatch.
Spiritualism was a religious movement based on the belief that the dead and the living could have contact with each other. Houdini fought against fraudulent mediums and even testified before Congress in 1926. His goal? To put the fraudulent mediums who preyed upon the grieving out of business.
In the United States, modern Spiritualism’s roots began in 1848 with the Fox Sisters of New York. Karen Abbott wrote a compelling piece about the sisters in this article for Smithsonian Magazine. The three sisters gained millions of followers until sister Maggie Fox gave an exclusive interview in 1888 and demonstrated how they were able to fool so many people for so long. Despite Maggie’s confession, Spiritualism continued to flourish. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was a firm believer in the movement. Many point to Doyle’s son’s death as the starting point of his belief in Spiritualism, but he joined the Society for Psychical Research long before his son’s death in 1918.
I delved into Spiritualism and Houdini’s campaign against it while researching the 1920s and veterans of World War I. I have a character who is a soldier returning from war suffering from terrible shell shock (what we now know as PTSD) who developed a firm belief in the afterlife. He did it to atone for the sin of surviving when others didn’t. In contrast, my main character, Evie, lost her mother and brother in a short span of time. Rather than subscribe to belief in spirits talking to the living, she believed they couldn’t because surely if it was real, her family members would have “spoken” to her in her time of grief.
If you’re interested in learning more about Houdini and his fight against fraudulent mediums, I recommend reading David Jaher’s The Witch of Lime Street. It describes Houdini’s yearlong campaign to expose a Boston medium.