Like Elvis and Marilyn, just one word is enough. The name Houdini is synonymous with being the world’s greatest magician (he wasn’t) and the world’s greatest escape artist (he was). To “pull a Houdini” means to disappear. Houdini was a superstar in the world of illusion and escape – and only then did he make his most lasting contribution to society. He began an obsessive quest to find any psychic or medium who could actually perform a supernatural act. One by one, he exposed every “psychic” he encountered. By exposing the dishonest nature of astrologers, mediums, and psychics, he helped advance the use of science in everyday life.
Houdini was already an international superstar by the 1920s. For over two decades, he was the highest paid performer in Vaudeville. His name was known on every continent. In England, he dazzled the nation by he escaping from a jail after being shackled by Scotland Yard’s best handcuffs. In Russia, he stunned the Czar with his illusions and the shocked the nation when he escaped from a Siberian prisoner transport van. By 1904, he was able to buy his beloved mother a house worth $700,000 (in today’s money) in cash. His close relationship with his mother is what eventually led him into the world of the supernatural.
Houdini had an exceptionally close relationship with his mother. When she died in 1920, Houdini was devastated. He was also at the height of his fame and earning power. To cope with his grief, he turned to mediums and psychics – including the wife of his friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle’s wife held a seance at which Houdini’s mother “guided” Lady Doyle’s hand to write a message to her grieving son. “Oh my darling, thank God, thank God, at last I’m through. I’ve tried, oh so often – now I am happy. Why, of course, I want to talk to my boy – my own beloved boy – friends, thank you, with all my heart for this.” After the séance, Houdini wrote a note on the bottom of the paper: “Message written by Lady Doyle claiming the spirit of my dear Mother had control of her hand – my sainted mother could not write English and spoke broken English.”
It was during this time that Houdini made his vast contribution to science. He sought out anyone who claimed supernatural powers and one by one exposed them as fakes or liars. Penn Jillette, of Penn And Teller, has given numerous interviews and written extensively about Houdini. Penn astutely points out that Houdini scaled back his performances – the very thing that had made him an international superstar – to seek the truth. According to historian Brett Myers, Houdini offered almost $150,000 (in 2017 dollars) to any person who could prove they had supernatural powers. No one came close to winning the money and one by one the most famous psychics of the day were shown to be frauds. By applying scientific principles to the question of supernatural powers, Houdini radically changed the way the public analyzed problems.
Scientific American got behind Houdini, naming him to a distinguished panel of scientists, who again offered money to anyone who could prove they had supernatural abilities beyond the explanation of science. Again, no one has collected. In recent years the offer has been expanded to $1 million dollars by James Randi. You read that right. From 1996 – 2015, any person who could actually prove they have supernatural powers of any kind merely had to fill out some forms and show up at James Randi’s office and prove it in order to be granted one million dollars. While Randi easily exposed fakes like Uri Gellar, most tv psychics like Sylvia Browne and Allison DuBois (Medium) simply refused to be tested. The truth was simple – they could not back up their claims. Whatever their excuses, the result was the same. No person in the world has ever proven to posses replicable supernatural powers under scientific conditions.
There is no questioning that many of us (myself included) have personally witnessed or experienced dreams or premonitions or other supernatural experiences. Houdini did not dispute such experiences. They cannot be predicted, tested or replicated. Instead, he urged people to use facts in evaluating evidence. If someone tells you they can read minds, tell your future or read your aura, ask them if they can prove it under scientific conditions. If they insist that you have to believe in their powers for them to work, why not point out that Kobe Bryant can shoot free throws whether you believe in his ability or not. A mathematician can multiply numbers even if skeptics are watching. It took a magician – the great Houdini – to turn people’s minds away from magic and towards science! That, more than his death-defying escapes and amazing slight of hand is why Houdini remains important today!