When one thinks of stage magicians during the early decades of the twentieth century, they usually think of the big names like Harry Houdini or Harry Kellar.
SOURCE: Poster of Harry Kellar’s Famous Self-Decapitation Performance, circa 1880s
Both of these figures were famous for their incredible physical displays, which often mirrored the kinds of performances witnessed at spiritualist events.
Poster for Harry Houdini’s Famous Parody Performance of a Spiritualist Séance, 1909
Kellar’s ties to spiritualism were quite strong. There was even a period in the late 1860s when he worked and toured with the Davenport Brothers, who were renowned for the spirit cabinet performance.
SOURCE: The Davenport Brothers’ Spirit Cabinet
Levitation, self-decapitation, vanishing birdcages, were just some of the many incredible feats that audiences witnessed at Kellar’s popular shows during the height of his career in the 1880s. Occult motifs were typically present too, and added a mystical element to Kellar’s act.
Meanwhile, Houdini made a living early on in his career by purposefully duping people into believing that he was a real medium. However, after the loss of his mother Ceilia Steiner in 1913, he realized that these activities were exploitative. Thereafter he turned his attention to exposing fraudsters rather than emulating them.
In his famous book A Magician Among the Spirits he wrote: “As I advanced to riper years of experience I was brought to a realization of the seriousness of trifling with the hallowed reverence which the average human being bestows on the departed, and when I personally became afflicted with similar grief I was chagrined that I should ever have been guilty of such frivolity and for the first time realized that it bordered on crime.”
Cover of Harry Houdini’s A Magician Among the Spirits (1924)
However, there was another magician who was also an important debunker of false mediumship during the opening decades of the twentieth century, William Marriott.
One of Marriott’s most significant contributions to professional magic’s war with spiritualism was the publication of a six-part series across four issues of Pearson’s Magazine titled ‘On the Edge of the Unknown.’, which was published between March and October of 1910.
Its purpose was to show how the different kinds of incredible phenomena witnessed during psychic performances could be easily recreated through normal processes.
Drawing on his training as a skilled stage magician, Marriott duplicated and photographed all sorts of fake supernormal phenomena to show how a cunning and duplicitous fake medium could fool an inattentive observer into believing these occurrences were real.
However, even before Marriott published is multi-part exposé for Pearson’s Magazine he had already been involved in a highly publicized exposure. In 1901 he brought to widespread notice the existence of a secret catalogue titled Gambols with Ghosts that phony mediums used for purchasing equipment to simulate their supposed supernormal phenomena.
Cover of Gambols with the Ghosts by Ralph E. Sylvestre (1901)
Produced by Ralph E. Sylvestre of Chicago, Illinois, these catalogues were secretly circulated among mediums, and buyers were supposed to return the catalogue to Sylvestre with their orders.
The introduction to Gambols with the Ghosts stated:
"Our experience during the past 30 years in supplying mediums and others with the peculiar effects in this line enable us to place before you only those which are practical and of use, nothing that you have to experiment with. We wish you to thoroughly appreciate that, while we do not, for obvious reasons, mention the names of our clients and their work (they being kept in strict confidence, the same as a physician treats his patients), we can furnish you with the explanation and, where necessary, the material for the production of any known public 'tests' or 'phenomena' not mentioned in this, our latest list. You are aware that our effects are being used by nearly all prominent mediums of the entire world."
It is not fully clear how Marriott got hold of a copy, but once he saw the catalogue, he announced to the world that disreputable mediums were buying all sorts of equipment from Sylvestre to trick people into paying high sums of money for their dishonourable services.
So, what kinds of equipment could one procure from Sylvestre? According to the catalogue items ranged from basic slate-writing tools, to stuffed ghosts for faking spirit photographs, self-playing guitars, and instruments that could be hidden in a room to emulate the sound of a table rapping.
To add further insult, Marriott even had several photographs taken of himself posing with some of the items he acquired through Sylvestre’s catalogue for his serial with Pearson's Magazine in 1910.
Photograph of Marriott with some models of ghosts, purchased from Sylvestre and Co. This photograph appeared in ‘On the Edge of the Unknown’ (1910).
Marriott continued to debunk mediums straight through into the early 1920s and his last major attempt to discredit a fake medium occurred in the autumn of 1921.
After participating in a sitting with the renowned psychic photographer William Hope, the editor of the Sunday Express James Douglas set a challenge calling for anyone skilled in photography to duplicate Hope’s feats under the same conditions as the sitting he attended with Hope, but without any professed spirit or psychic agency involved.
Marriott accepted the challenge and in early December of 1921 he successfully duplicated Hope’s feat at the offices of the British College of Psychic Science.
Results of the Sunday Express test with William Hope, 1921. The photographs shows the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories Arthur Conan Doyle and the editor of the Sunday Express James Douglas with a spirit impression looming in the background.
It was the results of this test which ultimately led to the more famous exposure of Hope by Harry Price a few weeks later in February of 1922.
Marriott’s copy of Gambols with the Ghosts was eventually given to Price, and it can be found today in the archives at the Senate House Library, London.
Houdini, Harry. A Magician Among the Spirits. London: Harper & Brothers, 1924.
Kalush, William and, Sloman, Larry. The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006.
Marriott, William, ‘Realities of the Séance,’ Pearson’s Magazine, 29: 171, 1910, pp. 236-246.
Marriott, William, ‘Spirit Messages,’ Pearson’s Magazine, 29: 172, 1910, pp. 357-369.
Marriot, William, ‘Healers Who Do Not Heal,’ Pearson’s Magazine, 29:173, 1910, pp. 509-521.
Marriott, William, ‘Physical Phenomena,’ Pearson’s Magazine, 29: 174, 1910, pp. 607-618
Marriott, William, ‘Spirit Photography,’ Pearson’s Magazine, 30: 175, 1910, pp. 162-173
Marriott, William, ‘Telepathy,’ Pearson’s Magazine, 30:176, 1910, pp. 431-438.
Mullin, Rita T. Harry Houdini: Death-Defying Showman. Cambridge: Baker & Taylor, 2009.
Noyes, Deborah. The Magician and the Spirits: Harry Houdini and the Curious Pastime of Communicating with the Dead. New York: Penguin Books, 2017.