Harry Houdini’s Spiritualism Scrapbooks: A Glimpse into the Popular Occulture of the 1920s
Updated: Jan 28
The famous magician Harry Houdini was a leading spirit and psychic investigator during the 1920s. His most famous published work on the topic is his book, A Magician Among the Spirits, from 1924.
Caption: Book Cover for Harry Houdini's A Magician Among the Spirits (1924)
Houdini also published all sorts of articles about his experiences in the séance room, and many of these pieces appeared in major American newspapers and magazines, such as the Chicago Tribune.
SOURCE: Harry Houdini in Handcuffs, 1905
To help him with his investigations, Houdini set up a group of operatives, which he called his “secret service,” who travelled to towns ahead of Houdini to investigated local mediums and determine if they were frauds.
These operatives would send reports to Houdini, who would later, during his visits to these towns, expose the mediums as tricksters to ensure that they could never again exploit vulnerable people for economic gain.
One of his key operatives was Rose Mackenberg, who wore various disguises to hide her real identity while attending séances.
SOURCE: Examples of Rose Mackenberg's Disguises Used for Séance Investigations
Houdini was also a collector of spiritualist literature and ephemera, and during the early 1920s he put together a fascinating scrapbook of articles he found in various printed media.
Looking through his scrapbook provides a wonderful glimpse into the popular occulture of the early twentieth century.
The clippings included in his scrapbook give both an impression of the kinds of material people interested in the occult were reading at the time, and the sorts of topics they were discussing.
For example, on the opening page of the scrapbook there is an article from the Oakland Tribune, dated 25 May 1923, where the famed author and well-known spiritualist Arthur Conan Doyle is calling out Houdini.
SOURCE: Portrait of Arthur Conan Doyle by Herbert Rose Barraud, 1893
The magician had recently published a letter in the Oakland Tribune, where he proclaimed that Doyle had been duped by the Thomas brothers of Cardiff into believing that their professed mediumship was genuine.
Caption: Letter by Arthur Conan Doyle to the Oakland Tribune, 25 May 1923. Found in Houdini's scrapbook.
The Thomas brothers (Will and Joe) were well-known within the British spiritualist community, and Joe Thomas was even photographed around 1922 by the famous psychic photographer William Hope, who was another close acquaintance of Doyle.
SOURCE: Spirit Photograph of Joe Thomas, Captured by William Hope, c. 1922
Houdini firmly believed that Joe Thomas and his brother were charlatans.
This argument in May of 1923 was one of several to occur between the magician and Doyle during the 1920s.
There is also a wonderful clipping of an article from the World Magazine, dated 19 May 1924, which discusses the alleged surge in devil worshipping in the USA at the time.
Caption: "Revival of the Dread Devil-Worship," World Magazine, 19 May 1924.
One can even find book reviews of Houdini’s A Magician Among the Spirits in the scrapbook. Including one from the New York Times Book Review from 1 June 1924.
Caption: Review of Harry Houdini’s A Magician Among the Spirits (1924) from he New York Times Book Review from 1 June 1924
Houdini’s scrapbook on spiritualism is a fascinating object, and should you find yourself with a little free time, I strongly recommend perusing its pages.
Digital versions of Houdini’s scrapbooks are available via the website for the Harry Ransom Centre at the University of Texas at Austin. You can view them here.
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.
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.
Rinn, Joseph Francis. Sixty Years of Psychical Research: Houdini and I Among the Spiritualists. New York: Truth Seeker Company, 1950.
Sandford, Christopher. Houdini and Conan Doyle: The Great Magician and Inventor of Sherlock Holmes. Friends of Genius, Deadly Rivals. London: Duckworth Overlook, 2011.
Savory, Tanya. The Amazing Harry Houdini. West Berlin: The Townsend Library, 2009.