In his time, Harry Houdini was known not just as the world’s most famous magician but also as a hoax-buster, exposing fraudulent psychics and spirit mediums.
On this episode of the podcast, Jon Cox, creator of Wild About Houdini, explains what happened in 1924 when the death obsessed Houdini went head-to-head with Mina Crandon, a Boston medium known for her hypersexual seances and bizarre methods.
Mina ‘Marjory’ Crandon was the wife of a wealthy surgeon and spiritualist, Le Roi Goddard Crandon. Perhaps bored with life among the idle rich, Mina began holding seances in her parlour. These events, more social occasions than genuine attempts to contact the dead, were sexually charged.
Crandon would cause glowing ectoplasm to appear across her décolletage and a “teleplasmic hand” would crawl from her lap on to the table in the darkness of the seance room. Rumours spread that the hand, actually a dried piece of liver carved into a hand, was hidden in her vagina, a feat made possible by her surgeon husband altering her biology.
It wasn’t until 1924 when the Scientific American magazine suggested they might offer her their long uncollected prize for proof of paranormal activity that Houdini stepped in. The magician, already known for his life-long obsession with discovering the truth about life after death, offered to test Crandon’s abilities.
Crandon soon found herself locked in a box, only her head visible, attempting to coax spirits into ringing a bell that sat out of reach on the table. The bell did ring and, shortly after, a ruler was found in the box.
The ruler was seen by skeptics as proof that Crandon had attempted to cheat, holding the ruler in her mouth to ring the bell. However, it was seen by Crandon’s supporters as proof that Houdini was attempting to sabotage the test and besmirch the medium’s good name.
Regardless of who won the clash, both Harry and Mina benefited a great deal from the publicity that the challenge stirred up proving once again that the battle for truth is rarely won through science or spirituality but instead in the court of public opinion.
Nicholas J. Johnson is a Melbourne magician, author and entertainer.