October 13, 2016

Harry Houdini and the case against fortune-telling in American politics


The Right Way to Do Wrong 154x200It was a different time. Sort of. In 1926, incensed by the fact that DC politicians were paying spiritualists thousands of dollars for clairvoyant counsel, one Harry Houdini, master illusionist and Melville House author, presented to a subcommittee of the United States Congress House Resolution 8989, “a Bill to Impose a Fine on Fraudulent Fortune Tellers in the District of Columbia.”

Based in the opinion that spiritualists, clairvoyants, psychics, and astrologists were a conning lot that had no business advising—let alone profiting off—the nation’s decision-makers, the bill required that “any person pretending to tell fortunes for reward or compensation” within D.C. be sentenced to pay a $250 fine or spend six months in prison.

The proceedings bore the mark of a great entertainer, as Houdini met with a bemused Congress over the course of four days, pulling out all the rabbits to make his case. Asked to identify his profession, Houdini remarked, “I am an author; I am a psychic investigator for the scientific magazines of the world; and then I am a mysterious entertainer.” Among his audience, he knew, were the very spiritualists he was indicting, and so as part of the first day’s events he presented an envelope, demanding that someone in the audience tell him the contents of the message inside.  “None of them,” A writes for Atlas Obscura, “took the bait.”

Houdini also called his wife to the stand as a witness, produced a “sucker list” of false spiritualist documentations photostatted and pasted onto a fifty-foot roll of cloth, and accused multiple audience members of fraud.

The hearing rolled on — and Houdini raised the stakes. He reported on the findings of his private investigator Rose Mackenberg, including a conversation between a disguised Mackenberg and astrologer “Madame” Marcia Champney, which revealed, if nothing else, that the belief in mediums was widespread among politicians: “[Marcia] said a number of Senators were coming to her readings; in fact, most of the Senators… almost all the people in the White House believed in spiritualism.”

Things escalated from there:

The room erupted into chaos as Mackenberg proceeded to name names: Senators Capper, Watson, Dill, Fletcher. Houdini theatrically underscored her claim — the corruption went all the way to the top.

And eventually Houdini found himself unwittingly embroiled in political scandal as a result of his findings:

It was public knowledge that Florence Harding, wife of Coolidge’s predecessor Warren G. Harding, regularly consulted a psychic who predicted her husband’s election victory as well as his unexpected death in office. The former First Lady’s psychic advisor was none other than Madame Marcia. Marcia Champney eventually wrote her own exposé, When An Astrologer Ruled the White House, claiming that her foreknowledge played a pivotal role in the Harding administration.

After Coolidge stepped up to the presidency in 1923, he worked hard to put Harding’s many scandals and intrigues behind him. So when Madame Marcia and Jane Coates appeared in Congress trumpeting their psychic services to the White House, they brought with them Harding’s unsavory ghost. The same day as Houdini’s accusation, the evening edition of the New York Times carried an official denial “that seances had been held at the White House since Mr. Coolidge became president.”

Over the course of the four days, the police were called multiple times. Houdini was punched in the face. And the media had a helluva time running headlines like “Hints of Seances at White House” and “Lawmakers Consult Mediums.” The bill did not pass.



Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.