Day 4 of the 31 Days of Myths, Magic, Mayhem, and more…
I will be your host for the evening, and tonight, I want to explore the relationship between magicians and spiritualism.
Maybe the term ‘relationship’ is too friendly. It’s more like a toxic relationship. A battle between two groups of people who use the art of illusion to convince the audience that they can manipulate the environment, spirits, and your mind.
Now, in full disclosure- I love the idea of magic. I love shows and movies with magic at its core. One of my bucket lists is to visit Las Vegas and see every magic show. Have you ever been to one? I always walk out confused and amazed at what my eyes have seen but what my mind questions.
I love fantasy books! Good vs. evil. Magic vs. the mundane. Magicians vs. warriors. Who will win the war? Once upon a time magic was accepted culturally- people with the ability were healers, druids, and religious leaders.
I also believe that there were people in the world who could talk to the dead. Across cultures and religions, people with this power have been highly revered; their predictions were seen as invaluable. They were the king makers.
Given the existing historical records, it’s safe to say that both abilities were seen as factual. However, that is not the case anymore. Nowadays, breeding, wealth, and education are what gives someone credibility to be in a leadership role.
Why such a shift? Because sometimes the unbelievable is explainable.
Hydesville Day- Have you ever heard of it? No? Most people haven’t, so don’t be worried. On March 31, 1848, sisters Kate and Margaretta (Maggie) Fox first announced they were communicating with the dead. According to their initial story, they had been plagued with knocking sounds in their home and soon discovered that spirits were trying to communicate with them. The knocks would answer like a spiritual Morris Code when they asked questions.
With the help of their mother and older sister- they took their show on the road. For years, it was a profitable business. So much so that in The Quarterly Journal of Science (1874), William Crookes wrote that he thoroughly tested Kate and was convinced the sounds were actual occurrences and not a form of trickery. The sisters made quite the team for a while, always performing together until Kate married and her husband convinced her to walk away. Maggie married a fellow spiritist, and they continued the show.
And for the next 40 years- the public was convinced. That is until Maggie wrote a letter to the New York World explaining how she and her sister had been able to pull the wool over so many people’s eyes. At first, it was a simple trick. They would tie an apple to a string and drop it when their mother was around – claiming it was the spirits talking to them.
With her sister Kate in the audience at the New York Academy of Music, Maggie demonstrated her tricks to a crowd of skeptics and staunch believers. She put her bare foot on a stool and showed how she could bang the seat with her big toe, producing the famous rapping noise.
In 1855, 16-year-old Ira and 14-year-old William Davenport got on stage for the first time. With the help of their spirit guide, Johnny King, they performed several elaborate tricks that surpassed simple rapping’s; often, bells, cabinets, ropes, and floating instruments would be utilized in the performance.
When William died, Ira gave up the show and disappeared from the limelight until he became friends with Harry Houdini. Ira ended up spilling the beans about the illusions he and his brother had created, from booking the front row for their friends to hiring multiple assistants. Interestingly, some of their most impressive stunts didn’t require any effort at all; reports of floating instruments and strange feelings were simply figments of the audience’s imaginations.
Strange how people imagine things in the dark! Why, the musical instruments never left our hands yet many spectators would have taken an oath that they heard them flying over their headsIra Davenport
In the 1920s, Mina Crandon (or more commonly referred to as Margery, or the Blonde Witch of Lime Street) was one of the most recognizable spiritualists around. After her divorce from her first husband, she married Dr. Le Roi Goddard Crandon who introduced her to spiritualism and guided her into the role of a medium.
At her séances, Margery used to conjure up the spirit of her brother Walter. He was an angry ghost often known to cause havoc and distress in the auditorium, flipping tables over and shouting insults. While under a trance, ethereal substance would ooze from her body, forming hands that could ring bells or touch people. Her displays captivated audiences — even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — from Boston’s elite social circles.
But just like the Davenport brothers, there were many who question her abilities, and the loudest was Harry Houdini. But Margery wasn’t concerned and invited him to one of her shows. Unfortunately for her, Harry was no stranger to illusion and quickly figured out how she was able to perform her ‘spiritual tricks.’
That November, Houdini published a pamphlet called Houdini Exposes the Tricks Used by the Boston Medium “Margery.” He went on to recreate Margery’s tricks for the amusement of skeptics. Margery was obviously upset by the article and denounced Harry, even going so far as predicting the day of his death.
31 October 1926.
The day that Harry died.
Harry Kellar was considered the first great American magician, and Harry Houdini credited him with significantly influencing his own performances. His popularity stemmed from his spectacular shows and sleight-of-hand tricks that captivated audiences. “The Levitation of Princess Karnac” was one of his signature acts, in which an assistant seemed to rise up from a couch with no visible support. To demonstrate that the girl was not suspended in the air, Kellar moved a hoop around her figure. In reality, she rested on a flat board connected to a hidden apparatus that allowed her to move up and down.
Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin is now remembered as the “father of modern magic” for moving his craft away from street performances and into theaters. At the end of one show, Robert-Houdin convinced an audience member that he was capable of making a strongman “as weak as a woman.” He asked a burly volunteer to lift up a small metal box, which he accomplished with ease. Then Robert-Houdin said some magic words and asked him to try again. This time, the man could not move the box. Angrily, the man tried again, but this time he screamed in pain and ran off the stage in tears. It turned out Robert-Houdin had constructed an electromagnet beneath the stage and rigged it so that every time someone tried to lift the box, they would receive an electric shock.
The Ghost Army, known as the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, pulled off 20 incredible deceptions from 1944 to 1945. The unit’s members were not literal magicians, though they achieved feats that bordered on magic. Composed of actors, artists, and engineers primarily, they deceived the German army into believing the Allied forces weren’t where they thought they were.
This unit’s sheer magic could fill a book, and it has. In 1944, their mission was to enter enemy territory, set up a fake artillery station, and wait for the enemy to attack. It worked perfectly – no casualties were reported. They even wheeled out a mock army of rubber tanks to distract the Germans from the remainder of their troops. This allowed the military to cross the Rhine River safely and deal a fatal blow to the befuddled Nazis.
The Ghost Army’s creativity and cunning are said to have saved tens of thousands of lives during the war.
I don’t want you to walk away from this blog disbelieving in magic because if you go back to any of these individual cases- you will find that while there was an explainable explanation, there was also the sprinkle of the unexplainable. The spiritualists brought comfort and closer to those who had a loved one who died. The magicians were able to convince a crowd that they had supernatural powers.
And for a few minutes- all those people’s lives were a little better.
That my friends- is magic.
Words and magic were in the beginning one and the same thing, and even today words retain much of their magical power.Sigmund Freud
If tales of legend, myth and fantasy topped with a nice cup of coffee interest you, I suggest taking a look at my book The Writer and the Librarian. It’s a historical fantasy about a middle-aged woman faced with a decision: accept what is written in books or find out for herself the truth behind the stories. Now available on
And on any of your favorite Indie Book Store website!