07-14-18 Cassandra O’Leary

Monday, October 15, 2012

Halloween, Houdini, and Seances

by Christy Carlyle

I am continually researching the Victorian era and the turn of the century, as it is a favorite time period in which to set my stories. One thing I've learned is that the folks of those years loved mysteries as much as we do today. Late 19th century newspapers are full of stories of murders and mysteries that fascinated the public. Like it or not, mysteries have long been a source of entertainment. Perhaps it's the notion that we might just figure it out.

At the turn of the century, no man represented mystery and its entertainment value more fully than Harry Houdini. Whether at public events, on a vaudeville stage, or in early films, he amazed the public with his ability to escape any container or restraint. His skill was a mystery and everyone was desperate to learn how he did it.

Harry had the same curiosity about other performers of the era. In particular, he set about exposing psychics and mediums. Paranormal pursuits, such as contacting spirits through mediums, using a ouija board, and table rapping were wildly popular in the late 19th and early 20th century. Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a firm believer in the paranormal. He and Houdini actually had a very public falling out over Harry's debunking of spiritualists. As a magician himself, Harry recognized tricks and sleights that others would miss. He was a very prolific debunker.

Houdini with his mother and wife Bess
However, Harry wasn't certain. Before he died, he told his beloved wife Bess that he would contact her from the other side if he could. They even agreed on a special code phrase so that Bess couldn't be taken in by a fake medium. For a decade after Harry's death, Bess held a seance every Halloween hoping to hear from her dearly departed Harry. She never heard from him and finally stopped her seances in 1936. She is known to have stated that ten years was long enough to wait for any man. Others didn't agree. Houdini seances continue to this day by magicians around the world. There is even an Official Houdini seance organization.

Reading about the 19th century spiritualism fad inspired my first Gilded Age Chicago mystery, Murder at the Seance.

Why do you think spiritualism was so popular during the Victorian era and at the turn of the century?



Judith Ashley said...

Interesting post and a great question, Christy. The first thing that comes to mind is the need for balance. Science and Industrialization were on the rise and this was a way to balance the black and white with something that only required believing.

Sarah Raplee said...

Enjoyed your post. As for your question, In Victorian times people held a strong belief that Science could explain everything and solve all humanity's problems. Spiritualism often involved attempts to scientifically study life after death (Thomas Edison invented a machine to talk to spirits.) This no doubt played into the popularity of spiritualism during that period. I think many factors came into play.

Mindy Hardwick said...

Great post! The way I understand the timing of Spiritualism is it came of age after the Civil War. People were hungry for a way to understand death and what might have happened to their loved ones. Hence, Spiritualism took off like a flash!