I’m Just Wild About Harry

Hello again my lambkins – I must apologise in advance for not offering up any ritual sacrifices of Fifty Shades of Grey, and I’m afraid I can’t find Days of Thunder on either Netflix or LoveFilm. I’ve come to the point where I have to finish this book or die in the process, and death is just not an option right now. You know how I said it’s taken eighteen months, which is as long as it takes to make two people? Well, just to rub it in, a friend’s daughter has produced person no. 2 (6lbs 12oz.) and I’ve realised it’s almost a year since I commissioned the  cover art from the excellent Delilah Des Anges (Sorry Del – I promise people will see your artwork very soon.)

So I suppose, after all this fannying about, I should probably give people at least a vague idea of what I’ve been up to. I’m usually very reticent about my own writing, because I’ve got a bad habit of losing interest in stories as soon as I’ve told them, so I have to keep the telling to myself and on paper until it is well and truly told. Enthusiasm is one of the hardest things to sustain as a writer and mine burns off like morning fog the second I open my mouth. It’s very annoying.

But, this bugger is nearly there – so nearly there that I can post a small nibble of it here.

When shall we three meet again…

In 1922, Harry Houdini attended a séance

It was something of an exclusive sitting – the two other participants were Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife Lady Jean. Houdini’s wife Bess was not present, on the request of Lady Doyle.

Bess and Harry Houdini knew something about how to make ‘spirits’ rap, rustle and answer questions from the audience; when they were a young married couple, barely out of their teens, they had made a living doing just that. Using a code of touches, foot-taps and silences, Bess had played medium, while Harry compeered and fed her information.

At some point, early in Houdini’s career, this had stopped. It wasn’t that the ‘spiritualist’ shows weren’t lucrative – they were, and in those days the Houdinis were mere carnival performers who desperately needed the money. Later in life, Houdini always asserted that he had given up the fake séances because of his conscience.

It may have been that the table-levitations and corny knockings interfered with his reinvention of himself as Houdini, The Handcuff King – like many things Harry Houdini said in life, it was half and a lie and half the truth. There was only one thing you could be certain of with Harry Houdini, and that was whenever he talked about his conscience, that conscience had a face and form in his mind – that of his mother.

Cecilia Weiss came to the United States on the 3rd of July, 1878. Ellis Island, a location that figures so often in the intimate folklore of so many American families, was not yet an immigration centre. The pregnant Cecilia, along with her husband Mayer Samuel and their five sons, would probably have been processed at Castle Clinton in Battery Park. The Statue of Liberty, or at least her head, was currently on show in Paris at the World Fair. She had yet to either step up on her pedestal or to give form to the words of Emma Lazarus’ famous poem.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Even if these words had been written in 1878, they would have provided no comfort to Cecilia Weiss. She neither spoke nor read English. Accounts vary as to which languages Cecilia actually spoke – Hungarian, German, Yiddish, perhaps all three – but all agree that for all her erudition in other tongues, Cecilia Weiss never learned English.

The Weiss family did not immediately thrive on the shores of their new country. Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weiss died prematurely in 1892, when his fourth son was only a teenager. Perhaps Rabbi Weiss had noticed that Ehrie was unusually forthright and determined, because on his deathbed he charged the boy to take care of his mother. With the fierce intensity with which he did everything in life, Ehrich Weiss vowed not only to take care of his mother, but to pour gold into her apron.

Perhaps that was why, when he became Harry Houdini, Ehrich gave up the fake séances. Perhaps he felt that the money was tainted, not worthy of handing over to his saintly mother. Regardless of speculation, we can say with some certainty that it was Cecilia who drove Houdini to join the Doyles in their hotel suite. Although she had died in 1913, her now middle-aged son had never stopped missing her.

The Houdinis were there in Atlantic City on the Doyles’ invitation. It’s possible that this was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s agenda all along – to convert his friend to ‘the New Revelation’. The creator of Sherlock Holmes had become one of the most fervent and energetic evangelists for the Spiritualist movement, so convinced of paranormal phenomena that he had penned a two volume of History of Spiritualism and had lately shown embarrassing credulity regarding a set of photographs purporting to be images of fairies.

In sympathy with her husband’s interests, Lady Jean Doyle had ‘developed’ as a medium. She frequently sat for her husband and his guests and delivered messages from the great beyond, by way of a spirit guide known as Pheneas. Given the recent fairy fiasco and Lady Doyle’s assertion that the voice in her head was actually the voice of a deceased high priest of Atlantis, one couldn’t exactly have blamed the Houdinis for feeling slightly sceptical about their friends’ claims.

Harry was immediately suspicious because of the Doyles desire to exclude Bess from the proceedings. Bess was of the same mind. Communicating with him using the hidden cues they had once employed in their old sideshow turn, she summoned Harry to another room and told him that the previous day she had had a long conversation with Lady Jean about Harry’s relationship with his late mother.

Bess suspected that Lady Jean’s sudden thirst for information about Harry and Cecilia’s relationship had a great deal to do with the proposed séance. Harry was less sceptical – he approached the test séance with his usual all-or-nothing attitude. He could have refused, or asked the Doyles to spare his feelings and bring forth some generic ghost whose failure to prove convincing wouldn’t have cut him to the core, but Houdini was no stranger to pain. He was so accustomed to pain that his failure to recognise it would kill him, four years later. He approached the séance with the same weird masochism, knowing that a fraud would enrage him and cause him as much pain as if his mother had died all over again.

“Sir Arthur started the séance with a devout prayer,” he wrote. “I had made my mind up that I would be as religious as it was within my power to be and not once at any time did I scoff at the ceremony. I excluded all earthly thoughts and gave my whole being to the séance. I was willing to believe, even wanted to believe. It was weird to me and with a beating heart I waited, hoping that I might feel once more the presence of my beloved mother.”

Lady Jean went into her trance. They waited in the daylight gloom of the curtain-drawn hotel room, uncomfortable in the heat of mid July. It was the 17th – Cecilia’s birthday.

The medium began to twitch and tremble. Her hands shook so hard her husband tried to restrain her but she pounded on the table and called for pen and paper. Still in trance, Lady Doyle began to write, delivering a message from Cecilia Weiss.

“Oh my darling, thank God, thank God, at last I’m through – I’ve tried, oh, so often – now I am happy. Why, of course I want to talk to my boy – my own beloved boy – Friends, thank you with all my heart for this.”

Cecilia’s message continued, the usual spiritualist boilerplate, a syrupy mix of love and evangelism. “Tell him I want him to try and write in his own home. It will be far better. I will work with him – he is so, so dear to me.”

Sir Arthur handed the pages to Houdini as soon as Lady Doyle finished them. With a sinking heart Harry realised that not only was Lady Jean a fraud, she wasn’t even a good one. None of the specific details she had mined carefully from Bess had even made it into the letter. She hadn’t even thought to mention that it was Cecilia’s birthday.

Most damning of all, the whole thing was written in perfect English.

The bluff Sir Arthur had never been overburdened with sensitivity, but even he could tell that Harry was disappointed by the sitting.

“…Spiritualists claim that when a medium is possessed by a Spirit who does not speak the language, she automatically writes, speaks or sings in the language of the deceased,” Houdini wrote. “However, Sir Arthur has told me that a spirit becomes more educated the longer it is departed and that my blessed Mother had been able to master the English language in Heaven.”

The failed séance marked the beginning of the end for Sir Arthur and Houdini’s friendship. When Harry wrote a sceptical article for the New York Sun, Sir Arthur took it as a personal insult and fired off an angry letter reminding Harry of their séance in Atlantic City.

“But none the less, I felt rather sore about it,” complained Sir Arthur. “You have all the right in the world to hold your own opinion, but when you say that you have had no evidence of survival, you say what I cannot reconcile with what I saw with my own eyes. I know, by many examples, the purity of my wife’s mediumship, and I saw what you got and what the effect was upon you at the time.”

Naturally things went downhill – Sir Arthur considered doubts to be nothing short of slurs on his wife’s honour and Harry was bristling because the Doyles had made a poor carnival of turn of Cecilia – his conscience, his mother, the woman whose adored memory had always kept him honest.

Houdini’s conscience went into overdrive. He wasn’t the first magician to take on the spiritualists, but he was perhaps the angriest, driven by the memory of his mother and continually enraged by Sir Arthur’s refusal to accept any kind of explanation that didn’t chime with his own beliefs. As Sir Arthur became more and more hyperbolic in his criticisms and the Spiritualist movement followed suit, Harry became more and more the sneering caricature they had made of him.

He had always had an iconoclastic streak, but in finding that the Spiritualist’s sacred cows were hollow, Houdini’s desire to smash, castigate and destroy reached fever pitch. He came to be disgusted by the whole movement, those early stirrings of conscience amplified whenever he thought about people suffering pain and disappointment, the way he had suffered at the hands of the Doyles in Atlantic City.

Houdini threw himself into debunking with the same fervour with which he did everything, whether it was escapology, conjuring, athletics or aviation. He researched and wrote extensively, producing two books and numerous tracts and articles. Debunking lectures and demonstrations became a regular part of his stage show, alongside the famous ‘water torture cell’ spectacle he continued to perform right up to his death. While his fame was a passport to investigation some of the most notorious mediums of the day, it was also a hindrance; he was always recognised by spiritualists, and they were always on their guard.

Harry tried going to séances disguised as an old man. This worked for a while but his ego was not of the size that lends itself to undercover work – he would usually end up tearing off his wig and shouting “I am Houdini, and you are a fraud!” He realised he needed help. There were so many séances, so many mediums, and typically he wanted to infiltrate them all, undetected.

He knew immediately what kind of people he wanted to recruit to ‘my own secret service’. They would have to be self-effacing in a way he was not. They would have to be clever, preferably on nodding terms with the ways of legerdemain. Ideally, they would be women.

From its inception, Spiritualism was very much a feminine province. Women were seen to be intuitive rather than logical, more likely to be in touch with mysterious forces. They were also likely to be less educated – tabulae rasae on which spirits could scrawl their knowledge; it was widely believed that the more ignorant the medium, the better her performance, and it became common practise for mediums to play down their educations.

The Spiritualist movement had begun in 1848 – suffrage and property rights were still a long way off, on both sides of the Atlantic. Like its founders, the Fox Sisters, many women took advantage of the movement to find, if not their own voices, then at least the voices of ‘control spirits’, often male ghosts who would provide them with what society wouldn’t let them have for themselves – celebrity, attention and the means of making a living.

By the time Harry Houdini set out to recruit his secret agents, there was another reason why séance rooms were full of women.

The total number of casualties in World War I is currently estimated at around 37 million. The scale of loss is incomprehensible even now. British casualties numbered 20,000 dead, 40,000 wounded – all on one single day of the Somme offensive. There were so many dead, and so many left alive – the mothers, the daughters, the sisters, the fiancées, lovers and wives.

The strange story of Harry Houdini’s Secret Service came to a premature end some eighteen months after its beginning – Harry died, of complications from a burst appendix. Bess kept up her séances, hoping to contact her husband using the codes they had agreed upon, the way they had when they were newlyweds and performing séance tricks at carnivals.

He never came through. On Halloween night 1936, the tenth anniversary of Harry’s death, Bess held her final séance. “I do not believe that Houdini can come back to me, or to anyone,” she told her audience of radio listeners. “The Houdini Shrine has burned for ten years. I now, reverently, turn out the light. It is finished. Goodnight, Harry.”

Bess ended her husband’s story with the kind of flourish he would have appreciated, a final dramatic farewell. Harry was always larger than life, a brawler, an autodidact, a terminal tilter at windmills. That immigrant child from Budapest, the four year old hanging on his mother’s hand at Battery Park, was always going to grow up to be one of America’s biggest dreamers – it was simply his nature.

It’s the same nature that makes the whole idea of Houdini’s Secret Service look so inevitable and yet so unlikely. Only Harry Houdini could come up with such a grandiose scheme, and yet at the same time the proportions of his personality make the whole thing sound like fiction, another myth to add to the pile – he was poisoned by spiritualists, he was a spy, he died in the water torture cell…

And so on.

Might make a good book though.

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4 responses to “I’m Just Wild About Harry

  1. I think this would make a good book. First, you have a richness of characters, and situations, and conflicts. You’ve got big questions: Is there life after death? You’ve got famous people with big personalities doing surprising things. I didn’t know the inventor of the hyper-rational Sherlock Holmes was so hyper-irrational. I’m intrigued. You’ve got tricks and frauds and flim-flam and deep human attachments to this world and each other. The writing is good. It has your usual energy, but its more contained and focused than your blog voice (which should be more casual, that’s not a criticism) and that makes the words quieter, but gives them more power.

    A couple of questions. Is this book non-fiction but told with the style of a fiction writer? Is it a lightly fictionalized version of real events? Is it a novel which uses real events as a starting point, but does not let the truth constrain it. And, where in the book is this section taken from?

  2. Option three – it’s a novel using Houdini’s secret service as a starting point. I was planning to use this as a two part prologue but I think it will go better in an introduction, because that way people can choose to skip over it or not. I might even ditch it altogether or stick it in an afterword and stay with pure fiction. I got sucked into the non-fiction side of things because I’ve been digging through piles of Spiritualist and non-spiritualist and magic books for quotes to use as chapter headers, just to try and tie the (admittedly weird) reality into my fiction. I was like “Dammit, you’re all going to have at least some idea of how much WORK I did for this fucking thing!”

    Doyle was a proper weirdo, by the way. His two part History of Spiritualism is one of the dumbest, most credulous books you’ll ever read (Assuming you usually steer clear of the New Age section in bookshops.) and he wasn’t the only one. Rationality seems to be no defense against the desire to believe. One of the most famous works of interwar spiritualism was written by the physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, whose son, the eponymous Raymond was killed at Ypres in 1915. Darwin’s rival, Sir Alfred Russell Wallace, was also a keen and defensive spiritualist, and in the mid 1870s the chemist Sir William Crookes was so fascinated by the subject that he was shacked up a trois with Mrs. Crookes and a very pretty seventeen year old medium named Florence Cook. Well, he SAID he was fascinated by her mediumship, but you know…

    It’s a weird old world and I absolutely love it. I’m glad I had the idea of chapter headers because it’s reminded me just how much I love it, and how much utter fuckery there was going on at any given time. Psychics today are so dull when you compare them to the old school hustlers.

  3. Hiya. Somehow I missed this reply and was wondering, Where’s Anna been? Right here all along is the answer. Since you’ve read Queen, you know I like to jump right in, keep it short, and keep it moving. So I think starting with the secret service is the right call. I know it’s hard to do research and then not use it, but that’s a recipe to create a book that is bloated and slow. Also, your readers will feel that you did your homework, even if they don’t see it, and once you are in the groove, you’ll be glad you have all the back ground as fuel. I easily threw out 10,000 words from the beginning of Queen, and that’s a lot since it only clocks in at 60,000. Nobody misses them. Not even me.

    • I didn’t realise Queen Of The Nude was such a short book, actually. I was surprised to see on Amazon (Or maybe B&N) that it was only 60,000 words. It felt satisfying, if that makes any sense, like there was enough to get your teeth into. That’s a nice Goldilocks length and now I’m sideeyeing my 100,000+ words behemoth!

      I know exactly what you’re saying – this whole line of research grew out of another book and I wanted somewhere to use the research, because I couldn’t very well use a lot of the history of magic stuff without having characters standing around having unrealistic conversations about Chung Ling Soo and Billy Robinson. So I just thought ‘fuck it – I’ll write a historical and use the research there’, little realising that I’d spend months on end rewriting so that characters weren’t standing around talking about seance tricks that mean very little to the average reader.

      So yeah, straight up character driven fiction is definitely the way to go – I agree with you. Good research is hard to do and even harder to work in. It’s a good thing I find it interesting.

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