It always helps keep matters in perspective to read about skeptical episodes from days gone by. I’ve recently been reading The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero, by William Kalush and Larry Sloman; Houdini, of course, is regarded as one of the godfathers of the modern skeptical movement. Though he made his reputation from his magic act and, particularly, his miraculous-seeming escapes, he devoted much of his later life to an ongoing battle with fraudulent mediums. Always open to the possibility of communicating with the dead, he nevertheless knew better than anyone, from his background in magic, how easy it was to fool an observer unversed in the techniques of deception. Indeed, in his early years, struggling to put food on his table, he had performed a spiritualist act himself, before developing a full appreciation of the ethical issues involved with preying on the bereaved.

Although there are still many who claim they can talk with dead people, Houdini’s campaign has had one significant result. In his day, mediums routinely produced physical manifestations from beyond the grave-ectoplasm, ghostly lights, knocking noises, or trumpets that played themselves. In at least one case a man was reunited physically for an hour with his dead wife, though the excitement proved too much and he promptly expired of a heart attack. Houdini exposed these manifestations as conjuring tricks, and they have not been taken seriously ever since. Mediums today have a much more limited repertoire, mostly confined to passing on simple verbal messages.

While Houdini is far from forgotten, his campaign against the spiritualists deserves to be more widely recognised. I wonder how many viewers of Sensing Murder, or any of the innumerable TV medium shows realise the history of this stuff, and how the ability of spirits to contact the living has undergone such a strange attenuation.

The influence of the mediums themselves seems also to be in decline. According to Kalush and Sloman, the spiritualist movement regularly engaged in roughing up their opponents-including Houdini. They claim that besides the well-documented blows to the stomach that ruptured his appendix and led to his death, there was a second punching attack on Houdini’s abdomen, and that both attacks were engineered by the spiritualists. They also cite other attacks on opponents of spiritualism. It is difficult to imagine such incidents today. Modern skeptics may feel psychologically affronted by practitioners of paranormal idiocy, but the threat of physical violence seems remote. There will always be a place for skeptics, but society does move on. Progress is made, even if it’s three steps forward and two steps back.

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