The Library of Congress THE LOC.GOV WISE GUIDE  - Current Edition

 What Do Halloween and Houdini Have in Common?

If you guessed something to do with the occult, you’d be right. But Harry Houdini (1874-1926), the “Genius of Escape,” also has another connection to this month’s holiday of ghosts and goblins. He died on Halloween, Oct. 31. Although Houdini’s act seemed like magic to some, he worked to expose fraud perpetrated by people who claimed to have supernatural powers.

Houdini and the water torture cell Houdini makes spirit hands

Sometimes, during a séance, the hand of a dead person would mysteriously appear, as if summoned by a person in contact with a spirit. What really happened was that the person conducting the séance would make a mold of a hand and it would appear and leave fingerprints. This fraudulent practice was called "fingerprinting a spirit." Houdini demonstrated how people who conduct séance trick people into believing they are in contact with their deceased relatives. In fact, in 1926, he testified at the “Hearings on Fortune Telling” held in the House of Representatives before the Subcommittee on Judiciary of the District of Columbia.

Houdini (real name: Erich Weiss) is one of several “Amazing Americans” that you can learn about in the America’s Library Web site. America’s Library is a colorful, interactive site that offers more than 4,000 stories based on materials from the Library of Congress. Its five sections let you read about other “Amazing Americans”; “Jump Back in Time,” to find out what happened on any day in history; “Explore the States,” to learn about what makes each state unique yet distinctly American; “Join America at Play," in such activities as baseball and vacations; and “See, Hear & Sing,” where you can view animated films, listen to children’s songs and see short films. The site also offers a game that tests your knowledge of baseball or one that lets you “carve” Mount Rushmore by answering a series of questions about the presidents on this monument.

There is also a special section on Houdini in the “American Variety Stage” collection in American Memory. There, you can see more than 170 photographs and related items of personal memorabilia that document the career of Harry Houdini, the legendary magician and "Genius of Escape Who Will Startle and Amaze.” “American Variety Stage” also features theater playbills and programs, sound recordings, motion pictures and playscripts.

The American Memory Web site offers more than 8 million items from the Library of Congress presented in more than 100 thematic collections. The collections range from photographs, maps and baseball cards to papers of U.S. presidents and documents from the civil rights and women’s suffrage movements.

A. [Houdini and the water torture cell], ca. 1913. In 1913 Houdini began to feature his escape from the Water Torture Cell, also known as the Upside Down or U.S.D. In a dramatic routine, Houdini, his ankles secured in stocks, was submerged and locked in place in full view of the audience. One of his posters described the feat in the following terms: "The world famous self-liberator HOUDINI, presenting the greatest performance of his strenuous career, liberating himself after being locked in a WATER TORTURE CELL [Houdini's own invention] whilst standing on his head, his ankles clamped and locked above the center of the Massive Cover. A FEAT WHICH BORDERS ON THE SUPERNATURAL." Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction No.: LC-USZ62-112434 DLC (b&w film copy neg.)

B. [Houdini makes spirit hands], ca. 1923. Houdini demonstrated how spirit hands that appeared at séance were made by less ethereal beings. In "A magician among the spirits" Houdini described the mediumistic fraud known as "finger-printing a spirit." A mold of a dead person's hand would be carefully prepared and, during a séance with the believed relatives, fingerprints of the deceased would appear on a lampblacked trumpet. In his book Houdini stated the following: "There are two cases on record where fortunes were at stake because of this sort of fraud. In one case five hundred thousand dollars changed hands upon the recognition of the finger prints of a man who had died two years before." Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction No.: LC-USZ62-112381 DLC (b&w film copy neg.)

The Library of Congress | Contact Us