Spiritualist debunker, ghost hunter and master magician Harry Houdini could dismiss every single spirit world photograph he was ever challenged with — except for one chilling photo.
Houdini, who was born Erich Weiss, achieved world renown as an escape artist, and then mysteriously began one of the earliest probes of psychic phenomena during the early 1920s. Following World War One, families and loved ones were tormented by the losses they had suffered during the horrific cataclysm. Enter the spiritualists who claimed to make contact with the other side using spirit horns, floating objects and weird chalkboard ruminations. Many produced photographs showing ectoplasm erupting from a subject’s body or ghostly apparitions of a transparent Lincoln sitting unnoticed in a family portrait. Houdini even produced his own Great Emancipator spirit photo to show how easily it could be faked.
But Houdini who always said his magic was nothing more than a trick probed the chicanery and con artistry of many of these so-called spiritualistic mediums during a crusade that lost him the friendship of Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle who lost a son during the Great War was firmly convinced he had made contact through a trance-induced medium. Houdini thought it was “the bunk” and set out to set the record straight. In his book A MAGICIAN AMONG THE SPIRITS, he revealed the inner-most tricks of the burgeoning spook racket that separated the gullible from green backs. One of the most famous mediums of the day, Margery, was exposed as a fraud by the psychic investigator.
Since photography was in its infancy during the early 20th Century, many ghost photos were simply achieved with a simple over-exposure – a combination of two images on a photographic plate and Houdini was well aware of this earliest special effect.
But there was one chilling photo that even the great debunker couldn’t explain.
On April 11, 1923 Houdini trekked to the First Spiritualist Temple in Los Angeles to investigate a reported apparition making newspaper headlines. In eerie prediction, the year prior, Mrs. Mary Fairfield McVickers on the occasion of her 73rd birthday boldly stated that saw herself passed out and saw herself in a coffin. Two hundred members of her family and friends were present to witness her creepy declaration “thinking it strange”. She further insisted that should she die within the next year that a photograph be taken of her casket at the funeral home at exactly Five PM. If her request was carried out, she would “be enabled” to appear beside her prone mortal remains.
During her funeral, a year later on March 23, 1923 her request was honored by McVickers’ skeptical family. When the picture was developed, several faces were revealed in the smudges of light hovering above the woman’s corpse. Family and friends swore it looked like the late woman.
Convinced the McVickers photos were the traditional double-exposures – either by accident or by design, Houdini visited the church with his own photographer in tow, Nathan Moss of the Keystone Press Illustration. To insure no fault in the photographic plats, he procured a dozen new plates directly from local Eastman Kodak representatives who attested to the legitimacy of their equipment. Not only that made Houdini asked a complete stranger who was standing next to him at the counter, a Mr. Mat Korn, to select one of the packages. He did.
“But as I picked up the package to hand it to Moss I noticed one end had not
been properly glued,” Houdini later wrote. “Therefore I did not buy these plates, but I asked Mr. Korn to remember the incident…I wanted a package that was perfect. The plates just purchased were loaded into the plateholders. He then placed all the loaded plates into his regulation grip. The grip never left my possession after it was placed into the motor car.”
Like any good scientific investigator, Houdini conducted tests, and made photographs of a black curtain which he had hung where the phantasms had allegedly materialized on film. No novice to publicity, Houdini took several photographs of himself, seated in deep contemplation, staring in the vast nothingness where the specters had materialized.
After developing the photos, under strict laboratory controls, nine of the images revealed nothing but one contained a streak of light that appeared to contain a shroud said to resemble the visage of the late Mrs. Mc Vickers.
“We entered the dark room and in my presence the plates were developed immediately, and on one we beheld a peculiar streak,” Houdini wrote. “Mr. Moss (the photographer) became very much excited. He had a print made from this plate which caused a great deal of talk. Not one photographer could explain how this could be tricked. Mr. Moss offered $100 to anyone who could produce it under the same conditions, whereas no one could duplicate same.
Needless to say, Houdini was not happy with the results.
“I cannot say that this is a spirit photograph of Mrs. McVickers nor can I deny it,” he told newshounds. “Photographers who examined the plate declare the negative was flawless and that nothing was on it to cause this white figure, I am having the plates sent to Rochester for a final examination.”
The lab boys at Eastman Kodak headquarters had no explanation for the apparent apparition. Neither did Houdini himself.
Houdini later vowed to his wife Bess that he would attempt to cross the veil on the anniversary of his own passing if she attempted contact. Houdini ironically died October 31, 1926. Despite numerous Halloween séances conducted by his wife until her death, Houdini never did make a “comeback”.