This unusual book is an anthology, not of “ghost stories” in the usual sense, but rather of “ghost exposure” stories; mysteries in which each appearently supernatural event is revealed to be the product of innocent mistaken identity or mischievous trickery.
Here follows the introduction by the anonymous, skeptical author/compiler (who is often mistakenly identified as F.O.C. Darley – Darley was actually the illustrator).
What is a ghost? In the popular acceptation of the term, it is a visible appearance of a deceased person. It is called also a spirit; but, if visible, it must be matter; consequently not a spirit. If it is not matter, it can only exist in the imagination of the beholder; and must therefore be classed with the multifarious phantoms which haunt the sick man’s couch in delirium.
But ghosts have appeared to more than one person at a time;—how then? Can he exist in the imagination of two persons at once? That is not probable, and we doubt the ” authentic” accounts of ghosts appearing to more than one at a time. The stories we are about to tell will show, however, that in a great many instances several persons have thought that they saw ghosts at the same time, when, in fact, there was no ghost in the case; but substantial flesh and blood and bones.
But to cut the matter short—the whole theory of ghosts is too flimsy to bear the rough handling of either reason or ridicule. The best way to dissipate the inbred horror of supernatural phantoms, which almost all persons derive from nursery tales or other sources of causeless terror in early life, is to show by example how possible it is to impress upon ignorant or credulous persons the firm belief that they behold a ghost, when in point of fact no ghost is there. We proceed at once to our stories.
We here at The Ghost Racket tend to agree with this thesis.
This forthcoming book is an anthology of articles originally published as a series in several North American newspapers during 1929. The author was a woman named Rose Mackenberg, who was among the most prolific real-life “ghost busters” of the early-mid 20th century.
Rose was part of Harry Houdini’s team of skeptical “spook spies” who investigated fraudulent spiritualist activity, gathering evidence for Houdini’s crusade against the 1920s “ghost racket”. She was already an experienced private investigator when she started working with Houdini, who then taught her the many tricks of the ghost racketeers.
Rose would travel from town to town, infiltrating the local phony seance subculture in disguise and using false names, including “the Reverend Frances Raud” (“F.Raud”) and “Allicia Bunck” (“all is a bunk”, “bunk” being ’20s slang for a con game). Once she had gathered enough evidence of “spirit fraud”, Rose would pass the proof on to Houdini, who would proceed to expose the con-artists when he arrived in that town.
It was sometimes dangerous work, as Rose and her colleagues were caught up several times in violent clashes between pro- and anti-Spiritualist groups. In February of 1926 she presented evidence, alongside Houdini himself, before a Congressional committee investigating the ghost racket.
After Houdini’s untimely death eight months later, Rose continued his work, exposing all manner of phony spirit mediums, the purveyors of “love and luck charms” and other fraudsters throughout the Great Depression and then the 1940s and ’50s. She also began performing lectures and demonstrations warning people away from being suckered by this cruel type of con game.
Stay tuned for a publication announcement for Houdini’s Girl Detective: The Real-Life Ghost-Busting Adventures of Rose Mackenberg!
… for when he touched earth so it was that he waxed stronger, wherefore some said that he was a son of Earth.
– Apollodorus, Library, 1-2 A.D.
After his retirement from boxing in 1914, former bantamweight champion of the world Johnny Coulon (5 ft, 110 lbs) hit the vaudeville circuit demonstrating his apparently mysterious power to resist being lifted into the air.
The act was simple; the tiny Coulon would first allow himself to be lifted by his “opponent”, typically a big heavyweight boxer, wrestler or weightlifter. The opponent would initially have no difficulty at all hoisting the smaller man into the air, especially as Coulon would tense his body into a straight vertical line and bear down upon the lifter’s wrists, effectively assisting in the lift.
Coulon would then apply his special counter-grip, in which he lightly seized the would-be lifter’s right wrist (over the pulse-point) with his left hand and placed his right index finger on the left side of the lifter’s neck, near the carotid artery. The results were always the same; regardless of how much he strained and struggled, the lifter couldn’t budge Coulon from the floor.
Here’s the only known newsreel film footage of Johnny Coulon in action, dating to 1921:
In 1920, after refining the act by touring American music halls and saloons, Coulon departed for Paris where his apparently “occult” abilities attracted a great deal of media attention. This was the height of the post-Great War Spiritualism craze; a time of peak popularity for seance sittings and interest in the “world beyond”. While Coulon was wowing Parisians with his seemingly mysterious ability, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was making international headlines promoting a set of photographs purporting to show two English schoolgirls playing with real fairies.
In this rarified environment, Johnny Coulon’s act was reportedly closely scrutinized by committees of physiologists, psychiatrists and other specialists led by Professor Charles Nordmann, who ran a battery of tests including wetting the tips of Coulon’s fingers and having him stand with his toes elevated on a small board, to change his center of gravity.
The committee concluded that a mysterious combination of physiological and psychological forces were at work, “not in the nature of an electric current and not in the nature of any force known to physiologists”:
In the dark wall which, till now, has resisted all attacks of experiment, the enthralling mystery of the relation of body and soul, of mental and material force, the phenomenon discovered by Johnny Coulon is perhaps the decisive breach through which science may perhaps soon enter to victorious attack.
Naturally, many people felt compelled to try to duplicate Coulon’s abilities, and it was reported that, for a time, no work was getting done in Paris because the smallest staffers at every office were being press-ganged into “Coulon lift” experiments.
When approached for comment by journalists, escapologist and arch-skeptic Harry Houdini replied:
It’s hokum! It’s the principle of the fulcrum and a matter of leverage. Coulon is in stable equilibrium and his subject isn’t. Coulon keeps his subject at arms’ length to get the best advantage of the leverage. Furthermore, the trick has been played before!
As it happened, however, although Johnny Coulon never publicly explained his methods, Houdini was only partly correct in attributing the “Coulon effect” strictly to leverage.
It’s likely that the scientific committee and other observers had been misdirected by the notion of “occult energy”, and perhaps also by the position of Coulon’s left hand on the lifter’s “pulse point”, into overlooking the fact that Coulon’s right forefinger pressed firmly into his opponent’s sensitive vagus nerve at the moment of the attempted lift. Simultaneously, Coulon’s right elbow was effectively aligned with his own right hip.
This pressure exerted a force of counter-leverage – invisible to the eye and probably not even noticed by the would-be lifter in the midst of his exertions – which effectively put the lifter in an impossible position. The greater their exertion, the stronger the counter-leverage via Coulon’s skeletal alignment and the greater the painful pressure against the lifter’s vagus nerve – a sensitive pressure point, regardless of size and muscular strength.
Experiments demonstrate that the left-handed “pulse point” grip was largely a matter of misdirection and showmanship; the liftee’s left hand can be limp at their side and the lifter still won’t be able to hoist them, as long as the liftee’s right hand and arm are properly aligned.
Even an exceptionally strong and aggressive lifter, who might be able to “fight through” the painful nerve pressure, would find Coulon impossible to raise due to the alignment of his elbow and hip. Extreme force would simply lever Coulon’s upper body slightly backward over his own center of gravity, breaking the optimal vertical line alignment and making him even harder to lift.
Thus, by setting the rules of the “test”, Coulon was able to combine an insurmountable leverage advantage with a painful disincentive to being lifted.
The general public eventually tired of the novelty and Coulon retired from show business, opening a successful Chicago gymnasium. For many decades thereafter, he would challenge visiting heavyweights including boxers Muhammad Ali and Jack Johnson to lift him into the air, and no-one ever managed the trick.
Johnny Coulon, the Unliftable Man, died at the age of 84 years on October 29, 1973.
Note: an earlier version of the above article originally appeared on the Past Tense blog during November of 2014. The updated article is published here by permission of the author.
The new TV series Houdini and Doyle teams these two very famous figures, together with pioneering female police constable Adelaide Stratton, investigating apparently supernatural mysteries in early Edwardian London.
Obviously, the series is a work of fiction inspired by some historically real characters and situations, with a lot of creative license applied. For example, whereas the real Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle were, in fact, friends for a few years, that friendship actually occurred during the early 1920s rather than circa 1901, and of course the premise of their working together to solve “supernatural” crimes is entirely fictional.
It’s true, however, that Houdini and Doyle did investigate paranormal claims, individually and from very different perspectives. Both men had a long-standing interest in the nascent religion of Spiritualism – the purported practice of communicating with the spirits of the dead.
Doyle’s interest was that of a devout believer in the supernatural who was concerned about the widespread practice of “spirit fraud” or “playing the ghost racket” – the con-game of using magic tricks and psychological manipulation to hoax “suckers” into paying for fake psychic communication with the dearly departed. From Doyle’s point of view, this represented an intolerable perversion of a noble spiritual practice, and he conducted a number of investigations into the practices of spirit mediums to try to determine if they were being honest about their abilities.
Doyle was not, however, experienced in the techniques of deception, relying instead upon his powers of observation and deduction – which were rather less than those of Sherlock Holmes – and his sense of an individual’s character. Although he believed in the scientific method, he wanted and expected it to prove that paranormal events did, in fact, take place. As such, he was frequently deceived by ghost racketeers and even by much simpler and more innocent hoaxes, such as the famous Cottingley fairy incident.
In 1922 Doyle led a defection of members from the Society for Psychical Research, on the grounds that the Society had become too skeptical. His enthusiastic endorsement of a number of people and events later proved to have been fraudulent did no lasting good to his reputation. His biographers point out, however, that – although Doyle himself denied it – his passion for the subject of Spiritualism may well have been fired by the fact that he lost seven family members shortly after the end of the First World War.
Harry Houdini, for his part, professed a willingness and even an eagerness to believe in spirit communication, but also possessed a lifetime’s training in methods of artful misdirection, concealment and other forms of trickery. He attended numerous seances, but in each case he quickly saw through the magic tricks being employed.
Like Doyle, Houdini became very angry when he saw the naive trust of seance attendees – many of whom were recently bereaved – being taken advantage of by ghost racketeers, particularly after his mother died in 1913. Unlike Doyle, he saw evidence of spirit fraud everywhere, and so he began a crusade against the fraudsters. Houdini quickly gained notoriety among the subculture of ghost racketeers and took to attending their seances in disguise before loudly exposing their tricks.
Later, he would engage a team of private detectives, referred to as his “secret service”, whose job was to travel the USA gathering evidence of spirit fraud, which would be passed on to Houdini for his exposés. One of his most trusted and experienced detectives was Rose Mackenberg, who went on to become among the most prominent “ghost breakers” of the 20th century.
Although Houdini and Doyle liked and admired each other, exchanging frequent letters and even vacationing together, they never agreed on the “spiritualist question”. Doyle was actually convinced that Houdini was among the greatest “physical mediums” in the world, mistaking Houdini’s skill at magic illusions for evidence of actual psychic powers. Houdini, adhering to the magician’s code, was unable to explain to his friend exactly how the tricks were really done, though he assured Sir Arthur that they were performed by strictly natural means.
Matters came to a head when Lady Doyle – herself a “psychographic medium”, meaning that she produced “automatic writing” believed to be dictated by a spirit guide – conducted a seance in which she attempted to channel the words of Houdini’s much-beloved mother. Houdini maintained a polite facade, but inwardly he was unconvinced; Lady Doyle’s automatic writings were in English, a language his late mother had barely spoken, and were headed with a cross, a symbol unlikely to have been used by the devoutly Jewish Cecelia Weiss. Also, the day of the seance happened to have been his mother’s birthday, but that fact was not mentioned in the writing.
Although it’s sometimes assumed that Lady Doyle was deliberately attempting to con Houdini, that’s not necessarily the case; given the right circumstances of belief and emotional investment, it’s entirely possible that she genuinely believed that her automatic writing was being dictated by a discarnate spirit. Houdini did not believe, and exited the situation as gracefully as he could, not wishing to offend his friends.
After Sir Arthur publicly (and, probably, sincerely) proclaimed that Houdini had been converted to Spiritualism by this seance, however, Houdini had no choice but to vehemently dispute that claim. Their former friendship quickly turned to bitter rancour and they waged a public relations feud via their newspaper articles, lectures and investigations, each man becoming, in effect, the champion of his own side. Sir Arthur argued vehemently in favour of spiritualism, while Houdini countered with exposé after exposé of prominent mediums, right up until his untimely death in October of 1926.
Doyle, who passed away four years later, never lost his belief in Spiritualism and also continued to believe that Houdini had been a master medium in denial.
We were recently fortunate enough to be able to attend the Houdiniana auction orchestrated by Potter and Potter in Chicago (the entire catalog is available here in PDF form).
Among the thousands of Houdini-related antique books, posters, photographs, props and other items was one piece of particular interest to ghost racket aficionados; Harry Houdini’s personal scrapbook of his ongoing battle with fake spiritualists.
The large, 125-page leather-bound scrapbook was unknown to Houdini buffs until it was discovered in California during 2013. It contains many hundreds of clippings from American, British and other newspapers and magazines, most of them dating from 1925 and the great majority concerning the exploits of (mostly then-) famous spiritualists. Other clippings detailing Houdini’s own exposés of psychic fakery; Houdini also wrote numerous notes in the margins.
To learn much more about this amazing artefact from the annals of the ghost racket, check out this post by John Cox – the editor of the fabulous Wild About Houdini blog – detailing how he was able to help authenticate the scrapbook shortly after it was first discovered by a California antique dealer.