Houdini Begins Debunking Spirits Mediums

Houdini's formal education was slight; his self education, immense.

"My mind," he is often quoted as having said, "is the key that sets me free." The magician informed and developed that mind through intensive reading; as he did so, he built a formidable library. When, in the 1920s, Houdini strode into the public arena to confront fraudulent mediums, he proceeded from an inner fortress lined with books and manuscripts. His attacks emanated both from shameless self-promotion and sincere commitment to the public good. His exposures covered a rich panoply of psychic fraud, including slate writing, spirit photographs, "finger printing a spirit," and trumpet mediums. His greatest challenge was Mina Crandon, the medium known as Margery. Like Houdini, Margery was brilliant at what she did and what she did was seance magic. A woman who confounded and fooled one established academic mind after another, she found her greatest champion in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a staunch defender of spiritualism. The major battle was between two master tricksters, but it also set Houdini and Sir Arthur at each others' throats. Fallout in the press pumped extra energy into Houdini's career and he took his show to the Hippodrome. He also left a legacy of healthy skepticism to succeeding generations.

In the 1920s, after the death of his mother, Cecilia, he turned his energies toward debunking self-proclaimed psychics and mediums, a pursuit that would inspire and be followed by later-day conjurers. Houdini's training in magic allowed him to expose frauds who had successfully fooled many scientists and academics. He was a member of a Scientific American committee that offered a cash prize to any medium who could successfully demonstrate supernatural abilities. None was able to do so, and the prize was never collected. The first to be tested was medium George Valentine of Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. As his fame as a "ghostbuster" grew, Houdini took to attending séances in disguise, accompanied by a reporter and police officer. Possibly the most famous medium whom he debunked was the Boston medium Mina Crandon, also known as "Margery". Houdini chronicled his debunking exploits in his book, A Magician Among the Spirits.
These activities cost Houdini the friendship of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle, a firm believer in Spiritualism during his later years, refused to believe any of Houdini's exposés. Conan Doyle came to believe that Houdini was a powerful spiritualist medium, had performed many of his stunts by means of paranormal abilities and was using these abilities to block those of other mediums that he was 'debunking' (see Conan Doyle's The Edge of The Unknown, published in 1931, after Houdini's death). This disagreement led to the two men becoming public antagonists.