Halloween marks the anniversary of the death of Erich Weiss, a Hungarian-American from Appleton, Wisconsin better known to the world as Harry Houdini.
Weiss became Houdini in 1891, when he took up a career as a vaudeville magician to get away from his family's hand-to-mouth existence. He soon developed a specialty in escape tricks, and displayed an absolute genius for self-promotion. Houdini escaped from anything and everything -- not just manacles, leg irons, and safes, but a giant football, a huge paper envelope, and the carcass of a "sea monster" in Boston. His ultimate public escape stunt was to break out of a straitjacket while hanging upside-down over Broadway.
As vaudeville began to decline, Houdini made movies, got interested in aviation (he was the first man to fly in Australia), and became curious about psychic phenomena, especially spirit mediums who claimed to communicate with the dead. Houdini was devoted to his family, particularly his mother Cecilia. The idea that he might be able to speak with her had a great attraction for Houdini. But what he found was nothing but shabby tricks and flim-flam.
Though his worst experience came at the hands of people who were sincere believers in spiritualism and weren't consciously trying to defraud anyone. At a "spirit writing" session with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife, Mrs. Doyle suddenly began writing a message to Houdini from his late mother -- a message written in perfect English (a language his mother barely spoke) and adorned with crosses (rather odd for the wife of a rabbi).
Houdini became the self-appointed nemesis of occult frauds. As a top-notch magician himself and an authority on the history of stage magic, he knew exactly how "spirit mediums" could produce their spooky effects. In particular, his personal skill at slipping out of restraints and picking locks made him extremely suspicious of any "experimental controls" which relied on binding the hands of the mediums or locking them in cabinets. He also had great dramatic timing, picking the perfect moment to catch fakers in the act, and his genius for publicity got the press firmly on his side.
Houdini's involvement in exposing spiritualist fakes cemented the alliance between stage magicians and skeptics which has continued for nearly a century. James Randi demolished Uri Geller's claims of telekinetic powers -- his crowning moment came in 1973, during Geller's appearance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (another former magician himself). With properly-done controls in place, Uri Geller spent his entire time on air failing to produce any miraculous effects at all. More recently the team of Penn & Teller have taken up the banner, with their Showtime series Penn & Teller: Bullshit! They've left few sacred cows un-gored.
Halloween is a night for kids dressing up as ghosts, playing tricks, and telling spooky stories. It's all good fun and Houdini would approve. But the rest of the year, when grown-ups do those things and try to get more than candy out of people, that's when all of us should be skeptics.