Magicians Who Endorsed Psychic Phenomena
By George P. Hansen
Conjurors have long played a role in psychical
research. Many people are under the impression that magicians are
total skeptics when it comes to psychic phenomena. It comes as a
surprise to many (including some magicians), to learn that this is by no
means the case. A number of the most prominent magicians in history
have endorsed the reality of psychic phenomena. A surprising roster
of modern-day conjurors also have positive views.
In this article I will list favorable opinions
and comments of conjurors from the past and present. Some of these
are prominent figures included in any standard history of magic while others
are not quite so well known. The end of the article includes a list
of original sources. These may be of interest to historians of magic
and other scholars. Many more references could have been included,
but these give the views I cite in this article.
Some magicians’ positive statements regarding
psychic phenomena might be looked upon with some skepticism. In the
mentalist literature, performers are frequently urged to claim genuine
abilities even if they don’t believe in them. In other instances,
magicians might make positive statements for publicity purposes.
Such practices have led some to doubt any positive opinions magicians claim
on the matter.
There is considerable controversy regarding
statements made by mentalists like Joseph Dunninger, David Hoy, and Kreskin.
However, I have not yet come across anything that would lead me to doubt
the statements and views cited in this article. They seem to truly
reflect the honest opinions of those stating them. If anyone has
contrary information, I would much like to know.
It is well known that J. Nevil Maskelyne reaped
much publicity for his attacks on mediums. In fact, Maskelyne and
Cooke began their rise to fame with performances of an anti-spiritualist
demonstration. Maskelyne testified in court against several Spiritualists.
However, in an article in the Pall Mall Gazette Maskelyne described
witnessing table turning that he thought was genuine and said “myself
and a few friends . . . produced movements of the table . . . I believe,
in my own mind, that it must have been some psychic or nerve force which
. . . neutralized the laws of gravitation” (page 5). He emphatically
denied that spirits were involved however. Thus he rejected a supernatural
explanation but accepted the natural physical reality of the phenomena.
Professor Hoffmann (Angelo Lewis), author
of Modern Magic and other classic texts, expressed some skepticism
regarding psychic phenomena. But he said that he thought that certain
slate-writing phenomena of mediums were probably genuine and not all due
to trickery. He was consulted by investigators of the Society for
Psychical Research and sat in on a number of seances with Mr. Eglinton,
a spiritualist medium. His published report was detailed, balanced,
and could serve as a model for today’s magician-investigators.
Harry Kellar has also written of his experiences
with Eglinton; Keller observed him levitate. Kellar too rejected
a spiritualistic interpretation but accepted the physical reality of the
event. Kellar’s account indicated that the levitation occurred in
darkness, thus the strength of his account must be evaluated accordingly.
Samuel Bellachini was the Court Conjuror for
Emperor William I at Berlin. Bellachini investigated the controversial
American medium Henry Slade. The sittings were not only held in darkness,
but some were in full daylight. Bellachini was convinced that the
results were not due to trickery.
The famous historical medium, Eusapia Palladino,
readily admitted herself that she used trickery when she could. Skeptics
have often thus dismissed positive reports of her phenomena. But
no less than Howard Thurston believed in some of her results and said so
in the New York Times. Thurston was nevertheless well aware
of her trickery. Given that someone of Thurston’s stature endorsed
the phenomena, perhaps skeptics and investigators should reevaluate the
policy of automatically dismissing all positive evidence when trickery
is found in other instances. Thomas Worthington produced a short
biography of Thurston in which he described a premonition of Thurston himself.
Worthington mentioned that Thurston had a deep interest in Eastern philosophy.
First-hand accounts from Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin
are difficult to come by. A brief statement of Robert-Houdin’s was
reprinted in a book on animal magnetism by Edwin Lee. Robert-Houdin
attested to the clairvoyant ability of Alexis Didier. Will Goldston’s
Crystal Gazing, also reprinted statements of Robert-Houdin
describing his experiences with Didier.
Samri Baldwin, known as “The White Mahatma”
may have been the first magician to do a stage escape from handcuffs.
He wrote one book titled Spirit Mediums Exposed. In another,
The Secrets of Mahatma Land Explained, which also explained spiritualistic
tricks, he stated that he did believe in psychic forces. He made
a point of saying that he did not use them in his performances though.
Some might consider the statements of Baldwin more suspect than others
mentioned in this article because he performed as a mentalist. But
in Magic: A Pictorial History of Conjurers in the Theatre, David
Price noted that Baldwin was associated with a Spiritualist church near
the end of his life. It seems most likely that Baldwin’s statements
reflected his true opinions.
Henry Ridgely Evans was a journalist and magic
historian who wrote several books exposing fakery of mediums. He
too believed in telepathy and said so in his Hours With the Ghosts.
David Abbott wrote Behind the Scenes With
the Mediums, a classic expose. He was involved with the American
Society for Psychical Research investigation of Mrs. Blake, a trumpet medium.
Mrs. Blake gave Abbott details about deceased relatives which she had no
way of knowing. Henry Hardin (E.A. Parsons), a magic inventor and
music professor, was also involved and also received strikingly accurate
Father Carlos de Heredia was a Jesuit and
also an amateur magician. As a boy, he was able to study under Herrmann.
In his book Spiritism and Common Sense he explained tricks of the
mediums, and he too acknowledged that some psychical phenomena do exist.
John Mulholland authored the book Beware
Familiar Spirits. Mulholland was generally skeptical, but at
the end of the book he included a chapter with accounts of paranormal occurrences
from others. Among those was one by Fulton Oursler describing a premonition
involving himself and Howard Thurston. In a biography by Oursler’s
son, it was noted that “Fulton did have prophetic dreams all his life.”
Oursler was an amateur magician, and a well known editor and writer.
One of his best known works was The Greatest Story Ever Told.
Some of his magical writings appeared under the name Samri Frikell, including
a book Spirit Mediums Exposed.
Another writer who dabbled in magic was Lewis
Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson). He had a strong interest in spiritualism
and psychical research and stated that not all the phenomena could be explained
by trickery. He was one of the charter members of the Society for
Julien Proskauer served as president of the
S.A.M. and also wrote two books attacking fake spiritualist mediums; one
The Dead do not Talk. In his other book, Spook
Crooks!, he noted that “there have been some inexplicable phenomena
Eric Dingwall was an honorary vice president
of the Magic Circle when he died in 1986 (see John Booth’s column of August
1988). In the early part of this century, he investigated numerous
mediums and published many journal articles on his investigations.
Dingwall came to rather favorable conclusions regarding St. Joseph of Copertino
(a saint who levitated), and for Daniel Dunglas Home (an extraordinary
medium). He also has written an extended discussion of Eusapia Palladino.
These are recounted and evaluated in his most appropriately titled books,
Peculiar People and Some Human Oddities. Later in life
he wrote some scathing attacks on psychical researchers, but he did not
explain some of his own extraordinary observations.
Will Goldston wrote more than 50 books (e.g.,
Magical Secrets), and founded the Magicians’ Club of London.
It is not as well known that Goldston was heavily involved in encounters
with the psychic. In his Secrets of Famous Illusionists he
describes a number of table levitations he witnessed and also mentioned
that he himself practiced automatic writing. He took part in investigations
of the medium Rudi Schneider.
The eminent psychic researcher, Walter Franklin
Prince, was an amateur conjuror and published a book titled Noted Witnesses
for Psychic Occurrences. The titled well describes the contents.
Prince reprinted letters and other accounts from such persons as Mark Twain,
Luther Burbank, and Charles Dickens (an amateur conjuror). The magicians
included Henry Ridgely Evans, John Nevil Maskelyne, and Fulton Oursler.
Wallace Lee, for whom Ring 199 is named, was
a friend of J.B. Rhine, the father of modern parapsychology. Lee
had a chance to observe firsthand some of the early tests of Rhine.
He wrote about his involvement in The Linking Ring and declared
that he saw no flaws in Rhine’s procedures.
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