A century ago, the curious idea that spirits not only survive death but can be contacted on the “other side” was widespread. Psychic mediums led countless seances, claiming to connect the grieving with their lost relations through everything from frenzied trance writing to sticky expulsions of ectoplasm.
The craze caught Harry Houdini’s attention. Well-known by then as most renowned magician and escape artist, he began to investigate these spiritual phenomena. Are ghosts real? Can we communicate with them? Catch them in photographs? Or are all mediums “flim-flammers,” employing tricks and illusions like Houdini himself?
Peopled with odd and fascinating characters, Houdini’s gripping quest will excite readers’ universal wonderment with life, death, and the possibility of the Beyond.
Potentially Sensitive Areas: Murder, Suicide
Booklist (June 1, 2017 (Vol. 113, No. 19))
Grades 5-8. Plenty has been written about Houdini’s iconic escape routines and stage magic, but in this biography, Noyes focuses on a lesser-known facet of his career: his mission to debunk spiritualists. After his mother died, Houdini wanted to believe in the possibility of contact from beyond the grave. But his career gave him singular insight into tricks mediums deployed during seances, and, angered by the thought of mediums swindling grief-stricken people, he became determined to reveal the fakery of spiritualism. While describing Houdini’s campaign to unmask fraudulent mediums, Noyes offers compelling tidbits about the many ways spiritualists performed their tricks, and helpful historical context for the popularity of spiritualism. Houdini’s feud with avowed spiritualist Arthur Conan Doyle is particularly fascinating, though the details of their clash get a bit lost. Still, there’s plenty of intriguing information here, often in eye-catching inset boxes with additional background, and Noyes’ attention to Houdini’s outsize personality—a key component of his campaign against spiritualists—adds compelling depth. A worthwhile addition to any nonfiction section, and ideal for kids intrigued by historical oddities.
Kirkus Reviews (June 1, 2017)
There was a time, not long ago, when many people believed that death was no barrier to staying connected with loved ones. The idea was enthusiastically embraced by none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the logically minded Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle saw nothing illogical in the ability of psychic mediums to connect the grief-stricken with their lost relations. A true believer and zealous evangelist for spiritualism, Conan Doyle believed such phenomena as automatic writing, frenzied trances, disembodied voices, levitating tables, ghost photography, and oral expulsions of ectoplasm were real and perfectly rational. Conan Doyle’s friend Harry Houdini was dubious. The most renowned magician and escape artist of his time knew plenty about tricking audiences, and his investigations into these spiritual phenomena convinced him that mediums used trickery and illusion to dupe people like his friend. Noyes’ engaging narrative explores how Houdini’s public crusade to expose spiritualism as bunk and mediums as frauds strained his relationship with Conan Doyle. The account is illustrated with archival material and densely populated with odd, outrageous characters such as D.D. Home, whose levitation acts saw him sailing out windows feet first, and Eva C. who expelled “ectoplasm” from her mouth during séances. Sidebars take readers down numerous, entertaining detours. A compelling true story of magic, ghosts, science, friendship, deception, feuding, and sleuthing told with great flair. (photos, source notes, bibliography) (Nonfiction. 10-14)
About the Author
Deborah Noyes is the author of nonfiction and fiction for young readers and adults, including Ten Days a Madwoman, Encyclopedia of the End, One Kingdom, and The Ghosts of Kerfol. She has also compiled and edited the short story anthologies Gothic!, The Restless Dead, and Sideshow.
She lives in Massachusetts with her family. Her website is www.deborahnoyes.com
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