Without people, there would be no paranormal. Bigfoot probably isn’t doing any ghostbusting, and I doubt the Loch Ness Monster is hunting UFOs, and I’ve never heard of a chupacabra bending spoons with its mind. These are things people do – or try to do. And the history of people attempting to engage in the supernatural realm . But we’re Steampunks, so while the ancient history is intersting, what we really want to know concerns the paranormal as it existed in the 1800′s.
The Victorian, Edwardian, and Diesel eras are rife with magicians, debunkers, spiritualists, and illusionists. People from nearly every walk of life made contributions to the study of the paranormal. Some famous people were quite unexpectedly connected to the paranormal, as Thomas Edison and his attempts to create a machine to contact the dead.
For some, their paranormal fame comes from notoriety – being spectacular frauds, such as the Fox Sisters and Eusapia Palladino.
And that brings us to the debunkers, the skeptics, and those who, in their paranormal pursuits, laid the groundwork for today’s scientific explorations in personalities, physics, psychology, and philosophy.
In today’s Tea, we’ll briefly explore six particularly impactful paranormalists:
The Fox Sisters
They didn’t consider themselves paranormal explorers. Harry Houdini, for example, considered himself an illusionist and an escape artist.
He was born Erich Weiss. His family immigrated from Budapest, Hungary to Appleton, WI just days after he was born. 13 years later, his family moved to New York City. When he was 17 and working in a necktie cutting factory, he became interested in lock-picking – a hobby that led to his most famous career. He was so impressed with what he read about Jean Robert-Houdin in The Memoirs of Robert-Houdin that he quit his job and joined a circus.
Quitting your job to run away and join a circus was apparently rather common at the period of time. Circuses were good places to hone magical, illusional skills. He changed his name to Harry (the American version of Erich) Houdini (after his idol Jean Robert-Houdin).
Houdini never experienced fame as a stage magician, despite his best efforts and creating some rather novel new tricks with handkerchiefs and cards. He performed as a caged “wild man”, as a clown, and with his wife, as part of a mind reading team. When that fell flat, he’d resort to telling jokes.
His fame came from his lock-picking abilities. Harry Houdini practically trademarked the phrase, “Nothing up my sleeve” as he tore the sleeve off his jacket, but he could hide his set of lock pick practically anywhere – from his rough curly hair to the seams of his trousers.
In 1895, he had the inspiration that made him famous – instead of escaping from his own handcuffs, he asked a police office to handcuff him in their cuffs and escaped from that. By 1899, he was wildly popular, escaping from ever more impossible traps. There was, quite literally, no trap or lock he couldn’t escape from – except death.
In 1913, his beloved mother died, and Harry Houdini spent time and a small fortune attempting to contact her on the other side.
All of those efforts were unsuccessful, but exposing their tricks proved to be as easy as exposing the tricks of his idol Jean Robert-Houdin. He wrote several books, many of the tricks and the tricksters during the final minutes of his shows. He offered a $5,000 reward to anyone who could put over on him any psychic phenomena he was unable to detect and expose. No one ever claimed that $5,000.
By 1920, he was as famous for exposing Spiritualist frauds as he was for his astounding escapes. Yet he still maintained that there was a way to speak to those beyond the grave – he just had to find it.
He arranged a special code with his wife, Bess, and she was to hold a seance at his grave so he could contact her. She and devotees of his held that seance at his graveside annually for decades. Coded letters he left with various people, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, remained unanswered, although a letter sent to Sir Doyle is on display in the Houdini Hall of Fame in Niagra Falls, NY.
He was an illusionist, a stage magician, an escape artist, and a debunker of the paranormal.
Edgar Cayce entered the paranormal at the age of 13 (in 1900) – he suffered a serious case of laryngitis and was unable to speak until a hypnotist known as “Hart – The Laugh Man” hypnotized him. The cure was temporary, but it led Edgar Cayce to study hypnotism and the mind. He was himself eventually cured of his laryngitis through hypnosis, and cured many people of various ailments through hypnotism. In 1929, he opened the Cayce Hospital, and he continued to explore the human mind through hypnotism.
He was a very bad psychic, however, as most of his prophecies were either too vague or too wrong. One of his failed prediction, my favorite, was that we would find Atlantis in 1958, and develop a death ray from the ruins.
Thomas Edison is one of the least likely people to be considered a pioneer of the paranormal.