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Arthur Ford hoax

Arthur Ford (1896-1971) was a 20th-century clairaudient who set the stage for Sylvia Browne, James van Praagh, John Edward, Allison DuBois and the coven of other meretricious mediums currently making a mint from the bereaved and the gullible. Ford was founder of the First Spiritualist Church of New York (Williams 2000: 117). In 1929, he claimed to have broken a secret code that magician and escape artist Harry Houdini and his wife had devised to test the afterlife hypothesis. The code was the same one they had used when they'd performed together in a mentalist routine and was common among vaudeville performers.

Houdini died on Halloween in 1926. His wife Beatrice (Bess) offered $10,000 to anyone who could produce an authentic message from the spirit of her husband. Every Halloween for the next ten years she held a séance, hoping in vain for Houdini's spirit to turn up.*  Fletcher, the reverend Ford's "spirit guide," claimed to get the message 'forgive', not from Houdini but from Houdini's mother, on February 8, 1928. Bess wrote Ford that her husband had "awaited in vain all his life" for that word from his mother (Christopher 1975: 126). However, Ford's message need not have come from the spirit world since Bess had told a reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle in 1927 that Houdini had longed to hear from his mother and that any authentic communication would include the word 'forgive' (Christopher: 126).

In January 1929, Ford crony Francis Fast claimed that he brought word to Mrs. Houdini that Ford was ready to crack the secret code. She was not in the best of health, however. She had fallen down a flight of stairs a week earlier and was also battling influenza (Christopher: 127). A reporter, Rea Jaure of the New York Evening Graphic, described Mrs. Houdini as in a "semidelerium" from her illness and medications. Even so, she allowed a séance with Ford in her home on January 8th.  At that sitting, Fletcher claimed to have a message from Houdini: "Rosabelle, answer, tell, pray, answer, look, tell, answer, answer, tell." Fletcher explained that the decoded meaning was 'believe.' Bess verified the decoding before witnesses. Ford's Fletcher, still claiming to be speaking for Houdini, went on to repudiate Houdini's crusade to expose fraudulent mediums. Houdini's work apparently now done, he disappeared into the mist, never to be Fletcherized again. (Ford would not use Houdini again, but other mediums would invoke his spirit when it suited their needs.)

Harry and Bess Houdini with Ford's spirit trying to butt inBess Houdini publicly avowed that only she and Houdini knew the code. Yet, the code had been published the previous year by Harold Kellock in his Houdini, His Life-Story (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1928). In any case, Ford and his cronies got Mrs. Houdini to sign a document "not in her own hand" stating that Ford got the message right (Christopher: 129). Her lawyer, B. M. L. Ernst wrote: "As to the alleged Ford message ... when Mrs. Houdini signed the paper to the effect that the message was genuine, she was confined to bed after a fall, had been taking drugs and was not in a position to know what she was doing" (Christopher: 130).

On January 9th, the day after the séance, Mrs. Houdini was quoted in the New York World as saying:

I had no idea what combination of words Harry would use, and when he said 'believe,' it was a surprise.

She said she expected to get a ten-word message from Houdini but that she didn't know what the message would be (Christopher: 130).

On January 10th, Edward Churchill of the New York Evening Graphic declared the Ford séance a monumental hoax and wrote that Ford had admitted that he got the secret code from Mrs. Houdini. Rea Jaure, who wrote the original article about the séance, invited Ford to her apartment the next evening where she confronted him with the claim that she had a copy of a letter Ford's cronies had brought to Mrs. Houdini two days before the sitting and that it listed the ten words he had claimed the spirit gave Fletcher. Jaure, Churchill, and William Plummer signed sworn statements that Ford offered her money to "play ball" and admitted that he couldn't get the code from spirits. Churchill and Plummer, the managing editor of the Graphic, were in another room of Jaure's apartment where they could overhear the conversation.

Ford, however, issued a public denial, saying he never went to Jaure's apartment and that the story was a "blackmail attempt" to get Mrs. Houdini to cough up some letters from Charles Chapin, a former editor of the New York World who was serving a life sentence in Sing Sing for murdering his wife. Bess Houdini also wrote a letter, published in the Graphic, stating that she did not give Ford the code.

In the April 1929 issue of Science and Invention, Jaure's copy of the letter that Ford's cronies had brought to Mrs. Houdini was published, along with a diagram of Jaure's apartment showing where Churchill and Plummer had been concealed. Ford didn't pursue the matter any further and he didn't collect the $10,000.

Bess Houdini, on the other hand, "disavowed the Ford message countless times before she died in 1943," attributing her association with Ford to her "sick brain."

There was a time when I wanted intensely to hear from Harry. I was ill, both physically and mentally, and such was my eagerness that spiritualists were able to prey upon my mind and make me believe that they had really heard from him. (Christopher: 134)

Ford's literary executor, Canon William V. Rauscher, and his biographer, Allen Spraggett, found conclusive evidence that the Houdini séance had been faked (Williams 2000: 118).

As a result of his "monumental hoax," Ford became the most famous medium in America. He became the darling of spiritualist retreats like Camp Chesterfield and Lily Dale. He duped many people, including Upton Sinclair, Bishop James A. Pike, and Ruth Montgomery. He was known for his extensive files containing information about potential clients. He'd begin his research with Who's Who and once he identified the school or college of a prospective client, "it was easy to get convincing information from yearbooks and similar publications" (Christopher: 144). Thus, he was able to convince many people that he knew things about them that he shouldn't have known. His clients, many of whom were desperate to make contact with a deceased loved one, were often not very critical and were too willing to accept Ford's claim that his information came from the spirit world. Ford may have been the hardest working medium in the business, but today's psychic media stars have shown that diligent research is unnecessary to dupe the modern spiritualist.

Ford's use of Fletcher the spirit guide to retrieve messages from the dead and his serious research into his client's backgrounds may seem to represent an evolutionary advancement over his predecessors, who had to rely on dark rooms, floating trumpets, and cheesecloth dripping from various orifices (ectoplasm) in order to prove to their clients that the spirits were stirring. Today's clairaudients may seem to have evolved even further, as they have dispensed with the intermediary between themselves and the gazillion spirits of the dead. They have also found that there is little need to know much about most clients in order to provide a satisfying reading. One could say, however, that Fletcher's clients were less critical than earlier generations of spiritualists, who demanded tangible, empirical signs that the spirits were present. It appears that the decline in critical thinking about these matters has accelerated to the point where all one has to do now to be a successful medium is throw out a token like 'trumpet,' 'hourglass,' 'Michael,' 'broken appliance,' or 'Miss Piggy' to evoke floods of tears or cataleptic bliss in some bereaved customer. Hot readings are unnecessary when clients are eager to please the medium and anxious to succeed in making contact. Throw out a token and watch the wondrous process of subjective validation take the client to another world. If even that task is too arduous, become a pet psychic. You can say anything and rationalize away any apparent errors without fear that some day you will be exposed as a fraud by your literary executor.

See also Aztec UFO hoax, Carlos hoax, cold reading, Cottingly fairy hoax, Mary Toft hoax, Piltdown hoax, Pufedorf hoax, Steve Terbot, hoax, and the Sokal hoax.

further reading

books and articles

Christopher, Milbourne. (1975). Mediums, Mystics & the Occult. Thomas Y. Crowell Co.

Keene, M. Lamar. (1997).The Psychic Mafia. Prometheus Books.

Nickell, Joe. (2004). The Mystery Chronicles: More Real-Life X-Files. University of Kentucky Press.

Randi, James. (1995). An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural. St. Martin's Press.

Tribbe, Frank C. (1999). editor. An Arthur Ford Anthology: Writings by and About America's Sensitive of the Century. Blue Dolphin Publishing.

Williams, William F. (2000). Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience. Facts-on-File.


review by Jamy Ian Swiss of The Houdini Code Mystery; A Spirit Secret Solved by William V. Rauscher

Allen Spraggett and Martin Gardner go at in The New York Review of Books (May 3, 1973)

Investigative Files - Investigating Spirit Communications by Joe Nickell

Last updated 16-Dec-2015

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