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Five questions for Deborah Noyes

In The Magician and the Spirits: Harry Houdini and the Curious Pastime of Communicating with the Dead (Viking, 11–14 years), Deborah Noyes homes in on the Spiritualist movement during the turn of the twentieth century (think séances, spirit photography, ectoplasm, etc.) — and on Harry Houdini’s efforts to debunk its claims.

1. What drew you to this particular aspect of Houdini’s life and career?

DN: I wrote an adult historical novel a few years back [Captivity] about the Fox sisters, who feature in this book too; Houdini credits them as the “flimflammers” behind Spiritualism. I’m fascinated by the concept of communicating with the dead generally. The people who explored and exploited it are a lively bunch, and Houdini himself was no slouch as far as characters go. Talk about larger than life! Like many of my generation, I was a bit obsessed with him as a kid. Pair these elements with spirit photography and you have my dream project.

2. Houdini claimed he was “not a skeptic.” How open do you think his mind actually was?

DN: Not very. Houdini knew his stuff. He and his wife Bess even did a brief stint as fraudulent spirit mediums, so it was easy for him to spot the tricks of the trade. The methods of mediums and magicians overlapped a lot. But yes, he was willing to believe. He insisted on that. The annual Halloween séance — and pacts he made with friends and loved ones (to try and solve the puzzle from “the other side”) — bear this out. He hoped he was wrong. But he needed evidence, and to his mind, there was none.

3. Which fraudulent form of spirit communication or manifestation was your favorite to learn about? And how much fun was it (and/or how difficult) to fake spirit photographs in your own experiments?

DN: My favorite was definitely spirit photography! I love the old images by Mumler and Hope and their ilk. It’s hard to fathom, in the age of Photoshop, that these blatant tamperings with reality ever fooled anyone. But in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries photography was viewed as science more than art. It captured the truth, froze it in time. The photographic process was still too new — too miraculous — for the public to doubt. For me, photographing “spirits” (i.e., friends and family draped in gauze) was a blast. Now I make spirit photos just for fun.

4. Spiritualism is still alive and well, if less prevalent. Do you think there’s a difference between the “flimflammers” of Houdini’s time and people today who claim to communicate with the dead?

DN: Yes. There’s a marked difference between the blatant frauds who exploited mourners during the Civil War and WWI (and also those who “fleece” clients today) and those who viewed, and view, Spiritualism in religious terms. Houdini saw his friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as “credulous,” easy to con, but you could argue that the creator of Sherlock Holmes willingly suspended disbelief, that his credulity was simply faith — a staple of many organized religions.

5. Have you ever seen a ghost?

DN: No. Yes. No…

From the October 2017 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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