Houdini and the ghostly photo

28th June 2022. Reading Time: 7 minutes General, Harry Houdini. 2922 page views. 0 comments.

Houdini was involved in debunking many spiritualists, including those who practised spirit photography. There was however one photo that supposedly had him stumped. Is this the photo Houdini couldn't explain?

The Atlanta Constitution, Atlanta, Georgia, 25 Mar 1923, Sun  •  Page 1

It was headline news.  A year prior, Mrs. McVickers had a vision that her ghost would be able to appear on film if a photo was taken of her casket at 5 pm on the day of her funeral.  Sure enough, her wishes were granted.  The photo was taken and deemed a newsworthy success!  No other than Mr. Harry Houdini was called in to investigate the claims.  Houdini himself was quite well versed in spirit photography and had been able to debunk many photos prior by knowing the tricks that spiritualist photographers used.  Suspecting it would be the usual case of swapping and manipulating plates, Houdini soon found that this could have been the one case that Houdini couldn't explain ...... or was there another motive?

At her 73rd birthday party held at the First Spiritualist Temple, 906 E. 23rd St., Los Angeles, Calif., on July 16, 1922, Mrs. Fairfield McVickers, stated that she had seen herself passing out in a vision and felt that if a photograph was taken of her casket at 5 o'clock on the day of her funeral that she would be enabled to appear on the picture. Two hundred of her friends were present at her party and thought it strange that she should make such a statement.
A photograph taken at 5 o'clock March 23, 1923, was made to fulfill her request.
(signed) Houdini.

Photo of Mrs. Mary Fairfield McVicker's coffin with her alleged figure appearing in the left of the photo on the black screen.  Photo by C.H Monroe

Los Angeles, April 11, 1923.
Having been approached by Mr. Albert H. Hetzel, in reference to the spirit photographs taken of Mrs. Mary Fairfield McVickers, who, before she passed away, requested that photographs should be taken over her body at 5 o'clock P.M. on the day of her funeral, saying that she would appear in spirit form. I made an appointment with him-at 3 o'clock P.M., April 11, saying that I would bring along my own photographer. I asked him not to tell the man what it was for.
I got in touch with Larry Semon to let me have a camera man. At half past two his secretary, King, phoned through that he could not get the man but would engage one for me, and at 3:45 Nathan B. Moss of the Keystone Press Illustration Service, 427 Chamber of Commerce Building, 130 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, Calif., walked in with his camera and plateholders loaded with fourteen negatives. He had no idea what I wanted, but was under the impression that I was going to do a stunt and wanted a stunt picture. I explained things to him, told him that I wanted to reload plateholders with brand new plates which I would buy. He, not knowing the importance of the test, derided the fact of my not wanting to use his plates, but I told him I might have to take oath that I bought the plates and that therefore it was important. We went to Howland & Dewey, Kodak representatives, for a dozen of plates 5x7. Not to trust my judgment I explained to Mr.Frank Hale behind the counter what I wanted. He handed over four packages of a dozen plates each, laid them on the counter. A total stranger to me was standing there. Mr. Mat Korn, 5969 Carlton Avenue, to whom I said, "Will you please select any one of these packages?" He did, but as I picked up the package to hand it to Moss I noticed one end had not been properly glued. Therefore I did not buy these plates, but I asked Mr. Korn to remember the incident. I returned to the counter and told Mr. Hale that I wanted a package that was perfect. He then pulled out five packages. This time I laid them on the counter before another gentleman asking him to select one which he did. In asking his name he told me he was Wheeler of the Los Angeles Record,  photographer. I personally handled the package, walked in the dark room with Moss. He took out his own plates and as he handed them to me, the plates just purchased were loaded into the plateholders. He then placed all the loaded plates into his regulation grip. The grip never left my possession after it was placed into the motor car.

Houdini posed with a pencil in what was a 3-minute exposure to demonstrate how pareidolia works.

The plate in which the light shows is the second one taken under the same exposure that Mr. Hetzel wanted, three minutes, F. 4. The faces that Mr. Hetzel pointed out to me as being spirit faces floating around, I discovered were faces, either through accident or design, could positively be recognized and seen on the wall, but only at a distance away from the wall and at certain angles. In order to show the accuracy of this I requested Mr. Moss to hold a pencil on the wall, I walked back until I could see the faces, then I requested him to move the pencil until it was right under the chin of the face which can be plainly seen, and I posed with pencil and the photo is a three-minute exposure. Mr. Hetzel was positive that the faces were spirit faces before I had shown to everyone in the room that the peculiar formation allowed your mind to see faces, in fact he had one photo of his own and traced a number of spirit faces, so he said.

10 photos were taken in succession with 9 showing nothing noteworthy.  There was however one photo that supposedly left Houdini stumped.

On arrival at the church we took ten exposures. 
The pictures were taken as follows:
April 11, 1923.    1st negative   3:30 P.M.,   2nd negative  3:58 P.M. ("spirit" negative).
When we returned to the Chamber of Commerce Building, we entered the dark room and in my presence the
plates were developed immediately, and on one we beheld a peculiar streak. Mr. Moss became very much excited. He had a print made from this plate which caused a great deal of talk, not one photographer could explain how this could be tricked.  Mr. Moss offered $100 to anyone who could produce it under the same conditions, whereas no one could duplicate same. Were present: Mr. J. M. Hall, Mr. Albert H. Hetzel, Mr. Stanley Bruce, Reporter of the Examiner, Mr. Virgil Vlasek, Financial Secretary.

There is however another theory.  While his relationship with his best friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was fragile, he consulted him on this case.  Remembering that Doyle himself had been fooled by the Cottingley Fairies, Doyle believed that the streak was caused by a scratch on the plate.  Surely if it was something so obvious Houdini would be onto it right away, wouldn't he?  Maybe Houdini knew exactly what it was but needed some publicity?  Houdini himself was all about self-promotion.  As much as he loved being able to expose things, he did so with a spotlight and a rather large one at that.  Conveniently, Houdini had a show playing at the local theatre a few days later in which he spoke about the photo in great detail.  Was it that he couldn't explain the photo or a smart publicity stunt to fill seats?

A write-up in the local newspaper about the show stated:

Houdini explained that he had engaged a camera
man and bought his own supplies of negatives.
"We trained the camera on the black curtain
before which Mrs. McVickers said she would
appear at that hour in her spirit body. Of the 10
plates this one only, showing a white streak of
light, produced anything which was not visible to
us with the naked eye. The negative itself shows
an ethereal form surrounding this streak of light
in a shape that might resemble the shroud of a
small woman ....I cannot say that this is a spirit
photograph of Mrs McVickers, nor can I deny it.
Photographers who examined the plate declare
that the negative was flawless and that nothing
was on it to cause this white figure. I am having
the place sent to Rochester for a final
"I have disproven, however, that what seemed the
faint apparitions which some claimed to be spirit
faces in the middle and the right side of the
negative were produced by color and light reflects
on the wall. These are not visible either in this
print. On the other hand, I must admit That I have
taken more photographs the day after under the
same light conditions and before the same black
curtain before Mrs. McVickers said she would
appear, and none of the plates show anything."

Los Angles Express April 27 1923

So was this the one that truly stumped Houdini?  He sure would not admit it, even if it was!






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