Miracle Mongers and Their Methods: A Complete Expose’ of the Modus Operandi of Fire Eaters, Heat Resisters, Poison Eaters, Venomous Reptile Defiers, Sword Swallowers, Human Ostriches, Strong Men, Etc. – Harry Houdini (1920)
My idol, Harry Houdini, does it again. What an amazing person he was! Not only did he create a new form of vaudeville entertainment with his escapes and feats, but, after he reached success, he also devoted much of his time to exposing the lies of the charlatans and crooks who preyed on the ignorant. In a previously reviewed work, A Magician Among the Spirits, Houdini exposed the tricks used by mediums, and other spiritualist charlatans. It is an amazing work, and it should be shared in all schools to help foster critical thinking in our children. This book, Miracle Mongers and their Methods, explores the other side of the con-artist trade which deals not with religion or spiritualism, but with the performances and exhibitions provided at the “dime museums” and other such entertainments of the time.
Houdini worked his trade during a time when scientists were still fooled by charlatans focused on keeping their tricks secret. In his first chapter, dealing with Fire Eaters and Heat Resistance, Houdini provides old quotes from newspapers and magazines which purport to show how a scientist found no trickery in a certain performance, all because he did not know where to look for the trickery. The sad fact, as Houdini shows, is that the method and means by which these performers managed to fool the audiences had been published and disseminated many times in the past, only to be forgotten by the public at large and used again by new hucksters, ready to fleece a new generation of ignorant people. Every aspect, from the concoctions used on the skin and mouth to prevent injury, to the methods by which asbestos was woven to imitate wool clothing, is covered by Houdini and shown to be previously understood, even centuries before.
Of the newer performances, featuring the drinking of boiling oil, or the eating of molten lead, Houdini provides the exact method and means by which the effects are achieved. For example, one showman would dip a spoon into molten lead, then place the spoonful of liquid metal into his mouth, only to have it cool and solidify into a shape molding his teeth, which he would spit out for everyone to see, as if via miracle. Houdini easily explains this. He states that a spoon with a large hollow handle is prepared. In the handle lies a quantity of quicksilver (Mercury), which, when tilted, would appear to fill the spoon ladle. This spoon is placed carefully atop the molten lead and tilted, so when the performer pulls the spoon up and shows it to the audience it appears full of molten, liquid, lead. He then pretends to put this liquid in his mouth, while actually tilting back the mercury into the spoon’s hollow handle. He previously, through sleight-of-hand, placed a lead mold of his teeth in his mouth, which is what he takes out to “prove” the truth of his lead-eating act. Overall, quite a simple magic trick, but one that would fool anyone who did not know about stage trickery.
Houdini explains the tricks used by all of these fakers in detail. He describes the course of training one must endure to be able to do sword-swallowing tricks. The first problem is growing accustomed to ignoring the gag reflex, something that just takes patience and willpower. As the esophagus and stomach extend around 30 inches in length, most sword-swallowers will use 20-24 inch blades. Some of the more extreme performers would heat a sword until it glowed red, and then proceed to “swallow” it. Houdini states that this is a fairly simple deception, with the performer having “swallowed” a sword scabbard made of asbestos offstage, which would protect the performer from burns. (Who is to say whether the asbestos itself caused cancer damage?) While exposing their tricks, Houdini never fails to mention the various real and true physical dangers and trauma that these performers would experience.
There is a lot of greatness in this short book, and anyone seeking to understand how people are fooled, how even respected scientists are fooled, should read this book. The critical thinking required to see past the charlatan’s ruse is a muscle that must be exercised. Houdini, in his life-long search for Truth and in his efforts to help the people who are too-easily fooled by crooks, did the world a great service. The days of the Dime Museum and the freak show galleries are all gone now, but the charlatans are still here. They are just disguised as faith healers, mediums, magicians, and medical quacks. I highly recommend this book to anyone studying stage magic, con-artists, charlatans, and the credulity of the common man.
(This book can be downloaded and read here: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/435 )