A hundred years ago, before movies and TV became our default entertainment media, magic shows were a staple of the stage. Illusionists flourished, but none more so than Howard Thurston, whose over-the-top shows combined pretty women and life-or-death stunts to leave audiences astonished.
Thurston’s popularity also benefited from a growing interest in ghosts and the occult. During the mid-19th century, a religious fad known as Spiritualism gained millions of followers as mediums claiming to contact the dead sprang up all over the country. At a time when new technologies and scientific discoveries introduced seemingly magical concepts into everyday life, everyone was looking for ways to communicate with ghosts—even Thomas Edison worked on a “mechanical medium” to contact the deceased. Archaeological discoveries in Egypt, like the finding of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, furthered the public obsession with the afterlife.
Like other prominent thinkers, famous magicians became embroiled in the public debate over the supernatural. Houdini took the staunch position that all mediums were fakes and set out to publicly debunk them and destroy their businesses (frequently making headlines in the process), while Thurston favored a more nuanced view. Thurston agreed that many mediums engaged in trickery, but also believed he’d seen spiritual phenomena that couldn’t be explained by science. Of the mysteries he was unable to crack, Thurston wrote to Houdini, “I lean to the belief that these effects are produced by an intelligent force, which can manifest itself mentally and physically to some people under certain circumstances.” Regardless of what he believed personally, Thurston was aware of the profit to be made by exploiting the murky realm of religion, mysticism, and the supernatural.