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Abraham Lincoln, Harry Houdini, and a Spiritualist Lie

Was Abraham Lincoln a Spiritualist? Harry Houdini, the famed magician, did not think so, and he took great efforts to prove it. In 1925, Houdini even had a brief correspondence with Robert T. Lincoln on the subject. Three of Houdini’s letters, plus one response from the 81-year-old Robert (written by his secretary), are in the collections at Hildene, Robert’s Vermont home (now a private historic site).

Houdini and eagle “Abe Lincoln” courtesy Library of Congress

Houdini called Abraham Lincoln “my hero of heroes” and he was a lifelong collector of books, manuscripts, and items related to Lincoln, according to Houdini biographers. (Houdini even named his pet eagle after the Civil War president.) Houdini was also a fervent critic and active debunker of Spiritualism and spiritualist mediums. As he wrote in his book, A Magician Among the Spirits, he dabbled as a medium in his younger years, considering it a “lark.” As he got older, and after his beloved mother died, he realized “the seriousness of trifling with the hallowed reverence which the average human being bestows on the departed.” It was then that Houdini, the world-famous magician and escape artist, also took on the role of debunker.

For decades, spiritualists had claimed that the great Civil War president, Abraham Lincoln, was one of their own; that Lincoln held seances in the White House and took military and political advice from the beyond. This belief blossomed into public discussion with the 1891 publication of the book Was Abraham Lincoln a Spiritualist? by Nettie Colburn Maynard — a fascinating book that is generally accepted by scholars as the most authentic of all the supposed spiritualists in Lincoln’s life who wrote memoirs. Stories, anecdotes, and reminiscences about Lincoln as a spiritualist appeared everywhere. In 1893, former Minister to Great Britain Robert T. Lincoln, who rarely imposed himself on public debate about his father, even issued a statement flatly denying his father was a spiritualist. In 1894, John G. Nicolay, President Lincoln’s White House secretary, also denied the claim, saying it was “almost too absurd to be contradicted.”

While the issue continued to be discussed — particularly after the death toll of World War I caused a massive increase in Spiritualism believers and the holding of seances to contact dead relatives — in the mid-1920s it came back again with spiritualists using the 1872 spirit photo of Mary Lincoln as their proof. In the photo, taken by William Mumler in Boston, the ghosts of Abraham and Tad Lincoln are visible behind a seated Mary. Spirit photographers then started creating all sorts of spirit photos in which Abraham Lincoln was a frequent presence.

Harry Houdini letter to Mary Edwards Lincoln Brown. Courtesy Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library

Houdini, with his great love for Lincoln and his great disdain for spiritualism, immediately fought back. In 1924, he wrote to Mary Edwards Lincoln Brown, Mary Lincoln’s grand-niece, enclosing a photograph of himself and Abraham Lincoln’s spirit. “Although the Theomonistic Society in Washington, D.C. claim that it is a genuine spirit photograph, as I made this one, you have my word for it, that it is only a trick effect,” he wrote.

In February 1925, Houdini wrote to Robert Lincoln to ask about the Mary Lincoln spirit photo. “I am a member of the committee of the Scientific American who are investigating psychic phenomena and so far every medium that I have examined for them I have pronounced as fraud. They are frequently using this photograph as a genuine test, and as I have reason to believe that it is not genuine, their using it as propaganda ought to be stopped,” Houdini wrote.

At this stage of his long life, the 81-year-old Lincoln no longer answered his mail personally – and often his wife kept many letters from him so as not to aggravate his nervous disposition – but the top corner of Houdini’s letter has a handwritten note by Lincoln’s personal secretary, Frederic Towers, which states, “Answered: Mr. L says picture a fraud, but does not want to enter into any controversy on subject.” In subsequent correspondence with Houdini, Lincoln emphatically denied that his father had any such belief in the subject and “was never known to express any belief in so-called psychic phenomena or ‘spirit life’.”

Mary Lincoln spirit photo. Courtesy Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection

Houdini responded by stating, “Under no circumstance would I think of drawing you into the controversy. My object is to have the facts so that in case sometime in the future for historical records, when you are no longer in this world, someone will come on and say your most illustrious father may have been a believer and that fact alone would cause a great many people to believe in the possibility of the communication with the dead. I have met a number of mediums who claim they are in touch with the president, but they all wobble and stagger when I ask them point blank questions.”

The accepted historical verdict is that Abraham Lincoln did not believe in Spiritualism, but rather his participation in séances during the White House years (which did occur) were done for his wife, who was a believer, to keep her safe from charlatans and to amuse himself during the troubling days of the Civil War, similar to his love of attending the theater.

For an excellent examination of Abraham Lincoln and spiritualism, see Jay Monaghan’s 1941 article, “Was Abraham Lincoln Really a Spiritualist?” in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society.