The Twin Thing
Didier and Robert-Houdin

The clairvoyant, the magician and the proto-psi-cop

by Mary Rose Barrington

Alexis Didier was born in 1826 and died 60 years later in 1886.   He flourished mainly in the decade between 1840 and 1850, and the encounter between Alexis, the clairvoyant, and Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, the magician, took place in 1847.  But with the psi-cop, Michel Seldow, we reach quite recent times.

 Alexis Didier was usually referred to as Alexis, partly because he started practising as a clairvoyant as a 16 year old, and partly because his brother Adolphe also practised in the same line, but Alexis was the more gifted.  Before saying more, let me mention that all the material related here has been gleaned from a remarkable book by Bertrand Meheust published this year and entitled Un Voyant Prodigieux, 'A Prodigious Clairvoyant.' I hope it will appear in English before too long.

Gifted is an understatement, and prodigious is not an overstatement, because if psychics were given artistic ratings in the same way as other creative artists, Alexis would be one of the few in the genius class.  I must try to illustrate this before taking the matter further, because the extraordinary quality of his clairvoyance must be appreciated to some extent to make it worth while exploring the lengths to which psi-deniers will go to discredit genuine demonstrations of paranormal cognition. 

If Alexis had practised 50 years later then we should expect to have reports from dedicated psychical researchers whose names are familiar to us, because he gave sessions in England as well as in France.   But creditworthy investigators existed before 1882, and there were publications that dealt with the less frequented corners of inquiry. One of these was The Zoist, the editor of which was Dr. John Elliotson, a professor of medicine at University College.  Elliotson was a man of great integrity who actually ruined his career by persistently supporting the claims made for mesmerism. It was very appropriate that The Zoist should have published a report about Alexis, because Alexis's mediumship  manifested solely when he was put into a mesmeric trance - magnetised, to use the contemporary description. 

Today a hypnotic state is usually evidenced by sticking needles into the entranced person, or telling he can't raise or lower his hand, or making him dance with a broomstick or forget the number 7, in other words by exhibiting the hypnotist's power over him; but in the early 19th century mesmeric trance was more likely to be proved by the subject giving demonstrations of clairvoyance.       Alexis was in fact called a 'sonnambule,' a sonnambulist, rather than a clairvoyant, the psychic gift being bound up with the mesmerised state and proving that there was such a thing as a mesmeric trance.   It seems odd to prove the existence of something strange but supposedly normal, the hypnotic state, by displays of paranormal faculties, but there it is. 

The report from which I am going to quote to show what Alexis could do  was sent in to The Zoist by a friend of Elliotson, the Rev. Chauncey Hare Townsend, who had a session with Alexis in 1851while he was visiting Paris.  Usually Alexis was mesmerised by Jean-Bon Marcillet, his mentor and business partner in the clairvoyant enterprise, but as Townsend was himself a mesmerist Marcillet on this occasion let Townsend take over, and left him alone with Alexis as soon as he was satisfied that Alexis was in trance.  This at a stroke eliminates the inevitable mutterings that Alexis was being prompted by Marcillet, who had in any case met Townsend for the first time an hour or two earlier in the evening.

Another factor that can be eliminated is that Alexis spent the previous night researching the life of Townsend, because the session took place within a few hours of this meeting, and with no interval between the two events.  Marcillet caught Alexis on his way home from the theatre, and secured his agreement to an immediate session, as Townsend was leaving Paris the next day. 

Townsend had a cautious attitude to Marcillet and Alexis, which was fully justified, bearing in mind that they both made a comfortable living from Alexis's demonstrations, and before his own encounter Townsend was more than half inclined to assume that Alexis was a trickster.   But not afterwards, for reasons that will soon become apparent.

Townsend's report runs to eight pages, out of which I shall pick some highlights to give the flavour of a session with Alexis. He started by asking Alexis to use his distant viewing faculty to visit Townsend's house.  'Which one?'  Alexis asked, 'You have two, one in London and another in the country.'  Townsend specified the country house.  Alexis gave a very good description of the exterior of the house and the garden, which was not a typical English country house, because it was in Italy;  but it is not until we get to the interior that things become precise beyond any expectations. 

Alexis said he saw a lot of pictures on the walls of the living room, all modern except two; of those two one was a seascape and the other had a religious theme.  At this point Townsend says that he felt a frisson, because Alexis's description was absolutely right; that was enough for a frisson, but then  Alexis continued.  'There are three figures in this painting, an old man, a woman and a child?  Is it the virgin Mary?   No, she is too old.  The woman has a book on her knees, and the child is pointing to something in the book.  And there is a distaff in the corner.'   Townsend confirmed that the painting represented St. Anne teaching the virgin Mary to read, and there was a distaff (yarnwinder) in the corner.     

Townsend then asked what the picture was painted on.  After some thought Alexis said it was on stone;  he said he would examine the back, and then said that it was grey or nearly black.  Townsend says that the picture was in fact painted on black marble.  But Alexis was not finished.  'Hallo,' he said 'It's concave.' If Townsend had felt a shiver before, it was this detail that must have had him weak at the knees, because the black marble was indeed concave, and had presented a big problem for the framer.  

Visiting the town house Alexis gave a very full description of a Grinling Gibbons mirror in the drawing room above the mantelpiece.  'The mirror' he said 'is small in comparison with the frame. The frame has flowers, fruits, and other sculptured features.'  Then suddenly he said 'I can see a portrait reflected in the mirror..... the woman has a red flower on her dress; she is wearing a black or rather dark brown.   There are two children.  It's another religious subject, a holy family.'  He then correctly identified the painting as a Raphael, and Townsend confirmed that the name of Raphael appeared on the painting.

Alexis then went on to give a full description of the paintings on either side of the Raphael, one of a storm at sea and the other a painting by Morland, the interior of a stable, showing a man with a wheelbarrow and a grey horse lying down.  All correct in every detail. And on it goes.  This is a sample of a sample, and it is by no means the most sensational of reports about Alexis.

Faced with demonstrations of this sort the introduction of a skilled magician seems fairly otiose, for what sort of conjuring could enable Alexis to describe an ornate mirror in Townsend's house and the portrait reflected in it, and the pictures on either side of the portrait. The only plausible theory would be that far from putting Alexis into a hypnotic trance Marcillet put all the sitters into that state and made them imagine the whole sitting.  But I must be careful:  words uttered in jest may turn up as a fully fledged denialist theory one day.  It has happened.

Nevertheless, people have always held the opinion of magicians in high regard, and in 1847, some four years before the encounter with Townsend, a very eccentric demonologist, the Marquis de Mirville, commissioned the celebrated magician Robert-Houdin to attend a sitting with Alexis as an expert and give him a written report and opinion.

De Mirville does not mention the offer of a fee, but there may have been an understanding between them on this point.  De Mirville stated only that Houdin was delighted to accept the invitation,  asking if he could bring his wife.  Houdin had been responsible for unmasking a sonnambulist called Prudence, and he had declared that all sonnambulists  (meaning mesmerised clairvoyants) were frauds.  He was not expecting to change his mind.

And so to de Mirville's account of the sitting attended at his request by Houdin.  Sittings with Alexis usually started with him being blindfolded and performing various feats such as playing a game of cards, which he always won.  On this occasion Houdin arranged the blindfold himself and then, using his own pack,  laid out ten cards on the table, face down - which, to his great surprise, Alexis named correctly.   This test was repeated three times, with the same result, causing Houdin to turn pale and utter bewildered exclamations.  

Houdin then removed the blindfold, which didn't seem to be doing anything useful, and took a book from his pocket, asking Alexis to cite some words from two-thirds the way down page 8.  Alexis quoted the words 'after this sad ceremony.'   At this point there was a notable 'failure' of mediumship  -  because those words in that seqence were actually written two-thirds the way down the adjoining page 9.

I shan't give every detail of this sitting, but it can be said that Alexis succeeded in every other test given to him, including some more interesting items than simple down-through clairvoyance.   He identified a hair as belonging to Houdin's son, and gave some assurances about his state of health.   He identified the writer of a letter handed to him by Houdin, and told him, to his immediate annoyance, that the friend who had written the letter was engaged in an act of treachery against him.  We shall hear the outcome of that later.  When the sitting was over Houdin said to de Mirville that if he knew a trickster who could perform marvels such as those of Alexis he would admire him even more as a trickster than as an agent of the unknown.

Houdin kept his word to the Marquis:   He subscribed to de Mirville's report the following attestation:   ' ..... I am bound to state that the facts reported above are absolutely correct and that, the more I think about it, the more impossible is it for me to class them among the activities that comprise my art and works.'  

De Mirville continued to relate that two weeks after that memorable sitting he received a letter from Houdin dated 16th May 1847, in which Houdin described how he had attended a further sitting with Alexis, this time bringing with him a friend of 'calm judgment.'   Houdin  says that on this occasion he took even more stringent precautions, and the results were more miraculous than at the first sitting.  To quote: '...And it leaves me in no doubt as to the clairvoyance of Alexis.'

He went on to describe a bizarre game of cards in which Alexis made it clear that he knew the identity of the cards that would turn up for his own hand, and he also knew the cards held by Houdin and clutched in his hand under the table.   Houdin doesn't say who won, but as Alexis advised him about which cards he should play it doesn't make much difference.  In capital letters Houdin wrote:  I came away from that sitting as amazed as it is possible to be, and convinced that it is absolutely impossible that either chance or sleight of hand could ever produce such wonderful effects.'      It does sound, doesn't it, like a ringing endorsement, one that would be difficult to turn round and represent as a dismissive put-down   -  but the devices of the psi-denier are boundless, as we shall see.

Houdin himself left the psi-denier a window of opportunity, because though he published various works after those two encounters he refrained from making any reference to Alexis, and that window was opened wide by Michel Seldow in a book published in 1971 entitled Vie et secrets de Robert-Houdin. 

The meeting with Alexis and subsequent reports are dealt with in a section curiously and inaccurately entitled 'Robert-Houdin and the phantoms.'  The author finds himself painfully poised on Morton's fork, because while he would not attribute any discreditable agenda to his hero, Houdin, he apparently could not live with the idea that Houdin had truly endorsed the clairvoyance of Alexis.     So how did Michel Seldow propose to airbrush Houdin's words of support out of history?      

By a number of inconsistent theories.  One was that any correct statements made were due to chance; another that any tests successfully met were the fruits of chicanerie;  another that there was such a high degree of inaccuracy in the results that there was really nothing to explain.   Seldow would be demeaning Houdin if he were to suggest that he had been taken in by Alexis, so while assuming that Marcillet was obviously assisting Alexis in fraud he does not propose any methodology.  He would have had quite a problem in succeeding where Houdin himself had failed.  And was the master magician incapable of fitting an effective blindfold?   Or placing cards face down?

And what about the book-reading, the book being held closed by Houdin throughout.  Ah - well, Alexis did have to touch the book, and rub his hand over it.   Doesn't that show that citing a phrase to be found on page 8 was a trick?   But the rather inconsistent clinching stroke from Seldow is that the phrase that should have been on page 8 was actually on page 9, showing that, regardless of the trick involved in touching the book, the test was a total failure.   The words 'after this sad ceremony'  that were found two-thirds the way down page 9 might, he asserts, be on any page in any book that you happened to pick up at random.  Either way, there was no clairvoyance, and when de Mirville talks about the look of stupefaction on Houdin's face this was in fact the look of a man who was with difficulty restraining himself from breaking out into laughter.   [I'm not making this up]. 

The crucial problem for Seldow was of course how to get round those clear statements of support.   His solution was, one has to concede, imaginative.  He declares that Houdin did not mean what he had said.   Now why would that be?   Seldow's answer is that he was telling De Mirville a fairy tale to make him happy, poor mad Marquis, and Houdin was in too much awe of the aristocracy to make any adverse comment when his endorsement of Alexis was published for all to see.  But he had other kindly motives.  He was also sorry for the two pathetic mountebanks, Alexis and Marcillet, and would not want to deprive two struggling colleagues of their livelihood. The allegedly struggling Alexis was at the time a clairvoyant of international renown, and he was making a very good living from mediumship, as Houdin well knew.   It is indeed fanciful to imagine that the unmasker of the unfortunate Prudence would have been so indulgent to the prosperous duo of Marcillet and Alexis.

So how deferential was Houdin to de Mirville?  Sorry for him enough to commit himself to public ridicule if he vouched for mediumship that he knew to be fraudulent, and which might be exposed as such at any time?   Did he imagine that his expert opinion would remain confidential?   That is not how it reads. It is clear that de Mirville wrote a report not for himself but addressed to the world at large, and Houdin's endorsement is not addressed to De Mirville as a private communication but as a confirmation of De Mirville's announcement.  And, 64,000 question,  what about Houdin's letter reporting on his second sitting?  

If you can imagine for a moment that after the first sitting, when he had been commissioned to report to De Mirville, Houdin felt obliged to tell the Marquis what he wanted to hear, is it conceivable that having once committed himself to a false position he would seek out a second sitting, and write to De Mirville confirming his first opinion in even stronger terms?  For while his first endorsement said in effect that what Alexis did was not conjuring, the second said that Houdin was convinced that Alexis had demonstrated true clairvoyance. Could any reasonable person believe that the second sitting and Houdin's positive verdict on it was written to please de Mirville.

And, of course, de Mirville's report was very rapidly communicated to the world.  Within six months the entire text of his account of the sitting and the two statements by Houdin were published, first in the Revue d'anthropologie catholique,  and then in la Gazette de France, where it appeared headlined on the front page.   Following this exposure the expert opinion of Houdin was widely cited in publications by mesmerists, doctors and also by psychical researchers in France and in England. In 1854 there it was all over again in de Mirville's book Spirits and their Fluid Manifestation.  Never was there the slightest cautionary hint from Houdin that his statements should  not be taken at face value.   

But we don't have to rely entirely on publications by de Mirville and the supposed immunity of the aristocrat from contradiction.  In 1860, well within Houdin's lifetime, André-Saturnin Morin, a lawyer, politician and writer published a work entitled Du magnetisme et des sciences occultes - Mesmerism and the occult sciences - in which he records a personal meeting with Houdin who not only confirmed his earlier statements but added a lot of detail about the sittings he attended.  He told Morin about how he had made an amusing hobby out of watching charlatans claiming paranormal powers and then performing the same tricks, but doing them more skilfully; but when de Mirville introduced him to Alexis he was confounded.

Morin relates, in quotation marks, Houdin's account of the blindfolding followed by the card games.  He said that what Alexis said to his wife about the loss of their child was perfectly correct, and that they were stupefied.   The most interesting new information to emerge was that there was another person present, a sceptically inclined Dr. Chomel (identified by Bertrand Méheust as probably a prominent member of the Academy of Medicine), who presented a small box to Alexis for psychometry.  After feeling it Alexis said that it contained a medal; 'It was given to you in strange circumstances.  You were a poor student, living in a garret in Lyon.  A workman you had helped found this medal in the rubbish, thought that you might like it and climbed your six staircases to offer it to you.'  All that, said Houdin, was true, and certainly was not the sort of thing that could be guessed or correspond by chance.   Indeed not.

As the presence of Chomel was not mentioned by de Mirville it looks as if either Houdin or Morin conflated the first and second sittings, because Chomel could well fit the descrition of the friend with sound judgment whom Houdin asked to bring with him to the second sitting.   The other item of considerable interest is Houdin's statement to Morin about Alexis's warning not to trust the writer of the letter Houdin had given Alexis.  Houdin said that he had reacted angrily, but Alexis had persisted.  Three months later, Houdin told Morin, the good friend turned out to be treacherous, and he had been trying to get Houdin's assistants to betray his secrets.  So Alexis had been right in insisting, against Houdin's protests,  that the writer of the letter presented to him was a false friend.   There we have confirmation that de Mirville's narratives were genuine, that Houdin was convinced by Alexis's clairvoyance, and we learn that there was a sterling witness present who also received convincing proofs.     So Houdin was not humouring de Mirville; and far from wanting to burst out laughing Houdin was duly dumfounded by the clairvoyance of Alexis.

There is one more independent reference to Houdin and his encounter with Alexis. This comes in a book by Maute de Fleurville published in 1873, Etudes sur le magnetisme  - Studies in Mesmerism.  He says that he once heard Houdin say: 'I could teach Alexis my skills, my tricks, and he would learn to perform them as I do... But never, never could I perform what he does; that is beyond imagination.'

Now all this would be well known to Michel Seldow, and armed with this knowledge no reasonable person could postulate that Houdin's testimonials were feigned;  but once you are committed to a fundamentalist faith reasonableness melts away.  And no faith seems to unseat reason more thoroughly than the wilder shores of psi-denial.  We must not be too polite to denounce this sort of absurdity in the roundest terms. And the roundest term for this sort of argument is not scepticism, with or without a k, but - rubbish.   


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I really enjoyed this article as I'm a bit of a Robert-Houdin buff.It's difficult to reconstruct what might have really happened. There seems to be very little objective evidence, mostly hearsay. Thanks for this post, I was not familiar with these details about Houdin's involvement.

Yes, a very interesting posting.

Mary Rose Barrington’s article is hugely enjoyable. I found this article in English written by the author of the book she mentions and as it adds to the information she gives I have included it here:

Alexis Didier by Bertrand Méheust Ph.D

Alexis was born in Paris in March 1826, from a poor family. His mother had ten children, and his father repaired shoes for a living. He was thinly built and his health, it seems, was frail.
But he was a very clever man, and, at the time he practised, did not suffer any particular psychological disorder. He first became an apprentice, because his family could not afford to pay his studies.

As he suffered fits of epilepsy, at the age of fourteen, his mother sent him to a mesmerist, who succeeded in restoring his health. But, during the process of the cure, he became a somnambulist, and he discovered his powers. Then, probably in 1842, he met a well-known mesmerist, Jean Marcillet, a former officer of the Royal Guard. Marcillet understood that this youth had exceptional magnetic powers, and decided to work with him.

The two men went on tour in the northeast of France, especially in Normandy, giving both public and private demonstrations. They also had a cabinet in Paris, where people could come for private consultations.

In 1843, at the age of sixteen, Alexis was already famous. People came from everywhere to consult him, sometimes from England, where his fame had spread into certain circles of the aristocracy. Indeed the British were even the first to discover him as a research subject. For instance, the first report ever written on Alexis was by a British physician, Dr Edwin Lee, who had heard of him in London, and came to Paris to consult him. At first sceptical, he
quickly was convinced that Alexis’ abilities were genuine. He wrote a report on his observations, which he sent on June 1843 to the President of the Parisian medical society. Predictably, perhaps, this report was never published in France, but Lee published it in London.

In May 1844, while touring in the North of France, Alexis and Marcillet gave séances in Calais. Upon seeing the British coast across the channel, Marcillet had the sudden conviction that they must cross over and conquer England. He was not the first. Dupotet came first in 1837, and Lafontaine in 1840, but Marcillet and Alexis had something very different in mind for their neighbours. Actually, they were totally unprepared for such a trip, as neither spoke a single word of English; their only contact in London was Baillière, a French publisher established in London, and specialized in medical books. But through Baillière, who was well introduced in magnetic circles, they managed to convince Dr Elliotson, the leading figure of animal magnetism in England, to give them a chance. Elliotson organized a private séance with a very sophisticated audience.

The first session began with some difficulties, as Alexis was intimidated by this new audience, who spoke a language that he did not understand.
Gradually, however, he gained confidence, and the meeting turned into a triumph. The people were completely stunned by what they had seen. Some newspapers, in the following days, including the Lancet, celebrated the young somnambulist.

Alexis and Marcillet stayed in London until the end of the summer, and were invited for private sessions by aristocrats; Lord Adare was one of them. They met sceptics too, convinced some of them, but needless to say, they could not convince Dr. Forbes, the leading sceptic figure, and Dr Elliotson’s greatest enemy. In fact, Alexis was never caught cheating – he was not even suspected on the basis of tangible facts. Forbes’ arguments relied upon what we call in French ‘une pétition de principe’, that is, the assumption that such phenomena are impossible, and must therefore be considered as mere tricks.

Meanwhile, back in France, Alexis’ fame kept growing. In 1847 he gave demonstrations for the Royal Family. The same year, he was confronted with Robert-Houdin, the most celebrated conjuror of the time, and the spiritual father of all modern conjurors. I have devoted a long chapter of my book (Meheust, 2003) to decipher what exactly happened during this confrontation of giants. The problem arises from the fact that Robert-Houdin never mentioned this episode in his Memoirs. It would be too long to go into the details here, so I will summarize my conclusions.

There is little doubt that these two séances really took place, and that the two letters given by Robert-Houdin, and published at the end of the year by the Marquis de Mirville, are genuine. The conjuror admitted frankly that he could neither produce, nor explain the feats he observed. In one of his letters, he wrote: ‘The more I reflect upon the facts I observed, the more I am convinced that they cannot by produced by my art’. Alexis kept demonstrating his powers until 1855. But his health deteriorated and impaired him from continuing his demonstrations. He died in 1886, probably from a liver cancer.
Let us consider now Alexis’ alleged abilities. If we accept the reports, his abilities covered all magnetic powers and extended them to such a point that it challenges not only sceptics, but psychical researchers themselves. While thoroughly blindfolded, he would read texts or words enclosed in boxes, sealed envelopes, or simply people’s pockets. He would read sentences in an uncut book taken at random in a library. People would just give him the number of a page, and he could read a sentence of this page. He could ‘travel’ to a remote place, visit the consultant’s office, and read the title of a book left on purpose on the table. He could give a diagnosis of another person’s health problem. Based on an object having some link with a person, he could give the name of this person, or her address, or her dog’s name. I will give you just one example. In 1851, Reverend Chauncey Hare Townshend, a friend of Dickens, a well known painter and poet, who wrote two books on animal magnetism, met Alexis in Paris. This is one of the feats he reports:

‘Alexis now seemed rather fatigued. I made a few passes over him to relieve him, and then proceeded to test his power of reading through obstacles. I brought out of the next room Lamartine’s Jocelyn, which I had bought that day, I opened it, and Alexis read some lines with closed eyes. (…) Then, suddenly, he said: “How many pages further down would you wish me to read?” I said “eight”. I had heard of this faculty, but never witnessed it. He then traced with his fingers slowly along the page that was opened, and read: “a dévoré d’un trait toute ma sympathie”. I counted down eight pages from the page I had first opened, and found, exactly where his fingers had traced, the line he had read. It was correct, with the exception of a single word. He had read “déchiré” au lieu de “dévoré”. Human incredibility began to stir in me, and I really thought perhaps Alexis knew Jocelyn by heart’.
If you discuss these matters with intellectuals in France, they will all shrug, and advise you not to waste your time with al these old-wives tales. Magnetic lucidity is just a myth. Scientific investigations proved that somnambulists were just simulators or crooks. And so on.

I can prove that, as far as Alexis, the king of the somnambulists, is concerned, these official investigations never took place in France. Alexis’ alleged powers were investigated by jurists, writers, philosophers, theologians, or whoever you want, but never by ‘official’ scientists. He was also investigated by physicians, who probably were as good observers as their colleagues; but these physicians could not speak in the name of an institution. They could only speak for themselves. For, in France, (as well as everywhere else, undoubtedly) when it came to these matters, one had to take into account two levels of truth. A common or popular level of truth which came from informal researchers; and official truth, emanating from authorities who spoke from their prestigious positions, e.g. le Collège de France, les Hautes études, la Sorbonne, etc. These prestigious places, of course, are never officially and clearly defined as such; but any well educated person knew what this was all about. It was not the quality of observers and observations that mattered, per se; the issue was more one of power and prestige.

The critics who wrote up their studies on animal magnetism between 1855 and 1860 (Littré, Maury, Lévêque…) had this symbolic power. Their function was more ideological than scientific. They had to pronounce the official truth regarding the limits of human faculties; they had to define the frontiers of human knowledge and human potentials. So there were dozens of them writing studies on animal magnetism, in order to prove that magnetic lucidity was nothing but a myth, a remnant of the ‘metaphysical age’ (according to Comte’s Théorie des trois états). For them, the higher mesmeric phenomena could all be explained away as mere conjuror's tricks.

The interesting point there is that no one seemed to have ever heard of Alexis, the king of the somnambulists. None of these learned investigators once mentioned his confrontation with Robert-Houdin, nor the magician’s conclusions, although they had been widely publicized. And yet – and this is even more difficult to believe – they kept on invoking Robert-Houdin as the ultimate resource of endangered reason! And they could not have ignored that Marcillet, in several public letters published in Parisian newspapers, in 1844 and 1857, suggested (to no avail) that official investigators should be conducted on Alexis, in order to ascertain if his alleged powers where genuine or not.

If we cannot, strictly speaking, prove that Alexis’ alleged powers were genuine, using an historical approach, at least we can weaken or even falsify the arguments of the sceptics.

Sceptics always considered that all the somnambulists who claimed to be able to read through letters, through boxes, etc., were conjurors, and/or worked with accomplices. It follows that this should have been especially true for Alexis, the most amazing somnambulist. But what do historical records actually tell us?

1) They tell us that, when Alexis shows up in 1842, at the age of sixteen, he already has all his alleged powers.

2) If he was a conjuror, he must have been the greatest ever, since he was able to outsmart Robert-Houdin, although he was only 21 years old. We must not forget that, at the age of fourteen, he became an apprentice, that his father was a bricklayer, that he was born in a poor family, etc. Where and when would he have found the opportunity of learning his art, and mastering it to such a degree?

3) Robert-Houdin observed him and concluded that he was not a conjuror.

4) He was never caught cheating, not even suspected on factual basis, although he practised almost every day for thirteen years.

5) If involving sleight of hands, most of his feats could not have been performed without accomplices. Considering the number of demonstrations he gave, and the number of consultants in each séance, he would have needed help from so many accomplices, that one of them should have ended up confessing the fraud. But this never happened.

Let us just consider the British tour in 1844. If we assume that Marcillet and Alexis were frauds, to perform their feats during their two-month stay in London, they would have had to receive help from dozens of accomplices. For, during an average session in England, dozens of people would apply with their boxes, sealed envelopes, etc. It seems absurd to me that these two Frenchmen who did not speak a word of English and had no acquaintance in
London, could have found so many accomplices on such short notice, from within the British aristocracy. One of them would have been Lord Adare, another Lord Normanby, Her Majesty’s ambassador in Paris…

This is a good example of the possibilities introduced by an historical approach. Such an approach enables us to sometimes reach conclusions which could not even have been reached by those involved. The phenomena produced by Alexis were so unique, that each of those who participated in any group of sessions could see only a small section of his skills. They could thus have recourse to the assumption that Alexis and Marcillet must have been cheating somewhere and somehow. Dr Forbes, for instance, who attended only one or two séances, was somewhat justified, after all, to make this assumption. But this same assumption becomes untenable once one is familiar with all the data of Alexis case. I know – we know – much better the feats of Alexis than the people involved.

If we accept that Alexis cannot be dismissed as a fraud, we are obliged to consider the feats he produced as pointing to the broad spectrum of human potentialities.

It is exactly what Dr Osty wrote in 1936: ‘N’assignons pas de limites aux phénomènes paranormaux’, let us refuse to put limits to the paranormal phenomena.

Nandor Fodor says that Didier "never claimed assistance from spirits".

hijinx: quoting from a letter signed by Houdin is not hearsay. It is testimony.


I recall reading about a book on Houdini that detailed a more complex relationship between Houdini and spiritualism, suggesting that he had experiences he could not dismiss. I have never been able to track it down, however. Ring any bells?

Am I right in thinking yhe Houdin mentioned here and Houdini are different people?

Hi Paul - Houdini named himself after Robert-Houdin, who I think - though someone will correct me if I'm wrong - pretty much invented the whole 'stage magician' thing in the nineteenth century. But apparently Houdini had not known about Robert-Houdin and Didier, and was furious when he realised he'd named himself after a 'believer'.

Hi Tony - haven't seen you here for a while, welcome back! Funnily enough, I recently come across something of the kind, while finishing off the references for my book. If I come across it again I'll let you know.

Tony M:

Did you mean "A Magician Among the Spirits" by Harry Houdini and published in 1924?

The dedication reads:


Robert: I started feeling self conscious about usually being the first person to post. I was afraid you'd think I was your cyber-stalker.

I have enjoyed the last few posts, but I am generally inspired to respond to offenses to logic - such as calling Houdin's testimony "hearsay", waved off with a blithe "it's difficult to know what happened". I wonder if the same "difficulty" would be invoked if Houdin's testimony condemned the medium?

Zerdini - Enjoy your posts here and on the Prescott blog. But no, there is some more recent book. I need to research it.

Yes I agree about the "it's difficult to know what happened" comment, which always makes me smile. The assumption that what the witnesses, however sensible and well qualified - a famous magician, in this case - said was obviously not true, and that the truth will never be known...

I watched part of a show called MonsterQuest (we get it on the National Geographic channel here). Not very good, for a number of reason. The episode checked in with the ubiquitous (at least in the States) Joe Nickell to respond to a sighting of some monster or other with a good half dozen witnesses. It struck me that no matter how they dress it up, there response always boils down to "Well, they were wrong."

Skeptic offer scientific sounding reasons why, saying things like "humans are pattern recognizing creatures", but it really does boil down to that all witnesses at all times under all circumstances, no matter how sober or respected they are, are wrong. Unless they are lying.

Neat, isn't it?

I don't think Robert at 09:09 AM yesterday is correct. Houdini did name himself after Robert-Houdin but then became extremely disillusioned with him and wrote an attack on the man called "The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin" available for free here:

Actually it's probably that Houdini had it ghost-written, at least that's what Walter Franklin Prince thought.

One of the interesting things about the book is that Houdini attacks Robert-Houdin's version of events witnessed at a Davenport Brothers sittings, being apparently a detailed crushing expose. Houdini alleges that Robert-Houdin bungled it badly, and yet the account is printed at great length in Hereward Carrington's "The Physical Phenomena of Spiritualism" approvingly!

Oh, forgot to add: There is no mention at all of the investigation with Didier in Houdini's book.

And...thanks so much to Mary-Rose. Let's have more from her please! Particularly welcome would be a nice piece about Stefan Ossowiecki.

You can read the whole story here:

A WORLD IN A GRAIN OF SAND: THE CLAIRVOYANCE OF STEFAN OSSOWIECKI by Mary Rose Barrington, Ian Stevenson, and Zofia Weaver. Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland, 2005. Pp. 189, $39.95. ISBN 0-7864-2112-6.

The publishers write:
Many people around the world accept the possibility of telepathy or clairvoyance. Very rarely, however, has anyone been able to demonstrate these psychic faculties with enough accuracy and reliability to produce significant results in repeated experimentation. An exception to this was the Polish engineer and industrialist Stefan Ossowiecki.

Ossowiecki (1877–1944) is perhaps the most gifted psychic ever to come under the scrutiny of researchers. He demonstrated a range and quality of clairvoyance that no one has exceeded, at least under experimental controls. Equally important, he was eager to learn more about his talent and allowed a variety of researchers to use him in experiments. Anecdotal accounts of his talent abounded, but it was the controlled observations of investigators in experiments conducted in Paris and Warsaw that confirmed his gift. For the first time, this book brings to English-speaking researchers and the public detailed accounts of the crucial experiments carried out with Ossowiecki, which produced compelling evidence of paranormal cognition.

About the Author:

Mary Rose Barrington is a retired lawyer in London. The late Ian Stevenson was a research professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He lived in Charlottesville.
A member of the Society for Psychical Research, Zofia Weaver is a past editor of the Society’s Journal and Proceedings. Polish by birth, she lives in Nottingham, England.

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