The Most Amazing Lie in History

gluekit
gluekit

How a chicken farmer, a pair of princesses, and 27 imaginary spies helped the Allies win World War II.

In the weeks leading up to D-day, Allied commanders had their best game faces on. “This operation is not being planned with any alternatives,” barked General Dwight D. Eisenhower. “This operation is planned as a victory, and that’s the way it’s going to be!” Indeed, more than 6,000 ships were ready to cruise across the English Channel to plant the first wave of two million troops on the white beaches of Normandy. Nearly 20,000 vehicles would crawl ashore as 13,000 planes dropped thousands of tons of explosives and thousands of paratroopers.

The sheer size of the invasion—it would be the largest in history—was staggering. But so were the stakes. With the first day’s casualty rate expected to reach 90 percent and the outcome of World War II hanging in the balance, the truth was that Eisenhower was riddled with doubt. He’d transformed into an anxious chimney, puffing four packs of cigarettes a day. Other Allied leaders felt equally unsure. “I see the tides running red with their blood,” Winston Churchill lamented. General George S. Patton privately complained of feeling “awfully restless.” Chief of the Imperial General Staff Alan Brooke was more blunt: “It won’t work,” he said. The day before the invasion, Eisenhower quietly penciled a note accepting blame in case he had to order retreat. When he watched the last of the 101st Airborne Division take off, the steely general started to cry.

They were worried for good reason. With so many troops and so much artillery swelling in England, it was impossible to keep the attack a secret. Hitler knew it was coming, and he’d been preparing a defense for months. Only one detail eluded him, and he was confident in a Nazi victory if he could figure it out—he needed to know where, exactly, the attack would happen. To make D-day a success, the Allies needed to keep him in the dark: They’d have to trick the Germans into thinking the real invasion was just a bluff, while making it seem like a major attack was imminent elsewhere. The task seemed impossible, but luckily, the British had a secret weapon: a short, young balding Spaniard. He was the king of con men, an amateur spy gone pro, the world’s sneakiest liar. He was also, of all things, a chicken farmer.

Juan Pujol Garcia had been working at a hotel when he decided to become a spy. Although he was born to a wealthy Barcelona family in 1912, Pujol had squandered his privileges. To the disappointment of his family, he dropped out of boarding school at 15, eventually enrolling instead at an academy for poultry farmers. At 21, he served six months of mandatory military service, but army life wasn’t for him: The pacifist ditched the cavalry and bought a movie theater. When that venture failed, he bought a smaller theater, which flopped too. Success chronically eluded him. By 24, Pujol had resigned himself to working on a sinking chicken farm and marrying a girl he wasn't sure he loved. His life was normal, if not boring.

But life in 1930s Spain was anything but boring. In 1931, King Alfonso XIII sensed his popularity crumbling and fled the country without formally abdicating, leaving Spain a political vacuum. Communist and Fascist groups violently fought for power. Bullrings became theaters for public massacres, and the corpses of politicians littered Madrid’s alleys.

When Spain plunged into civil war in July 1936, Pujol was supposed to report for duty, but he fled instead. He was soon caught and thrown in prison. Then, after unwittingly joining a jailbreak, he bolted to a safe house in Barcelona. He never saw his fiancée again. More than a year passed, and in 1938, a depressed and emaciated Pujol emerged from hiding. The escapee looked so bad, he was able to forge a document saying he was too old for the army. It would be the first of a growing snowball of lies.

Desperate for money, Pujol eventually landed a job managing a dumpy Madrid hotel ironically named the Majestic. The walls were grubby and the heating was shoddy, but in a certain sense, he had found a home. He was a passionate small-talker, and a hotel was a great place to meet people. And those people could be his ticket out of war-torn Spain.

One day, the Spanish Duke of Torre walked into the hotel and asked for a room. Pujol struck up a conversation about parties, which prompted the duke to complain that his aunts—two elderly pro-Franco princesses—were upset they couldn’t get their hands on any scotch since the civil war erupted. Pujol’s eyes lit up. He knew there was hooch across the border in Portugal. He didn’t have a passport—obtaining one was nearly impossible—but if anyone could get him one, it would be a pair of Franco-loving princesses.

So Pujol wagered the duke a deal: If he could procure Pujol a passport, then Pujol would procure some scotch. The royal agreed, and soon the Spaniard had his papers. He chauffeured the aristocrats into Portugal, bought six bottles of black market booze, and moseyed back into Spain with ease. Like that, he had a document that people killed, and were killed, for. He could escape.

The timing could not have been worse. There was nowhere safe to escape to. Weeks earlier, in September 1939, England had declared war on Germany. Hitler was beginning to gobble up Europe, and word of concentration camps had leaked past Spain’s censors. Pujol was trapped—and outraged. “My humanist convictions would not allow me to turn a blind eye to the enormous suffering that was being unleashed by this psychopath,” he wrote in Operation Garbo, a 1985 book co-authored by Nigel West. So instead of plotting his escape, Pujol began plotting schemes to help the Allies.

In January 1941, he walked into the British embassy and vaguely asked for a job as a spy. There was just one problem: He knew absolutely nothing about espionage. He floated from one embassy secretary to the next, talking in circles about “his services.” They offered their own services by showing him the door. Undeterred, Pujol returned home and fine-tuned his spiel. Then, he did the unthinkable: He called the German embassy and declared he wanted to spy for the Nazis.

The voice on the line was heavy and guttural. It told Pujol to go to the Café Lyon at 16:30 the next day—an agent in a light suit would be holding a raincoat in the back of the café waiting for him.

Pujol followed orders. He strolled into the café and introduced himself to an athletic, blue-eyed blond man sitting in the back. The agent greeted him with a cold nod. His code name was Federico, and he was specially trained to spot frauds. Pujol sat and started professing a devout—but false—love for Hitler and the New Order. The rant was cunning and bombastic. Off the top of his head, Pujol spun a rambling web of lies, rattling off names of nonexistent diplomats whom he claimed were friends. Impressed, Federico scheduled a second meeting.

Rendezvousing at a beerhouse, Federico told Pujol that the Nazi spy ring—the Abwehr—didn’t need more agents in Spain. Rather, they needed moles who could snoop abroad. Pujol beamed and told the recruiter about his passport. Federico nodded. A few days later, he told Pujol to go to Lisbon and charm the embassy into awarding him an exit visa. When Pujol got there, the embassy refused.

It looked like a dead end, but again, Pujol’s gift of gab proved handy. At his hotel in Lisbon, he befriended a portly, affable Galician man named Jaime Souza. On a night out together, Souza unveiled a document that made Pujol’s heart leap—a diplomatic visa. For the next week, Pujol accompanied Souza everywhere: amusement parks, nightclubs, cabarets, and, eventually, a casino. One afternoon, as the duo played roulette, Pujol pretended to double over with stomach cramps. He told Souza to keep playing while he ran back to the hotel. He raced to their room, opened Souza’s suitcase, pilfered the visa, and snapped a few photographs. Then, he returned to the casino floor as if nothing had happened.

Within days, Pujol had forged the document. Upon returning to Spain, he showed it to Federico: Pujol was in. The agent was so impressed, he took Pujol under his wing, stocking him with invisible ink, ciphers, $3,000 in cash, and a code name: ARABEL—Latin for “answered prayer.” His first assignment was to move to England, pose as a BBC radio producer, and crib British intelligence.

Pujol, of course, had no interest in actually spying for the Nazis. He wanted to be an Allied double agent. So instead of following orders to go to Britain, he went to Portugal. Confident the Allies would accept him now that he had access to German secrets, he dashed to the British embassy and showed them the ink, the ciphers, and the cash—he had everything a double agent needed. But the British reply was clear: “No.” Pujol was crestfallen. “Why,” he wondered, “was the enemy proving to be so helpful, while those whom I wanted to be my friends were being so implacable?”

Despite its name, Britain’s intelligence office was anything but. When the war began, the office was a factory of bad ideas. In 1941, it tried convincing the Germans that 200 man-eating sharks had been dumped in the English Channel. A year later, it seriously considered staging the Second Coming of Christ. (The plan was simple: A Jesus-like figure would magically appear across the German countryside, perform miracles, and preach peace.)

The decision to reject Pujol, however, was a matter of politics. The Allies wanted to keep Spain out of the war, so a Spanish double agent wasn’t enticing. Plus there was the minor detail that Pujol didn’t know a thing about England. He had never been there. He knew nothing about its military. He barely spoke the language. And now, in order not to blow his cover with the Abwehr, he had to convince the Nazis he was living there.

Without leaving Portugal, Pujol bought a map of England, a tourist guidebook, and a list of railway timetables—and began lying through his teeth. The Abwehr had told him to recruit subagents for help. Pujol had a better idea: He’d make them up. If something went sour, he could blame it on his imaginary employees. When something went right, he’d take the credit. With that, ARABEL started fabricating sources, spies, and stories. Using newspapers and telephone books as inspiration, Pujol wrote sprawling, baroque letters to the Abwehr that contained practically no useful information at all—they were just meant to waste the agency’s time. But Pujol knew he couldn’t keep up the ruse forever. If he wanted the Abwehr’s trust, he’d need to start sending some legitimate information. He asked for Britain’s help, but the embassy rejected him a fourth and fifth time.

Then, by chance, some of ARABEL’s reports struck too close to the truth. In one letter, he told the Germans that a convoy of five Allied ships had left Liverpool for Malta. Little did Pujol know, but the made-up report was, in reality, mostly correct. When Britain’s spy circle—the MI5—intercepted the message, agents panicked. A Nazi spy was loose in England! “The British were going crazy looking for me,” Pujol later recalled. He pulled a similar stunt weeks later, reporting that a major armada was departing Wales. This time, the convoy didn’t exist. But U-boats and Italian fighter planes scrambled to ambush it anyway, wasting tons of fuel and thousands of man-hours. Now this grabbed the Allies’ attention. In April 1942, the MI5 smuggled Pujol into London and hired him as part of its double-cross system. The Brits were so impressed with his ability to play a fervid Nazi, they code-named the amateur spy GARBO because, in their opinion, he was the best actor in the world.

As a bona fide double agent, GARBO’s network of imaginary spies ballooned. He enlisted a traveling salesman, a cave-dwelling Gibraltarian waiter, a retired Welsh seaman turned Fascist mercenary, an Indian poet nicknamed RAGS, an obsessive-compulsive code-named MOONBEAM, and even an employee at Britain’s Ministry of War. The bogus spies filed expense reports; some earned real salaries, all funded by the Nazis. By war’s end, GARBO had invented 27 personas. Working for the MI5 also meant that Pujol finally had real military information at his fingertips. So to build the Abwehr’s trust, he began giving away legitimate Allied secrets, peppering the reports with enough white lies to throw off the Nazis.

For example, during Operation Torch—the campaign to invade North Africa—three of GARBO’s imaginary agents reported seeing troops in Scotland, prepping for an invasion. (There weren’t any there.) The phantom agents spread rumors that Norway might be attacked, while others claimed that Dakar, Senegal, was next. The news confused the Nazis and kept them ill-prepared. To save face, GARBO wrote the Abwehr a letter one week before the true African invasion, detailing exactly when and where the Allies would attack. The information could have put thousands of troops at risk, except that the MI5 intentionally delayed the letter so it arrived one day late. The stunt saved lives and made GARBO look like an oracle.

Other stunts boosted his star power. When the Nazis wanted to bomb civilian trains in England, they asked GARBO for a train timetable. He sent an outdated one. When they wanted a book containing Royal Air Force secrets, GARBO mailed it in a cake with all the up-to-date pages deviously torn out. When Germans shot down a civilian plane between Portugal and London, killing everybody aboard—including Hollywood actor Leslie Howard—GARBO lambasted the Abwehr. One of his make-believe agents, a pilot, could have been onboard! Embarrassed, the Germans never attacked another civilian aircraft on that route.

By June 1943, Pujol had become one of Germany’s most prized spies. The Abwehr sent him new ciphers and vials of invisible ink—which made it easier for the MI5 to crack enemy codes. Meanwhile, the Nazis circulated a memo comparing him to a 45,000-man army. Pujol, who’d failed at school, at military service, and at business, was a virtuoso con man. And now, he had all of the ingredients he needed to cook up his biggest lie yet.

England's country lanes were choked with troops. It was early 1943, and planes, jeeps, and tents were everywhere. Locals joked that the island would sink under all the weight. To German reconnaissance aircraft, it was obvious that something big was about to happen. GARBO’s job wasn’t to hide the impending French invasion—it was to convince the Germans that it was going to happen in Calais, 200 miles north of Normandy. If he succeeded, most of the Nazi soldiers would be waiting in the wrong place when the real invasion happened. But few people believed the ploy could actually work. Tricking Hitler, intelligence officer Ralph Ingersoll once said, was the equivalent of “putting a hooped skirt and ruffled pants on an elephant to make it look like a crinoline girl.”

To pull it off, GARBO had to convince the Nazis that a nonexistent million-man army was assembling in southeastern England. The imaginary army was given a real name: the First United States Army Group, or FUSAG. According to Stephan Talty’s book Agent Garbo, the British spared no effort or expense to make the hoax look legit. Inflatable decoys—mock tanks and boats—dotted harbors and farms. Fake hospitals were erected. Bulldozers plowed faux airstrips, and soldiers built hundreds of phony wooden aircraft. When a bogus oil plant was constructed near Dover, the Brits requisitioned wind machines from a movie studio to blow dust across the Channel to make the construction site more believable. Newspapers showed King George VI inspecting the artificial plant. Carrier pigeons were released in enemy territory with property of fusag IDs wrapped around their legs, and special machines stamped tank tracks along dusty roads. Newspapers published fake letters complaining about the ruckus all the imaginary soldiers were causing. And as the date of the real invasion neared, General Patton appeared across south-eastern England to rally the make-believe troops.

GARBO “sent” his best agents to southeast England to report on the activity. Meanwhile, other phony agents reported seeing bombers in Scotland, which made an additional attack on Norway look imminent. The reports made Hitler so nervous that he kept 250,000 much-needed troops stationed in Scandinavia. By May 1944, German High Command was utterly confused. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was convinced FUSAG was real. Just before D-day, the Allies bombed 19 railroad junctions near Calais—and none in Normandy. Accompanied with GARBO’s reports, the bombings led most Nazi bigwigs to agree: All signs pointed to Calais.

At 6:30 a.m. on June 6, 1944, the first Allied troops stormed onto the sands of Omaha Beach, Normandy. D-day had begun. Although the first boats met a stiff resistance, the Nazis were relatively clueless. The German Seventh Army stationed nearby was snoozing in its barracks. General Hans Speidel had told both his armies to reduce their states of readiness because of gloomy weather. General Friedrich Dollmann was so convinced June 6 would be a slow day that he scheduled war games. Meanwhile, Rommel had taken the day off to celebrate his wife’s birthday. (The day before, as the Allies prepared history’s biggest invasion, he was picking wildflowers.) When Berlin learned that forces were landing in Normandy, the staff refused to even wake Hitler. The ploy had worked—almost nobody took the invasion seriously. Nazi brass thought it was a scheme to distract them from the real invasion—at Calais.

Two days went by. Tens of thousands more troops hit the beaches, and German generals still refused to send in serious reinforcements: They were still waiting for the fake army to attack. On June 9, a desperate General Gerd von Rundstedt begged Hitler to send the Panzers, the Axis’s fearsome tank squads. Hitler finally caved. This was terrible news for the Allies: The Panzers could cripple the invasion.

But early that morning, GARBO sent a message about the fake army that would change history: “I am of the opinion, in view of the strong troop concentrations in southeastern and eastern England, which are not taking part in the present operations, that these operations are a diversionary maneuver designed to draw off enemy reserves in order then to make a decisive attack in another place ... it may very probably take place in the Pas-de-Calais area.”

The message was forwarded immediately to Berlin. Hitler’s personal intelligence officer underlined the word diversionary and handed it off to a higher official, who laid it on Hitler’s desk. The Abwehr chimed in confirming the information. Later that night, Hitler read GARBO’s message; shortly after, an order beamed from High Command: “The move of the 1st SS Panzer Division will therefore be halted.” Suddenly, nine of Germany’s meanest armored divisions—all bound for Normandy—stopped dead in their tracks and turned around to defend Calais.

It was GARBO’s greatest lie, and it arguably turned the tide of the war. The fake-out saved tens of thousands of Allied lives and secured a foothold on the continent. A month later, 22 German divisions were still waiting in Pas-de-Calais for the fake army. By December, when Allies had regained France, German commanders still believed FUSAG was real. Berlin was so convinced by GARBO’s reports that it awarded him an Iron Cross—an honor usually reserved for troops on the front line. Months later, the King of England followed suit and made Pujol a member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire—one of the nation’s greatest honors. The self-made spy became the first and only person decorated by both sides.

D-day was the beginning of the end. Hitler killed himself the next spring, and the Abwehr told GARBO to give up—they’d never realized they had a double agent on their hands. By then, his network of phony agents had stolen £17,554—nearly $1 million to- day—from Nazi coffers. Soon, Pujol fled to South America to be, as he put it, “forgotten, to pass unnoticed and to be untraceable.” Four years later, the MI5 reported that he had died of malaria while exploring Africa.

But this too was another brilliantly executed lie—a rumor spread to shake off any vengeful Nazi loyalists. Pujol, then 36, was alive and well in Venezuela, where his life became boring and normal again. He married, had two sons, opened a book- store, and got a job with Shell Oil as a language teacher. He even tried going back into the hotel business, where, again, he failed miserably. He lived off the radar until 1984, when the enterprising journalist Nigel West found him after a decade-plus search. That year, a 72-year-old Pujol returned to London for an emotional reunion. His former MI5 colleagues were gobsmacked. “It can’t be you,” one of them burst. “You’re dead!”

West took Pujol to Omaha Beach for D-day’s 40th anniversary. When the spy saw the cemetery—with its long, neat rows of white headstones—he dropped to his knees and burst into tears. He felt responsible for each grave. But as the day wore on, word circulated that Pujol was there. Hordes of gray-haired men flocked to him, begging to shake his hand. One man, surrounded by family and fellow veterans, took Pujol by the arm and beamed. “I have the pleasure of introducing GARBO, the man who saved our lives.” Again, tears flooded Pujol’s eyes. This time, though, he smiled.

Britain Is Forming a Modern Version of the 'Monuments Men'—and It's Recruiting

John Goodman, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Bob Balaban, and Bill Murray in 'The Monuments Men' (2014)
John Goodman, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Bob Balaban, and Bill Murray in 'The Monuments Men' (2014)
Claudette Barius, Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

During World War II, an international group of Allied art scholars, museum experts, archivists, and other conservationists known as the Monuments Men were sent to the front lines, tasked with locating and protecting cultural artifacts at risk of being lost to the ravages of combat. They were responsible for saving tens of thousands of priceless works of art in Europe—like Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper—from being destroyed by bombs or stolen by Nazis during the last years of the war.

Now, a new generation of experts will be tasked with doing the same in the face of modern wars. The British military is putting together a 15-person Cultural Property Protection Unit to protect art and archaeological artifacts in war zones from destruction, according to The Telegraph.

Recent wars in places like Syria and Iraq have put a huge number of priceless artifacts and artworks in danger. Smugglers use the chaos of war as cover to loot and sell ancient artifacts and other cultural heritage items stolen from from archaeological sites and museums on the international black market. The Islamic State finances at least part of its operations through the sale of stolen antiquities pillaged from sites under the group’s control, including the Mosul Museum, where militants reduced a huge number of rare artifacts to rubble and sold off others in the two years before Iraqi forces were able to take back the city.

The new group will investigate looting, prosecute smugglers, and gather information about endangered cultural heritage sites for the British government and its allies (to ensure that military forces don’t knowingly drop bombs on them). The Cultural Property Protection Unit is still in the nascent stages, though. It’s currently comprised of just one member, Tim Purbrick—a lieutenant colonel in the British Army—and is seeking to add experts on art, archaeology, and art crime.

There are already a few special forces dedicated to preserving art and cultural heritage items elsewhere in the world. Britain’s new task force will add to the work of groups like Italy’s Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage (Carabinieri TCP), which has been investigating smuggling, forgery, damage to monuments, and other art crimes in Italy and beyond since 1969.

[h/t The Telegraph]

The Rise and Fall of 5 Claimed Mediums

Boston Public Library // Public Domain
Boston Public Library // Public Domain

In the late 19th and early 20th century, spiritualism was all the rage. People were looking for answers and comfort after the Civil War, so they turned to mediums and séances for spiritual guidance. The religious movement had such a pull that even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a believer. Despite its popularity, many debunkers argued that it had little legitimacy—alleged mediums were con artists who took advantage of the emotionally vulnerable and drained them of all their funds. Perhaps most surprising of all is that what turned into an enormous religious following started out as a simple prank pulled by two preteen girls.

1. THE FOX SISTERS

The Fox Sisters
Emma Hardinge Britten, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In late March of 1848, Margaret Fox, a farmer’s wife living in Hydesville, New York, with her daughters, began to hear noises. These knocking sounds, she decided, could not have been human and certainly were not produced by her children. The mysterious banging became so maddening that she invited her neighbor in to hear for herself. Although skeptical, the neighbor humored the woman and huddled into a small room with Margaret and her two young girls, Maggie and Kate. The mother would ask questions that would be answered with a series of knocks, or as they would later be called, “rappings.” By the end of the night, both the mother and neighbor were convinced that Maggie and Kate were mediums, with the ability to communicate with the other side.

Soon their older sister, Leah Fox Fish, in Rochester, New York, got involved. Hearing of the girls’ otherworldly “powers,” the eldest sister saw dollar signs and promptly booked sessions for people looking to communicate with the dead. Their act took off, and soon the girls were touring the country. Maggie eventually found love while on the road, and settled down with an adventurer named Elisha Kent Kane. Kane convinced her to give up spiritualism, which she did until his untimely death in 1857. Meanwhile, Kate married a fellow spiritualist and fine-tuned her act. She was so successful in her deception that respected chemist William Crookes wrote in The Quarterly Journal of Science in 1874 that he thoroughly tested Kate and was convinced the sounds were true occurrences and not a form of trickery.

The façade went on for decades, until 1888 when Maggie finally spoke up. After her husband had died, she was left penniless and alone, and had turned to drinking. She wrote a letter to the New York World confessing her and her sister’s trickery prior to a demonstration at the New York Academy of Music. “I have seen so much miserable deception! Every morning of my life I have it before me. When I wake up I brood over it. That is why I am willing to state that Spiritualism is a fraud of the worst description,” she wrote.

She then explained that the mysterious thumping was the result of an apple tied to a string that the sisters would drop to torment their mother. At the New York Academy of Music, with her sister Kate in the audience, Maggie demonstrated her tricks to a raucous crowd of skeptics and staunch believers. She put her bare foot on a stool and showed how she could bang the stool with her big toe, producing the famous rapping noise. The Spiritualist world took a hit, but continued to persist. The same could not be said for the Fox sisters' careers. Although Maggie recanted her confession a year later—likely due to her poverty—the sisters were never trusted again and they both died penniless.

2. THE DAVENPORT BROTHERS

Photograph of the Davenport Brothers in front of their spirit cabinet
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Fox sisters may have burned out by the end of their career, but that didn't stop a slew of copy-cats and spin-off performers. Ira and William Davenport of Buffalo, New York, were inspired by the rappings of the Fox sisters and decided to try a session of their own with their father. Their session was so chilling (they would later claim their sister actually levitated) that they decided to make a show. In 1855, 16-year-old Ira and 14-year-old William got on stage for the first time. With the help of their spirit guide, a ghost named Johnny King, they performed a number of elaborate tricks that went past simple rappings; often bells, cabinets, ropes, and floating instruments would be utilized in the performance. Members of the audience would swear they saw instruments fly over their heads, or feel ghostly hands on their shoulders. The brothers were heralded as true mediums and enjoyed fame for the rest of their professional careers. After William passed away in 1877, Ira gave up the medium business for a quieter life.

He was not heard from again until magician Harry Houdini sought him out years later. The two became friends and Ira let him in on a few of his tricks, including one called "The Tie Around the Neck" that not even Ira’s children knew. The surviving Davenport told Houdini all about the tricks and trouble that went into keeping their secret, including reserving the front row for their friends and hiring numerous accomplices. Interestingly, some of their greatest tricks didn’t involve any work. Reports of flying instruments and mysterious sensations were purely delusions of the audience members. “Strange how people imagine things in the dark! Why, the musical instruments never left our hands yet many spectators would have taken an oath that they heard them flying over their heads,” Davenport told Houdini.

3. EVA CARRIÈRE

A photo of Eva Carrière regurgitating ectoplasm
Boston Public Library // Public Domain

Now armed with the secrets of the Davenport Brothers, as well as his own experiences as a medium in his younger days, Houdini set out to expose fraudulent mediums throughout the 1920s. He had initially believed that although it was all fake, it didn't harm anyone. The death of his mother made him realize the harm these fraudsters were really doing, and so Houdini set out to reveal their tricks. One such huckster was Eva Carrière.

As detailed in Houdini’s book, A Magician Among the Spirits, Carrière was a medium known for her ability to produce a mysterious substance called ectoplasm from a number of orifices. Carrière, with the help of her assistant and alleged lover Juliette Bisson, would be stripped down and searched to prove there was nothing on her person. She would then let Bisson put her in a trance, where Houdini said he was certain she was truly asleep. After some time, she would conjure up ectoplasm from her mouth that looked “like a colored cartoon and seemed to have been unrolled.” Houdini left feeling underwhelmed and unconvinced.

Still, Carrière seemed to hold many in her trance. A researcher named Albert von Schrenck-Notzing spent several years—1909 to 1913—working with her, and by the end, he was completely convinced. He published his findings and photographs in his book Phenomena of Materialisation. Ironically, this book ended up being Carrière's undoing: A skeptic named Harry Price wrote that the pictures proved that the faces seen in the medium’s ectoplasm were actually regurgitated cut-outs from the French magazine Le Miroir.

4. ANN O’DELIA DISS DEBAR

Ann O’Delia Diss Debar had gone through many monikers and identities in her lifetime, but according to Houdini [PDF], she started as Editha Salomen, born in Kentucky in 1849 (others claim she was named Delia Ann Sullivan and born in 1851). She left home at 18 and somehow convinced the high society of Baltimore that she was of European aristocracy. “Where the Kentucky girl with her peculiar temperament and characteristics could possibly have secured the education and knowledge which she displayed through all her exploits I am at a loss to understand,” Houdini wrote. Regardless, Salomon was extremely successful in her con artistry and managed to cheat Baltimore’s wealthiest out of a quarter million dollars. Claiming that funds were tied up in foreign banks, it was easy to drain potential suitors out of money and luxury.

After a quick stint at an insane asylum for trying to kill a doctor, Salomen took up hypnotism and married a man of slow wit named General Diss Debar. As Ann O’Delia Diss Debar and a general’s wife (although modern scholarship says that he wasn't a general and they weren't ever actually married), she found that people were eager to trust her. She took advantage of this trust when she met a successful lawyer named Luther R. Marsh, who had just lost his wife. After convincing him that she was a skilled medium, Diss Debar persuaded him to turn over his home on Madison Avenue, which she then turned into a spiritualistic temple and successful business. The swindler created spirit paintings, which, through sleight of hand, seemed to appear out of nowhere on blank canvases, as if the spirits painted them.

These paintings eventually landed Diss Debar in legal trouble when Marsh invited the press to come and see them. In 1888, the so-called medium was hauled into court for deceiving Marsh and swindling him out of house and home. Many testified against Diss Debar, including her own brother, but the most convincing participant was professional Carl Hertz, who was called in to disprove her trickery. With ease, he replicated each of Diss Debar’s tricks, and performed some that not even she could do. Satisfied that the woman was a fraud, the state incarcerated her for six months at Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island).

Despite all this, Marsh continued to believe in spiritualism. Unfortunately for Diss Debar, he seemed like the only one—she attempted to resurrect her career, but was unsuccessful, later being hauled back into court for charges of debt a year after her release. She traveled between London and America for years, going in and out of prison, before finally disappearing for good in 1909.

As Houdini put it harshly:

“Ann O’Delia Diss Debar’s reputation was such that she will go down in history as one of the great criminals. She was no credit to Spiritualism; she was no credit to any people, she was no credit to any country—she was one of these moral misfits which every once in awhile seem to find their way into the world. Better for had she died at birth than to have lived and spread the evil she did.”

5. MINA CRANDON

Mina Crandon in 1924
Malcolm Bird, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the 1920s, Mina Crandon (also known as Margery, or the Blonde Witch of Lime Street) was one of the most well-known and controversial mediums of her time. Born in Canada to a farmer, Margery moved to Boston and took up a number of careers, working as a secretary, an actress, and an ambulance driver. After divorcing her first husband, she married Dr. Le Roi Goddard Crandon, a surgeon who studied at Harvard. It was the doctor who introduced her to spiritualism and eventually led her down the path to becoming a medium.

Margery was a friendly, pretty woman, but the ghost of her brother Walter was much less charming. The medium would conjure his spirit, who would then rap out messages, tip over tables, and yell at the participants. Often ectoplasm would ooze from her ears, nose, mouth, and dress. The mysterious substance sometimes took the form of a hand and supposedly rang bells or touched the participants. Her performance was so convincing that it attracted the Boston elite and even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. As her popularity soared, her prayers were even read by the U.S. Army.

In 1923, Harry Houdini joined a panel of scientists formed by The Scientific American to find a true medium. The prize for convincing them was $5000. The panel was quite convinced with Margery and was gearing up to give her the money for her legitimacy. Houdini wanted to take a look at the medium for himself, and in 1924, headed to Boston.

When the séance began, Houdini sat next to Margery with their hands joined and feet and legs touching. Earlier that day, the skeptic had worn a bandage around his knee all day, making it extremely sensitive to the touch. The heightened sensitivity helped him feel Margery move as she used her feet to grab various props during the act. After figuring out the scheme, Houdini was convinced of the fraud and wanted to go public. Despite his confidence, the rest of the panel remained uncertain, putting off the decision. By October, The Scientific American published an article explaining the panel was hopelessly divided. The hesitation angered both Houdini and Margery’s spirit. “Houdini, you goddamned son of a bitch,” Walter screamed. "Get the hell out of here and never come back. If you don't, I will."

By November, Houdini circulated a pamphlet called Houdini Exposes the Tricks Used by the Boston Medium "Margery." He then put on performances recreating Margery’s tricks for the amusement of skeptics. Humiliated and without prize money, Margery made a prediction in 1926. “Houdini will be gone by Halloween,” Walter declared. Coincidentally, Houdini did die that October 31 from peritonitis.

Margery and her prickly ghost brother may have gotten the last laugh, but by 1941, her reputation was in ruins from Houdini’s mockery. Still, she never confessed to her trickery, even on her deathbed.

Additional sources: Houdini, Harry. A Magician Among the Spirits. New York: Arno, 1972.

This story originally ran in 2015.

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