The Jewish Psychic Who Tricked Hitler

Erik Jan Hanussen looked out at the sea of bewildered, startled faces and knew he had them. It was the mid-1920s, and Hanussen was playing to sold-out audiences in Berlin, where curious crowds would assemble to see if his reputation as one of the world’s foremost mentalists was warranted.

Hanussen pointed to a woman in the crowd and told her she had a broken mirror in her pocketbook. Then he recited her home address. The lady gasped and nodded. He was undeniably accurate on both counts.

It helped that a co-conspirator collecting tickets for the show had peered into the woman’s purse, and seen the mirror; it was also useful to compare the number on her ticket to a logbook that a local hotel had used for the addresses of attendees. The methods were practical, but Hanussen's theatrical flair transformed them into something sensational. He was a showman, a onetime carnival boy who learned hypnosis and psychic parlor games that would eventually make him the toast of Berlin.

But Hanussen wasn’t content with wealth and fame. Sensing the rising influence of the Nazi party, the mentalist ingratiated himself into the Reich by befriending storm troopers and eventually finding a seat as a confidant of Adolf Hitler himself. In a divided Berlin, Hanussen's powerful friends could assure his safety. His ego told him he could manipulate them as easily as he did the civilians who marveled at his stage presence.

But Hanussen’s plan had one fatal flaw: He was not of Danish ancestry, as he claimed, but Jewish. Once that was uncovered, no sleight of hand would be able to keep him from the wrath of the dangerous men he foolishly thought he could control. 

Hanussen hosting a seance. GruselTour-Leipzig

The son of poverty-stricken parents, Hanussen was born Hermann Steinschneider in Vienna, Austria, in 1889. His youth was chronicled in an autobiography he would publish in 1930, a point where his legend had long overtaken any objective history. To hear Hanussen tell it, he displayed early signs of clairvoyance during his childhood, with a restless nature pushing him into the circus as a teenager. At 14, he supposedly captured the heart of a 45-year-old woman and ran off with her before heading for Turkey and convincing sailors he was an opera singer.

Hanussen decided to change his name during World War I, when he began entertaining small theaters in Vienna and wanted to avoid being labeled a deserter. Throughout the war, he had impressed his fellow soldiers by steaming open letters, reading confidential information, then re-sealing the envelopes and announcing his mental powers had brought news from home. 

By the 1920s, Hanussen had migrated to Berlin, a then-bustling metropolis that embraced psychic performances. Hanussen’s shows combined mentalism, mind-reading, and feats like finding objects hidden in theaters while blindfolded. Though some observers criticized Hanussen for being a fraud, they were usually drowned out by spectators, who came in droves to see his tricks.

Because Hanussen insisted he was the genuine article, he left himself open to the occasional legal challenge. When he visited the Czech Republic in 1928, he was arrested for defrauding the public out of funds. It took nearly two years for courts to decide Hanussen was something approaching a legitimate seer, a ruling that came after he performed for the presiding—and gullible—judge.

Back in Berlin, Hanussen’s Danish cover and great wealth were looked upon favorably by the Reich, who had been involved in a struggle for political power that was reaching a boiling point. Hanussen entertained Nazi officers on his private boat, in limousines, and at his palatial apartment. Through a weekly newsletter he published, Hanussen had flattered the regime with predictions of Hitler’s rise to power and extolled the virtues of a Nazi-led higher office. “The stars tell us Hitler’s days are coming up,” read one headline.

The Nazis had other reasons to favor Hanussen: They liked gambling, and they were often in debt. One officer, Count Wolf-Heinrich Graf von Helldorf, was named on several IOUs held by Hanussen, who had loaned the head of the storm troopers a considerable sum to cover his gambling losses. In doing so, Hanussen felt he could grease the wheels with Helldorf in the event Berlin was consumed by either the Jewish-loathing Nazi party or the communist opposition that incited violence.

Hanussen’s sympathies found favor at the very top of the Reich. At the height of his fame in the 1920s, he met Hitler in the restaurant at the Hotel Kaiserhof, where the Führer had taken up residence. With his Jewish name abandoned and his officer friends endorsing him, Hanussen had no reason to arouse any suspicions. By some accounts, he conferred with Hitler a dozen times between 1932 and 1933, evaluating the bumps on his head, reading his palms, and reassuring the dictator that his rise to power was inevitable. When in-person meetings were difficult, the two spoke on the phone.

In his mind, Hanussen may have believed his charm could eventually get Hitler to see another side of the Jewish faith—one that could aid him in his pursuits. It would prove to be a poor prediction.

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As Hanussen continued to perform both publicly and privately, he found himself under fire from local newspaper commentators who shared the Czech concern that he was defrauding the public. One paper published the accusation that he was not Danish, but Jewish. A rattled Hanussen tried to reframe the narrative and insisted he had merely been adopted by Jewish parents.

It was too late. The charge was discovered by Nazi officials, who now had every reason to doubt Hanussen’s blood. It was ambiguous enough that he wasn’t ostracized immediately, but the small talk among officers was grave: They were in debt to a Jewish man.

Hanussen dug himself in deeper following the fire at Reichstag in February 1933. The blaze, which consumed Nazi territory, was said to be the work of Communists. The day before, Hanussen had hinted of “a great blaze” that would dramatically impact the area. It was theorized that he had gotten word of the arson—which was never solved—from Helldorf, who might have known of plans for the Germans to set the fire and frame Nazi opposition in order to obtain complete control over civil liberties. It also meant Hanussen couldn’t be trusted with any confidential information.

On March 24, 1933, Hanussen was late for a performance. As stagehands scrambled to find him, he was hustled from his apartment by storm troopers and shaken down for his IOUs. Once they had been retrieved, officers shot him three times and left his body in a forest, where it was discovered by lumberjacks. He was 43.

Hanussen had tried to co-opt the rising Nazi power for his own purposes. It was a fool’s errand, and one he tried to insure by believing the Nazis could overlook his heritage because he offered financial favors. Before his death, Hanussen had written to a friend that he considered their Jewish persecution to be an “election trick.” For his critics, it was one final bit of proof that he certainly couldn’t read minds.

Additional Sources: The Nazi Séance: The Strange Story of the Jewish Psychic in Hitler’s Circle

Why the Filet-O-Fish Sandwich Has Been on the McDonald's Menu for Nearly 60 Years

McDonald's has introduced and quietly killed many dishes over the years (remember McDonald's pizza?), but there's a core group of items that have held their spot on the menu for decades. Listed alongside the Big Mac and McNuggets is the Filet-O-Fish—a McDonald's staple you may have forgotten about if you're not the type of person who orders seafood from fast food restaurants. But the classic sandwich, consisting of a fried fish filet, tartar sauce, and American cheese on a bun, didn't get on the menu by mistake—and thanks to its popularity around Lent, it's likely to stick around.

According to Taste of Home, the inception of the Filet-O-Fish can be traced back to a McDonald's franchise that opened near Cincinnati, Ohio in 1959. Back then the restaurant offered beef burgers as its only main dish, and for most of the year, diners couldn't get enough of them. Things changed during Lent: Many Catholics abstain from eating meat and poultry on Fridays during the holy season as a form of fasting, and in the early 1960s, Cincinnati was more than 85 percent Catholic. Fridays are supposed to be one of the busiest days of the week for restaurants, but sales at the Ohio McDonald's took a nosedive every Friday leading up to Easter.

Franchise owner Lou Groen went to McDonald's founder Ray Kroc with the plan of adding a meat alternative to the menu to lure back Catholic customers. He proposed a fried halibut sandwich with tartar sauce (though meat is off-limits for Catholics on Fridays during Lent, seafood doesn't count as meat). Kroc didn't love the idea, citing his fears of stores smelling like fish, and suggested a "Hula Burger" made from a pineapple slice with cheese instead. To decide which item would earn a permanent place on the menu, they put the two sandwiches head to head at Groen's McDonald's one Friday during Lent.

The restaurant sold 350 Filet-O-Fish sandwiches that day—clearly beating the Hula Burger (though exactly how many pineapple burgers sold, Kroc wouldn't say). The basic recipe has received a few tweaks, switching from halibut to the cheaper cod and from cod to the more sustainable Alaskan pollock, but the Filet-O-Fish has remained part of the McDonald's lineup in some form ever since. Today 300 million of the sandwiches are sold annually, and about a quarter of those sales are made during Lent.

Other seafood products McDonald's has introduced haven't had the same staying power as the Filet-O-Fish. In 2013, the chain rolled out Fish McBites, a chickenless take on McNuggets, only to pull them from menus that same year.

[h/t Taste of Home]

The Disturbing Reason Schools Tattooed Their Students in the 1950s

Kurt Hutton, Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Kurt Hutton, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Paul Bailey was born at Beaver County Hospital in Milford, Utah on May 9, 1955, it took less than two hours for the staff to give him a tattoo. Located on his torso under his left arm, the tiny marking was rendered in indelible ink with a needle gun and indicated Bailey’s blood type: O-Positive.

“It is believed to be the youngest baby ever to have his blood type tattooed on his chest,” reported the Beaver County News, cooly referring to the infant as an “it.” A hospital employee was quick to note parental consent had been obtained first.

The permanent tattooing of a child who was only hours old was not met with any hysteria. Just the opposite: In parts of Utah and Indiana, local health officials had long been hard at work instituting a program that would facilitate potentially life-saving blood transfusions in the event of a nuclear attack. By branding children and adults alike with their blood type, donors could be immediately identified and used as “walking blood banks” for the critically injured.

Taken out of context, it seems unimaginable. But in the 1950s, when the Cold War was at its apex and atomic warfare appeared not only possible but likely, children willingly lined up at schools to perform their civic duty. They raised their arm, gritted their teeth, and held still while the tattoo needle began piercing their flesh.

 

The practice of subjecting children to tattoos for blood-typing has appropriately morbid roots. Testifying at the Nuremberg Tribunal on War Crimes in the 1940s, American Medical Association physician Andrew Ivy observed that members of the Nazi Waffen-SS carried body markings indicating their blood type [PDF]. When he returned to his hometown of Chicago, Ivy carried with him a solution for quickly identifying blood donors—a growing concern due to the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. The conflict was depleting blood banks of inventory, and it was clear that reserves would be necessary.

School children sit next to one another circa the 1950s
Reg Speller, Fox Photos/Getty Images

If the Soviet Union targeted areas of the United States for destruction, it would be vital to have a protocol for blood transfusions to treat radiation poisoning. Matches would need to be found quickly. (Transfusions depend on matching blood to avoid the adverse reactions that come from mixing different types. When a person receives blood different from their own, the body will create antibodies to destroy the red blood cells.)

In 1950, the Department of Defense placed the American Red Cross in charge of blood donor banks for the armed forces. In 1952, the Red Cross was the coordinating agency [PDF] for obtaining blood from civilians for the National Blood Program, which was meant to replenish donor supply during wartime. Those were both measures for soldiers. Meanwhile, local medical societies were left to determine how best to prepare their civilian communities for a nuclear event and its aftermath.

As part of the Chicago Medical Civil Defense Committee, Ivy promoted the use of the tattoos, declaring them as painless as a vaccination. Residents would get blood-typed by having their finger pricked and a tiny droplet smeared on a card. From there, they would be tattooed with the ABO blood group and Rhesus factor (or Rh factor), which denotes whether or not a person has a certain type of blood protein present.

The Chicago Medical Society and the Board of Health endorsed the program and citizens voiced a measure of support for it. One letter to the editor of The Plainfield Courier-News in New Jersey speculated it might even be a good idea to tattoo Social Security numbers on people's bodies to make identification easier.

Despite such marked enthusiasm, the project never entered into a pilot testing stage in Chicago.

Officials with the Lake County Medical Society in nearby Lake County, Indiana were more receptive to the idea. In the spring of 1951, 5000 residents were blood-typed using the card method. But, officials cautioned, the cards could be lost in the chaos of war or even the relative quiet of everyday life. Tattoos and dog tags were encouraged instead. When 1000 people lined up for blood-typing at a county fair, two-thirds agreed to be tattooed as part of what the county had dubbed "Operation Tat-Type." By December 1951, 15,000 Lake County residents had been blood-typed. Roughly 60 percent opted for a permanent marking.

The program was so well-received that the Lake County Medical Society quickly moved toward making children into mobile blood bags. In January 1952, five elementary schools in Hobart, Indiana enrolled in the pilot testing stage. Children were sent home with permission slips explaining the effort. If parents consented, students would line up on appointed tattoo days to get their blood typed with a finger prick. From there, they’d file into a room—often the school library—set up with makeshift curtains behind which they could hear a curious buzzing noise.

When a child stepped inside, they were greeted by a school administrator armed with indelible ink and wielding a Burgess Vibrotool, a medical tattoo gun featuring 30 to 50 needles. The child would raise their left arm to expose their torso (since arms and legs might be blown off in an attack) and were told the process would only take seconds.

A child raises his hand in class circa the 1950s
Vecchio/Three Lions/Getty Images

Some children were stoic. Some cried before, during, or after. One 11-year-old recounting her experience with the program said a classmate emerged from the session and promptly fainted. All were left with a tattoo less than an inch in diameter on their left side, intentionally pale so it would be as unobtrusive as possible.

At the same time that grade schoolers—and subsequently high school students—were being imprinted in Indiana, kids in Cache and Rich counties in Utah were also submitting to the program, despite potential religious obstacles for the region's substantial Mormon population. In fact, Bruce McConkie, a representative of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, declared that blood-type tattoos were exempt from the typical prohibitions on Mormons defacing their bodies, giving the program a boost among the devout. The experiment would not last much longer, though.

 

By 1955, 60,000 adults and children had gotten tattooed with their blood types in Lake County. In Milford, health officials persisted in promoting the program widely, offering the tattoos for free during routine vaccination appointments. But despite the cooperation exhibited by communities in Indiana and Utah, the programs never spread beyond their borders.

The Korean conflict had come to an end in 1953, reducing the strain put on blood supplies and along with it, the need for citizens to double as walking blood banks. More importantly, outside of the program's avid boosters, most physicians were extremely reticent to rely solely on a tattoo for blood-typing. They preferred to do their own testing to make certain a donor was a match with a patient.

There were other logistical challenges that made the program less than useful. The climate of a post-nuclear landscape meant that bodies might be charred, burning off tattoos and rendering the entire operation largely pointless. With the Soviet Union’s growing nuclear arsenal—1600 warheads were ready to take to the skies by 1960—the idea of civic defense became outmoded. Ducking and covering under desks, which might have shielded some from the immediate effects of a nuclear blast, would be meaningless in the face of such mass destruction.

Programs like tat-typing eventually fell out of favor, yet tens of thousands of adults consented to participate even after the flaws in the program were publicized, and a portion allowed their young children to be marked, too. Their motivation? According to Carol Fischler, who spoke with the podcast 99% Invisible about being tattooed as a young girl in Indiana, the paranoia over the Cold War in the 1950s drowned out any thought of the practice being outrageous or harmful. Kids wanted to do their part. Many nervously bit their lip but still lined up with the attitude that the tattoo was part of being a proud American.

Perhaps equally important, children who complained of the tattoo leaving them particularly sore received another benefit: They got the rest of the afternoon off.

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