A Lawyer Presents the Case for the Afterlife


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Magician Howard Thurston investigates and accepts the afterlife and the paranormal.

By Arthur Ford (medium, pictured, left)

Taken from Arthur Ford's "Nothing So Strange" (New York: Harper and Row, 1958). Chapter originally titled "A Round with the Magicians".

Showdown with magician Howard Thurston

..... Among the best known of the magicians was Howard Thurston. Thurston was a tall, suave and handsome man, whom I had always considered a thorough gentleman. Therefore I was surprised when in 1927, the old New York World ran a story to the effect that Thurston claimed he had exposed over three hundred mediums, that Spiritualism had broken up more homes than the old-time saloon, and that he had a gadget resembling a watchcase in which was concealed a rubber spook that could be blown up and operated in such fashion that it could duplicate all the phenomena of the séance room. I asked the World to let me answer this story, but they refused. There was nothing particularly newsworthy about me. But the United Press Association indicated that they would carry my reply if I made a good story.

Now how could I make a good story of fraudulent accusation of fraud? I thought over the fact that magicians such as Houdini and Thurston kept on issuing open challenges to mediums, offering ten thousand dollars for the production of any stunt they could not reproduce by trickery. I felt there had been about enough of this talk and that someone should make some kind of public refutation which would carry weight. Therefore when a friend of mine, with United Press, suggested that I turn the tables and offer ten thousand dollars to Thurston if he could prove his charges, I was held back only by ten thousand good reasons. Another friend, John Bowman, president of the Bowman Biltmore Hotel Corporation, overheard the suggestion and handed me a certified check. It was posted and I challenged Thurston.

Now the press had a story they could use with relish and they did a thorough coverage. Thurston began to explain to his friends that his press agent had overplayed his hand. But the press demanded a showdown. So a night was set when we were to meet in Carnegie Hall. In spite of the publicity I was surprised to find the Hall packed. Apparently all the magicians were there and the press was amply represented, not to overlook the public.

I spoke first and challenged Thurston, "I will not ask for the names of the three hundred mediums you have exposed, but ask only that you give me the name and address, time, and place of exposure of twenty-five, along with proof that you did expose them." Thurston named only three, none of them living. I could have done better than that. I then asked him to give me the names of only twenty-five families that had been broken up over Spiritualism. He had no names. I could have furnished them, knowing the movement better than he did, for there are always individuals who make a mania of their particular religious beliefs and ride their families to death.

He grew more nervous as we approached the matter of his rubber spook. I explained to the audience the method of testing physical mediumship. However, without these customary preliminaries, I was only going to ask that in good light before the audience Thurston produce this rubber spook and let it walk over to me and tell me the real name of my father. Certainly a kindergarten test for a medium. But Thurston had forgotten to bring the spook along. By that time I felt sorry for him.

The next day the newspapers carried a complete account of the encounter, one paper headlining the story: FORD AND THURSTON PUT ON SHOW AT CARNEGIE HALL ... IT FLOPPED IN THE SECOND ACT. Thurston explained to the press again that his press agent had got him into this fiasco, hoping to capitalize on the Houdini technique for getting publicity. Reasonably, Thurston's ire was high against me, which I regretted for I admired his magicianship. I supposed our encounter was over.

Another Encounter with Thurston

About four years later I was in Detroit. Thurston had his magical show at a leading theater. I went with a friend. At one point in his routine Thurston did what he called his Spirit Cabinet Trick, and I was surprised to find on the printed program: "This is a trick to amuse you and it is NOT an attack upon the religious beliefs of anyone." When he finished this trick he called for the house lights and had them focused upon me. What next, I thought, deducing that someone had recognized me and told him I was present. Needing revenge, he would embarrass me if he could. Instead, he said to the audience, "What I have just done is a trick, but in the audience is a man whom I firmly believe can help you to communicate with your beloved dead." Then he asked me to come to his dressing room after the show.

When my friend and I went backstage to meet him, Thurston then told me that when we had our encounter in New York he knew very little about psychic things; just what everyone thinks he knows which is usually less than nothing. But he had determined to get back at me so he began sitting with reputable mediums wherever he could find one. "Now as a magician I know the limits of a trick," he said. "Under my own conditions and in my own hotel room I have proofs of survival which, satisfy me. I am now a member of the American Society for Psychical Research." We became good friends and I later attended several séances in his house.

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