When America entered World War I, Houdini led the war efforts by magicians by example, giving away more than $7,000 (which today would be about $250,000). He also contributed money to build a hospital that was dedicated to his mother.
Then he wrote to Secretary of War Newton Baker and offered to conduct classes in extrication from ropes, handcuffs, and even shipwrecks. He began his classes during intermissions of “Cheer Up,” a patriotic show that he joined at the Hippodrome.
In June of 1918, a mere fourteen months after the war was declared, Houdini had sacrificed over fifty thousand dollars in lost salary and his own expenditures in his ongoing efforts.
After the war was over, Houdini morphed himself from a hero to a superhero. Inspired by Sarah Bernhardt’s advocacy for the Russian Jews, Houdini used his unprecedented fame to bring down ruthless phony spiritualists who preyed upon the bereaved.
Houdini desperately wanted to belief in the afterlife, although, try as he might, he never felt he witnessed anything that might prove its existence. Throughout his life, he made pacts with many of his friends, creating a unique, secret code for each one. Whoever pierced the veil of death first would then attempt to relay the code from beyond the grave.
Houdini’s thoughts on spiritualist mediums and the afterlife: “I am not a skeptic. I am perfectly willing to believe, my mind is wide open. For over thirty-five years, day in and day out, night in and night out, I have been seeking the truth. No one in the world has a greater right to believe than I. My parents are on the other side, and if there is anyone who worshipped their father and mother it is your humble servant.”
Houdini embarked upon what became his most dangerous mission when he took on the fraudulent spiritualist movement, creating his “own secret service”, a bevy of operatives whose occupations ranged from showgirls, mechanists, and housewives to infiltrate this powerful adversary.
He was well suited for this mission. During his early career, Houdini performed at times as a spiritualist medium. However, after one particular performance where he held a séance, he decided to never again pose as a genuine medium. He wrote, “When it was all over I saw and felt that the audience believed in me. They believed that my tricks were true communications from those dear dead….I was brought to a realization of the seriousness of trifling with the hallowed reverence which the average human being bestows on the departed.”
Houdini threw into himself wholeheartedly into his mission. He testified before Congress, and led many police raids on unsuspecting phony mediums.