The New York Times, Op-Ed Page, July 4, 1996

Did coolidge channel harding?

Text Box: Houdini and the White House

By William P. Barrett

     ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—Seances in the White House! Administration officials issue a denial! Last month’s news? Try 1926. Calvin Coolidge’s Administration was rocked by a claim that he and his family had entertained mediums and that the White House was a hotbed of believers in the supernatural.

     This accusation was made at Congressional hearings where the inquisitor was none other than the magician Harry Houdini. For decades, Houdini had campaigned against fortune-tellers, accusing them of blackmailing and swindling people.

     Many states banned fortunetelling for pay, but not Washington, where a license cost $25. The capital swarmed with palm readers and astrologers.

     Houdini persuaded a Congressman to try to ban fortunetelling in the District. Appearing before a subcommittee on Feb. 26, 1926, Houdini attacked ``deliberate frauds and cheats.’’ In response, two well-known mediums, Jane Coates and one Madame Marcia, testified that such a bill violated their right to freedom of religion. Several fortunetellers said senators (unidentified) consulted them regularly.

     On May 17, the day before the second hearing, Houdini sent his top investigator to visit the two mediums. At the hearing, he asked his aide about what she had learned about ``the White House and seances being there.’’ She replied that Madame Marcia had told her that ``almost all the people in the White House believed in spiritualism.’’ Then she quoted Jane Coates as having said, ``I know for a fact that there have been spiritual seances held at the White House with President Coolidge and his family, which proves that inter-communication with the dead is established.’’

     This was sensational stuff for a country that had embraced the reassuring ``Silent Cal,’’ who took office in 1923 after Warren G. Harding’s death. The Administration ``denied that any seance had been held in the White House since Mr. Coolidge became President,’’ The New York Times reported. Later, Jane Coates claimed that she had merely said that seances had been held ``under the shadow of the White House.’’

     The furor subsided. The ban on fortunetellers failed. And Coolidge apparently never spoke or wrote publicly about the matter.


William P. Barrett contributes to Worth Magazine.