Books: “The Nazi Séance”

February 27, 2012

One of the most bizarre characters among the opportunists, lackeys, and hangers-on who orbited around Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party was Erik Jan Hanussen — a mentalist who is the subject of Arthur J. Magda’s book The Nazi Séance.

Hanussen, who worked his way up from rinky-dink vaudevillian to international celebrity, lived on the edge. Driven almost entirely by his appetite for fame and fortune, he dazzled some people and irritated others, and while he was being applauded for his feats on stage he was also being hounded by skeptics and enemies.

His act consisted of such effects as finding people in an audience whose names had been written on slips of paper and sealed in envelopes, finding hidden articles, telling strangers details about their lives, and occasionally foretelling the future.

Hanussen also conducted private consultations and séances for which he charged substantial sums.

He had many critics, but the most serious challenge to his credibility may have been a criminal case of fraud brought against him in Czechoslovakia. Although he probably had defrauded the people involved, he beat the charges after the judge, who seems to have been sympathetic anyway, allowed Hanussen to conduct a daring demonstration of his skills in the courtroom.

He also became a target of the communists who in the late ’20s and early ’30s were struggling with the Nazis for political control of Germany and who had no patience with such things as magic and spiritualism.

Some of the Nazis, on the other hand, including some high-ranking ones, were caught up in a post-World War I wave of interest in other-worldly things.

Hanussen, Magida writes, had no interest in politics or government, but he cast his lot with the Nazis to the extent that he used his charisma and manipulative skills to make some influential friends, not the least of whom was Count Wolf-Heinrich von Helldorf, head of the Nazi storm troopers in Berlin. Hanussen, who lived lavishly, entertained Helldorf in style and, while the Nazis were still trying to consolidate their power, the mentalist repeatedly lent money to Helldorf, holding onto the IOUs. Hanussen, who owned a newspaper in Berlin, used it to vigorously promote Adolf Hitler and his party.

Hanussen’s success was to a large extent a result of his hubris, and the primary example of that was the fact that he was not a Danish aristocrat, as he claimed, but an Austrian Jew named Hermann Steinschneider.

How he kept this from the Nazis for as long as he did is unclear, particularly since he continued to observe some Jewish rituals. In fact, one of his three wives converted to Judaism when she married him.

Eventually he was outed, first by a German communist newspaper and then by a Nazi publication. Even after this happened, he continued to behave with an extraordinary recklessness. He went too far, though, in February 1933, when he conducted a séance attended by some Nazi elite and tried to goad a hypnotized young actress into talking about a large fire. The following day, the Reichstag, seat of the German government, was torched. The circumstances surrounding that fire are still in dispute, but the Nazis blamed the communists. Magida writes that Hanussen, from his apartment, inexplicably telephoned the editor of a communist newspaper — a man he was otherwise unlikely to talk to —  to inform him of the fire and warn him of the possible consequences.

In addition, Hanussen tried to use Helldorf’s IOUs to strong-arm the Nazis into letting him in on a lucrative business deal from which he had been shut out. The Nazis hadn’t been in power very long before three men took Hanussen for a ride. His body, with three shots in it, was found much later in the forest where he had been killed.

Unlike most of the Nazis’ millions of victims, Hanussen asked for it. Ironically, the success he enjoyed before he was eliminated was in part a result of an attitude that he shared with Hitler, who took advantage of the desperation and aimlessness of the German people after the combined blows of defeat in World War I and deprivation during the Great Depression. The following remarks are Hanussen’s, but they might have come from either man:

“”Their sadness comes from the fact that they don’t have a teacher, a father, a boss, a friend who impresses them enough that they can trust him. Why do these people come to me? Because I am stronger than they are, more audacious, more energetic. Because I have the stronger will. Because they are children and I am a man.”


Folks confer a couple of lofty titles on James Madison, but “hypocrite” isn’t usually one of them. But Elizabeth Dowling Taylor isn’t bashful about using that term in her book A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons. 

The subject of the book was born into slavery on Montpelier, Madison’s farm in Virginia, and remained in bondage until he was 46 years of age. Within the stifling confines of slavery, Jennings rose to the highest possible place, serving for many years — including the White House years — as Madison’s “body servant.” That meant that he attended to Madison’s personal needs — shaving him, for instance — and traveled with him pretty much everywhere. He also was often the first person a visitor encountered, and he supervised the other household staff in preparing dinners and receptions. Taylor surmises that Jennings, who was literate, paid a lot of attention to the conversations that took place when political and social leaders visited the Madisons.


One of the influential people Jennings became familiar with was Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, who served as a U.S. senator and as secretary of state. Madison had agreed, under pressure from a family member, to provide in his will that his slaves would be freed after specified periods. Madison — whose titles included “Father of the Bill of Rights” — reneged on that commitment and left about 100 slaves to his wife, with the provision that they would not be sold and that they would be freed at some point. When Dolley Madison began selling slaves in order to allay her financial problems, Jennings approached Webster, who had in the past assisted slaves. Webster arranged through a third party for Jennings to buy his freedom; Jennings worked for Webster for several years, and eventually, Webster took on the loan himself.


Jennings was the father of five; he married three times and was widowed twice. When he had satisfied his debt to Webster, he took a job in the Interior Department and worked there until a few years before his death in 1874. During the balance of his working life, he was a bookbinder.

Jennings also seems to have been something of an activist. The evidence Taylor had at her disposal suggested to her that even while he himself was a slave, he forged documents for others trying to get to free states and that after he had achieved his own freedom he was a player in the largest known attempt by slaves to escape to the North — 77 men, women, and children who tried to slip out of Washington via the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay.


The most dramatic incident that occurred during Jennings’ years as a slave probably was the invasion of Washington by British troops in 1814. By Taylor’s account, Jennings was one of the servants at the White House with Dolley Madison when the alarm came that the house had to be evacuated, and he evidently was among the small group that removed the life-sized Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington that now hangs in the East Room. The painting almost certainly would have been destroyed when the British ransacked and burned the mansion.

Taylor’s account of Jennings’ life provides a lot of insight into slavery in Virginia, which was a complex system governed by both necessity and tradition. Her book also explores the contradictory position in which Madison and his close friend, Thomas Jefferson, found themselves. Both men publicly acknowledged that human slavery was essentially evil and that it should be eliminated, but both men kept scores of slaves to labor on their behalf. They were openly berated for this by abolitionists in the United States and by visitors from abroad. The Marquis de Lafayette, for example, visited the United States in 1824 and told Madison and Jefferson that he was nonplussed to find that almost a half century after he had fought for human liberty in the colonies, two of the principal figures of the Revolution were still keeping human beings in bondage.


Madison gave what turned out to be only lip service to emancipation, insisting that while it was desirable, it was also more important to preserve the federal union. Madison also argued that any plan to emancipate slaves had to include a plan to remove them from the United States — probably to west Africa, where none of them had ever lived. His reasoning was that black and white Americans could not live together in peace, and he based that conclusion on his opinion that black people were a depraved race, lazy, profligate, and likely to resort to violence — an idea that apparently was not diluted by his long and close exposure to Paul Jennings, who was none of those things.


While I was a grad student at Penn State, a family magic act appeared at Waring Hall. The show must have been either cheap or free, because we were living on $77 a month, and we went. With us was Michael Moran, an actor, who was visiting us that week. After each trick, Michael explained how it was done. All but one – the one in which the father in this family act crumpled up a piece of paper into a ball, placed it on a tennis racket, held the racket out at a right angle to his body, bouncing that wad of paper until it turned into an egg. He took the egg off the racket and broke it into a glass bowl. Michael couldn’t explain that one.

Intellectually, I knew that the magician had pulled a switch, but somewhere in my being I wanted to believe that he had changed that ball of paper into an egg.

This was nothing new. When I was a kid, I religiously (sic) watched Joseph Dunninger’s TV show. Dunninger was a mentalist who performed astounding feats and and made a standing offer of a $1,000 reward — a lot of money then — for anyone who could show that his subjects were  in kahoots with him. Still, he ended every show by saying something like the following: “And remember, a child of ten could do the things I do, after thirty years of practice.” I found that disclaimer disappointing; I would rather he had said nothing and left us guessing — and left me able to believe that he could read minds.


I imagine that same neurotic desire in audiences contributed a lot to the success of Harry Houdini, and also the success of spiritualists and mediums who claim they can summon the spirits of the dead. Those folks are the subject of Christopher Sandford’s book, Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini.

The title is a little misleading in that Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories among other things, were never really “friends.” It was more that they were interested in each other, almost obsessed with each other. What they were interested in was their contrary opinions about contacting the dead. Doyle got immersed in that subject because of his own bereavements, and he was convinced not only that intelligence could exist apart from the body but that the dead could communicate with the living, notably through mediums, and that he himself had experienced it. He seriously believed that a new religion should be established based on that premise. Houdini, on the other hand — who had bereavement issues of his own — didn’t discount the possibility of life after death or even the concept of communicating with the dead, but he made a second profession out of investigating mediums and concluded that all of them, including Conan Doyle’s wife, were frauds.


The two men did correspond and then meet, and they exchanged visits with their families, but there was never any prospect that one would convert the other. Such friendship as there was came to an end when Conan Doyle’s wife, Jean, conducted a seance in which she purported to contact Houdini’s deceased mother, repeating the mother’s messages to her son through “automatic writing,” meaning that Jean’s hand involuntarily scribbled down what Cecilia Weiss was saying. Conan Doyle was  convinced; Houdini was not, inasmuch as Jean wrote in English, a language Mrs. Weiss had never spoken, and called her son by the wrong first name. Houdini was polite about it at the time, but he later denounced the seance as a fake.

Although Conan Doyle was subjected to some criticism, he conducted a vigorous campaign to promote the ideas of spiritualism, drawing big crowds wherever he went. Houdini, on the other hand, took a lot of trouble to expose individual mediums as phonies, driving some of them out of the business. Sandford alludes several times to the obvious irony that Conan Doyle, who had invented the relentlessly logical Holmes, could accept as legitimate supposedly spiritual events for which there was no support or which were debunked by calmer minds. As for Houdini, it’s impossible to know how much of his crusade was based on his  professed outrage over the manipulation of people who were desperate to contact their lost loved ones and how much was  driven by the showman’s instinct that had made him an international celebrity.