For most of the past several weeks, the Magazine published articles about how amazing someone’s magic or telepathic powers are and how they mystify science. But they also published articles explaining the secrets of magic tricks and special effects. You’d think someone would have figured that perhaps they are one and the same.
This week, the subject is W. Bert Reese, a mentalist who did indeed confound Thomas Edison and other scientists with his magic tricks, as the article explains. But one man not mentioned in the article was in fact clever enough to see through Reese’s tricks: Harry Houdini.
The recently departed Martin Gardner wrote about Reese in his book Did Adam and Eve Have Navels? Debunking Pseudoscience and quotes from a letter Houdini wrote to Arthur Conan Doyle about Reese in 1920:
You may have heard a lot of stories about Dr. Bert Reese, but I spoke to Judge Rosalsky [in front of whom Reese had performed a mind-reading trick to get out of a disorderly conduct charge] and he personally informed me that, although he did not detect Reese, he certainly did not think it was telepathy. I am positive that Reese resorts to legerdemain, makes use of a wonderful memory, and is a great character reader. He is incidentally a wonderful judge of human beings.
That he fooled Edison does not surprise me. He would have surprised me if he did not fool Edison. Edison is certainly not a criterion, when it comes to judging a shrewd adept in the art of pellet-reading.
The greatest thing Reese did, and which he openly acknowledged to me, was his test-case in Germany when he admitted they could not solve him.
I have no hesitancy in telling you that I set a snare at the séance I had with Reese, and caught him cold-blooded. He was startled when it was over, as he knew that I had bowled him over. So much so that he claimed I was the only one that had ever detected him, and in our conversation after that we spoke about other workers of what we call the pellet test — Foster, Worthington, Baldwin, et al. After my séance with him, I went home and wrote down all the details.
While I highly recommend reading all of Gardner’s book, you can find some of the relevant excerpts on Google Books.
WIZARD WITH AMAZING POWERS ASTOUNDS SCIENTISTS: Thomas A. Edison, Dr. William H. Thomson and Others Admit They Are Unable to Explain the Feats of W. Bert Reese — Reads Questions Written in Another Room and Answers Them. (PDF)
From November 13, 1910