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James Randi Educational Foundation

An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural

Introduction | "R" Reading | Curse of the Pharaoh | End-of-the-World Prophecies

Index | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | Y | Z

Hanussen, Erik Jan (Herschel Steinschneider, 1889-1933) He was born in Vienna, the son of Siegfried Steinschneider, an Austrian-Jewish traveling comedian. As a boy of fourteen, he toured with his father, learning the tricks of the variety artists and circus performers. Soon he was performing mentalism, specializing in making objects move, apparently by mind power (psychokinesis).
      At the age of twenty-one, he made an abrupt change of direction. He became chief reporter for a newspaper called Der Blitz, which had a reputation among the public of making its money by blackmailing celebrities. Apparently Herschel was suited to this kind of work. Then along came World War I.
      Out of the army in 1917, he took the professional name Erik Jan Hanussen (written in a German book on his life, “van” Hanussen) and at that point he joined a small circus. In Kraków he published a booklet titled Worauf beruht das? (“What Is This Based On?”) which dealt with subjects like telepathy and clairvoyance and in the spirit of an exposé labeled them all as frauds. In 1920 he wrote and published (in Vienna) a second book, Das Gedankenlesen (“Thought Reading”), for the second time in print calling the idea of telepathy, clairvoyance, and mind reading a hoax.
      Then, amazingly, he did an about-turn and threw himself into that very business, now treating it as if it were genuine; he claimed clairvoyant and telepathic powers. The Austrian police labeled him a swindler, but before they could proceed further, Hanussen went off to Czechoslovakia, which he now chose to claim was his homeland, but he was no more welcome there, soon being charged with using trickery and taking money under false pretenses.
      By 1929 he was in hot water again and found himself in court charged with fraud, but the case against him was dismissed for lack of evidence. His own version of that episode in his life was somewhat different from the facts; asked about it later in his career, he said that he had appeared in court as a sworn expert witness for the state.
      The newly emerged mentalist moved into the cabaret scene and then began giving public shows at major theaters. He had expensive full-color posters printed up and was soon playing to packed houses. The price of admission was almost double the regular price of a variety show, and Hanussen also gave very costly personal readings for his customers. On the stage he was a striking figure in stark white make up and a tail suit.
      He went off to Berlin, and within a few months he had captured that troubled city with his tricks. He played a long run at the Scala Theater and was a celebrity. The news media built him into a major psychic figure, though from the descriptions given, the tricks he was performing were obviously derived right from extant conjuring sources.
      He became Adolf Hitler's favorite Hellseher ("clairvoyant") and served the Nazis as one of their most vehement and savage anti-Semitic propagandists, even turning out a weekly newspaper for the party which trumpeted that theme. Though he had to convert from Judaism to Protestantism in order the join the party, Hanussen did so willingly.
      He was moving in powerful company at that point, even working with the secret police. He became so influential that in 1931 the Berlin am Morgen newspaper, through its editor Bruno Frei, began a serious campaign to discredit him. Frei had discovered Hanussen's Jewish origins and declared him in print to be a “charlatan, deceiver, swindler and exaggerator.” The psychic immediately brought a defamation lawsuit against Frei and the publisher Kosmos-Verlag, and the investigation ceased, though the lawsuit went on.
      By the end of 1932, Hanussen was living very, very well. He had a large mansion outside Berlin which was referred to as the "Palace of Occultism,” and everyone was talking about him. At a special-invitation party at this place in February 1933, the cream of Berlin society was present. Host Hanussen announced a séance, turning down the lights and seeming to enter a trance in which he announced his visions that Adolf Hitler would lead Germany to great glory, but that there would be several calamities before that moment arrived. He assured all present that Hitler would crush impending leftist attempts to disrupt the government.
      Then the audience was stunned when Hanussen suddenly leaped to his feet and began screaming about a disaster involving a massive fire. He said that in a vision he clearly saw “a great house burning”——and when asked, he did not deny that it was the Reichstag.
      The Hellseher, in his incautious ambition, had now became a great danger to the Nazi cause and had outlived his function of charming those dilettantes that the Nazis needed to finance their cause. It happened because his close association with top Nazis, particularly Propaganda Minister Dr. Joseph Goebbels, had given him some very specific and guarded inside information; he had prior knowledge of the party's secret intent to burn the Reichstag that very night as a “proof” to the German people that the Communists were trying to disrupt the government. Hanussen knew that the fire would be set within less than twelve hours, and he couldn't resist using that inside knowledge to demonstrate his prophetic powers before Berlin society, now at his feet.
      The Reichstag fire took place the next morning in accordance with the Nazi plan. There was great public excitement at the apparent accuracy of the seer's vision of the event, and the Nazi brass took note of that fact. Hanussen went on with his plans for even greater notoriety and power, but he was secretly arrested and spirited away on March 24.
      On April 7 a workman came upon his mutilated body in a shallow grave in the woods outside Berlin. He had been murdered, shot twelve times, on the same day he'd been arrested. Who gave the initial command for the murder has never been discovered, though papers recording amounts in excess of 150,000 marks owed to him somehow disappeared from the Palace of Occultism and were never found. The palace closed and never reopened.
      His story continues to fascinate; in 1955 and 1988 two major motion pictures based on his life appeared. The screenplays were highly fictitious in both versions, a condition that also applied to a biographical treatment of another “psychic” that was produced in 1994.

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