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Remembering Henry Gordon, Magician, Skeptic, Debunker

News & Comment

Justin Trottier

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 33.3, May / June 2009

Kemo Kimo Merinickel Pumpernickel. Henry Gordon invented this phrase to use as an incantation in his magic, just as he created or taught himself everything he needed in life. They were spoken again by his granddaughter Sandra at his funeral in January. Gordon—magician, skeptic, columnist, broadcaster, entrepreneur, co-founder of the Ontario Skeptics, and fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry—died January 24, 2009, at the age of eighty-nine.

In 1940 Montreal, Henry was a young man interested in radio repair and Morse code. Zita, Henry’s then-girlfriend and later beautiful assistant in his magic shows, remembers walking down St. Catherine Street. The Royal Canadian Air Force was advertising its need for radio operators. Henry quickly enlisted and was sent to help start an air training camp in western Canada.

“As a relaxation, away from his daily demands, he became interested in the fine art of magic,” says Zita. “That’s where the love of this art and the psychology of it and what it can do for an individual began.” A year later he and Zita were married. A terrific writer, he proposed through the mail.

Henry was honorably discharged from the service in December 1941. With his knowledge of electronics and his entrepreneurial spirit, he built the first recording studio open to the public in Montreal.

In the exciting atmosphere of the 1960s, it seemed appropriate to experiment by opening the first party supply store in the city. “Henry Gordon’s Party Centre” opened to great fanfare, selling “everything for enjoyment under one roof,” as its motto proudly declared. It was a great success. “Henry always said, if you want to try something you’ve got to find the timing and go along with the bumps,” explains Zita.

He opened a school for magic in the store, which thrived for nineteen years. Having always referred to magic as a fine art and to himself as an honest fraud, he became very annoyed by the famous magicians who cashed in on the psychedelic period by calling themselves psychics and destroying the integrity of magic.

One of the earliest debunkers, in the 1970s he (with Zita) performed magic and debunking on cruise ships. “It proved to be very successful, particularly when sailing through the Bermuda Triangle,” Henry joked in his article in the book Skeptical Odysseys, edited by Paul Kurtz. In 1978, Kurtz attended a skeptical symposium in Montreal, and shortly afterward Henry was elected a scientific and technical consultant to CSICOP.

For two years Henry wrote the debunking column “ExtraSensory Deception” for the Toronto Sun, which was the first such column in North America. He went on to write a regular column called “Debunking” for the Toronto Star’s Sunday paper.

Editor Gerry Hall, who wanted to introduce facts and science to counter the generally pro-paranormal tone of many newspapers, was attracted to Henry’s work because of his diligence and care for detail. “He was a skeptic who was willing to do the work to track something down,” says Hall. “There were a coterie of people who made yearly predictions and he would have probably had a complete file on them and he would find the twenty things they predicted that were wrong.” Henry turned his critical eye to everything from UFO sightings to psychic detectives and chiropractors.

His writing and skepticism fed on each other. By now a CSICOP Fellow, he would often report on its activities. Meanwhile, his writings attracted a great many people—especially students—into the movement. Two physics students helped him start the Ontario Skeptics, along with Eric McMillan.

“When I first met him he was writing a column in the Star about debunking,” McMillan recalls. “That was mind opening for me, for me that was what turned me on to skepticism.”

There was a great deal of excitement at the launch of the organization. “It was often said, we light our little candle in the dark and hope to attract people to that light, but still we realize we’re just one little light in the dark.”

There were instances when that light seemed quite a bit brighter. In 1987 Henry Gordon appeared on WBZ-TV Boston along with Uri Geller. Geller attempted to perform his well-known trick of moving a compass needle by waving his hands. After much grunting, Geller had to give up. Henry had strapped a much stronger magnet to his knee.

Another high point occurred when Henry appeared at Montreal’s popular Saidye Bronfman Theatre disguised as psychic Elchonen. He fooled the audience and then later returned on stage as himself. Some asked to have their money refunded, but many returned to hear Henry speak on the paranormal.

These incidents, as well as many of his columns, are described in his book Extrasensory Deception (Prometheus Books 1987). Henry authored magic books for children as well as one focusing almost exclusively on Shirley MacLaine, titled Channeling into the New Age.

A gifted performer before audiences of hundreds, Henry was equally comfortable entertaining small groups. He was a real family man. At his funeral ceremony his granddaughter affectionately referred to him as Zaida, noting that his magic took place both on and off stage. The spotlight didn’t shine on every magical moment Henry gave his family and the world, she added, but at that moment the spotlight was shining on Henry one more time.

Henry was indeed involved in one last bit of magic. A broken wand ceremony was carried out by Ron Guttman, past president of the Sid Lorraine Hat and Rabbit Club, the Toronto branch of the International Brotherhood of Magicians (IBM). The broken wand symbolizes broken hearts at Henry’s absence. It also represents the fact that a wand without its magician is of no use. “We send Henry into the mystery of all mysteries,” said Guttman, concluding the ceremony.

The Club had awarded Henry an Order of Merlin, which recognizes a member’s service of over twenty-five years to IBM. Skepticism was a vital part of Henry’s magic, and in turn, magic informed his skeptical enterprise.

Throughout his life, Henry was a major figure in city life wherever he lived, and he appeared regularly in the media, from Larry King Live to opera. Once on CBC’s Radio Noon he was introduced: “We’re going to talk about ghosts today, and here is Henry Gordon who has come to spoil our day again.” A skeptic is not usually rewarded, but Henry was a hero, and, according to Gerry Hall, he made a difference. “He was one of the great skeptics in Toronto and we are lucky we got him.”

To McMillan, Henry demonstrated that “a skeptical life is not necessarily a life with a narrow focus, that we just focus on paranormal nonsense and science to correct it. A skeptical life is being interested in everything . . . everything that has to do with human beings.”

“He had an intellectual curiosity, whether it was mechanics, whether it was music . . . [he was] self taught. . . . My goodness, he was full of surprises,” said Zita.

Justin Trottier

Justin Trottier is the director of CFI Ontario.