Biography of Darren DeFrain
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As with most of the other performers from his era, the resurgence of scholarship concerned with the life and works of early 20th century professional clairvoyant Darren DeFrain has been sharply divided between those who wish to merely debunk his mythos and those seeking a deeper understanding of his life’s work and what it reflected of the times. This site is focused solely on the latter and unless otherwise noted treats all of mentions of his preternatural feats as historical.
There have been conflicting accounts of DeFrain’s birth in terms of both year and place. Several sites mention a post-Civil War birth in the wilds of Alaska, but that is largely thought to be confusion with the contemporary author of the same name (no relation) or the lesser known stage magician born in 1913 (also no relation). Others claim that he was born and grew up with contemporary-turned-antagonist Harry Houdini in Wisconsin. This would establish a firmer link between the two and perhaps explain some of some Houdini’s cryptic correspondence with DeFrain during the former’s Mina Crandon encounters.
It is known, from several articles and interviews in the early 1900s that Darren DeFrain was an assumed name. In an interview from The Waukesha Herald on February 29th, 1916, he claims: “I wanted a stage name that spoke to my druidic roots. Frain is well known on the continent as a surname suggesting the ash tree. I was drawn to the unavoidable phoenix connotations in the translation, hence: ‘From the ashes.’ Darren is an old Gaelic name meaning, literally ‘The Great.’ You can’t go wrong with a stage name like that!” He also reportedly liked the poetic tie to the artist Andre Derain, whose Fauvist work he had collected for years.
Before DeFrain’s famous (some say “culminating”) 1926 performance at the Mypos Palladium he had been performing in traveling circuses in the states and Europe. In a February 29th, 1920 interview in the Romanian newspaper, Editura Corint, DeFrain claimed his affiliation with the Usari circuses were meant as both professional practice and research. He claims to have honed his tarot reading skills during his several years traveling and performing across Romania and Hungary while secretly freeing over a dozen Usari animals. One of those freed animals is rumored to have led to the tragic toothless bear attack in 1924 on the church in Iasi where a priest and several elderly parishioners were savagely gummed.
But it was when he came to Paris in late 1920 that DeFrain met up with writer Carl Van Vechten and photographer K. Uyesato (all Uyesato photos provided with permission, courtesy of The Lindsey Collection). Uyesato had come to Paris to study with Man Ray, whose “rayographs” Uyesato deeply admired. And when he was working with Ray favorite, Kiki de Monteparnasse, it was she who first suggested Uyesato try to use his photographic skills to see if he could find the “trick” to DeFrain’s performances.
Van Vechten had attended several of DeFrain’s intimate séances in the Paris area in his willful attempt to suppress his disbelief, as such performances helped “subvert [his] linear thinking and helped to enlarge the scope of exploratory perception.” He came away so impressed that he ultimately invited DeFrain into Stein’s famous salon, though the matriarch reportedly felt his act to be “tedious.”
Others in the salon ran the gamut from Fitzgerald who was “enthralled”; to Sinclair Lewis who was “bored”; to James Joyce who “couldn’t see a bloody bit of that mucksavage’s ballsch, what with all the low lights and candles and carryin’ on!”
DeFrain is thought to have irked Gertrude Stein by trying to insinuate himself into the close-knit circle at the core of the salon: Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Van Vechten. The inner core had playfully renamed themselves Woojums (Stein was Mama Woojums, Van Vechten Papa Woojums and Alice was Baby Woojums). Scholars differ as whether Van Vechten encouraged DeFrain or not, but the clairvoyant certainly made no points with Mama Woojums by insisting that everyone in the salon refer to him as Mystic Woojums during this period.
While DeFrain’s and Stein’s differences ultimately resolved themselves through DeFrain leaving for long periods to perform, Van Vechten became more and more enthralled with Man Ray and K. Uyesato’s work. In the early 30’s he turned to portrait photography, shooting an incredible number of noteworthy artists of the era from Georgia O’Keefe to James Baldwin.
One of DeFrain’s frequent destinations throughout this time was to consult Emma Jung, who relied on his phrenological readings for guidance in her practice and (according to the salacious diaries of Sabina Spielrein) her ailing marriage. It was during one of their sessions when, after repeatedly being interrupted by her husband, she suggested DeFrain apply his skills to Carl Jung’s scalp. Carl had apparently been equal parts skeptical and curious and acquiesced. However, soon after DeFrain began patrolling Jung’s scalp with his fingers Jung began “babbling about Symbols of Transformation” (as alluded to in Spielrein’s “Die Destruktion als Ursache des Werdens”). When DeFrain complained that he needed his full concentration, Jung jumped up from the stool he’d been squatting on and accused DeFrain of moving one of his warts from beneath his hairline to the front of his head. That wart is nowhere to be seen in photos of Jung taken during this era.
Uyesato, meanwhile, produced his well-known series of photos from this period that nonetheless failed to put an end to any debate about DeFrain’s authenticity. Uyesato would continue to photograph DeFrain until his crowning performance at the Palladium (a rare recording of that session is available here). Shortly after the Palladium performance Uyesato began his own master work, Privies of the World. This massive undertaking attempted to capture the “splendid variety” of toilets, restrooms, urinals and outhouses of the world. Uyesato is known to have made it as far as Moscow where he is thought to have captured the only known photo in existence of Josef Stalin seated on the toilet. Shortly thereafter he disappeared from public life and his work remained unfinished.
In the mid-1920s Houdini had turned his attention to debunking mystics, clairvoyants and even religious miracles. He went so far as to hire the writer, H.P. Lovecraft, to author a book about debunking religious miracles called The Cancer of Superstition (a detailed description of the synopsis for this unfinished book still survives). While Houdini never got to try to debunk DeFrain’s performances, it was DeFrain who famously muttered “Trick or treat, Harry? I think it will be neither for you…” during a séance in Kalamazoo on February 29th, 1924. Houdini, having heard of the comment through his acquaintance Will Keith Kellogg of Battle Creek who had been in attendance, was said to be infuriated.
Harry Houdini began an odd correspondence with DeFrain around this time and it is believed that in spite of Houdini raining down terror on mystics across the U.S., DeFrain tried to mend the rift between Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who DeFrain had met occasionally in London). Only a brief mention of these correspondences still exists (Houdini wrote several in pen on the inside of escape boxes than can found at the Houdini/McCarthy Museum in Appleton, Wisconsin). DeFrain is said to have used the actual letters themselves as tinder to help him summon the spirit of Walter Stinson. Stinson, of course, was the brother of Mina Crandon, the clairvoyant commonly known as Margery.
Margery, perhaps the best known medium during this era, was famous for her teleplasmic hand which would appear during séances. As Margery would sometimes perform her séances in the nude, sprinkling her breasts with luminescent powder for even greater dramatic effect, it was rumored that Margery had used her doctor husband’s skill to surgically enhance her vagina so that she could readily hide and produce the hand on cue. Houdini famously debunked her “abilities” and as a result such performances soon began falling out of favor. During one séance, later in her career, Margery grew so distraught that she climbed to the roof of the Lime Street house and threatened to jump.
DeFrain even joined Houdini (and others) in labeling Margery a fraud who “has done more to tatter the reputation of honest mystics than a thousand failed spirit summonings.” Like Houdini, DeFrain was demonstrably distraught whenever a medium was debunked. For the few remaining scrupulous mystical performers, it took a toll on their belief.
DeFrain finally returned to the U.S. in 1930 for good. He was much sought-after in Hollywood, though he refused persistent offers by William Cameron Menzies to star in a film of his life. As a favor to Menzies, whose company he enjoyed, DeFrain agreed to act as a mentor for June Lang and Bela Lugosi on the set of Chandu the Magician. Lugosi famously repudiated
DeFrain’s attempts to help the actor understand and attempt astral projection in preparation for his role: “If you want I can project my shoe up your astral right now! Never talk to me about my craft!”
Though there are verifiable reports that DeFrain continued to perform at small venues in Hollywood and the far west, he disappeared from public life just before the start of America’s engagement in the Second World War An unsubstantiated claim in the Arizona Guardian Republic from February 29th, 1940 claims that during a presentation in Phoenix, Arizona on astral projection DeFrain disappeared in an explosion of light and failed to return.