The Jewish Psychic Who Tricked Hitler

Erik Jan Hanussen looked out at the sea of bewildered, startled faces and knew he had them. It was the mid-1920s, and Hanussen was playing to sold-out audiences in Berlin, where curious crowds would assemble to see if his reputation as one of the world’s foremost mentalists was warranted.

Hanussen pointed to a woman in the crowd and told her she had a broken mirror in her pocketbook. Then he recited her home address. The lady gasped and nodded. He was undeniably accurate on both counts.

It helped that a co-conspirator collecting tickets for the show had peered into the woman’s purse, and seen the mirror; it was also useful to compare the number on her ticket to a logbook that a local hotel had used for the addresses of attendees. The methods were practical, but Hanussen's theatrical flair transformed them into something sensational. He was a showman, a onetime carnival boy who learned hypnosis and psychic parlor games that would eventually make him the toast of Berlin.

But Hanussen wasn’t content with wealth and fame. Sensing the rising influence of the Nazi party, the mentalist ingratiated himself into the Reich by befriending storm troopers and eventually finding a seat as a confidant of Adolf Hitler himself. In a divided Berlin, Hanussen's powerful friends could assure his safety. His ego told him he could manipulate them as easily as he did the civilians who marveled at his stage presence.

But Hanussen’s plan had one fatal flaw: He was not of Danish ancestry, as he claimed, but Jewish. Once that was uncovered, no sleight of hand would be able to keep him from the wrath of the dangerous men he foolishly thought he could control. 

Hanussen hosting a seance. GruselTour-Leipzig

The son of poverty-stricken parents, Hanussen was born Hermann Steinschneider in Vienna, Austria, in 1889. His youth was chronicled in an autobiography he would publish in 1930, a point where his legend had long overtaken any objective history. To hear Hanussen tell it, he displayed early signs of clairvoyance during his childhood, with a restless nature pushing him into the circus as a teenager. At 14, he supposedly captured the heart of a 45-year-old woman and ran off with her before heading for Turkey and convincing sailors he was an opera singer.

Hanussen decided to change his name during World War I, when he began entertaining small theaters in Vienna and wanted to avoid being labeled a deserter. Throughout the war, he had impressed his fellow soldiers by steaming open letters, reading confidential information, then re-sealing the envelopes and announcing his mental powers had brought news from home. 

By the 1920s, Hanussen had migrated to Berlin, a then-bustling metropolis that embraced psychic performances. Hanussen’s shows combined mentalism, mind-reading, and feats like finding objects hidden in theaters while blindfolded. Though some observers criticized Hanussen for being a fraud, they were usually drowned out by spectators, who came in droves to see his tricks.

Because Hanussen insisted he was the genuine article, he left himself open to the occasional legal challenge. When he visited the Czech Republic in 1928, he was arrested for defrauding the public out of funds. It took nearly two years for courts to decide Hanussen was something approaching a legitimate seer, a ruling that came after he performed for the presiding—and gullible—judge.

Back in Berlin, Hanussen’s Danish cover and great wealth were looked upon favorably by the Reich, who had been involved in a struggle for political power that was reaching a boiling point. Hanussen entertained Nazi officers on his private boat, in limousines, and at his palatial apartment. Through a weekly newsletter he published, Hanussen had flattered the regime with predictions of Hitler’s rise to power and extolled the virtues of a Nazi-led higher office. “The stars tell us Hitler’s days are coming up,” read one headline.

The Nazis had other reasons to favor Hanussen: They liked gambling, and they were often in debt. One officer, Count Wolf-Heinrich Graf von Helldorf, was named on several IOUs held by Hanussen, who had loaned the head of the storm troopers a considerable sum to cover his gambling losses. In doing so, Hanussen felt he could grease the wheels with Helldorf in the event Berlin was consumed by either the Jewish-loathing Nazi party or the communist opposition that incited violence.

Hanussen’s sympathies found favor at the very top of the Reich. At the height of his fame in the 1920s, he met Hitler in the restaurant at the Hotel Kaiserhof, where the Führer had taken up residence. With his Jewish name abandoned and his officer friends endorsing him, Hanussen had no reason to arouse any suspicions. By some accounts, he conferred with Hitler a dozen times between 1932 and 1933, evaluating the bumps on his head, reading his palms, and reassuring the dictator that his rise to power was inevitable. When in-person meetings were difficult, the two spoke on the phone.

In his mind, Hanussen may have believed his charm could eventually get Hitler to see another side of the Jewish faith—one that could aid him in his pursuits. It would prove to be a poor prediction.

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As Hanussen continued to perform both publicly and privately, he found himself under fire from local newspaper commentators who shared the Czech concern that he was defrauding the public. One paper published the accusation that he was not Danish, but Jewish. A rattled Hanussen tried to reframe the narrative and insisted he had merely been adopted by Jewish parents.

It was too late. The charge was discovered by Nazi officials, who now had every reason to doubt Hanussen’s blood. It was ambiguous enough that he wasn’t ostracized immediately, but the small talk among officers was grave: They were in debt to a Jewish man.

Hanussen dug himself in deeper following the fire at Reichstag in February 1933. The blaze, which consumed Nazi territory, was said to be the work of Communists. The day before, Hanussen had hinted of “a great blaze” that would dramatically impact the area. It was theorized that he had gotten word of the arson—which was never solved—from Helldorf, who might have known of plans for the Germans to set the fire and frame Nazi opposition in order to obtain complete control over civil liberties. It also meant Hanussen couldn’t be trusted with any confidential information.

On March 24, 1933, Hanussen was late for a performance. As stagehands scrambled to find him, he was hustled from his apartment by storm troopers and shaken down for his IOUs. Once they had been retrieved, officers shot him three times and left his body in a forest, where it was discovered by lumberjacks. He was 43.

Hanussen had tried to co-opt the rising Nazi power for his own purposes. It was a fool’s errand, and one he tried to insure by believing the Nazis could overlook his heritage because he offered financial favors. Before his death, Hanussen had written to a friend that he considered their Jewish persecution to be an “election trick.” For his critics, it was one final bit of proof that he certainly couldn’t read minds.

Additional Sources: The Nazi Séance: The Strange Story of the Jewish Psychic in Hitler’s Circle

Susan B. Anthony’s Childhood Home in Upstate New York Is Getting a $700,000 Renovation

George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication
George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

In 1833, a 13-year-old Susan B. Anthony moved with her family to a two-story brick house in Battenville, New York, where her father managed a cotton mill. Though Anthony only lived there a few years before financial troubles caused her family to relocate once again, it was in that house that she first became aware of the deplorable state of women’s rights—setting her on a path to change the course of history.

According to The Cultural Landscape Foundation, Anthony’s father started homeschooling her after a local teacher refused to teach Anthony long division on the grounds that women didn’t need the skill. Then, a temporary stint at her father’s mill revealed that the wages of many female employees went directly to their husbands or fathers, and Anthony learned about the gender pay gap firsthand when she was hired as a schoolteacher for a much lower salary than her male predecessor.

Right now, there are only two small indicators of Anthony’s history in the Battenville house—a placard on a nearby stone retaining wall and a sign on a post in the front yard—and the house itself is riddled with black mold and moisture damage.

But that’ll change soon: House Beautiful reports that New York’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which purchased the foreclosed property for just $1 back in 2006, is now planning a $700,000 renovation that includes general repairs, drainage improvements, and mold abatement. A considerable portion of those funds was collected by Senator Betty Little and Assembly member Carrie Woerner.

Whether the house will eventually become a museum remains to be seen. It’s located on a perilous curve on Route 29, and there’s very limited surrounding land or space for parking. Having said that, locals are committed to finding a worthy purpose for it after the restoration is complete. Debi Craig, former president of the Washington County Historical Society, told the Times Union that she thinks there’s potential for an international research center or library on women’s rights.

Regardless of what the Battenville house’s second life ends up looking like, the focus on this particular historic site is perfectly timed—not only does 2020 mark the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, it’s also Susan B. Anthony’s 200th birthday.

Learn more about the trailblazing suffragette here.

[h/t House Beautiful]

15 Facts About the Westminster Dog Show

Sarah Stier/Getty Images
Sarah Stier/Getty Images

One of America's oldest sporting events is also its most slobbery. This year, the Westminster Kennel Club dog show returns to New York City for the 144th time, promising one preeminent pooch the coveted title of "Best in Show" and a lifetime supply of positive reinforcement. While the show has evolved over its many years, it remains a beguiling spectacle for dog fanatics and casual observers alike. Here are 15 facts to get you competition-ready.

1. The original show was for gun dogs.

Champion Stingray of Derryabah, aka Skipper, a British Lakeland Terrier, wins Best In Show at the 92nd Westminster Kennel Club show at Madison Square Gardens, New York City, February 1968
H. William Tetlow, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Around 1876, a group of sportsmen began to hold regular meet-ups in a Manhattan bar to swap hunting stories. Their trusty canine companions eventually made their way into the conversation, and the idea for a dog club was formed. The group met at a bar in The Westminster Hotel, and aptly named themselves the Westminster Breeding Association (later the Westminster Kennel Club). It was after helping to stage a dog show in Philadelphia that the group decided to hold their own to compare and showboat their pups.

The first show, featuring primarily Setters and Pointers, was an immediate success. A total of 1201 dogs entered the first year, with tens of thousands of spectators by the second day. The first prizes included such items as a "Gold and Silver Mounted Pearl Handled Revolver"—an appropriate reward for an active hunter.

2. The show has seen its share of tragedy.

A photo of J.P. Morgan.
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

A champion collie belonging to J.P. Morgan, who spent millions on his obsession with dogs and competed in Westminster regularly, drowned itself. Its trainer called the dog's death "a clear case of suicide" in an 1895 New York Times article.

3. You don't have to be young to win.

Vintage Westminster Dog Show photo.
Lady Iddo at the 53th Westminster Dog Show in 1935.
Imagno/Getty Images

In 2009, a 10-year-old Sussex spaniel named Stump (registered name: Clussexx Three D Grinchy Glee) broke the record for oldest dog ever to win "Best in Show." He later appeared on the cover of AARP magazine.

4. Nepotism has made its way into the competition.

Westminster Dog Show 2019
Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Dog-judging has always been subjective. Judges at the first modern dog show ever, in Newcastle in 1859, were also the owners of the show's two winners. Today, the Westminster Kennel Club website acknowledges that's it's not a precise science. "Each judge, applying their interpretation of the standard, gives their opinion on that day on which dog best represents its breed," it explains.

5. Life has imitated art.

A dog competes in the Masters Agility Championship during the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2018.
Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Parker Posey, famous for playing a manic, metal-mouthed Weimaraner-owner in the 2000 dog show parody Best in Show, has also spent some time backstage at the Westminster Dog Show. As she told The Wire at the 2014 WKC Dog Show, she met some personalities resembling her own persnickety character while on set: "[Director Christopher Guest] brought over a professional groomer. She came over right before a take and she criticized our dog. She said, 'The coat's all wrong.'"

6. The top dog gets the royal treatment.

The 2019 winner of the Westminster Dog Show.
Gary Gershoff/Getty Images

The winner of the Westminster Dog Show traditionally eats a celebratory lunch at famed Broadway watering hole Sardi's—breaking New York City's health codes which prevent animals from entering restaurants.

7. It's not all about good looks.

Maximus from the Westminster Dog Show 2019.
Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The show doesn't only value looks. A two-legged dog named Nellie participated in the first Westminster show ever in 1877, and 1980's "Best in Show" was a true underdog: Cinnar, a Siberian husky missing part of its ear, won with handler Trish Kanzler—one of the few amateurs to ever win the title.

8. The dogs are refined, but their names sometimes aren't.

Westminster Dog Show 2015 photo.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The 2015 WKC Dog Show featured a Pomeranian named Starfire's Spank Me Hard Call Me Crazy, a basset hound named Easthill Broxden Woodland Lettuce Entertain You, and a border terrier named McHill's His Royal Highness Prince Gizmo House of Gremlin.

9. Things have even turned criminal.

A very good boy at a dog show.
MarijaRadovic/iStock via Getty Images

Eight dogs belonging to one prominent New York City dog breeder were poisoned during the 1895 Westminster Dog Show. Despite the story making the front page of The New York Times, no suspect was ever prosecuted for the crime.

10. A bunch of your favorite breeds have never won "best in show."

A chihuahua poking its head out.
Paffy69/iStock via Getty Images

Despite being a favorite among dog-lovers, there has never been a chihuahua, Great Dane, dachshund, or golden retriever crowned "Best in Show." Here's the full list of breeds to never win, as of 2019.

11. Mutts are slowly making their way into the competition.

A dog looking at the camera.
BiancaGrueneberg/iStock via Getty Images

In 2014, mutts, a.k.a. "All-Americans," were allowed to participate in Westminster's Agility Championship for the first time since 1884—but they’re still ineligible for "Best in Show."

12. Labs are voted most popular, but not head of the class.

Lacey, a Labrador, runs through a sport course during a press preview for the Westminster Dog Show on February 12, 2015 in New York City
Andrew Burton, Getty Images

Despite being the most popular dog in the country, a Labrador retriever has never won "Best in Show." The reason? Experts say their friendly temperament prevents them from desiring the spotlight. Labs can also be disqualified for deviating by half an inch from height standards (between 22.5 and 24.5 inches for males and 21.5 and 23.5 for females)—a regulation that was nearly challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1994.

13. Some practices are ancient—and weird.

A dog receiving a prize at a dog show.
Apple Tree House/iStock via Getty Images

While nowadays some breeders cut their dogs' tails for aesthetic reasons, the practice originated with 5th century BCE Greek statesman Alcibiades, who cut the tail of his dog so that the Athenians would have something else to talk about rather than Alcibiades.

14. The dogs have friends (and relatives) in high places.

A photo of a Portuguese water dog.
Ines Arnshoff/iStock via Getty Images

Matisse the Portuguese water dog (officially registered as GCH Claircreek Impression De Matisse) has quite the pedigree. In addition to being the most decorated male show dog in the United States, he is also related to the country's former First Family; his cousin, Sunny, belongs to the Obama family.

15. Naturally, there have been some great underdog stories.

A very tiny dog at the Westminster Dog Show.
Matthew Eisman/Getty Images

Tickle Em Jock, "Best in Show" winner at the 1911 Westminster Dog Show, was a Scottish terrier and a dark horse to boot. His original owner was a butcher who sold him for 2 pounds (or about $15), which turned out to be the Scottish terrier's lucky break. After a few years with trainer Andrew Albright, Tickle Em Jock was valued at $5000. Once, after winning the title of "best of breed," the scrappy champ bit a judge's wrist.

A version of this list first ran in 2016.

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