Hanussen, Erik Jan (1889–1933)
Extraordinary stage clairvoyant who made a great reputation
in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s, combining blatant
trickery with the most astounding mental phenomena. Because
of the accuracy of his predictions he became known as
‘‘the Devil’s Prophet.’’ Born Heinrich Steinschneider on July 2,
1889, he was the son of a synagogue caretaker. At an early age
he left school to join a circus, where he became a knife thrower,
fire eater, and professional strong man. He served in World
War I, and when his company was cut off from water supplies
Hanussen demonstrated a weird talent for water witching without
apparatus. He was eventually transferred to headquarters
to entertain troops.
After the war he built up a reputation as a strong man at the
Ronacher Circus in Vienna and demonstrated stage clairvoyance
at music halls. During one routine performance he suddenly
foretold details of the discovery of a local murderer before
they were printed in newspapers. At the same
demonstration he privately informed an elegant woman that
she was the baroness Prawitz, unhappily married, and that
within a month she would leave her husband and become his
mistress in Berlin, although the affair would eventually break
Meanwhile Hanussen found himself on trial in the Czech
town of Leitmeritz, charged with extracting money under false
pretenses by claiming to forecast the future. With arrogant
poise Hanussen correctly told the state prosecutor the contents
of his pockets, the judge the contents of his attache case, and
gave other information about court officials. When the judge
protested that this was just music hall telepathy, Hanussen retorted
that he would give further proof of his powers. He stated
that at that moment there was a man standing on platform 2
at the Leitmeritz railway station who had just burgled the Commercial
Bank and had the money in his briefcase, and that the
train was due in four minutes’ time. Police rushed to the station
and found that Hanussen was right! The bank robber was arrested
and Hanussen acquitted.
This case made Hanussen famous, and he became a star at
the Scala Theatre in Berlin during the 1920s. The baroness
Prawitz also felt an irresistible compulsion to join him as his
mistress and was further humiliated by being obliged to dress
in a revealing costume and act as his stage assistant ‘‘Jane.’’
In 1929, at a Scala performance, Hanussen told a banker
that there was a short circuit in his strong room, which had
360,000 marks in the safes, and there were just over three minutes
left to telephone for the fire engines. It happened just as
Hanussen predicted. There was no evidence of fraud or collusion,
and an electrical fault in a secure strong room of a securely
locked bank would have been difficult to fake.
In spite of such sensationally accurate predictions,
Hanussen also cold-bloodedly engaged an assistant to ferret
out information and gossip for his regular stage performances
to avoid having to rely solely on clairvoyance.
With the Nazi rise to power, Hanussen obtained a favorable
status as an honorary Aryan, but overreached himself at a séance
for party members at which his medium predicted the
burning of a large building as a signal for revolt. With the burning
of the Reichstag, Hanussen became an embarrassment to
the Nazis, and in March 1933 he was taken for a car ride and
murdered by three Nazi party members. As it happens, he had
earlier told one of his mistresses that he felt his end was near.
Although little known outside Europe, Hanussen was a celebrity
in prewar Germany and Austria, and in 1955 a German
film company made a film about his life in which this strange
charlatan and clairvoyant was represented as an anti-Nazi martyr.
In 1989, he was the subject of another movie in the United
Hanussen, Erik Jan. Meine Lebenslinie. Berlin, 1930.
Tabori, Paul. Companions of the Unseen. London, 1968.

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